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Tackling Terrorism in India

September 2008
Tackling Terrorism in India


As terrorism acquires the dimensions of the biggest scourge of this century it is becoming increasingly difficult for affected nations to come up with the most effective strategy to control it. In fact, the very notion of “controlling” terrorism is something of a paradox. How does one control a phenomenon when a growing number of individuals are ready to die violent deaths in support of such a “cause?”

Terrorism as we see today can well be said to have its roots in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the late ’60s and early ’70s and later the civil war in Lebanon. But terrorism in the garb of “Islamic terrorism” came up in the post-Gulf war period with the perpetrators apparently expressing agitation against American military intervention in the Gulf region. However, for India — a recent victim of this kind of organized terrorism — its first brush with ideology-driven violence came in the early ’70s when left-wing agitators launched a campaign against the Indian State in a small town known as Naxalbari in West Bengal. The violent movement lasted for several years and was finally crushed — but not fully annihilated — with the dawn of Communist rule in West Bengal that, incidentally, continues to this day, more than three decades later.

Today, India faces terror attacks in different states for different purposes. In the north-eastern states mercifully the frequency has died down to a great extent, but attacks on police and security establishments continue by left-wing groups in many other states. However, the most serious acts of terrorist violence happened after the ’90s in Jammu and Kashmir and later, in the rest of India following the demolition of a disputed shrine in Ayodhya and the riots in Gujarat.

Cross-Border Terrorism

The 2007-08 Annual Report of India’s Home Ministry says categorically that the hand of Pakistan-based outfits has been observed in most of the terror attacks in India as groups from across the border continue to sponsor terrorist and subversive activities in the country. Specifically, it cites the hand of two Pakistan-based terrorist organisations — Lashkar-e-Taiyyeba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — and, increasingly of the Bangladesh-based HuJI, known to have close links with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, in most of these cases.

The report mentions that these groups have been using sleeper cells in the country to carry out such activities, and have also been using territories of neighbors such as Bangladesh and Nepal. As a counter measure, India has banned 32 groups as terrorist organizations under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It has also increased patrolling and surveillance on the borders, deployed Central para-military forces to aid the state police in areas prone to terrorist violence, and stepped up intelligence sharing with the state governments and among various agencies.

The period under review saw major incidents in Hyderabad, Ajmer and cities in Uttar Pradesh. The report also says that in view of the link between terrorism, drug and arms trafficking, extortion and smuggling of counterfeit currency, the Ministry will consider amending the Prevention of Money Laundering Act to bring within its purview all offences related to terrorism and terrorist financing.

The U.S. way

In the United States, protecting America from terrorism seems topmost on the government’s agenda. In typical U.S. fashion, tough talk, action by the military and security forces and a show of aggression are not only meant to display the administration’s intent, but also to instill a feeling of security among the people. The combination of these initiatives does seem to have had some effect against terrorism within U.S. soil, but all those seen as active allies in the U.S. global “war against terrorism” become softer targets.

President George W. Bush has reiterated that the United States became a nation at war on September 11, 2001: “The war on terror will be won on the offense — and that is where America's fight against terrorism must remain.” It is true that nearly seven years have passed without another terror attack on American soil. Bush claims that he has given America's defenders the tools they will need to defend the people in this new era. This includes a new Department of Homeland Security, a Director of National Intelligence, a new National Counterterrorism Center, a Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, shifting the FBI's focus from investigating terrorist attacks to preventing them, and laws like the Patriot Act to dismantle the barriers that prevent law enforcement and intelligence officers from sharing vital information, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, which allows intelligence professionals to quickly and effectively monitor terrorist communications.

Israel, another major victim of terror since its inception, has evolved its own brand of countering it with the use of force, ultra-modern weaponry, a specially trained force, and a strong feeling of nationalism, above all else. The United States, of course, keeps assisting Israeli efforts.

The United States also continues to pledge support to Pakistan as an ally in the war against terror, despite the fact that Indian authorities keep pointing fingers at Pakistan for being behind every major terrorist attack in India.

Investigation in India

In almost all the major terror attacks in India, the investigations have not led to any specific arrests or convictions despite early clues. In the July explosions in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, initially the government did try to point the finger at Pakistan’s ISI, or at some Bangladesh outfit, but the fact remains that most of the recent terror attacks have been perpetrated by Indian nationals, with or without external help. The use of articles such as bicycles and tiffin boxes in addition to explosive devices, timers, etc. showed that some kind of training had indeed gone behind the planning and execution of such acts.

Investigations in the earlier blasts in Jaipur in May and then in Bangalore and Ahmedabad showed that not only young and educated men from local and adjoining places were involved, but there was a wider network involving professionals such as doctors, computer experts, etc. in putting the act together.

In such a situation, the blame game between states and the Central Government over “intelligence failure” and the lack of coordination in sharing alerts and crucial information is pointless to a large extent.

The fact remains that no concrete measures are taken as a follow-up to several earlier intelligence reports highlighting the build-up of anti-social elements, political support to such elements and appeasement of local interests. The Intelligence Bureau keeps sending regular advisories to states on issues such as infiltration of terrorist modules, presence of “sleeping terrorist modules” and other conspiracies. The problem lies as much in the lackadaisical attitude of law-enforcing authorities, as in the lack of political will to combat terror.

