September 29, 2008

TERRIFYING SAMENESS: AN OPEN LETTER TO VINOD MEHTA

B.Raman


"The discourse on our 24-hour news channels is even more predictable. The usual suspects are rounded up to provide insight and corrective action. Experts like B. Raman, Ajit Doval and Julio Ribeiro, alas, provide no cure. Police reform always gets roped into the discussion and we are reminded of Supreme Court orders which have been studiously ignored. There is an element of farce in the whole exercise. When the next terrorist outrage happens, as it will, we will go over the rigmarole once more. I don’t have any solutions to a very complex problem but I do know that the present strategy is a total failure. Let me correct that because I believe no one in the country understands or is aware that a strategy exists—except to condemn terrorism and terrorists. As the Indian Mujahideen in their e-mail boasted: they can strike anywhere, anytime."

Extract from the "Delhi Diary" of Shri Vinod Mehta, Editor, "Outlook" available at
http://www.outlookindia.com/diary.asp?fodname=20081006

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Dear Shri Vinod Mehta,

I read with interest your above-quoted observations in the issue of "Outlook" dated October 6,2008. A major problem one faces in India in promoting an adequate understanding of the problem of terrorism is that most of us have little time or patience for facts and figures and for details. We have our idees fixes and come to conclusions, which are often superficial, on the basis of such idees fixes. That is one of the reasons for the image of helplessness in dealing with terrorism which we project of ourselves to our own people and to the rest of the world.

2. Our record in dealing with terrorism and insurgency is not as negative as it is often projected to be. We have had a successful record in Punjab, Nagaland (partial), Mizoram, Tripura and in Tamil Nadu in dealing with terrorism of Al Umma. Even in Jammu & Kashmir, the ground situation was showing signs of definite improvement till the recent avoidable controversy over facilities for the Amarnath pilgrims.

3.There are two kinds of terrorism/insurgency where our record has been poor till now---- the jihadi kind, which is essentially an urban phenomenon outside J&K, and the Maoist (Naxalite) kind, which is essentially a rural phenomenon. If one compares these two kinds of terrorism with the instances where we were not without success, one would find a striking difference. We have succeeded where the terrorism or insurgency was a regional phenomenon and was confined to a narrow area. We have not succeeded where the threat was pan-Indian in nature with the network extending its presence to many States in the North and the South.

4. A pan-Indian threat requires a co-ordinated pan-Indian response at the political and professional levels. Unfortunastely, we do not have it. The multiplicity of political parties, the era of coalition and the tendency in our country to over-politicise the problem of terrorism come in the way of a pan-Indian political response. The tendency of the intelligence agencies and the police of different States to keep each other in the dark about what they know and not to admit to each other as to what they do not know come in the way of a pan-Indian professional response.

5. There has been a plethora of reports and recommendations on the need for better sharing and co-ordination, but without any effect on our agencies and the police. I was talking to a recently-retired Police chief on the present state of co-ordination and sharing. He admitted that there has been no noticeable improvement. He added:" The agencies and the police show a greater readiness to share their information with Praveen Swami, the journalist of "The Hindu", than with each other. We all wait for his columns in "The Hindu" to know what information other agencies and the police of other States have."

6.The agencies and the Police are largely responsible for the absence of a co-ordinated professional response, but the political leadership at the Centre and in different States cannot escape their share of responsibility.A determined political leader, who has the national interests in mind, can use a whip and make the agencies and the police co-operate. We saw it in the case of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao at the Centre and Beant Singh,former Chief Minister, in the case of Punjab, and Sharad Pawar in the case of Maharashtra. A political leader whose policies and actions are motivated by partisan and not national interests will come in the way of professional co-operation. We saw it in the case of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.

7. Any cure to the problem of jihadi and Maoist terrorism has to start at the political level. A political leader has to play a dual role. He has to help the professionals in taking firm action against the terrorists---whatever be their community and ideology.He has to give them whatever tools they need. At the same time, he has to identify the circumstances and perceptions which drive young Muslims to take to jihadi terrorism and young tribals to take to Maoist terrorism. Anger is one of the common root causes of all terrorism. Unless this anger is addressed, professional handling of the threat alone, however effective, cannot bring about an enduring end to this threat.

8. An effective political handling has to start with a detailed analysis of the causes of anger and action to deal with them. Our young Muslims, who are taking to jihadi terrorism, are not bothered by issues such as lack of education and unemployment, reservation for Muslims etc . They are angry at what they consider to be the unfairness to the Muslims, which, according to them, is widely prevalent in India. They are angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for destroying the Babri Masjid and with the Congress (I) for not preventing it. They are angry with both for not implementing the Sri Krishna Commission report on alleged excesses commited by the Mumbai Police in dealing with the riots by some Muslims after the Babri Masjid demolition. They are angry with the BJP for what happened in Gujarat in 2002. They are angry with both the BJP and the Congress (I) for their studied silence on the alleged violations of the human rights of their co-religionists in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are angry with our political class----particularly the BJP and the Congress (I)--- for not uttering one word of criticism about the special detention centres for Muslim suspects set up by the US in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and in Bagram in Afghanistan. Even Tony Blair, who was widely perceived as an American poodle, criticised the Guantanamo Bay detention centre through a statement by his Attorney-General in 2006 before he left office, but none of our leaders has uttered a word on this subject. Manmohan Singh claims himself to be secular at home, but he profusely praises President George Bush, who is strongly disliked by large sections of the Muslims of the world. His unfortunate statement that the people of India like Bush is not shared by the 160 million Muslims of India and many others.

