(December 21, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) In protecting its national interests and national security, India is perceived as a soft state not only by large sections of its population, but also by intelligence and security professionals in many countries of the world. Many Governmental and non-Governmental professionals in different countries of the world strongly believe that India has not been able to deal effectively with the problem of terrorism of foreign origin because of the lack of security consciousness in large sections of our administration and political class and the permissive nature of our administration. Terrorists such as David Coleman Headley, mafia leaders such as Dawood Ibrahim and intelligence agencies such as Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are aware of this and take full advantage of it.
During the investigation into the Mumbai blasts of March,1993, orchestrated by the ISI with the help of Dawood Ibrahim, it came to notice through intercepted telephone conversations that the members of Dawood's gang used to get logistics help for their stay during their visits to Delhi through the Personal Assistant to a senior member of the Cabinet of Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister. This PA had helped an associate of Dawood stay in the New Delhi guest house of a public sector corporation.
Another glaring example of the way we function in national security related matters relates to the air dropping of arms and ammunition to some extremists or terrorists by an aircraft piloted by a British pilot in December,1995, in the Purulia area. The moment this pilot was approached by the unidentified extremists for his help in the air drop, he immediately informed the British Defence Ministry through the headquarters of the Royal Air Force. After consulting the Indian authorities, the British asked the pilot to keep passing on information about the air drop to enable the Indian authorities to lay a trap. He reportedly did, but the Indian authorities botched up the operation so badly that the air drop could not be prevented. The extremists managed to collect the air-dropped arms and ammunition and disappear. Till today, we have not been able to identify them though the crew of the aircraft were arrested and prosecuted.
The Headley case is yet another glaring example of the permissive nature of our Administration. It will only confirm the already widely prevalent impression in the professional world that India is a soft state. The massacre of 166 persons--- 141 of them Indian citizens--- by the 10 terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) between 26 and 29 November of 2008 was the culmination of a conspiracy, which had two places of origin---- the Pakistan end from where the actual executioners were selected, trained and launched and the Chicago end from where the collection of all pre-attack information which made the terrorist attack possible was orchestrated by Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin, who used to live and work in Philadelphia as a Muslim under his original name of Daood Gilani and shifted to Chicago and started living there under the changed Christian-sounding name of David Coleman Headley.He shifted from Philadelphia to Chicago in February,2006, after getting his name changed before a Philadelphia court and applied in the Indian Consulate in Chicago for a visa on June 30,2006.
When a person changes his name and applies for a new passport, his new passport is supposed to carry an endorsement to the effect that "this person previously travelled under the name with the passport No ". If the Indian Consulate-General in Chicago had carefully scrutinised his passport and his visa application as they were supposed to under the rules, they might have noticed the following things: Firstly, he had changed his residence from Philadelphia to Chicago just before applying for an Indian visa. Secondly, he had changed his name and obtained a new passport just before applying for an Indian visa. Thirdly, his father was a Muslim with a Muslim-sounding name even though the visa applicant himself had a Christian-sounding name.
This should have immediately resulted in a personal interview with the applicant in order to question him on these points. We know how many of the applicants for foreign visas before missions in India are called for a personal interview and grilled because of suspicious circumstances coming to notice during the scrutiny of their passports.
Anyone who changes his name in order to obtain a new passport is immediately viewed as a suspect by the consular and immigration authorities of all countries of the world. Hard States , which give no quarters to terrorist suspects, have two specific columns in their papers which are to be filled by the applicants: Question No.1: Have you ever travelled by another passport? If so, give particulars. Question No.2: Have you ever travelled under a different name? If so, give particulars. The moment the answers to these questions create any suspicion he has to face an interview.
It is immaterial whether Headley is a Pakistani citizen or an American citizen born in Pakistan or an American citizen born in the US. The most incriminating evidence at the very starting point of this conspiracy is the fact that he changed his name in order to conceal his Muslim background. This could have been found out only in Chicago, the starting point of his journey, and not in India after his arrival.
Even if he is an American citizen born in the US that should not prevent us from questioning him. We saw the way Shah Rukh Khan, the film actor, was questioned for nearly an hour by the US immigration. The fact that he is an honoured Indian citizen and that the US has close relations with India did not inhibit them from questioning him.
All applicants for visas---tourist or business--- are required to submit certain documentation along with their passport. These include a to and fro air ticket, particulars of the cities he intended visiting and the places where he will be staying and a letter of sponsorship from someone in India knowing him---whether he be a friend or a relative or a corporate house. Without this documentation, no visa can be given unless the applicant is personally known to the Consul-General and he is in a position to vouch for his reliability.
The scrutiny of the additional documentation is more strict when the applicant applies for a business visa.
The Chicago end of the conspiracy, which led to the massacre of 166 persons by the terrorists, started on the day Headley walked into the Consulate-General with a changed name to conceal his Muslim identity and a new passport with which he had not travelled anywhere before and applied for a business visa. All the papers relating to his visa become important material evidence to reconstruct this conspiracy. The moment the FBI informed the Government of India about the arrest of Headley and his travels in October the MEA should have asked the Consulate-General to put all his papers in a sealed cover and send them to Delhi for scrutiny by the investigating agency. It is surprising this was not done for nearly two months.
We are now given an unconvincing story about the difficulties of retrieving applications from the archives of Indian missions abroad. I had worked as a visa officer abroad for eight years. It should not take more than a few minutes to take out the papers and send them to Delhi. You take out the visa register, find out the number under which the visa was issued to him and take out the application and other papers with the help of that number.
Apart from investigating the circumstances under which the visa application of Headley was processed, the relatives of those killed by the terrorists should consider suing the MEA for acts of alleged negligence which enabled Headley to come to India and set in motion the conspiracy. It was reported that after the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy, in which a Pan-Am aircraft was blown up by the terrorists over Europe, relatives of some of those killed sued the State Department for perceived acts of omission and commission, which resulted in the deaths of their relatives. This had a salutary effect.
It is time for us to have such victim activism in India.
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com ) -Sri Lanka Guardian