Terrorism Trap

India has its own battles to fight instead of joining the American ones

It seems like such a long time ago. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proudly telling his British counterpart that despite having the second largest population of Muslims in the world, no Indian is part of the worldwide al Qaeda fraternity. When the US President came calling early this year, we again celebrated our al Qaeda free status notwithstanding the protesting Muslims on the streets, some urging George Bush to go back. He went back, of course, after a ‘successful visit’ feeling reassured that as far as his Global War on Terror and exporting democracy in the Middle East is concerned, India could be counted on as an ally. And indeed the largest democracy in the world clasped the hands of the oldest very warmly. But since those days of innocence, much blood has flown down Ganga and Jamuna, confluence of which is also reflective of the two major communities in India: Hindus and Muslims. Today, the security community of India is debating the presence of al Qaeda in India, especially after a hoax caller in Srinagar said as much after the terrorist attack in Mumbai. Indian National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayan went to the extent of qualifying al Qaeda threat by saying in a television interview that Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba (active in Kashmir) is a manifestation of al Qaeda in India, implying that through LeT, al Qaeda threatens the rest of the country and not just Kashmir.

Unlike in the past, when India was just an inconsequential blip on al Qaeda radar, in the last few months both Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri have been issuing statements mentioning India as an enemy in league with the US and Israel. So when Muslims worldwide are exhorted to rise against the US and Israel combo, now India too figures in their list of enemies. As of now, the main reason for this appears to be the Indo-US defence agreement of 18 July 2005 which paved the way for a strategic partnership between the two countries. Irrespective of the content and scope of the agreement, there has been tremendous hype about it in the media, which obviously enlarged India’s presence on al Qaeda radar. So much so, that in April 2006, in one of his regular dispatches to al Jazeera, Zawahiri criticised the Indo-US nuclear agreement. And for the last few months, al Qaeda sightings by way of anonymous phone calls and threats have been reported, the most high profile being the advisory issued by the US against possible attacks in India by al Qaeda just a few days before August 15. Cashing on this fear psychosis, somebody sent a note to the Agra police, ostensibly on behalf of al Qaeda threatening to blow up the Taj Mahal. That none of these threats are being taken lightly shows that the government is indeed worried about al Qaeda targeting India.

This, despite the fact that al Qaeda no longer exists as a cohesive terrorist organisation. The US war in Afghanistan not only decimated the organisation, but made Laden and Zawahiri into fugitives who only make their presence felt through periodic outbursts on al Jazeera. So, the threat does not come from al Qaeda per se, but from what it stands for and the image of invincibility that it has succeeded in creating for itself. Partly because of its own doing and partly because of the US glorification of al Qaeda by attributing capabilities to it that it did not possess, it has now become an inspiration for those suffering from a sense of victimhood and helplessness. A case in point was the Madrid bombing of March 2004, which in the aftermath of the attack was attributed to al Qaeda. Writing in their book ‘The Next Attack’, the former directors of the US National Security Council Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, say, “The Madrid attack was originally seen to be another display of al Qaeda’s global reach. In the public mind, Europe had become another territory marked by al Qaeda — together with Southeast Asia, East Africa, North Africa and of course, the east coast of the United States. Yet the bloodshed in Spain was not the handiwork of (U)sama bin Laden. Instead, it was an homage — both honour and emulation — to him and his ideas. The bombers chose the al Qaeda calling card of multiple simultaneous attacks as their own, killing as many people as they could to show that they shared an address spiritually, if not physically, with bin Laden. Madrid demonstrated the global reach of bin Laden’s ideas, not his operations.” According to the authors, this fact is more disquieting because it shows that al Qaeda brand of terrorism is neither limited by life of its bosses nor geography. Importantly, it happened after Iraq invasion and apart from killing innocent Spaniards, the attack also led to the downfall of Prime Minister Jose Marie Aznar’s government.

