INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR: PAPER NO.396
Since 9/11, no political party or leader in the US and other Western countries can hope to win an election if perceived as soft on the issue of terrorism.
2. During the Presidential campaign in the US in 2004, which followed immediately after the release of the report of the National Commission, which had gone into the 9/11 terrorist strikes, the relatives of the victims of the terrorist strikes saw to it that terrorism was a major issue in the campaign and that the two candidates----Mr.George Bush and Senator John Kerry--- made firm commitments to implement the recommendations of the Commission. The co-Chairmen of the Commission too ensured that the recommendations of the Commission figured prominently in the pre-election debate and that the voters forced the two candidates to take up strong position on the issue. It is generally believed that voter perception that Senator John Kerry was soft on terrorism was among the major causes for his defeat.
3. Even though India is a major victim of terrorism of various hues----jihadi and non-jihadi--- terrorism had never figured as a major electoral issue in the past. Political leaders and parties, who were soft on terrorism, did not have to worry that their negative image on terrorism might cost them their election. Victim activism is yet to develop strongly in India. Relatives of victims of terrorist strikes never activated themselves as strongly as their counterparts in the US.
4. There are indications of a welcome change since the serial explosions in the Mumbai suburban trains in July,2006,and the Glasgow terrorist strike of June,2007. Public opinion in India was shocked by the attitude of the Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, to these two incidents. He did telecast a message to the nation after the suburban train explosions but his speech hardly showed any anguish over the death of over 180 civilians and hardly any indignation over the act of the jihadi terrorists in killing so many innocent men, women and children. As against this, he displayed a lot of anguish in his remarks over the arrest of an Indian Muslim by the Australian Police in connection with the Glasgow incident, in which a relative of the arrested Muslim was one of the perpetrators.
5.Talking to media persons, he said that he could not sleep the whole night after watching on the TV the grief on the faces of the relatives of the person detained by the Australian Police. He chose not to visit Mumbai to pay homage to the victims of the suburban train blasts on the first anniversary of the explosions. Similarly, one hardly saw any sign of anguish in him after the Jaipur blasts of May 13,2008. While Mrs.Sonia Gandhi visited Jaipur to share the grief of the relatives of the over 60 innocent civilians, who died in the explosions, Dr. Manmohan Singh did not make any such gesture.
6. He is possibly a strong and silent man, who does not like making a public exhibition of his grief and anguish. But he did make a public exhibition of his anguish when an India Muslim suspect was detained by the Australian Police----wrongly as it turned out. The advisers of the Prime Minister might not have noticed it or might not realise it, but his publicly exhibited sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims and a publicly perceived lack of sensitivity to the trauma and grief of the relatives of the victims of jihadi terrorism were widely noticed and commented upon during the recent election campaign in Karnataka. "He spent a sleepless night over the injustice done to one Muslim by the Australian Police, but hardly spent even a few sleepless minutes over the brutal massacre of dozens of innocent civilians by the jihadis"----this was the comment which was widely circulating in the Internet.
7. The PM's advisers don't realise the increasing role played by the Internet in shaping public opinion and perceptions. A recent analysis in the US attributes the remarkable success of Senator Barrack Obama in the campaign for Presidential nomination to the understanding displayed by his aides of the role played by the Internet and their use of the Internet to project a positive image of Mr.Obama in the eyes of the American voters---particularly young voters.
8. More than grown-up Hindus, young Hindus are displaying growing anger over the repeated jihadi terrorist strikes in different cities and the perceived inability of the Government of Dr.Manmohan Singh to control it. As I had pointed out in one of my previous articles, the record of the Manmohan Singh Government is much better than that of the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government. More sleeper cells of different terrorist organisations---jihadi as well as non-jihadi--- have been identified and neutralised and more leaders of the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) have been arrested from their hide-outs in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and other States during his tenure than during the tenure of Shri Vajpayee.
