Living with terror

THE TERRORISTS who attacked the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, the Deputy Prime Minister told the nation, had come from across the border. Trained and equipped by Pakistan. Abu Salem, underworld don allegedly involved in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Government sources have told the media, is linked with the Pakistan-based terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba. The evidence is apparently piling up. Everyday, in Jammu and Kashmir, civilians die in attacks by militants funded by Pakistan. Soldiers guarding the mountainous border are killed trying to prevent infiltration of militants from Pakistan.

This is a thoroughly simple story, easily told and too easily accepted. But few who have spent their professional lives dealing with the causes of terrorism are willing to buy the political slogan that Pakistan is the problem and once it is dealt with India's problems will be over, the sanctity of the nation, its unity and integrity, restored. Nor do they accept that since it leapt on the "war against terrorism" bandwagon after September 11 India has won the diplomatic war against terror.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister, L. K. Advani, marking his party's `anti-terrorism day' in New Delhi last week, explained the situation using a statement of the Provisional IRA following Margaret Thatcher's and most of her Cabinet's narrow escape in an attack: "Today we were unlucky. But remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always." We are, if we accept this view, a nation under siege. That we walk abroad and return home unharmed is pure good luck. The puppeteer of terror across the border has us all at his mercy.

Curiously, even as the P word resonates through the rhetoric of our political leaders it is nearly absent in discussions among those who attempt to explain the internal security environment and the threat of terrorism, before or after Akshardham. Beyond political rhetoric, the view, of university academics, civil servants or military men, is that Pakistan, as any moderately unfriendly neighbour would do, is simply exploiting India's domestic problems. As one retired Home Secretary suggested, "it would be stupid not to". Those who claim to want to deal with the problem would do a far better job of it if their major effort was not confined to massing an army along a border and raising large numbers of ill-equipped and ill-trained police and paramilitary forces, but focussed on sorting out the mess within. Addressing the issues that give rise to an environment in which terrorist violence thrives.

It is textbook stuff. Political conflict, left unattended, ignored or exploited for short term electoral gains festers. It propels those with grievances to take up the gun. Elevating the dispute to armed conflict. Which treated as a mere law and order problem and without an acknowledgement of its political roots becomes endemic insurgency. The thin line between armed insurgency and terrorism is easily crossed; fear and violence become tools of control. The targets of violence cease to be the state's coercive arms — police, security forces — and become non-combatants, unarmed civilians, ordinary people. The "enemy's enemy is my friend" principle applies which has a dynamic of its own. The nature of armed insurgencies, their need for funds, arms, military skills, turns them into networks of crime — narcotics, gun running, money-laundering — that do not respect borders.

And the fact is that militant violence and terror did not come to India on December 13, 2001, or September 24, 2002; they have been around nearly as long as India has existed. Political insurgency and the violence it unleashed have been part of daily life in many northeastern States since the 1950s. The "naxalite" movement in West Bengal in the 1970s may have been decimated but its offshoots continue today in States such as Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. The secessionist movement in Punjab in the 1980s, perhaps the only armed conflict that was successfully ended albeit by brute force, brought terror to the heart of the Government; Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi's not ten years later appeared to have underlined the cost of ill-conceived political interventions. Kashmir became the 1990s theatre of conflict and continues to be so.

All of these fit the textbook model. But violent conflict has taken other forms, such as communal riots which have been a tool of political manipulation, and some would argue terror, since Partition. And a vitiated communal environment has also tended to aid terrorism. The BJP's "rath yatra" culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the communal bloodletting that followed in its wake are held responsible for the Mumbai blasts. Even as the state-supported violence after Godhra was tearing Gujarat apart this year, police officers in Ahmedabad predicted a response. They said, "they will bring Kashmir to Gujarat" or "there will be a repeat of the Mumbai blasts".

