Homeland Security

Rain of terror on India
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Issue Vol 23.3 Jul-Sep 2008 | Date : 07 Jul , 2011

The terrorists are carrying out a murderous war against India, but India is unable to declare a war on terrorism. We are among the biggest victims of terrorism, but we seem to be making the weakest effort to combat this menace. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, condemnation follows, punishment is promised and appeals for communal harmony are made.

Financial compensation is offered to the victims or their families. Explanations are offered that attacks on ordinary people in public places who make soft targets show that the terrorists are under pressure. It is solemnly said that the state will show zero tolerance towards terrorism.

if the public feels, rightly or wrongly, that the government is not gearing itself to the challenge sufficiently because of electoral considerations or political differences with the opposition, the result is more frustration and demoralisation.

It is almost as if a well-rehearsed script is being followed. After each incident the statements are the same, creating the frustrating impression that the authorities do not feel obliged to move beyond words to action. What the public wants to hear from them are announcements of concrete measures to deal with terrorism, not expressions of outrage and denunciation of these “heinous” acts.

The hope is repeatedly belied that in the interregnum between incidents, the authorities would have taken some hard decisions to ensure public safety. But, incident after incident, the same platitudes are aired and no new credible anti-terrorist plan of action emerges.

At issue is not the capacity of the government to provide foolproof protection against terrorist attacks.  The Israeli example shows that even the most vigilant and robust of governments cannot guarantee total immunity against terrorist attacks. Israeli reprisals against terrorist attacks are swift and brutal; they have gone to enormous lengths in protecting their population from violence, but murderous incidents continue to occur sporadically. Suicide bombers have created havoc in Iraq; the Taliban in Afghanistan are on that track too. The reality is that those prepared to commit suicide in staging terrorist attacks cannot always be thwarted.

At issue is the apparent lack of an organised, purposeful, coherent and comprehensive response at the governmental level to the gravity of the challenge that faces the country. If despite the best efforts of government terrorist strikes occurred, the sense of solidarity between government and the public would only reinforce national action against this menace. But if the public feels, rightly or wrongly, that the government is not gearing itself to the challenge sufficiently because of electoral considerations or political differences with the opposition, the result is more frustration and demoralisation.

The motivation of the terrorists is also to slow down Indias growth, to delay the ascension of India to the rank of the worlds most powerful economies.

At one level, the government is in a genuine quandary. The political management of our multi-religious society, with a long history of communal tension and conflict, is not easy. Our democracy, the peace of our society, the maintenance of economic growth at the current high levels, the confidence of external investors in the long term stability of the country, all require the nurturing of communal harmony. The motivation of the terrorists is also to slow down India’s growth, to delay the ascension of India to the rank of the world’s most powerful economies.

The image of India’s economic success has to be tarnished. Already the belief in international circles is that India is bogged down by too many internal problems for it to be able to act credibly as a global power. For India to count as a force on the international stage, it has to be internally strong. In this context the one obvious fracture in Indian society has to be prevented from widening.

India’s vulnerability has unfortunately increased because of external factors. The rise of the phenomenon of jihadi terrorism presents India with an acutely complex challenge. India has a large Muslim population, the second or third largest in the world. How to insulate this section of our society from radical Islam gathering force all around because of the failure to resolve long standing conflicts in the Arab world and the disastrous extension of the core conflict to Iraq? This challenge has become all the more daunting as the epicentre of religious fundamentalism and global terrorism is now located in our region-in the frontier areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both al Qaida and the Taliban are functioning not far from our western borders.

In between, we have no buffer. On the contrary, Pakistan is most responsible in putting India into the cross hairs of radical Islam. It has used jehadi terrorism as state policy towards India for years. Pakistan has asserted its Islamic identity to bilaterally confront us as well as to mobilise the Islamic world against us on a religious platform. Its diplomacy towards India has been unabashedly Islamic in colour and content. It has unremittingly tried to amalgamate the cause of Muslims in J&K to that of the Palestinians, besides always listing the neglect by the international community of persecution of Muslim Kashmiris by India, along with other “Muslim” causes, as one of the root causes of terrorism.