9. Unsatisfactory political handling of the Muslim youth by all political parties is an aggravating cause of the threat from jihadi terrorism. The political class is not prepared to mend its ways and play its role in dealing with this problem. How can they expect the professional class to produce a miracle cure?

10. Similarly, it is the absence of meaningful land reforms and perceptions of suppression of the tribals by the so-called upper caste Hindus , which is an important cause of the tribal anger in Central India. It is the responsibility of the political class and the society as a whole to address this. They do not do so and keep nursing an illusion that more and more money, men and equipment for the agencies and the police will end this problem. It won't.

11. The way we kick around the problem of terrorism like a football blaming everybodyelse except ourselves can be seen in the TV debates and media columns. The same arguments are repeated without worrying over their validity. The Congress (I) and the analysts supporting it ridicule the BJPs demand for the revival of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) by pointing out that despite the introduction of the POTA by the BJP-led Government, major acts of terrorism took place during its tenure. The BJP attributes the increase in jihadi terrorism since the present Government assumed office in 2004 to its abolition of the POTA.

12. Both the arguments are partly correct and partly wrong. Yes, it is correct that despite the POTA major terrorist strikes took place during the BJP regime. So too, in Western countries, despite special powers given to the agencies and the police major incidents of terrorism took place. The Madrid blasts of March,2004, the London blasts of July,2005, and the Glasgow incident of June 2007, took place after special powers were given. Nobody in the West uses these incidents as an argument against special powers.

13. Similarly, an increase in attacks on soft targets has been faced by many countries of the world after the Bali explosion of October,2002. So too India. This is due to the tightening of physical security for hard targets after 9/11. The new focus of the jihadi terrorists on soft targets has meant more terrorist strikes and more casualties. The undoubted fact that casualties due to jihadi terrorism have more than doubled since the Manmohan Singh Government came to power cannot be solely attributed to its abolition of the POTA.

14.Effective intelligence and physical security and a modern legal architecture are the three essential components of any counter-terrorism strategy.Intelligence and physical security help in preventing acts of terrorism. Successful investigation and prosecution deter the flow of new recruits to terrorist organisations.If only we had a federal agency solely for the investigation and prosecution of terrorism cases, we will not be facing the kind of messy situation we are facing today---- with the Gujarat police under a BJP Government giving one version of the so-called Indian Mujahideen (IM) and the Police in Congress (I) ruled Delhi and Maharashtra giving a different version.

15.Flow of human intelligence about jihadi terrorism is weak because of the post-9/11 phenomenon of global Islamic solidarity and the adversarial relationship between the agencies and the police on the one side and the Muslim community on the other.Feelings of Islamic solidarity prevent even law-abiding Muslims from volunteering to the agencies and the police information about their co-religionists, who have taken to terrorism and from assisting the police in their investigation. The adversarial relationship has resulted in mutual demonisation. How to come out of this syndrome is a matter for serious consideration not only by the police and the agencies, but also by the political class and the civil society, including the media.

16. Once we allow terrorism and insurgencies of different kinds to make their appearance in our society it takes a long time to deal with them. We took 19 years to deal with the Naga insurgency, another 19 years to deal with the Mizo insurgency, 14 years to deal with Khalistani terrorism and about 10 years to deal with Al Umma. The French took 19 years to deal with the terrorism of Carlos and his group. Even after 41 years of vigorous implementation of a no-holds-barred counter-terrorism strategy, Israel is still grappling with the terrorism of the Palestinians and the Hezbollah. The British took over 20 years to bring the Irish Republican Army under control.

17. The jihadi terrorism in the Indian territory outside J&K is a post-Babri Masjid demolition phenomenon. This has been rendered more difficult to handle by the post-9/11 emergence of the concept of a global jihad. Our jihadi terrorism is still only a pan-Indian phenomenon, but it has not yet become a part of the global jihadi phenomenon. Preventing it from happening is the responsibility of the political leadership and containing and rooting it out is the responsibility of the professional class. The two have to work together, with understanding and support from the civil society. The attitude of our political class to terrorism is ambivalent. On the one hand, it is worried---rightly---over this growing threat. On the other, it continues to view this as a vote-catcher. Every political party has been firm in demanding action against terrorism when it is out of power. It becomes soft when it comes to power. That is the bane of our counter-terrorism. Only voter pressure can force the political class to stop exploiting terrorism as an electoral weapon and to start dealing with it as a major threat to national security, which should unite the political class and the civil society. (29-9-08)

(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 )

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