Alive and Present Danger

Religious polarisation creates flashpoints for terrorists to exploit

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Queues of visitors entering India International Trade Fair. Despite several attacks, basic security arrangement remains suspect

Investigating the 7 September 2011 Delhi high court terrorist attack along with the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Jammu and Kashmir police made a discovery. Following the traditional trail of Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba and Hizbul Mujahideen, it stumbled across a free-wheeling, non-aligned, self-motivated radicalised group purportedly led by a medical student Wasim Akram Malik studying in Bangladesh. Malik’s parents, wary of the political atmosphere in Kashmir, sent their son out as far as they could imagine from the radicalism of his home state. However, they hadn’t bargained for the power of Internet. Not only Malik found radical inspiration online, he found motivation as well as resources to vent his rage. He apparently (investigation is still underway) recruited fellow sympathisers to carry out the attack and a conduit to supply them with explosives.

After nearly a decade of investigating unceasing terror attacks in various parts of the country and trying to understand the minds of arrested terrorists, the Indian internal security apparatus is now up against a completely new and unpredictable threat: Start-up, independent small groups which do not appear to be working towards a purpose, except venting their rage and disenchantment. The traditional Indian counter-terrorism thinking so far worked on a neatly defined grid formed around the nucleus of Pakistan-created and sponsored terrorist sleeper cells, which were periodically activated at the behest of Pakistan.

The objective of these outfits converged with the Pakistani objective which was destabilisation of Indian economy and creating social disharmony. The motivation was partly money and partly religious indoctrination. Today, even as this matrix holds firm (MHA puts the total number of Pakistan-supported Islamist terrorists in India at 500 operating through 52 modules, as opposed to roughly 100 Hindu terrorists), a new unpredictable thread has linked up with it.

A few weeks after Malik’s arrest from his hometown Kishtwar in J&K, a senior Kashmiri police officer talking informally with FORCE said, “What we are seeing is not classically organised terrorism,” he said. “Instead, we are now looking at several self-motivated, hugely radicalised small groups with their own immediate agendas. For instance, the perpetrators of the Delhi high court attack felt that Afzal Guru did not get a fair trial, so they wanted to hit out against what they saw as miscarriage of justice. They did not do so for Kashmir or at the behest of Pakistan.”

Among the early evidence of emergence of small, radicalised groups, at least in Kashmir, came after the assassination of the president of Kashmir chapter of Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees, Maulana Shaukat Ahmed Shah. Maulana was killed by a radical faction within Ahl-e-Hadees, which considered him to be too liberal.

Ahl-e-Hadees is not an overtly political organisation, despite Maulana Shaukat’s association with several Kashmiri Separatists leaders, especially Yasin Malik. Unlike the murders of political figures in Kashmir, Maulana’s killing had little to do with politics and more to do with his attitude towards Islam and the direction he was supposedly driving his organisation towards. One retired Kashmiri bureaucrat recently told FORCE, “The Separatists are no longer relevant in Kashmir. The game is gradually moving into the hands of the neo-radicals, who follow their own agenda. While they can be used by Pakistan, they will not be controlled by them.”

The Delhi high court blast a few months ago proved that Kashmir is not the only breeding ground for radicals. Worrying the internal security officials is the glut of radical information available online including training modules for making explosives. One incident inspires another. And committing acts of terror is not very difficult once you are determined. “Unfortunately, in a country like India, there are enough triggers for pushing the people towards radical thinking,” says one ministry of home affairs official. While various European investigators have reported emergence of self-motivated, independent radical groups which may or may not be inspired by al Qaeda, in India this is a relatively new phenomenon, which has caught the Indian investigation agencies napping. These small independent outfits are more difficult to tackle than a large organised group. The reason for this is simple. Each of these outfits operates like start-ups with tenuous contact with others. While they may, at some stage get funding through or by Pakistan, they are not directed by it.This makes investigation difficult because one group does not know the other. Hence, the investigative trails dry up after a while.