Pakistan has achieved considerable success in transforming the nature of Islam in J&K, from a more tolerant Sufi kind to a more Arab Sunni in character. This was necessary for sustaining militancy in the state, as also to mobilise the Kashmiri sentiment in favour of Pakistan and away from political forces supporting independence or those attached to the concept of Kashmiriyat that by claiming a distinct Kashmiri identity inherently seeks to escape from Pakistan’s enveloping embrace. The effort to change the nature of Islam in the Valley was intended also to make the resolution of the political problem of J&K still more difficult.

With these kind of external pressures at work, and the recognition that its clandestine support to terrorist elements is under international scrutiny, it has been important for Pakistan, both in Afghanistan and in India, to shift attention away from its own culpability to internal failures in these two countries. Terrorist cells had to be created and nurtured in India

Our difficulties have been compounded by Pakistan’s strategy of extending the geographical spread of the terrorist threat beyond J&K to the rest of India. With greater Indian vigilance on the LOC and strong military presence on the ground in J&K, Pakistan has found it expedient to exploit our open border with Nepal and our porous border with Bangladesh to infiltrate terrorist elements into India with the objective of stretching our resources to combat terrorism as severely as possible and destabilising our society at large from within. The ISI has tapped into anti-India sentiment in sections of the populace in Bangladesh in particular, as well as pools of radical Islam surfacing there with the general spread of Wahabist thinking in Muslim circles, to target India from various directions. No wonder in some of the latest terrorist attacks the HUJI figures prominently as a suspect.

Pakistan is acknowledged both as the source of international terrorism and as an ally combating it. This was the artful way in which General Musharraf had his cake and ate it too. This apparent contradiction is explained by Pakistan’s indispensability in any US effort in stabilising Afghanistan and pursuing the al Qaida and the realisation that for obtaining the requisite degree of co-operation, threats and intimidation would work less effectively than diplomacy and persuasion. There has also been a pragmatic recognition that Pakistan’s frontier areas have been historically not fully under central control, and the extremely rugged terrain where military operations are not easy to undertake compounds the problem.

Nevertheless, US political circles and the media have been asking for greater accountability from Pakistan for its perceived double game of both conducting military operations against the religious extremists in the tribal areas and also, clandestinely, supporting these elements which inflict casualties on US and international forces in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration, while publicly lauding Pakistan’s co-operation in the fight against terrorism has been pressuring it to compose with India and control Pakistan-based terrorist activity in our country.

Even Obama, the Democratic Presidential candidate, has publicly exhorted Pakistan to cease support to militancy in J&K. For the US, Pakistan must focus on controlling its western border, but if high level of provocative activity on the eastern border is maintained, the risk of an Indian reaction increases, with damaging consequences for the American effort in Afghanistan.

 It is not unsurprising that since 2002, despite terrorist attacks in Gujarat, calculated to invite reaction, including the latest one, law and order and social peace have been maintained.

With these kind of external pressures at work, and the recognition that its clandestine support to terrorist elements is under international scrutiny, it has been important for Pakistan, both in Afghanistan and in India, to shift attention away from its own culpability to internal failures in these two countries. Terrorist cells had to be created and nurtured in India, ostensibly exploiting local grievances such as the trauma of Gujarat, to make it appear that terrorist incidents in India were the handiwork of indigenous groups and not engineered by Pakistan. This perception would moreover be far more damaging to communal harmony within India than terrorist attacks organised by outside elements.

Pakistan has succeeded in this strategy to some extent. Over the years Pakistan’s involvement in terrorist activity in India has been manifest and has been acknowledged by politicians, officials and commentators, both Pakistani and foreign. The existence of training camps in Pakistan, of organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, not to mention the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the literature published in Pakistan on Kashmir martyrs, the intelligence intercepts and other physical evidence have demonstrated Pakistan’s complicity.

