Terrorism & Election

By B. Raman

(April 20, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) As we have been facing a grave problem of insurgencies and terrorism of different hues----jihadi, ideological, ethnic and separatist--- in different parts of the country since 1947, one would have expected a serious and professional debate on insurgency,terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism during the election campaign---- particularly from the Congress (I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The expectations have been belied.

There has been hardly any meaningful debate, which has been trivialised by both the Congress (I) and the BJP. Personal attacks and exchanges of mutual recriminations and ridicule of a highly personalised nature by both the parties have become one of the defining characteristics of the election campaign. While the Congress (I)'s campaign has been marked by false projections and assertions with a cover-up of the failure of the Governments at the Centre and in Mumbai to prevent the terrorist attack in Mumbai from November 26 to 29,2008, the campaign of the BJP has been rich in rhetoric and negative with almost the entire focus being on the abolition of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) by the Congress (I) led coalition and its perceived reluctance to carry out the death sentence passed by a court on Afzal Guru for his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament House on December 13,2001.

It is surprising that the BJP and other Hindutva organisations, which like to project themselves as strong on counter-terrorism, have not been able to come out with positive ideas as to how to deal with the threat. Their approach has been more tactical and denunciatory than strategic and reflective. The result: the public is none the wiser as to what changes it could expect from any new coalition Government that might come to power after the elections.

The various insurgencies confronting the country since 1947---- whether the tribal insurgencies in the North-East or the left extremist or Naxalite (Maoist) insugencies in the tribal belt in Central India--- started during the long Congress (I) rule between 1947 and 1977. While the Congress (I) was able to find a political solution to the insurgencies in Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura, it has een totally at its wit's end in dealing with the left extremist or Naxalite (Maoist) insurgency, which continues to gather strength and adherents and spread its area of political influence and territorial dominance despite tall claims by the intelligence and security agencies of eliminating many Maoist cells.

After the Congress (I) came to power at the head of a coalition in 2004, it had set up a special task force of the party headed by one of its Members of Parliament (MP) from Andhra Pradesh to ecommend a strategy on counter-insurgency in the Naxalite-infected areas.Its report-- for whatever its worth--- has been gathering dust without implementation. The Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, has made more
statements and issued more warnings on the threat posed to internal security and our economic progress by the unchecked activities of the Naxalites (Maoists) than on the threat posed by the Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorists. From this, one would have thought that his Government would have come out with at least a workable counter-insurgency strategey to deal with the Naxalites since the so-called vote bank politics does not operate in their case. Surprisingly, the statements and warnings of the Prime Minister have not been translated into concrete action on the ground.

During the 28 years that have seen terrorism emerge as the most serious threat to internal security, the Congress (I) has been in power for 18 years---from 1981 to 89, from 1991 to 96 and now since 2004. During this period, the BJP was in power for six years from 1998 to 2004. Other coalitions headed by V.P Singh,Chandrasekhar, Dev Gowda and Inder Gujral were in power during the remaining four years.

Khalistani terrorism, the ethnic terrorism of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Pakistan-sponsored separatist-cum-religious terrorism of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) started when the Congress (I) was in power due to the mishandling of the grievances of some sections of the Sikh community in Punjab and in the Sikh diaspora abroad and of the grievances of sections of the Assamese students over the Government's failure to take action against the hundreds of thousands (now millions) of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh into Assam. The ground work for the proxy war of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in J&K started when the Congress (I) was in power before 1989. This proxy war started in J&K when the V.P.Singh-led coalition, which had the support of the BJP, was in power in 1989-90 and it acquired momentum after the Congress (I) returned to power in 1991. The unchecked infiltration of Pakistani terrrorist organisations into J&K started in 1993 and it spread to other parts of India subsequently.

Both the Congress (I) and the BJP have to be held equally responsible for the spread of jihadi terrorism to other parts of India outside J&K starting from the Mumbai blasts of March 1993. The demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by a Hindutva mob in December,1992, acted as the trigger for the spread of jihadi terrorism to other parts of India..

The Congress (I) has to be held equally responsible because it was in power in New Delhi at the time of the demolition and its inaction in the face of reports and assessments that the Hindutva elements congregating in Ayodhya might target the Masjid indirectly facilitated the demolition. The role of the BJP was public knowledge, but not the negligence of the Congress (I) Government led by Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister. He failed to act on the advice of his senior bureaucrats to dismiss the UP Government and impose the President's rule in order to protect the Masjid.