Religious learning at a seminary

Even though Pakistan remains the biggest reason for terrorism on mainland India (and it has nothing to do with the resolution of the Kashmir issue), according to former home secretary, G.K. Pillai, it has merely been fishing in troubled waters. He has a point. Terrorism in mainland India started (notwithstanding the terrorist activities perpetuated by Khalistan movement in Punjab during the Eighties with the serial bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993, planned and executed by the hitherto underworld smuggler Dawood Ibrahim. The blasts which transformed a smuggler into a terrorist had a trail of blood preceding it. On 6 December 1992, the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh was pulled down by a radical Hindu mob. The demolition of the mosque was preceded and succeeded by a series of communal riots in various parts of India, the worst of which took place over a fortnight in Bombay in December-January 1992-93. The casualties were overwhelmingly Muslims.

The court cases lingered, and the culprits (including high-profile political leaders) were never punished. While announcing the arrival of terrorism on mainland India, the bomb blasts, which killed primarily the Hindus, also polarised the Hindu-Muslim population of Bombay. The polarisation persists, creating a pool for Pakistan to fish in. In the last decade, Bombay (subsequently renamed Mumbai after the Hindu goddess Mumba Devi) and its neighbouring towns have contributed an inordinate number of people indulging in various acts of terrorism if not actual attacks.

Pillai lists demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal carnage (again with maximum Muslim casualties) in Gujarat nearly a decade later as two primary reasons for sustained radicalisation of the Indian Muslims. “If we look at triggers for radicalisation, I would say that these two events contribute 60 per cent,” he says. However, a serious fall-out of Muslim extremism has been the conversion of Hindu radicalism into terrorism. So oblivious were the Indian investigating agencies of the growth of start-up, small radical Hindu outfits that when a series of attacks were mounted by them in different cities, the police as a matter of routine arrested suspected Muslims, nine of whom were released on bail recently after spending five years in incarceration for triggering bomb blasts in a Muslim cemetery in Malegaon (close to Mumbai) on the day of a Muslim festival of Shab-e-Baraat killing 37 Muslims. The special court granted them bail after National Investigation Agency (NIA) decided not to oppose the bail plea, ostensibly because the only evidence against the accused was their confession given to the police. Of the nine granted bail, two are still in prison as they are also accused in another terrorist attack in Mumbai.To say that the police simply rounded up the usual suspects and made them admit their culpability will not be too far-fetched. In an interview to a television channel, after the Malegaon accused were released, Pillai said that the nation owes an apology to these nine men.Adding to the Muslim and Hindu radicalism is another latent fear: Revival of Sikh radicalism. According to one bureaucrat at the MHA, the children who were orphaned during the 1984 Of the nine granted bail, two are still in prison as they are also accused in another terrorist attack in Mumbai.

To say that the police simply rounded up the usual suspects and made them admit their culpability will not be too far-fetched. In an interview to a television channel, after the Malegaon accused were released, Pillai said that the nation owes an apology to these nine men. Adding to the Muslim and Hindu radicalism is another latent fear: Revival of Sikh radicalism. According to one bureaucrat at the MHA, the children who were orphaned during the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi were adopted by various Gurudwaras of Punjab, several of which have been hotbeds of radicalism in the past. A few proposals in the late Eighties to adopt these children and funding their education in mainstream schools were ignored. “These children are adults now,” says the bureaucrat. “Nobody in the government has kept a track of their lives.

To my mind they would be very susceptible to radicalisation.” Especially now when there are reports of Pakistan trying to stoke the Khalistan ambers once again.

Fighting Terrorism

RSS workshop in progress

Addressing the freshly passed out Indian Police Service officers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “The most dangerous threat today is terrorism. From an occasional footnote, it has become a hydra-headed monster. There are several strains of terrorism present, and you will need to keep abreast of developments in tackling this great danger.” Of course, since then, Left-wing extremism, or Maoist-terror, has been accorded the distinction of being the most dangerous internal security challenge. But that’s another story. According to a former home secretary, the weak links in India’s battle against terrorism are ill-trained police and inept intelligence agencies, which simply do not get adequate, unbiased and prejudice-free information.

Since the Partition, partially out of communal prejudice and partially out of genuine fear of national security, Muslims were filtered out of intelligence agencies. Over a period of time, to overcome this shortfall, intelligence agencies infiltrated non-Muslims agents (pretending to be Muslims) into conservative mosques to keep a tab on what was happening. This has been a hit and run approach, which worked sometimes, but mostly did not. Also, somehow since the fear was always that most Muslims in India would have a soft corner for Pakistan and hence would be susceptible to exploitation by it, the intelligence agencies simply ignored various other strains of extremism or triggers for radicalisation.

