Lessons for India after three days of terror

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — Mumbai is remarkably resilient in bouncing back to a semblance of normalcy within days. We’ve been here before — in 1993 and again in 2006 — when terrorists killed more than 200 people each time. Each time the government expresses shock, promises resolute action against the heinous perpetrators and blames a foreign country — meaning Pakistan — for arming, financing and training the terrorists, then retreats into complacency and inaction until the next big attacks.

This time the attacks were ratcheted up in intensity and targets. Five-star hotels and hospitals have not been targeted like this before, and Americans and Britons have not been singled out. At least 195 people are dead, including 14 police officers and 22 foreigners. All of the nearly two dozen terrorists are believed to have been killed or captured.

The first task was to bring the situation under control. On Saturday, police, commandos and military troops slowly took back control of the city, the central business district and the two hotels, rescuing trapped guests and flushing out terrorists room by room.

The next tasks will be to provide security for all major cities and establish culpability for the Mumbai attacks. Then the bigger and more critical questions will be to address the massive failure of security and intelligence that allowed the attacks to take place, and the crises of governance that allow them to be repeated at places and times of the terrorists’ choosing.

India’s police are not the best educated, trained, armed or disciplined. The initial police response Wednesday night was remarkable for the imagery of visibly stunned police armed with World War II-vintage .303 rifles confronting terrorists wielding AK-47s. The weaponry equation changed only when the commando and military units arrived.

Because the cops are badly underpaid, they are susceptible to bribery in a society where corruption is institutionalized and pervasive. There is a market-clearing price for every terrorist device, weapon and opportunistic target of attack. The quality of the police and security personnel, training, arming and conditions of service need to be upgraded substantially and urgently.

The chances are high that some Islamic group will have been involved, with some links to Pakistan. Whether these are close and numerous enough to establish Pakistani complicity is another question. We know from Western intelligence sources that ISI elements were complicit in the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul earlier this year.

The range of possible motives includes the desire to poison relations between Hindus and Muslims within India, strike at the heart of India’s rising global profile as a big emerging market by crippling its financial capital, sabotage the provincial elections just held in Kashmir with a 65 percent turnout, undermine the remarkable peace and goodwill gestures toward India by Pakistan’s new president Asif Ali Zardari, or stoke India-Pakistan tensions as a means of drawing Pakistani attention and military back from the Afghan border regions to Kashmir and the Indian border.

Al-Qaida and militant Islamists lump Hindus, Jews and Christians together as a seamless enemy attacking Islam from Kashmir through the Middle East to northern Africa. Outsiders must beware the moral hazard of vindicating terror as a tactic and rewarding the terrorists by internationalizing the issue of Kashmir in response to the attacks.

Even if some or even all of the above speculation proves true, too often India has blamed Pakistan for its own failures. Such a coordinated series of attacks in Mumbai is proof of gaping holes in India’s intelligence and surveillance efforts. Its record of terrorist outrages and deaths in the last four years is second only to the sorry statistics from Iraq.

More importantly, it points to serious grievances by the Muslim minority and Hindu majority community alike. Perpetrators of massacres of Muslims in the state of Gujarat six years ago are yet to be arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced — that stokes Muslim anger and thirst for vigilante revenge.

At the same time, perpetrators of terror are rarely prosecuted through the creaky criminal justice system either. Detaining suspects indefinitely without trial adds to anger in one community without bringing closure to victims’ families and in turn inflames Hindu anger.

Moreover, as confirmed by the police, for the first time this year India has witnessed incidents of specifically Hindu terrorism. Sometimes India’s record as a soft state is exploited by hostage-taking aimed at securing the release of detained terrorist suspects. India needs to be tough both on terrorists and on the causes of terrorism, but too many political interests intersect, preventing a sustained implementation of either.

The events of Wednesday underline yet again the desperate need for all countries of the region — not just communities within India — to cooperate in ridding South Asia of a common deadly virus. It requires a united three-pronged approach of robust and resolute action by the law enforcement agencies, efficient and credible criminal justice systems, and an urgent redress of group-based political grievances.

All this can only be done through democratic structures and institutions — and upholding the rule of law impartially, strictly and promptly.

Ramesh Thakur is the founding director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario.