An ascendant India that still faces threats

A dynamic nation must embody a significant degree of diversity and pluralism to deal with many security challenges

August 15, 2022 04:00 am | Updated 04:00 am IST

Mumbai under siege, in 2008. The Taj Hotel

Mumbai under siege, in 2008. The Taj Hotel | Photo Credit: AP

Seventy-five years after India became independent, it is worth undertaking an assessment of how well the country has fared on internal parameters, even as India has emerged, in the same period, as a significant force in global affairs.

When India became independent, and apart from the turmoil of Partition and its deleterious impact, it confronted a string of violent agitations, including major Communist uprisings in Bengal and in the south, till the early 1950s. India withstood these challenges with utmost fortitude. Following this, India had a string of insurgencies, regional upheavals, linguistic tensions and related problems during much of the 1960s and the 1970s. Overshadowing many of these agitations, however, was the unrest and turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the wake of Partition, fanned to a great extent by an inimical Pakistan.

Early stirrings, Kashmir

Among the early insurgencies were those that occurred in the Northeast, mainly Nagaland and Manipur (some of which continue to simmer to this day), while those in Tripura and other areas soon followed. In the 1960s, India faced serious linguistic riots in Assam. The 1960s also witnessed the emergence of the left extremist threat, which persists to this day. During the 1970s, India faced major upheavals on both economic as well as language issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, India faced a major insurgency in the Punjab over the demand for an independent State of Khalistan.

From an internal security perspective, it is difficult to estimate which of the situations still cast a shadow over India today. What is clearly evident, however, is that Kashmir, now a Union Territory, remains a problem, though levels of obvious violence have declined since the division of J&K into Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh, and with stricter controls being exercised. Nevertheless, what is still evident is the degree of discontent and dissatisfaction that is yet to be eliminated.

Notwithstanding a common belief that improvement in economic conditions leads to a peace dividend, this has not been the case in Kashmir. Building alliances and coalitions to overcome differences in viewpoints also has not proved successful. Neither a more muscular policy nor attempts at conciliation and reconciliation have again produced the much sought-after peace dividend.

Kashmir thus, remains an intractable problem, despite levels of violence having declined. Much of the violence today is attributed to indigenous, rather than foreign, militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). A new feature is the emergence of the so-called ‘unattached militant’. Dealing with Kashmir may, hence, demand a further overhauling of both policy prescriptions and their implementation on the ground.

Naxalism has some draw

The other major threat that persists from the 1960s is left-wing extremism (or Naxalism), which has an inherent tendency to wax and wane, but cannot be written off. The reason is the ideological appeal of Maoism-Leninism and the intellectual underpinnings of the movement that still attract urban youth and the deprived in the rural areas. Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, however, when Naxalites promised a ‘Spring Thunder Over India’, the movement has clearly lost much of its sheen. Left-wing extremism is today concentrated in small pockets in Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Many of the senior leaders have either been arrested or eliminated, and the number of surrenders is on the increase.

Nevertheless, given the global shift towards the Right, many left-wing ideological movements elsewhere are beginning to see a resurgence or revival. There is, hence, a danger of a Naxalite revival as also the emergence of the phenomenon of the urban naxalite, employing both sophistry and insidious tactics to infiltrate civil society. Violent activities will continue to shrink for the present, but given the existing governance/development deficit in many of the lesser developed regions of the country, revival of Naxalite violence by cadres better equipped and better trained, is a likely prospect.

Threats in Punjab, the North-east

There are again certain other security threats that cannot, and must not, be ignored, though their current potential seems limited. The likelihood of a revival of militancy in Punjab is one. In the 1980s, Punjab was a copybook case of how militant movements can spread from small beginnings to produce an impact far wider than anticipated. Militancy in Punjab got enlarged — initially through mishandling, and later by the emergence of a fanatical leader such as J.S. Bhindranwale. The demand for a separate Punjab State soon became a cry for a separate State of Khalistan, independent of and outside India. Support to the movement was extended by externally based militant organisations such as the Babbar Khalsa International, the Khalistan Commando Force and the Khalistan Liberation Force, alongside support from Pakistan. The consequences of this proved grave, leading to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh. Today, the possibility of a revival of militancy in Punjab appears remote, and the situation has undergone radical improvement, but Sikh militant groups in the West continue with extremist propaganda and propagate the idea of an independent Khalistan. The potential for revival may appear weak, but the situation is still volatile though not incendiary.

In the Northeast, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura were among the States most impacted by tribal insurgencies when India became independent. The oldest and longest insurgency in the country was in Nagaland, spearheaded by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or the NSCN(I-M), and later the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), or the NSCN(K) as well. Their demand initially had an element of foreign sponsorship from China and Pakistan.

It was once a highly sanguinary movement, but levels of violence have significantly dipped in recent years. Negotiations for a proper settlement are, however, proving intractable, given the demand of the NSCN(I-M) for a separate State outside the Indian Union — a demand that is unlikely to be conceded. Meantime, the Naga top leadership is facing attrition. The NSCN(K), for instance, following the demise of its leader, S.S. Khaplang, is today confined to the periphery of the struggle, operating mainly from outside the country. Nevertheless, announcing the premature demise of the Naga struggle for independence could be misleading at this stage, though the capacity of the movement to revive itself is questionable.

The other insurgencies in the Northeast, mainly those in Manipur, Tripura, Assam, Mizoram and Meghalaya, have all, meanwhile, run out of steam. They have little opportunity today to revive.

Terror from outside

India was a victim of terrorism prior to, and after, Independence. Nevertheless, it would be appropriate to regard the 1970s and the 1980s as a suitable starting point to understand the current phenomenon of terrorism in the country. Unalloyed terror was introduced into India in the wake of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Quite a few of the volunteers who joined the Afghan war were to play a significant role in sponsoring local terror outfits. Pakistan was also a major factor, with Pakistan-based terror groups such as the LeT and the JeM becoming key progenitors for the Afghan brand of terror.

During the final decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, India came to witness a series of ‘new era terror’ attacks, the November 26, 2008 terror attack in Mumbai being a signal event. The objective of ‘new era terror’ attacks seems to be to achieve mass casualties and large-scale economic and political disruption, rather than draw attention to primary causes.

Dealing with terror

Since 2010, the number of terror attacks in India has declined dramatically. Terrorism is, however, likely to undergo several mutations in the period ahead, since Indian security authorities seem better prepared in dealing with current aspects of asymmetric warfare. A spate of new organisations have also been set up to deal with terrorism, such as the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Refining the counter-intelligence capabilities of organisations such as the Intelligence Bureau has also taken place. The global watch on terror organisations has intensified. Sharing information across nations and putting curbs on funding of terror groups by States and other bodies are some of the other aspects that have been introduced. Notwithstanding all this, terrorism could still prove to be the defining threat of not merely the present, but future generations as well.

Finally, it is important to recognise that domestic strength is the building block of all national power. For India, it is a decided advantage that most militant movements within the country are in a state of decline, and also, that India’s principal adversary, Pakistan, is in no position today to indulge in provocations such as insurgency and terror. While the external environment may not seem very conducive to peace, India needs to take advantage of the present internal situation to make its systems more dynamic, innovative and adaptive.

India would also do well to ensure shared opportunities for its citizens (since many problems stem from inequality and iniquity) as well as a common coherent national identity. Attempts need to be made to build effective social institutions, apart from investing in improving national capabilities. Ultimately, a dynamic nation must embody a significant degree of diversity and pluralism to deal with the host of internal security challenges that a nation faces.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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