The first thing that Prime Minister elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did was fulfil his electoral promise and pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. By the same argument, India is vulnerable to al Qaeda’s ideas and not leaders or training or even weapons. If inspired by al Qaeda’s success somebody wants to carry out a terrorist attack in India, how difficult can it be to acquire explosives. The Mumbai attacks were very similar to the serial bombings in Madrid, which also targeted the crowded trains and the bombs went off within minutes of one another. The challenge for India therefore is not to worry about al Qaeda entering India, but to ensure that its ideas do not find roots here. The first step towards that end would be to at least correctly appreciate the factors which could lead to al Qaeda type ideas finding takers in India. Terrorism was not a household word before the September 11 attacks in the US. Al Qaeda was a shadowy organisation about which not much was known even in the US. And according to a number of former US officials who went on to write books on terrorism and the US response to al Qaeda, the first Bush administration did not have any time for al Qaeda. The focus was Iraq and how to topple the Saddam Hussein regime there. The September 11 attacks diverted the Bush administration’s focus from Iraq only for a few months. No sooner was the Taliban regime replaced by Hamid Karzai the attention was back on Iraq, this time under the garb of al Qaeda and terrorism. It is a fact that terrorist violence around the world, including Spain, UK, Morocco, Indonesia and so on has happened only after the invasion of Iraq. This, combined with the US’ blanket cover for Israel (as was evident during the recent conflict with Lebanon) has resulted in a worldwide antipathy for the US and its hegemonic ways. The perception that the US is anti-Muslim is only getting strengthened by the day, tempting more and more Muslims across the world to take a leaf out of al Qaeda’s book. Fortunately, Indians have not been among those who have done this so far. Forget about getting all worked up about Palestine or Iraq or even bin Laden Indian Muslims never even raised a banner for their brethrens in Kashmir. However, after the July attack in Mumbai blast, it would be foolish to take this for granted.

Television and emergence of news as entertainment means that everybody knows what is happening in other parts of the world. Access to Internet means access to websites propagating violence as means of giving vent anger against real or perceived persecution. All these years, terrorist violence in Kashmir was blamed on Pakistan. Disparate incidents of violence in the rest of the country, including the attack on Parliament and the serial bomb blasts in marketplaces in Delhi in November 2005 were also blamed on Pakistan. But the Mumbai attack robbed us of this convenient façade. The planners and the perpetrators were Indians even if they were affiliated with Pakistan based and backed Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Whatever may have been Pakistan’s role in that attack, the fact remains that it did succeed in recruiting or brain-washing Indians to do its bidding. Even more disturbing was that these Indians were not the Madrassas veterans, but those with secular education and reasonable jobs. Clearly, these attacks had nothing to do with Kashmir. If they did the point was missed. So what were the attackers trying to do? Many theories have been doing rounds. One is that, given India’s economic growth rate, Pakistan was trying to hit at India’s commercial centre. Another says that it was a revenge for Gujarat communal carnage because most of the commuters on those trains were of Gujarati descent. Yet another theory says that Pakistan was hitting at India’s secular fabric, which is why the Mumbai attacks were in a series of such attacks starting with the one on Akshardham temple in Gujarat, followed by the blasts in Delhi on the eve of Diwali (that it was also the eve of Eid is not taken into account), attack on the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi and finally Mumbai.

While all this may be true, what we must worry about is how deeply have the Indians been penetrated and what has been the trigger that made them kill their own. Unlike the US and its allies, issues like Palestine and Iraq are not the only vulnerable ones for Indian Muslims. The communal polarisation in the last decade, which has created new ghettos for Muslims in metropolitan cities, the theories of cause and effect and the acceptance of obscenely violent language are causing deeper rifts among the communities. Already a sense of alienation has started creeping in, so much so that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently assured Muslim leaders that he will convene a conference of chief ministers to discuss the grievances of the community, adding that in the course of the Mumbai blast investigations, the community will not be unnecessarily harassed by the police. But India has to do more than reassure the Muslim leaders. It also has to be seen to have distanced itself not only from the US war on terror but also from peddling democracy to various parts of the world; because in this war, which has nothing to do with terrorism, all regional but important conflicts are getting a broad sweep of the same brush. For instance, addressing the World Affairs Council during his July visit to the US, British Prime Minister Tony Blair linked Kashmir along with the Israel-Palestinian problem to the global Jihad, implying that they all need to be addressed in a similar manner. Can one possibly work on resolving a problem if the diagnosis is so incorrect?


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