Book Review |The Politics of Counterterrorism In India: Strategic Intelligence and National Security In South Asia by Prem Mahadevan

 By Aakanshi Bansal


Prem Mahadevan, a specialist in research on organized crime, intelligence and irregular warfare has chosen the backdrop of 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks to draw attention to the counterterrorism policies and their effectiveness in India. For years it has been speculated that Indian intelligence and security forces have been lagging in their response to terrorist activities in the region.

Through this book, The Politics of Counter Terrorism in India: Strategic Intelligence and National Security in South Asia, the author aims to establish the reason for failure of an actual response; lack of intelligence or lack of action on intelligence. According to the author, 26/11 was a result of the long-standing covert war against India by Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI). He identifies four constraints in India’s counter terrorism strategy and studies the same through three case studies: Sikh separatist movement, Kashmiri separatist movement and Pan Islamic jihadism. The four constraints identified by the author are as follows: lack of political consistency, lack of political consensus, lack of operational coordination and lack of operational capacity.

Considering that terminologies like intelligence and counter-terrorism have various connotations and no widely accepted definition, the author has provided a note on terminology as used in the book.

Chapter 1: Strategic Intelligence in India

In this chapter, the author provides background information and the structure of the two premier intelligence agencies in India; Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The author highlights their systematic, operational and external shortcomings. Here the author also attempted to draw a distinction between tactical and strategic intelligence however he fails at achieving that leaving the reader without a clear understanding.

Chapter 2: The Strength of Terrorist Counterintelligence

Here the author identifies the four pillars of terrorism and justifies their prevalence using the three case studies. He also talks about the difference between intelligence gathering and collection.

The use of force to sometimes break the terrorist counterintelligence is also mentioned and the author explains the same with an emphasis on the strategy that was deployed to break the Khalistan movement. Towards the end of the chapter, the author leaves a general idea of the need to bridge the gap between tactical and strategic intelligence and using strategic intelligence for conflict resolution.

Chapter 3: Lack of Political Consistency

According to the author, Indian leaders do not develop a hardened stance on counterterrorism policy as they downplay the threats. Assessing the three case studies the author draws a similarity as to how the three cases had political parties laying the groundwork for them and the two similarities between them; communal tensions and exploitations by ISI.

He also talks about the lack of an overreaching policy of intelligence and political leaders in dealing with Pan-Islamic Jihadists. The author mentions that the IB was initially surprised as it expected an attack from Pakistan but not a threat from within Kashmir which is an inconsistent assessment by the author, provided that their promise of a plebiscite had not been fulfilled and the intelligence agencies had been warning about retaliation against the same.

Chapter 4: A lack of Political Consensus

The author talks about the need for international and national political consensus and cooperation, especially against the backdrop of growing concern for human rights. This chapter focuses on the consensus-building and the difficulty of an approved and accredited counter-terrorism action in the three case studies, especially in the case of Kashmir where there has always been a vague international consensus due to Pakistan’s’ undeniable involvement and Indian stance to label it as a domestic issue. Here the author highlights how changing government and differences between the center and state government have resulted in ineffectiveness.

Chapter 5: A lack of Operational Capacity

This chapter talks about the advantages of enhancing police capabilities to deal with terrorist activities. It explains how the Punjab police were primarily responsible for flushing out the militants from the area. The author mentions how officers like Mr. Kanwar Pal Singh Gill and Mr. Gurbachan Jagat have played an important role in enhancing operational capacity. It also offers an insight as to how the IB chiefs had warned about the inadequacy of security and threats of maritime and coastal security but failure to safeguard them and lack of resources for the army led to the 2008 attack.

Chapter 6: A lack of Operational Coordination

According to the author, this constraint is not a stand-alone issue and is rather a culmination of all the other constraints. Here he highlights the inter-service rivalry and how intelligence is not the reason for counteraction, consumer responsiveness is.


While the book offers an insight into the working of the intelligence agencies and the amalgamation of factors primarily political that have led to various security failures or counter-terrorism measures in India to date, the author fails to provide a clear difference between tactical and strategic intelligence.

The author began the book with an important question; where does the job of intelligence agencies end and security forces start. However, by the end of the book, this question remains unanswered. While the book talks about various counter-terrorism successes and failures, it does not mention the grounds for identifying a mission as a failure or success and hence leaves the assumptions open-ended and speculative rather than an objective understanding.

Towards the end, the author also lays down the prospects for Indian counter-terrorism policy but does not provide suggestions or operational recommendations to overcome the identified constraints. The book also talks about how Indian leaders have not developed a real offensive strategy against terrorism however under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many scholars and strategists are of the view that this has evolved especially considering the surgical strike on URI in 2016.

The book incorporates terminologies and language that is more on the academic side making it lie outside the ambit of light reading. It is however an informational read for scholars and students interested in understanding the functioning of intelligence agencies in India, and their dynamic with security forces and government. It helps the readers develop an understanding of the role of politics in counterintelligence and terrorism and hence is useful for a study of counter-terrorism efforts in India and their inconsistencies.