India’s war on terrorism is only getting tougher
Three months after the serial attack on the local trains in Mumbai, India’s National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan conceded on a television channel that India does not have clinching evidence against Pakistan to prove that the attacks which killed over 200 people were its handiwork. To be fair to him, he does not absolve Pakistan completely. According to him, India has good, but not clinching evidence against Pakistan. In simple terms, he means that he believes that Pakistan’s ISI is involved but he does not have evidence to back his faith. So, one cannot really accuse the Indian government of not blaming Pakistan as a matter of habit (in other words, going soft on Pakistan), but at the same time one cannot blame Pakistan if it fails to take action against the terrorists and their benefactors on its soil because we have not given it clinching evidence. Confusing? Well, that’s the way with diplomacy. Given that secretary level talks are to resume between India and Pakistan after a long lull, one cannot really blame the NSA for ‘nuancing’ India’s official position, which gives both countries enough room to carry on talking notwithstanding a few attacks here and there.
In the same interview the NSA also said that the much-touted joint mechanism on terrorism may eventually amount to nothing as India is going to see how Pakistan responds to the ‘good but not the clinching evidence’ that it presents it with. Fortunately, one didn’t have to wait too long to see how Pakistan reacts as the spokesperson of Pakistan’s foreign office, Tasneem Aslam, quickly made a statement admonishing India for finger-pointing. Talking to Voice of America, she said, that Narayanan’s interview is, “a lesson which must be learnt by Indian agencies and security forces that they should not blame Pakistan without evidence.” She added that there was a tendency in the Indian government to blame every incident on Pakistan without evidence.
Now that it is more or less clear, despite India’s over enthusiasm to join the US Global War on Terror, that as far as terrorism on Indian soil is concerned we will have to go it alone, the question is does India really understand the extent of terrorist threat that it faces. The political class certainly understands the electoral importance of terrorism as was evident by some of the recent statements. Addressing the freshly passed out Indian Police Service officers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that, “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.” Not to be outdone, his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee campaigning for a municipal election in Lucknow used the terrorism stick to beat the United Progressive Alliance (led by Singh) government with. Making a pitch for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he accused the Congress, which is the main constituent of the UPA, of an unclear, confused and ambiguous policy on terrorism. Ever since the BJP has been sitting on the opposition benches in Parliament, it has been making vociferous noises on terrorism, accusing the government of being soft. However, despite the Prime Minister alluding to different strains of terrorism, as far as the BJP is concerned and probably the security agencies, there is only one kind and that is the Jihadi terrorism or violence perpetrated by Muslims. Naxalism, which has claimed more lives in the last two years (see the following story) than insurgency in Kashmir, however, does not figure as terrorism but only as Left-wing extremism. Since the Jihadi version occupies so much mindscape, it needs to be explored first. Jihadi Terrorism In the last few years, particularly after the September 11 attacks in the US, terrorist violence started trickling down to different parts of India from Kashmir.
The reasons were simple: after the GWOT started, Pakistan obviously didn’t want Kashmir to be dragged into it as one of the battlefields. The nature of conflict in Kashmir had to remain that of a freedom struggle; hence civilian casualties had to be avoided. But thousand cuts to bleed India also had to be inflicted, primarily to keep the pressure on. The first sign came barely two months after the 9/11 attack, when fidayeens managed to reach Indian Parliament on December 13 while it was in session. At least 12 people were killed and many more injured. Fortunately, the top Indian leadership was not in the House at that time. India mobilised its military against Pakistan, but considering that the US’ war was already underway in Afghanistan, there was no way it would have allowed India to open a front against Pakistan who by that time had become an indispensable ally. While mobilisation did not reach its obvious conclusion, Pakistan realised that it needed to change tacks, lest the US feel pressurised by India’s strident stance on Pakistan-abetted violence in Kashmir and elsewhere. That is when, probably the idea of exploiting India’s delicate communal balance came about. This was not difficult to achieve. The Gujarat communal carnage of February 2002 in which over 1,000 Muslims were killed in a matter of few days, provided just the right opportunity. In the autumn of 2002, there was a fidayeen attack on the Akshardham Temple in Gujarat’s capital Ahmedabad. 32 people were killed. The following year, there was a bomb explosion in the Mulund area of Mumbai which killed 10 people. The needle of suspicion clearly pointed towards Pakistan. Meanwhile, in November 2003, Pakistan declared a ceasefire on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. This meant that the regular firing on the LC, which provided cover to the infiltrators stopped. Since then, partly because of that and partly due to the fence which India erected taking advantage of the ceasefire, infiltration on the LC has been consistently coming down. Clearly, other routes have been developed through Nepal and Bangladesh. As civilian violence came down in Kashmir, with the exception of a few pre-meditated massacres, it increased in other parts of India.
