Terrorists have once again struck India. While we should never be too confident in early assessments, it looks to be the work of the Indian Mujahideen, an Indian Islamist terrorist group whose origins are rooted in the Students Islamist Movement of India, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and organized criminal networks. As evidence continues to emerge about the attack and its perpetrators, a perennial question has re-emerged: Are Indians safer today than they were on Nov. 26, 2008? On that day, four Lashkar-e-Taiba attack teams assaulted multiple sites in Mumbai. The terrorists -- due in part to the ferocity of the attackers but in larger part due to the shambolic state of India's security apparatus -- held the city hostage for three days while the carnage was broadcast around the world. In the end, 166 people were brutally murdered including several Americans and Israelis.
Following that attack, India made important and historically unprecedented improvements in its internal security architecture, including the creation of a Coastal Command to secure 4,650 miles of shoreline, the establishment of 20 counterterrorism schools and standing regional commando units, the creation of a national agency to investigate suspected terrorist activity, and stronger anti-terrorism laws. But the country remains deeply vulnerable, as Wednesday's bombings show. And even if these attacks galvanize the Indian establishment to act, four important systemic barriers will limit the degree to which India can improve its internal security arrangements, particularly the state police -- the first line of defense in collecting information from the public about suspicious activities, conducting investigations after an attack, and limiting the scope and duration of the assault once an event begins.
First, policing is a state subject in India and thus the federal government has very limited ability to compel the states to invest in their police. And the states simply do not do so. Only Gujarat, Kerala, and Manipur have showed any interest in the central government's no-refund grant to states for modernizing their police forces, which totaled approximately $395 million as of March 2011. States have also been dilatory in securing funds available to them under the modified "Modernization of State Police Forces" program initiated by New Delhi in 2000-01.
Second, India's vibrant and growing private sector attracts high-quality youth with pay, status, and other amenities that government service cannot offer, at present. It's no wonder the Indian bureaucracy no longer has the allure of prestige and status that it once had. India's ability to expand the number, size, and geographical distribution of police, intelligence, and other internal security organizations may therefore be hampered by recruitment shortfalls.
A third and even more alarming barrier to more significant reform is corruption and patronage politics. India, as Kanchan Chandra argues, is a "patronage democracy," wherein elected officials have the ability to distribute state resources to voters thanks to their significant discretion in implementing state policy. This affects police reform directly and indirectly. First is the lamentable fact that many police forces in India are deeply politicized and, at lower and leadership levels alike, have colluded with politicians for mutual benefit. Many police officials engage in various dubious activities to blatantly support their benefactors in elections or other public fora, suppress protests against them, or even engage in violence at their patrons' behest.