Having a coalition Central government and similar setups in most states has created strange compulsions under which investigators exercise unwarranted caution in investigating members of some communities. Encouragement to caste and community-based vote banks also makes investigators go slow on certain leads. Some feel that India needs a comprehensive law against terrorism, like the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), which was removed when the present UPA coalition government came to power in 2004. At the same time, it is true that we do have several measures in existing laws such as the Indian Penal Code, Arms Act, Criminal Procedure Code, and many others that we can effectively use to detain and prosecute suspects.

Under the strangely democratic-yet-chaotic system that works in India, there is every chance that a politically motivated administration will misuse a tough new law that focuses on terrorism. While the law-enforcing machinery stops short of acting tough within the existing legal and administrative framework, India’s judicial system upholds individual liberty and human rights to unprecedented levels even as conviction and case disposal rates remain abysmally low.

In the wake of every major incident, we hear suggestions to include all sections and communities of society in the development process, and the government allocates a huge amount of money for minority welfare, education and jobs. Yet, traditional accusations of “undue favours” to one community or the other and vote bank politics take over soon thereafter.

India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, and Muslims figure prominently in all walks of life. Yet, there are frequent charges of negligence, misappropriation of development funds and corruption in implementing schemes. Small instances of resentment ignite into major causes of retaliation when a minor spark is provided by, say, the demolition of a boundary wall, restriction on religious displays, inter-religious affairs or even children’s squabbles. If all this leads to a major conflagration like a riot, a would-be terrorism scenario is created.

As for reasons for recent terror attacks in India, the 1992 demolition of a shrine in Ayodhya was cited as the trigger for the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, and also for many more incidents in subsequent years. Then the attack on Hindu activists in Gujarat in 2002 led to widespread riots in Gujarat. And those riots are still being cited as the reason behind umpteen terror attacks across India till date.

Mere aggression or tough talk against terrorism can no longer prevent it. With homegrown terrorism in full swing, historical reasons may well be mere excuses to try out new techniques. Some argue that homegrown terrorism has increased with Hindutva forces becoming more aggressive, but then the so-called Hindutva movement has not acquired public acceptance even among the Hindu community. And those Hindus who are seen as being involved in acts of communal aggression are known to be mere rabble-rousers content at adopting a politically noticeable stand and as a means for a future political career. Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and Durga Vahini activists are examples in case. The mainstream political parties hardly have any place for such elements.

What India needs today probably is a system that includes investigation and fast-track trials of such cases to be handled by a team constituted for the specific purpose. Modernization of weaponry and counter-terrorism machinery is also an immediate need. We cannot have stringent measures curtailing individual liberty, but at least the enforcement system can be tightened and made more effective.

(The writer is a senior journalist and editor of a multi-edition newspaper in India.)


Some major terror incidents in India

? July 26, 2008: Series of explosions in Ahmedabad, 50 killed, hundreds injured

? July 25, 2008: Serial blasts of low-intensity crude bombs in Bangalore, 2 killed

? May 13, 2008: Multiple blasts in Jaipuron a Tuesday, 65 killed

? January 1, 2008: Terrorist attack on CRPF camp in Rampur, UP, kills 8

? November 24, 2007: Simultaneous blasts in court premises in Varanasi, Faizabad, Lucknow, killing 15

? October 11, 2007: Bomb blast inside the Ajmer Sharif Dargah complex, 2 killed and 28 injured

? August 26, 2007: 30 dead, 60 hurt in Hyderabad terror strike

? May 18, 2007: Multiple blasts near Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, 14 killed, 50 injured

? February 19, 2007: Two bombs explode aboard a train bound from India to Pakistan, burning to death at least 66 passengers, most of them Pakistanis.

? September 8, 2006: Blasts in Noorani Masjid, Malegaon, on Friday coincided with the Shab-e-Barat, 38 killed, over 200 injured.

? July 11, 2006: Seven bombs on Mumbai's trains kill over 200 and injure 700 others.

? March 7, 2006: Sankat Mochan Temple and railway station, Varanasi, 28 dead, injured 100. Blasts took place on a Tuesday

? October 29, 2005: Three bombs placed in busy New Delhi markets a day before Diwali kill 66 people and injure hundreds.

? August 15, 2004: Bomb explodes in Assam, killing 16 people, mostly schoolchildren, and wounding dozens.

? August 25, 2003: Two taxis packed with explosives blow up outside a Mumbai tourist attraction and a busy market, killing 52 and wounding more than 100.

? March 13, 2003: A bomb attack on a commuter train in Mumbai kills 11 people.

? September 24, 2002: Militants with guns and explosives attack the Akshardham Hindu temple in the western state of Gujarat, 31 killed, More than 80 injured.

? December 13, 2001: More than a dozen people, including five gunmen, killed in an attack on parliament in New Delhi.

? October 1, 2001: Militants storm the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly complex, killing about 35 people.

? March 1993: Mumbai serial bombings kill 257 people and injure more than 1,100.

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