While the Congress (I) has to be blamed for the birth and growth of terrorism in many parts of the country, it has had a better record than other governments in dealing with terrorism after it started
threatening the country. The credit for the petering-out of Khalistani terrorism in Punjab and the bringing under some control of the indigenous terrorism backed by the ISI in J&K should largely go to the Governments headed by Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

There were eight hijackings of aircraft of the Indian Airlines to Pakistan by terrorists when Indira Gandhi was in power--- seven by the Khalistani terrorists and one by the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).She refused to concede the demands of the hijackers in any of these cases. Similarly, she refused to concede the demand of the JKLF kidnappers who kidnapped Ravi Mhatre, an Indian diplomat posted at the Indian Assistant High Commission in Birmingham, in 1983, for the release of Maqbool Butt, who had been sentenced to death for an act of terrorism, The terrorists killed Mhatre. She retaliated by having the death sentence on Maqbool Butt carried out. The only instance of weakness by a Congress (I) Government was in not taking action against the terrorists responsible for occupying the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar in 1993. They were allowed to escape into Pakistan by Narasimha Rao in return for their agreeing to lift the siege.

The Congress (I)'s Prime Ministers---- Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao---realised the importance of covert action by the intelligence community to counter Pakistan's proxy war. They had a well though-out strategy for countering Pakistan's proxy war. Covert action formed an important component of this strategy. It played an important role in countering the ISI's designs in Punjab. This capability was reportedly wound up by Inder Gujral when he was the Prime Minister in 1997.It should also be underlined that in 1993 Narasimha Rao had succeeded in having Pakistan declared as a suspected state-sponsor of terrorism by the Clinton Administration --- though only for six months.

The BJP's record in dealing with insurgency and terrorism, when it was in power between 1998 and 2004, was marked by the mishandling of the hijacking of an IAC aircraft to Kandahar by terrorists of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) in December 1999, which led to the release of three notorious terrorists from detention of whom one Maulana Masood Azhar later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and another Omar Sheikh had Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, kidnapped and murdered in Karachi. Maulana Azhar released by the BJP-led Government later played an important role in the conspiracy to attack the Parliament House.

In the history of Indian counter-terrorism, there have been two instances of pathetic surrender to the terrorists by the Government. The first was in 1989 when the V.P.Singh Government shockingly surrendered to the demands of the indigenous Kashmiri terrorists to release some terrorists under detention in order to secure the release of the daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the then Home Minister, who had been kidnapped by the terrorists. The second was in 1999 when the BJP-led Government agreed to release three terrorists---two of them Pakistani nationals--- to secure the release of the IAC passengers.

However, I would blame more the bureaucrats in the national security establishment under the BJP-led Government than A.B.Vajpayee, the then Prime Minster, L.K.Advani, the then Home Minister, and Jaswant Singh, the then Minister for External Affairs, for the Kandahar fiasco. The bureaucrats were responsible for ensuring that the aircraft was not taken by the hijackers to a hostile territory where commando action would not be possible. They failed to do so.Once they mishandled the hijacking and allowed the aircraft to reach
Kandahar, no commando action was possible because Kandahar is in hostile territory and Pakistan would not have allowed an Indian plane carrying commandoes to overfly its territory. As a result of this mishandling by the bureaucrats, the BJP leadership was in the unenviable position of having no other option but to swap the three terrorists for the release of over 100 innocent passengers. Manmohan Singh has been less than honest in comparing his action in sending commandoes to Mumbai during the terrorist attack of November,2008, to the BJP's failure to send the commandoes to Kandahar. Mumbai is in Indian territory, but Kandahar is in hostile foreign territory. A commando raid in Kandahar was out of the question.

The BJP, when in power, failed to implement its pre-election promise to issue a White Paper on the ISI's proxy war in India and to have Pakistan declared as a state-sponsor of terrorism. What was more, the security bureaucracy was surprised by the BJP-led Government's decision not to reverse the decision of Gujral to wind up the covert action capability.

Against this, the BJP's dubbing the Congress (I) led Government as soft in dealing with terrorism would hardly carry conviction. All political parties without exception mishandled counter-terrorism. They viewed terrorism not as a national threat to be countered with determination but as a political weapon to be exploited for partisan purposes.

There was a consistency of firmness in the policies of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao in dealing with Pakistan. Such a consistency has been missing in the policies of the Government led by Vajpayee as well as its successor Government headed by Manmohan Singh. Both of them followed a policy of "kabi garam, kabi naram" (sometimes tough, sometimes soft). Vajpayee's decisions to go to Lahore in February 1999 to meet Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister, and to invite Pervez Musharraf to India in 2001 and take him on a high-profile visit to Agra for talks were taken without consulting the intelligence community on the implications of the decisions on the ground situation. Both the visits ended in an embarrassing fiasco.