The resumption of the Composite Dialogue between the two countries was predicated on Pakistan abandoning support to terrorism directed at India. But Pakistan cannot fully give up this pressure point on India as it serves multiple interests. It can modulate recourse to terrorism to suit political exigencies, as for example, to avoid having to deal militarily simultaneously with tensions on its eastern and western borders, in view of the mounting problems in its tribal areas. But giving up entrenched policies without a significant quid pro quo is never easy.

The Pakistani military leadership believes the terrorist threat is an incentive to India to come to the negotiating table; without it India will simply ignore Pakistan’s calls for a resolution of the issue. Terrorism also poisons Hindu-Muslim relations and weakens the foundations of India’s secularism. It affects the image of India as an investment destination, which would explain the terror attacks in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai. It panders to extremist lobbies within Pakistan whose declared ambition is to break up India from within.

If the external motivation, inspiration and support were not available; if terrorists had not displayed the ambition to undertake operations against the most powerful countries and societies and inflict damage on them; if jihad had not assumed global proportions; there would be insufficient reason for homegrown terrorists to start killing innocent people in the streets of India.

The repeated attacks on Hindu religious places is intended to provoke a communal backlash against the Muslims, in the expectation that this will engender greater Muslim alienation, leading eventually to the tearing up of the social fabric of India.

It would not be difficult for Pakistan to create the illusion that terrorism in India is homegrown by creating terrorist cells in India, continue motivating them and providing them with training and finance. Pakistan had launched a massive international political campaign against India after the events in Gujarat. The emotions of those days are still alive and the wounds are still raw, and these can be exploited for political ends. In the climate of radical Islam surrounding the country externally, and the networks that are available to spread its insidious message, it is not difficult to mobilise a handful of elements in India, in the name of Islamic solidarity, to settle scores with the enemies of Islam.

If the external motivation, inspiration and support were not available; if terrorists had not displayed the ambition to undertake operations against the most powerful countries and societies and inflict damage on them; if jihad had not assumed global proportions; there would be insufficient reason for homegrown terrorists to start killing innocent people in the streets of India. Gujarat happened six years ago, but terrorists continue to exact revenge even today on innocent people in Mumbai, Akshardham, Varanasi, Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Ajmer, Malegaon, Bangalore and Ahmedabad etc, showing an exceptional degree of malevolence. Now the Indian Mujahideen group has surfaced in a clear attempt to confuse opinion about the source of this terror.

Gujarat is a useful peg on which to hang these repeated acts of indiscriminate violence. The people being punished are ordinary people, untainted by any guilt whatever relating to the Gujarat killings. The terrorists are also ignoring the role played by large sections of Indian society in highlighting the enormity of what happened in Gujarat and the failures of the state apparatus. Opinion builders and non-governmental organisations have solidified the national consensus on better protection of minorities.

It is not unsurprising that since 2002, despite terrorist attacks in Gujarat, calculated to invite reaction, including the latest one, law and order and social peace have been maintained. Purely local disaffected groups would not want to lose the sympathy and support of secular forces in India. Those with an integrated global jehadi agenda would discount this consideration.

India has long taken solace from the fact that Indian Muslims have remained unaffected by the al Qaida brand of Islamic radicalism. Even Bush has been publicly expressing wonderment that no Indian Muslim has joined the al Qaida ranks. Our democracy and secularism are supposed to be an antidote to radical religious ideologies. The argument has been that Islamic radicalism grows when all channels of legitimate political activity are blocked, opposition is not tolerated and economic development lags because of non-performance by the state.

So long as a limited number of our Muslims, motivated, trained, financed and armed by Pakistan are involved, and terrorism is within the dialectic of India-Pakistan relations, the problem would seem manageable. But if it acquires a life of its own, independent of the state of our ties with our neighbour, then its political and social consequences would be much more disastrous.