And even when they want to focus on that, they simply do not have enough time or motivation as a lot of their effort gets wasted on non-intelligence work. One bureaucrat puts that work at 30 per cent. This work refers to political Int-gathering on behalf of the government of the day. For many people this work is more gratifying as it bring them closer to political masters, and hence ensures several fringe benefits.

Add to this the shortfall of nearly 4,000 personnel in Intelligence Bureau (IB) itself. Last year, the government sanctioned recruitment of 800 personnel for intelligence agencies per year. The first batch since recruited will only now complete its 18-month training. One official with sporadic stints in IB says, “Intelligence gathering is a long term process. The process of developing and cultivating contacts take years.” Hence, it will be several years before the full strength is available in the field. In addition to random hiring, IB also needs to broad-base its recruitment drives, so that it has an eclectic and useful mix of people. and misuse at the state level. However, political interference is an external manifestation of the malaise; the Indian police force suffers from three major institutional shortcomings.

The first starts at the recruitment stage itself, where policemen are expected to pay bribes to get recruited. Once in the force, the first priority of the recruit is to recover the money he paid, which in most cases is a loan taken on high interest rate. Clearly, for these men, the focus is not on policing or even learning what the job entails. It is no wonder that many of these men do not even want to get promoted and quit the service after serving the minimum pensionable years. Conscious of this murky practice, last year, the Union ministry of home affairs wrote a letter to all states urging them to ensure complete transparency by use of electronic means in recruitment, similar to what the central government did for recruitment in Paramilitary forces. Barring Uttar Pradesh, which recruited 19,000 policemen following Centre’s recruitment directive, all the other states ignored the letter, despite severe police shortfall.

The second shortcoming is training. On an average, an Indian policeman (the non-officer cadre) undergoes training only once in his lifetime. There is hardly any concept of refresher or upgrade training. Even the initial training standards are very poor as nobody ever thought of paying any attention to non-officer police training. Most police training schools or colleges are ill-staffed and often with disinterested, disaffected policemen who consider posting to a training institution a punishment. This is the primary reason that, barring the metropolitan cities (for example, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore etc), most policemen are not only unfamiliar with technology, they are scared of it. The terrorists, on the other hand, use very sophisticated technologies.

The third problem pertains to transfers and postings. The traditional thinking has been that if a policeman (constable or senior) stays in a place for a longer duration he is likely to become corrupt, mulching money out of the locals and rendering favours. For this reason, they are posted out frequently. But the flip side is that each policeman, knowing that his tenure is limited tries to make the most of it. Also, because he does not stay in a place long enough, he is not able develop adequate contacts or even win the trust of the local people. As a result, there is no concept of community-based policing. Neither the police understand the locals, nor do locals trust the police.

Realising that the state governments would not take the initiative on police modernisation and reforms, the MHA impressed upon Vijay Kelkar-led 13th Finance Commission (2010-2011) to make separate allocation for police training. Finally, after much wrangling, Rs 2,200 crore was sanctioned. This was much more than all the money spent on police training so far. But as a senior bureaucrat in the ministry says, even if the process of cleansing the police force starts now, ‘it will take at least 10 years to weed out the bad guys and bring in the good ones.’ Once you factor in the overall shortfall of eight lakh police personnel, the issue becomes even more daunting.

The final issue is of the motivation of the police personnel. Unlike the armed and the paramilitary forces which are led by officers, the police in that sense remain an orphan. Issues of its welfare are left to the government, which obviously does not consider it a priority. One example would suffice: Only 10 per cent of total police personnel in India have accommodation. Despite several proposals to build housing for the police, through various models (like Annuity model or Public-Private Partnership), the project remains stillborn.

In the last decade, despite economic prosperity and increased exposure to the world, the Indian society has become increasingly polarised on grounds of religion, region and caste. All these factors create both flashpoints and vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, neither the government takes this polarisation seriously nor understands its susceptibilities, which makes mainland India even more vulnerable to terrorism. While it is true that fears of numerous Pakistani-cultivated sleeper cells all over India are probably exaggerated, the fact is that we are not doing enough to stop Pakistan from fishing in our muddied waters.


Call us