It swung to the other extreme after the attack on the Parliament House in December 2001 and confronted Pakistan with the threat of a war by mobilising the Armed Forces and keeping them in the mobilized state for nearly 10 months without achieving any results on the ground. The anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in February 2002 after the massacre of some Hindu pilgrims travelling by train at Godhra allegedly by some Muslims and widespread perceptions in India and abroad of conscious inaction by the Narendra Modi Government in the initial stages deprived the Vajpayee Government of any moral high ground in its confrontation with Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. The Muslim anger over the riots added fuel to jihadi terrorism.

The much tauted coercive diplomacy with a doubtful outcome was followed by another swing by the agreement reached by Vajpayee with Musharraf in Islamabad in January 2004 under which Pakistan agreed that it would not support any terrorism emanating from Pakistani and Pakistan-controlled territory. The BJP-led Government mishandled the overtures for peace talks from a section of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) in 2001,This section had got tired of terrorism. This mishandling enabled the Pakistan-based leadership of the HM to identify and eliminate the members of this section.

Manmohan Singh's record in dealing with Pakistan on the terrorism issue was no better than that of the Vajpayee Government.He swung to the soft extreme when he signed an agreement with Musharraf at Havanain September,2006, for setting up a joint mechanism for dealing withterrorism despite strong reservations from the security bureaucracy and non-Governmental security experts over the wisdom of this action. When he was embarrassed by the November,2008, terrorist attack, which was carried out by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) from Pakistani territory at least with the complicity of the ISI, if not at its instance, he swung to the other extreme of coercive diplomacy There has been a meaningless debate between the Congress (I) and the BJP as to who has been more coercive in dealing with Pakistan. Neither has been as seen from the post-Mumbai surge in infiltrations into J&K by Pakistan-trained terrorists.

It must be said to the credit of P.Chidambaram, who took over as the Home Minister after the Mumbai attack, that of all the Home Ministers since Rajesh Pilot, who was Minister of State for Internal Security under Narasimha Rao, he has shown greater lucidity and energy in dealing with at least Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, though his record against the ULFA and the Naxalites (Maoists) is yet to be felt on the ground.His strategy as unveiled in the beginning of April shows the beginnings of a professional approach... Please see the report in 'The Hindu" of April 8,2009, titled "Congress Unveils Roadmap to Tackle Terror".

Some of the points in the road map such as the setting up of a Permanent Crisis Management Group ( a war room) and the preparation of an operating manual( a war book for counter-terrorism) are old ideas of R.N.Kao, when he was the Senior Adviser to Indira Gandhi before her assassination in October,1984. These ideas were evolved by Kao in the context of the then raging Khalistani terrorism. The idea of a better
state of preparedness by the counter-terrorism community was originally Rajiv's. Other ideas in Chidambaram's strategy such as improving the rapid response capability, the concept of joint action in which all agencies are jointly responsible for dealing with terrorism and improving threat-level communication not only to various layers of the bureaucracy, but also to the public have been heavily borrowed from the post-9/11 counter-terrorism architecture set up by the Homeland Security Department of the US.Chidambaram has paid welcome attention to strengthening the number and capability of the police, in order to strengthen its role as the weapon of first resort against terrorism.

His strategy seeks to deal comprehensively with terrorism----particularly of the jihadi, Pakistan-sponsored kind--- as a threat to national security. The measures outlined by him are meant to deal with acts of terrorism----preventive as well as dealing with them when prevention fails. But it hardly speaks of measures to deal with terrorist organisations in order to impose a high rate of attrition on them. It was the success of the Sri Lankan counter-terrorism machinery in imposing such a high rate of attrition on the LTTE, which has contributed to its remarkable success against the LTTE. The attrition component is missing from Chidambaram's strategy.

Despite this, it is a good beginning and shows a professional approach to counter-terrorism. One would have expected such a professional approach to emerge from the BJP, which projects itself as having greater expertise and a greater number of experts in counter-terrorism. But one's hopes have been belied. Its entire thinking seems to be based on the belief that the re-introduction of the POTA and the execution of the death sentence on Afzal Guru would mark the death-knell of terrorism. It would not. There is more to counter-terrorism than additional powers for the Police, which are necessary, and deterrent punishments.

The inability of the Government to prevent the Mumbai 26/11 attack provided the BJP with a wonderful pre-election opportunity to analyse what went wrong in Mumbai and confront the Government with a professional debate on its sins of commission and omission. It has failed to grasp the opportunity.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )
-Sri Lanka Guardian