Religious organisations then step in to provide social services that the state is unable to do, drawing people more and more into the fold of religion and strengthening convictions that only a state run in accordance with the Koranic tenets can resolve the problems of Muslim societies. Such blockages do not exist in India’s liberal and secular democracy and hence our confidence that our Muslims would seek to redress their grievances within the framework of the Indian constitution and not through terrorist violence.

The latter choice would greatly magnify the dimension of our communal problem. So long as a limited number of our Muslims, motivated, trained, financed and armed by Pakistan are involved, and terrorism is within the dialectic of India-Pakistan relations, the problem would seem manageable. But if it acquires a life of its own, independent of the state of our ties with our neighbour, then its political and social consequences would be much more disastrous.

The blasting of our Embassy in Kabul extends the scope of the terrorist threat to India’s security. President Karzai has publicly accused the ISI of complicity and India too has spoken of evidence available of ISI’s involvement. Physically attacking an Embassy is an extremely grave matter. An Embassy is the symbol of a country’s sovereignty and dignity abroad. Seeking to destroy it is tantamount to a declaration of war. Islamic groups have so far attacked the Embassies of those countries who are seen as historical oppressors of Muslims or supporters of Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights, or those seeking political control of the Arab world and its resources or protecting unrepresentative Arab regimes, or being guilty of insulting Islam.

Arab allies of the West have also been targeted, as was the case of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. India not only does not fall into any of these categories; it has, on the contrary, a history of supporting Arab causes and Palestinian aspirations, besides being free of any colonial baggage or legacy of interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries. To perpetrate an act against India that displays such extreme animosity is not easily comprehensible.

Pakistan considers Afghanistan as its strategic hinterland and is deeply opposed to any strong Indian influence there. We had played a part in thwarting a full Taliban victory in Afghanistan by supporting the Northern Alliance in its redoubt in the north; later, after the eviction of the Taliban from the country we maintained close contacts with the members of the Alliance in the government. We have developed very good understanding with Karzai, which contrasts with the tense relations between him and the Pakistani leadership.

Faced with a series of terrorist attacks that have been very costly in human terms, we have failed to develop a national consensus on how to defend ourselves. We are not agreed on the nature, source and causes of this threat, much less on how to counter it.

Our assistance projects in Afghanistan are well targeted at the grassroots needs of the people in the areas of health, education, transport, infrastructure etc. and have earned us much goodwill. We have established our presence in the Pashtun areas too by opening consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, in the teeth of Pakistani opposition. The Pakistani side sees these consulates as platforms for intelligence operations inside their country, in FATA and in Baluchistan. Pakistan is paranoid about India positioning itself to take advantage of its vulnerabilities in the western part of the country.

The most recent statements in Washington by Pakistan’s Interior Minister accusing India and Afghanistan of fomenting trouble in this region testifies to this.

Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan also is to clandestinely support the Taliban while claiming that its rise is a consequence of Karzai government’s lack of delivery and loss of grass root support. Pakistan needs a political force in Afghanistan that can protect its long-term interests there and counter the growing Indian influence. It needs to protect itself against Pashtun nationalism and any untoward development on the Durand Line issue. As the Taliban are a Pashtun phenomenon, Pakistan’s support for this group would appear well calculated. Such support is also coherent with the rise of Islamism in Pakistan itself. With the Taliban providing a political base, Pakistan can hope to implement its strategy of playing a pivotal role in Afghanistan and Central Asia and satisfy its regional ambitions outside the Indian sphere of influence in South Asia. The development of the Gwadar port and proposals to link Central Asia through the Karakoram highway to it reveals the scope of Pakistan’s ambitions.

