The Galwan Valley skirmish and the COVID-19 crisis have both showed up our intelligence frailties
The confrontation between India and China in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis have laid bare a critical failure in India’s security apparatus.
When the first reports of Chinese intrusions into Galwan Valley emerged in May this year, the immediate expediencies overshadowed longstanding flaws in India’s security. What was also forgotten was another ongoing crisis that is linked to the happenings in Ladakh.
The Galwan Valley crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are both security threats to India just months apart, and have the same origin, China. The Chinese threat to Ladakh began soon after August last year when the Indian government announced the abrogation of Article 370 which gave a constitutionally-mandated special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir.
The first reports of the COVID-19 virus emerged from Wuhan in November.
In either case, it is pertinent to note that India’s intelligence community failed to anticipate and mitigate either crisis. The reasons for this are manifold and systemic. They are in fact a national tragedy.
For decades India has been trying to fix its intelligence apparatus to make it fit to deal with emerging threats. Unfortunately, every attempt at reform has been made after a crisis, making each of them reactive rather than comprehensive.
After the humiliating defeat in the 1962 war when India lost vast swathes of territory to China, there was a major attempt to reform India’s intelligence community. Between 1962 and 1968, the efforts of Ram Nath Kao, then then head of the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) foreign division, led the creation of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). He was a visionary and had a bold plan to change India’s intelligence apparatus and give it form and substance. However, his ideas were borne out of the failures of 1962 and failed to build a comprehensive approach that met the expectations and needs of all key stakeholders.
The early success of R&AW in the creation of Bangladesh before and after the 1971 war with Pakistan and the subsequent annexation of Sikkim hid many gaps in Kao’s bold attempt to reform India’s intelligence community.
Similarly, the Intelligence Bureau never really grow out of its colonial mindset. Created by Britain as a tool to keep a watch on the Indian natives, IB remained an integral tool of the Government of India after independence, shaped more by the personal equation between its second director B N Mullik and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This is most visible in IB’s role in the governance of Jammu and Kashmir where security and political ambitions intermixed to create an unhealthy nexus between the political masters and intelligence professionals. This problem of attitude remains a major bane in India’s intelligence community.
Naturally, several attempts to reform failed. Be it the move to create a national security council and secretariat in 1998-99, the Kargil Review Committee in 1999-2000 followed by the Group of Ministers report or the Naresh Chandra Task Force after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai – they all failed to address the core issues that dog India’s intelligence community.
Twin failures: Collection and analysis
Modern intelligence processes are based on the twin pillars of collection of intelligence followed by robust analysis. In India, both fail repeatedly.
As a result, while there are elaborate intelligence structures that could have anticipated China’s new aggression to change the status quo in Ladakh, none of them worked to prevent the crisis. This is a political failure. No government in independent India has ever wanted to plug the gaps and professionalise India’s intelligence community to ensure that national security objectives are served above political interests.
As a result, not only have successive governments failed to assess the quality of intelligence being collected externally and internally, it has never looked at the analytical processes either. For instance, both the Galwan Valley and COVID-19 crises are a failure of external and internal intelligence both. Not only did they fail to produce any early warnings, they also failed to alert the country’s other key stakeholders when the crisis was emerging.
As a result, there were systemic failures in analysis. No one could comprehend as the Chinese intrusions deepened, or the COVID19 virus spread rapidly through district after district. None of the agencies used any modern methods for analysis, such as big data analytics or even basic data visualisation, which are now common tools for the private sector and academia across the globe.
Since 2003, a pandemic has been recognised as a national security threat by the National Security Council and subsequently, by the National Disaster Management Authority formally. However, there are no dedicated intelligence resources made available in the IB or the R&AW to actually deal with it even today.
In the case of the Chinese intrusions in Ladakh, it is a traditional threat and therefore makes the intelligence failure even more alarming. A quick reading of the Kargil Review Committee and its chapter and recommendation on intelligence reform in India are shocking. They are shocking because even 20 years after the report, key reforms have failed to take place.
In 1999, the Committee noted this: “The political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo. National security management recedes into the background at the time of peace and is considered too delicate to be tampered with at the time of war and proxy war.” It also noted that “There is no institutionalized mechanism for coordination or objective-oriented interaction between agencies and consumers at different levels. Similarly, there is no mechanism for tasking the agencies, monitoring their performance and reviewing their records to evaluate their quality. Nor is there any oversight of the overall functioning of the agencies.”
The Chinese intrusions and the COVID-19 pandemic are urgent wake up calls to reform a broken intelligence system. Unless India’s political masters address this now, the country will continue to pay a high price in blood.