Indian Army Urgently needs to Enhance its Counter-intelligence Capabilities

In a dubious first for a scrupulously apolitical army with time-tested secular credentials, Lt Col P S Purohit of the Intelligence Corps is “suspected” of having been involved in helping the perpetrators of the terror attack at Malegaon on September 29, 2008. The officer has been remanded to police custody for further interrogation. The army has denied that any other serving personnel are involved in the Malegaon case along with Purohit. While it is apparently an isolated incident, Defence Minister A K Antony has expressed concern at this development and promised to get “to the root of the whole thing.” 

While some TV news channels have once again gone completely overboard in their coverage of the issue and must be chastised by the media watchdog, the larger question that needs to be addressed concerns the tightening of the norms that are in place in the army to detect fanatical tendencies and affiliations so as to nip an emerging problem in the bud. 

The facts of the case bear recounting. Lt Col Purohit was attending a language course at the Army Education Corps Training College and Centre, Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh, since October 2007. As a student officer attending a course of instruction away from his parent unit, he was not performing his regular duties as a counter-intelligence officer. If he met any of the conspirators or perpetrators of the Malegaon blast, he probably did so while on leave at home in Pune or elsewhere away from the College, when he was not under direct army supervision and was not in daily contact with other army personnel. 

If Purohit had been mixed up in training Abhinav Bharat cadres in handling firearms and bomb making for several years, as has been alleged, he has betrayed the trust reposed in him by the army by allowing him freedom of movement and action consistent with his job profile as a counter-intelligence officer. It is the job of the army’s counter-intelligence Liaison Units to keep a watch in their area of responsibility so as to ensure that army personnel are not involved in espionage activities for foreign powers and that their loyalty is not being subverted by inimical forces. 

However, when an officer who is responsible for counter-intelligence himself indulges in anti-national activities, early detection is usually difficult. Only a few years ago Rabindra Singh of R&AW was alleged to have been working for a foreign intelligence service and was placed under surveillance, but he managed to give his colleagues the slip and fled abroad even while he was under close watch. Quite obviously the standard checks and balances have not worked in the Purohit case as well. 

In keeping with the army’s ethos, Lt Col Purohit will undoubtedly be given exemplary punishment if he is found guilty, just like the officers who were involved in the Tehelka scam were sent to jail. Also, the army’s senior leadership will conduct a diligent enquiry into why things have gone wrong and what new procedures need to be instituted to improve both battalion-level vigilance in regular fighting units and counter-intelligence operations at brigade, division, corps and command levels. 

Within regular fighting units, the “buddy” system must be streamlined further so that each soldier’s buddy is sensitised to keeping a watch on whether his partner is exhibiting any communal tendencies. Personnel must be briefed about right wing organisations of various religions propagating sectarian divisiveness and warned to stay away from attending their discourses while on leave and when living outside cantonments in peace stations, just as they are thoroughly briefed about avoiding contact with members of political parties. When the soldiers are de-briefed on their return form leave, they must also be questioned about any inadvertent contact with fanatical organisations.

As this is the age of terrorism, counter-intelligence units must be beefed up. The number of Liaison Units in each Army Command and their technological capabilities must increase. They must also coordinate their surveillance activities more closely with the Intelligence Bureau and state-level intelligence agencies who keep a more elaborate watch on right wing fundamentalist organisations. In fact, this case too points towards the raising of a Federal Intelligence Agency for counter-terrorism intelligence and to extend the Central Government’s reach to maintaining direct continuous vigilance over organisations that have either the potential for or a history of indulging in acts of terrorism and disturbance of communal harmony.  

Finally, one swallow does not make a summer. The Purohit case appears to be a one-off aberration in a million plus army, with an impeccable reputation earned over 60 years of dedicated service to the nation. Nevertheless, timely action must be instituted to ensure that more personnel do not fall prey to divisive communal forces as, in the long run, that will not augur well for India’s national security.

(Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)