Pakistan, the Taliban and the al Qaida see the mounting Indian presence and influence in Afghanistan, especially in the background of our past opposition to the Taliban and our support to the Northern Alliance, as injurious to their interests. With improved India-US relations they may have concluded that Indian ambitions in Afghanistan need to be contained. Hence, the dramatic attack on the Embassy and reports that our road projects, which give Afghanistan strategic flexibility by providing access to the sea through Iran, are likely to be specifically targeted in the future.

India must understand the dimensions of the existing terrorist threat and what the future portends for us. Unfortunately, we are not preparing to equip ourselves with the means and the mentality to meet this challenge. Faced with a series of terrorist attacks that have been very costly in human terms, we have failed to develop a national consensus on how to defend ourselves. We are not agreed on the nature, source and causes of this threat, much less on how to counter it.

For long we maintained the position that the resumption of bilateral dialogue with Pakistan was contingent on it abjuring the use of terrorism against us as state policy. This position was given up faced with pressure to restart a dialogue and the reality that Pakistan would not completely give up the instrument of terror. This might have been a pragmatic recognition of the situation, but it was the first signal to Pakistan that limited terrorist activity against India would be tolerated. “The next signal of our weak political resolve to combat terrorism was our acceptance that both India and Pakistan were victims of terrorism. Because Pakistan itself became a target of terrorists, even though for reasons unrelated to India, and its involvement with terrorism began to recoil on it, we absolved Pakistan of its responsibility in promoting terrorism against us.” We equated the sponsor of terror with the victim of terror.

By accepting the fiction that terrorists targeting India were not in Pakistan’s control, and indeed were common enemies of both countries, we gave to Pakistan the deniability that it had always sought. The creation of a Joint Terror Mechanism, with terrorist acts in J&K out of its ambit, was another investment in the hope that Pakistan’s co-operation would obviate the need for us to take hard decisions ourselves to combat terrorism.

By accepting the fiction that terrorists targeting India were not in Pakistans control, and indeed were common enemies of both countries, we gave to Pakistan the deniability that it had always sought.

In responding to the terrorist threat, all democracies face the dilemma of how much civil liberties should be curtailed in order to give less freedom to terrorists to operate. Faced with a national challenge, US, UK, France and Spain, to name a few democracies, have introduced special anti-terrorist legislation, as normal laws are not considered enough to deal with an abnormal situation. In India this issue has got caught in the coils of party politics and electoral considerations. On the ground that earlier the special laws were misused by politicians to settle political scores or were used principally to target one particular community, the need for such legislation is disputed.

The existence or non-existence of such legislation has become embroiled in the non-secular versus secular debate. If the argument is that existing laws are sufficient to deal with terrorism and the problem lies only in their effective application, then some way should be found to apply them effectively and demonstrate the validity of this assertion. On the contrary, even when the highest court in the land has pronounced its judgment in specific cases of terrorism there is political reluctance to act. We have to find a way to neutralise the political party calculations that are complicating our ability to deal with terrorism on the basis of a national consensus.

India has no Federal Investigative Agency dealing with terrorism. It is absurd that in a vast country like ours, with so many constituent units, no central authority exists to combat a national challenge. The states are said to be chary of diluting their responsibility for law and order in favour of the centre, fearing central interference in their affairs. This kind of political distrust within the political system and partisan priorities show a failure to appreciate the dimension of the terrorist problem facing the country as a whole. Our terrorism experts cite the need for our agencies to be equipped with better technical capabilities, more human and material resources and, above all, special legal powers to combat the increasing capabilities and sophistication of the terrorists. But the political class is unresponsive.

India sponsored some years ago in the UN the draft of a Comprehensive Convention to Combat International Terrorism. We expect the international community to join hands in combating this menace and enact domestic laws to curb it. We push for an international consensus on this issue and tightening of the legal responsibility of States to deal with this threat. Yet, at home, we are neither creating such a consensus, nor equipping ourselves with the legal means to confront the problem we face. That is why like the monsoon, terror is raining on us.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary of India

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