9. There has been a qualitative change for the better in the ground situation in Jammu & Kashmir since Dr.Manmohan Singh assumed office four years ago. A study made by the Institute for Conflict Management of New Delhi says: " Viewed purely in terms of fatalities, the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has now crossed the threshold from a high-intensity to a low-intensity level. For the first time since 1990 (when they were 1,177), fatalities in this terrorism-wracked State in 2007 – at 777 – fell below the ’high intensity conflict’ mark of a thousand deaths. In 2008 (till May 25), 192 persons, including 140 militants and 26 civilians have been killed. At their peak in 2001, fatalities had risen to 4,507. Evidently, 2007 is a watershed year for J&K, bringing tremendous respite to its people. Figures for 2007 and early trends in 2008 reconfirm the continuous decline in terrorist violence in the State since the peak of 2001. According to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, the fatality index in 2007 decreased by 30.38 percent in comparison to 2006. While there was a substantial decrease in civilian fatalities (164 in 2007 as against 349 in 2006) and those of the militants (492 in 2007 as against 599 in 2006), there was a relatively smaller decline in Security Force (SF) fatalities (121 in 2007 as against 168 in 2006)."
10. The two negative points in the track record of the Government are the frequent jihadi terrorist strikes in other parts of India outside J&K despite the neutralisation of many sleeper cells and the lack of progress in their investigation. The recurring terrorist strikes indicate one or all of the following:Many sleeper cells in different parts of the country have managed to remain undetected; the interrogation by the police of different States of those arrested has not been thorough with the result that the interrogation did not lead to the detection of other cells; new jihadi organisations ---possibly of Indian Muslims--- have come into existence and have not been identified by the police because of their over-focus on the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI).
11. Our police seem to be committing the same mistake which the American investigators were committing after 9/11. The Americans used to immediately blame Al Qaeda after a terrorist strike and then start collecting evidence about it. Later on, they realised that lots of others not directly connected to Al Qaeda were involved.Similarly, our intelligence agencies and police have got into the habit of blaming the LET and the HUJI after every terrorist strike even before collecting evidence---instead of keeping their mind open. This results in the real culprits getting away and the agencies and the police getting discredited when their initial theories and speculation prove wrong subsequently. A real professional holds the fire till the adversary who opened fire is identified.
12. The less than thorough interrogation could be attributed to the failure of the Government to strengthen the powers of the police to interrogate suspects thoroughly. This is one of the objectives of all special laws relating to terrorism all over the world and of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was abrogated by the Manmohan Singh Government after it came to office. Even if the POTA posed an ethical dilemma to it, one would have expected it to find some other way of strengthening the powers of the police to interrogate terrorism suspects. It has not done so.
13. Counter-terrorism is no longer dealt with in a professional manner. It has become a political football kicked around in different directions by the political parties in order to draw political mileage out of it. There has not been a professional discussion in the Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies of the States on terrorism and counter-terrorism for nearly two decades now. What we have in place of a professional discussion is a verbal duel. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) projects the POTA as if it is a magic wand which would end all terrorism. The Congress (I), the leftist parties and other so-called secular elements decry it as the ultimate evil, which was responsible for driving more young people into the arms of different terrorist organisations.
14. Has any of the political parties----the BJP, the Congress (I), the Leftists or others--- ever come forward with a positive suggestion as to how to improve counter-terrorism and urban and rural policing? We face a very complex terrorism situation --- with urban terrorism represented by the jihadis, ethnic terrorism represented by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other similar groups and rural terrorism represented by the Maoists. The jihadi terrorist scene is further complicated by the role of our own nationals such as the Kashmiris, the members of the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and other similar organisations, and Al Ummah of Tamil Nadu as well as by that of the Pakistani organisations. The jihadi and ethnic terrorism survives due to the strong support of the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
15. No other country in the world is faced with such a complex terrorism scene. We need a nuanced counter-terrorism policy--- ruthless towards the Pakistani and other foreign nationals operating in our territory and introspective and carefully measured against our own nationals. The careful measurement against our own nationals should be intended to serve the dual purpose of putting an end to their terrorism without driving more youth into the arms of terrorist organisations through over-projection of the threat posed by them, over-reaction and disproportionate use of force.
16. How to shape such a policy which would cater to our special needs and have it implemented? That is the question, which needs to be debated seriously and professionally in the run-up to the next elections to the Lok Sabha. The effective answer to terrorism is not the BJP's constant wailing over the demise of the POTA. Nor is it the parrot-like repetition of the statement by the Congress (I) that its policy is one of zero tolerance to terrorism. (27-5-08) Concluded
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )