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Getting tough on terrorism

by Ramesh Thakur

Now that some time has passed since the seven serial blasts on Bombay’s commuter trains on July 11 that killed almost 200 and wounded another 700, it is possible to take a more dispassionate look at the tragedy. In particular, while not absolving terrorists and their external backers of the main blame as perpetrators of the outrage, it is also possible to fault Delhi for having been soft both on terrorists and on the causes of terrorism for far too long and on far too many occasions.

By the 1990s, India was a frontline of global terrorism and has suffered numerous attacks. Repeatedly limp responses have carefully nurtured a well-earned reputation as a soft state. Jailed terror suspects were released in exchange for kidnapped kin of political leaders. In December 1999, in a day that will live in infamy in the annals of international terrorism, the foreign minister escorted three terrorists, freed by India in order to secure the release of the passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In response to an attack on Parliament in December 2001, India mobilized its defense forces for a year along the border with Pakistan at great expense, only to send them back to barracks with no action: war-mongering without war.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the anger and disdain of the people for the tough rhetoric followed by no action of successive governments of all parties under different prime ministers.

To break out of this trap, India must eliminate the corruption and politicization of the police forces and their antiquated training and equipment, as well as criminalization of politics. The number of parliamentarians with pending criminal cases is alarming. Terrorism thrives and prospers in such conditions.

India habitually points the finger of criminality at Pakistan, whose offers to help with the investigations are spurned. Given the scale and sophistication of the planning, organization and execution of the attacks and the types of explosives used, foreign involvement is very likely. But for a foreign government to be able to infiltrate groups of Indians and recruit them to the terrorists’ cause indicates failures of intelligence and interdiction, on the one hand, and disaffection among sections of the population, on the other.

The intelligence agencies function as autonomous fiefdoms with little oversight and virtually no accountability for failures and lapses.

That is matched by the flaws of the criminal injustice system, which is rudimentary and lamentable by the standards of mature democracies. Not one person has been convicted for the bombs that rocked Bombay back in 1993. Justice has neither been done nor seen to be done with respect to the large-scale atrocities against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. They spawned a crop of angry and twisted young men whose rage is channeled by jihadists into lethal terrorist violence.

All Muslims are not terrorists; all terrorists are not Muslim. Before Iraq, the leading practitioners of suicide terrorism were Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers: Hindus. The most ruthless terrorism in India in the 1980s was perpetrated by Sikhs. Europe, including Britain, has had its share of Christian terrorists. Even in the Middle East, Jewish groups committed terrorist atrocities during British colonial rule.

India’s 140 million Muslims are a salutary negation of the facile thesis about Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. If ever India were to abandon secularism, and if the localized and sporadic killings of Muslims by Hindu lynch mobs were to become general and widespread, then indeed India would be convulsed and destroyed.

In a billion strong country with 70 percent Hindu population, the prime minister and army chief are Sikhs, the president is a Muslim and the power behind the throne is an Italian-origin Catholic — profound testimony to the pluralism and accommodation of India’s complex but adaptable power-sharing arrangements. Democratic politics, political freedoms, civil liberties and religious tolerance must be protected at all costs.

Poverty is not a direct cause but is an incubator of terrorism and a root cause of corruption. Delhi needs to be tough on implementing critical reforms to maintain rapid economic growth. Instead limp coalition politics trumps tough economics.

Over 90 percent of suicide terrorists aim at compelling military forces to withdraw from territory they view as their homeland under foreign occupation. India’s terrorism problem is specific to Kashmir, not generic to Muslims. The obvious solution to Kashmir is to make the line of control (LOC) the international border. Neither Islamabad nor Delhi has had the courage for this, nor outsiders the courage to insist on it.

Sixty years of enmity and territorial conflict have barely shifted the line, but exacted a heavy human toll and financial cost in both countries. Neither has the capacity to impose its will militarily on the other; both have the capacity to inflict the same ongoing pain on the other; therefore the line is unlikely to change significantly over the next 50 years if both persist with status quo policies.

If the LOC were to be converted into an open and free border, both countries could concentrate on development and human security. In time their border could become as irrelevant as most in Europe today. But don’t hold your breath: common sense is uncommonly rare.

Meanwhile, one group’s terrorist can no longer be tolerated as another’s freedom fighter. The “blow back” phenomenon has torched the West for supporting jihad against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. It consumed Indira (Sikhs) and Rajiv (Tamils) Gandhi. Pakistan remains in danger of tearing itself apart from the inside because of armed elements espousing a variety of foreign extremist causes. South Asian neighbors must pool resources to root out the tyranny of terrorism throughout the region.

There already have been some silver linings to the Bombay tragedy. Unlike previous occasions, the terrorists have been denied the satisfaction of fomenting communal bloodletting. And, as in 1993, Bombay was back to normal within 24 hours. Half a dozen suspects have been arrested. But Bombay’s famed resilience should not become the excuse for doing nothing, yet again.