In 2005, on the eve of Diwali and Eid serial bomb blasts in various parts of Delhi killed 55 people. In 2006, first there were serial attacks in the holy city of Varanasi, including the revered Sankat Mochan temple on the banks of Ganga in which 21 people were killed, and later in July, the lifeline of Mumbai, the local trains, were ripped apart by bomb blasts killing 223 people. In the beginning, the perpetrators of this new strategy were Kashmiris or Pakistani nationals. However, the Mumbai train blast in July 2006 denied us that comfort blanket. As the preliminary investigations revealed, the perpetrators were Indian citizens and some were educated with middle class backgrounds. They were not suicide bombers, which mean that the houris of Paradise were not the motivation. They wanted to kill and live themselves. Mercenaries? Probably. According to Ajit Doval, a former director Intelligence Bureau and a security analyst, “Pakistan resorted to covert action in J&K, terrorism being one of its more visible manifestations, to achieve some specific political and strategic objectives. However, when it failed to deliver rather than abandoning it, it decided to extend the arc of violence to the hinterland. It estimates that it will generate political compulsions and public pressures on the government to ‘settle’ the Kashmir issue on its terms.” For this purpose, he says that Pakistan has been trying to bring about communal polarisation in India by exploiting the sentiment that Islam is being projected negatively and is being targeted worldwide. “This has helped some militant groups to increase their influence in some pockets and raise recruits. The problem is also compounded by Bangladeshi immigration, which is causing communal and economic tensions in the eastern states.” In the last few years Indian intelligence agencies have been talking about ISI created sleeper cells in various Indian cities. Proscribed terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba have been successful to some extent in creating terrorist modules, recruiting Indian Muslims. According to the ministry of home affairs’ annual report for 2005-2006: ‘Due to coordinated and concerted efforts by the central intelligence agencies and the state police forces, 159 Pakistan/Pakistan ISI-backed terrorist modules (including 28 terrorist modules in the year 2005) have been busted in various parts of the country during 2001-2005. In these terrorist modules, 488 persons were arrested and 86 terrorists including 57 Pakistani nationals were killed. During the same period, 99 espionage modules (including 18 modules in the year 2005), were also neutralised leading to the arrest of 199 espionage agents.’ However, the security analysts believe that what has not been busted so far is much more dangerous and should cause us serious concern.
As the then director of Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) Robert Muellar had said in 2003, “The greatest threat is from al Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified”. In 2005 he repeated, “I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing.” While surely there is no need for India to respond in this paranoid manner, it still cannot lull itself into thinking that what cannot be seen does not exist. Particularly, when the same MHA annual report says that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is committed to, ‘intensification of low cost and proxy war operations in a wide area extending from J&K to the hinterland; targeting of economic infrastructure and destabilising the economy of the country by circulating fake currency notes and by promoting drug trafficking/narco-terrorism; to provide direct and indirect support to the underworld elements operating in and outside the country; and create communal disturbance and disharmony in the country.’ The Weakest Link In this fight against Pakistan’s covert war, India’s weakest link remains the tenuous communal balance that has snapped occasionally and not always because of Pakistan. Ironically, despite its weaknesses, this link has also displayed a lot of strength in the face of external provocation only because political elements were not allowed to enter the fray with their jingoistic sloganeering. A case in point was the aftermath of the Varanasi bomb blast when the chief mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, Veer Bhadra Mishra refused entry to the Hindu hardliners who he feared could stoke communal violence. Instead, he welcomed the Muslim religious leaders to come to the temple to ensure that a riot does not break out. Sure enough, both communities worked towards maintaining harmony and the terrorist act did not lead to a spiral of communal violence. However, in a country like India this cannot be taken for granted at a time when violent street lingo has become acceptable as Parliamentary language. In another place another time, because of political deviousness, a terrorist act or an accident (as the matter is still under investigation) degenerated into a terrible communal bloodbath. Gujarat 2002 was so different from Varanasi 2006, only because the state government in Gujarat as well as the police colluded with such anti-national agencies as the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and so on. The chief minister toured the state on his victory chariot exhorting his Hindu brethren to throw the Muslims out. Not surprisingly then, the state capital, Ahmedabad, today brags of a Hindustan-Pakistan like partition line in the city, either side of which live the two communities. What is even more chilling is that nobody finds it unusual. It is part of life in Gujarat now.
Despite the fact that Muslims were the victims, once the state administration resumed its primary duty after the bloodbath, it criminalised those who had survived, by arresting Muslim men without any charges. It was almost like what the US has done by incarcerating innocent people at Guantanamo Bay to prevent them from joining al Qaeda in the future. But Gujarat is just one example. Throughout the country, the majority of victims of various security acts, including MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act), TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities [Prevention] Act) and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) have been the Muslims. The Rajinder Sachar committee report on the nationwide status of Muslims says that the majority of prisoners in various jails (the findings are based on eight states only, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar did not respond to the Sachar Committee’s queries) are Muslims. In some cases, there are higher numbers of Muslims inside the jail than there are outside. And interestingly, the majority are not charged, and among those who are, very few are charged for terrorism. Little wonder then, a recent study by Mumbai’s Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation showed how insecure the Muslims of the city feel. While 48.9 per cent of Muslims believed that the city police was prejudiced against them, only 23 per cent of Hindus shared this perception. India has had a history of communal riots, but in the early days they remained localised and no mainstream political party was ever seen openly instigating or leading the rioters. All this changed with the emergence of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and especially in Mumbai. As former commissioner of Mumbai and director general Punjab police, Julio Ribeiro, who now runs a Mohalla Ekta Committee Movement for communal harmony says, “During the 1991-92 communal riots in Bombay (Mumbai), the people of the city saw Shiv Sena activists killing Muslims. Nobody forgets these things in a hurry, so there can be no question of forgiveness.” He adds, “Perhaps, the two communities would not have been so polarised if Shiv Sena had not come to power in an alliance and if some punishment was meted out to the rioters. To retain the secular fabric of the country, it is very important that justice is done and is seen to be done.” To date, the Sri Krishna Committee report is gathering dust. Bombay or Mumbai presents an interesting case study. It is both the commercial and the entertainment capital of the country. While in the former, the Muslims play a miniscule role; in the latter they have an overwhelming presence. It is a city of 12 to 15 per cent Muslim population, a large number of who are economic migrants from north and central India.
The majority of them hail from educationally and economically backward backgrounds. As is the case with all communities, more than education, it is financial insecurity that makes one more religious, so it is with the Muslims. This financial insecurity combined with real or perceived sense of religious oppression is a volatile combination, susceptible to exploitation. Anees Ahmed, a social activist and a member of Movement for Peace and Justice, says, “The main threat is not terrorism but communalism. And it is most evident in the vernacular press in Mumbai. It is shocking to read the Marathi and the Urdu press, because one can never understand how they have such a diametrically opposite reports on the same incident. More than anything, this ensures that polarisation continues.” Ahmed says that despite the overt signs of everything being normal, Mumbai remains a communal tinderbox. Perhaps, this is the reason why organisations like Student’s Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) found fertile grounds in Mumbai when it had more or less ceased to exist in other parts of the country. According to Doval, Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai, has various features which makes it highly vulnerable to Pakistan’s covert action. He says, “Firstly, Pakistan has a powerful human resource in the form of extensive underworld network in the hands of Dawood and Memons which enhances ISI’s ground level capability. Secondly, it has a history of communal divide and violence which makes it possible for them to integrate some ultra communal groups and raise local recruits. Thirdly, Mumbai is hub of India’s commercial activity and thus is of special interest to Pakistan; and lastly, it has a huge floating population and it is difficult for the police to maintain an effective watch on thousands of outsiders who come and leave Mumbai everyday.” Fighting Terrorism Theoretically, this is the easiest war to fight; because the problem has been diagnosed and the remedy prescribed. Like Naxalism, where the prescription has been hard economics combined with hard policing, the same remedy with a few additions like social and political amelioration, can be applied here as well. After all, as Doval says, “Indian society is very strong on its fundamentals when it comes to larger national interests. Terrorism is denounced by all sections, irrespective of the religious or social grouping to which they belong. This sentiment is more pronounced today than ever before. I don’t think there is any cause for concern though higher national resolve is needed to fight terrorism.” Yet, it is easier written than done. Why else would the Prime Minister say that terrorism and its various strains are the biggest threat? To begin with, semantics are important when one is facing a shadowy enemy.