Very few of them share the Government's view that Akshardham was the act of a militant movement frustrated by its inability to stall the elections in Kashmir. A former civil servant familiar with violent conflict says, "they say that the attack on Akshardham was by terrorists from across the border. I would say that there would be no need for this. It is not hard to recruit locally. It is not just fundamentalist ideology alone that drives people to violence; it could be poverty, a deep sense of injustice, the reaffirmation of this through something like the violence Gujarat saw. This was what we found in Punjab after Operation Bluestar." In short, claims of fighting a war against terrorism are worth nothing when you allow the massacre of a thousand Muslims in Gujarat.

The question then arises: does India have the means to deal with the roots of terror and the consequences of it? The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, because, at least in principle, the Indian state is designed to accommodate the often contrary needs and aspirations of its large population, and absorb the potential sources of conflict which could be the roots of armed violence. The liberal constitutionalism at its core provides for checks and balances, guarantees rights and holds the promise of institutional redress of grievances. It is a state based on a notion of civic nationalism and equality of citizenship, while acknowledging group rights — for example, the special provisions for minority religions and policies of affirmative action. The blueprint is of a federated nation with power devolved to the regions and down to the community. It is what one person described as a "rather sophisticated formula... and not as unimaginative as is suggested".

And, in some contexts it has worked. Governments have shown themselves to be responsive to political aspirations as recently as three years ago when the States of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal were formed. But, by and large and particularly in border areas, successive Indian Governments have displayed an inability to accommodate political dissent. Unresolved political disputes have been exacerbated by indifferent governance and irresponsible politics. Like the colonial administrations they replaced, successive post-Independence Governments have looked at territorial integrity as fragile, and internal political dissent as a threat to it that must be put down with the use of force. In an environment where developmental goals are reduced to election promises and constitutional provisions have to be extracted as political concessions rather than guaranteed by a shared conviction about the nature of the Indian state, insurgency and its criminal consequence, terrorism, will continue. The question then is: does the Indian state have the capacity to protect us from terror. Mr. Advani pretty much said no. He told an audience in New Delhi that they were sitting ducks for the unseen sniper, the suicide bomber, the fidayeen. Those who dealt in terror could come at us from anywhere, in any shape, he said. There was little anyone could do.

That is not the whole truth. The fact is that the security machinery is not equipped to deal with such situations. "Never mind terrorism... they are not even equipped to deal with law and order" is what is most commonly said of the police by those who believe that there is "a lack of interest at the highest levels in dealing with serious internal disorders". Police forces in India are ill trained, poorly equipped and therefore slow to respond. As a former police officer pointed out, the incapacity of the police and central forces is established by the Veerappan case. Although the bewhiskered bandit operates from a relatively small area, far removed from international borders, he is still free. But, Mr. Advani said that he himself and many like him were still alive because there were mechanisms that were actually working. Intelligence networks whose information allowed the security forces to pre-empt assassination plots. Just this week, a group was arrested in Gujarat and another group has been booked under POTA in New Delhi. The Deputy Prime Minister was apparently one of their intended targets.

The fact remains that planned spectacular attacks such as those on Parliament and the Akshardham temple went undetected. Because, say administrators, the intelligence-gathering mechanism that apparently successfully uncovers assassination plots is at best inadequate and at worst an "Our Man in Havana-style" escapade.

Concerns about the security environment are reflected in the number of committees set up and recommendatory reports commissioned by Governments in the last 10 years. They are all gathering dust. And, as recently as Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister was "still waiting for a report".

After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, a Government inquiry committee found that the nexus between crime, business and politics was a major hindrance in dealing with terrorism. However, no Government has shown a willingness to put in place safeguards against the privileging of this nexus. Indeed, the Election Commission's recommendation that prospective MPs declare their criminal antecedents met with an unprecedented cross-political rejection.

It simply reinforced the perception that the crime and politics nexus is a protected one.

Some would argue that the Government's efforts are directed at capping violence, bringing it down to an acceptable level, rather than working towards a settlement of its causes. That without this, the P factor could not be dredged up as an explanation forevery internal breakdown.

But, Governments also do not like to be seen to be helpless or inefficient. So, corpses of terrorists and the stories dead men do not tell are delivered to a media, hungry for information, as "findings of investigations". Less than 24 hours after Akshardham, the nation was told the names of the terrorists, their nationality and their political motivations all from the contents of their pockets. So, until the next time.

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