The term Jihadi terrorism immediately puts the Muslims on the defensive because as they understand Jihad it is a holy duty enjoined upon every Muslim; it has little to do with blowing up men and women on the streets. Interestingly, in his recently released book, British author William Dalrymple writes that in 1857, the mutineers or the freedom fighters who rose against the British did so under the banner of Jihad irrespective of their religious affiliations. However, to come to the present, it is important that the government or the security agencies do not do anything that increases the sense of victimhood of a community which in any case finds itself on the margins of the society. “Whether there is a reason for it or not, the minorities the world over always feel threatened or vulnerable,” says Ribeiro, adding, “They need that much more assurance than the majority that their interests are safe. Hence, it is very important that not only the security agencies remain completely unbiased but are also perceived as being so.” Unfortunately, because of total under-representation of Muslims amongst security forces, they, their customs and their institutions remain an enigma for the majority. Sure enough, what the security or intelligence people do not understand, they fear. For example, the perception that all madrassas are terrorist making machines. According to Ribeiro, there are certain kinds of people who are more likely to indulge in subversive activities. He says, “The affluent are always secular because their stakes in peace are much higher. The impoverished do not care because for them the biggest threat and challenge is survival. It is the educated middle class who aspires to affluence who are the most susceptible.” In India, the majority of Muslims fall in the last category. And as the Mumbai train blasts showed (at least, so far), some fall in the second category as well. Terrorism in the hinterland is not home grown; being sponsored and most often carried out from outside the country, but it is also true that foreign terrorists would not be able to carry out their nefarious designs if they did not find safe houses in India to operate. Busting these safe houses requires better intelligence, both at the local and the national level. Since nothing is more important than human intelligence, unless the community has more confidence in the police and the intelligence officials they are hardly likely to share information with them.
Rounding off Muslim youngsters as a matter of routine after every terrorist incident and holding them indefinitely without charges is certainly not going to instil that confidence. But terrorism perpetrated by Muslims is not the only one that India has to worry about. Naxalism offers a much bigger challenge especially as it has shown a propensity to erupt in newer places. Already there are reports of ISI trying to supply the Naxals with weapons through some insurgent groups in the Northeast. What better way to inflict more damage on India than by tapping the Naxals, who are known to hit economic targets and prevent development. As Doval says, “Knowing India’s security discomfiture on the Naxalite issue, it is likely to make direct or indirect attempts to strengthen them. Some of the north-eastern insurgent groups happen to be in touch with the Left extremists. Pakistan will try to forge a relationship amongst them, particularly for channelising weapons and funds. Just because we don’t know does not mean that something does not or can not exist.” So what do we do? Stringent security measures are self-defeating in the long run. And who would know this better than Israel which built a fence around Gaza Strip to prevent Palestinian infiltrators to enter Israeli territory. But Palestinian militants constructed a tunnel underneath the fence to attack the Israeli picket. India has built a fence all along its borders with both Pakistan and Bangladesh. While Pakistan found other routes of infiltration, the Bangladeshis continue to flout the gaps in the fence. The solution lies within. Ribeiro says that nobody can stop terrorism unless the community itself decides to stand up against it. “Don’t let anybody fool you by saying that he or she finished terrorism in Punjab. When the Sikhs and Jats in Punjab decided that they would not support the terrorists, they were choked out. If you want Muslims to crush extremist elements within their community then you have to create conditions for them to report such elements to the police.” Can’t be too difficult for a beginning.