By Ajai Sahni
Despite enveloping uncertainty, unremitting misgovernance and widespread public perceptions of insecurity, the reality of India’s multiple terrorist and insurgent movements is that most of them are weakening. For the ninth year in a row, total fatalities due to terrorist and insurgent conflicts in the country continued their decline, registering a total of 1,902 deaths in 2010, as against 2,232 in 2009, and a peak of 5,839 in 2001 (all data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal database). Fatalities in 2011 currently total 117 (till February 13).
The worst and steadily worsening of conflicts in India is, without dispute, the Maoist insurgency, principally spearheaded by the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist), but including at least another 20 minor Left Wing Extremist (LWE, also called Naxalite) factions. Naxalite-related fatalities, at 1,180 in 2010, now significantly outstrip the combined total of all other terrorist and insurgent movements in the country.
Total fatalities resulting from the Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist campaigns in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) remained at 375 in 2010, the same number as the preceding year, though this figure excludes the 111 persons killed (overwhelmingly in Police firing) in the terrorist and separatist-backed street violence which peaked through June – October 2010.
Total fatalities in India’s Northeast fell dramatically to 322 in 2010, from 853 in 2009, and 1,051 in 2008. Manipur and Assam saw the most significant improvements in this long-troubled region, with fatalities dropping from 416 and 391, respectively, in 2009, to 138 and 158 in 2010.
Very significantly, Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist attacks across the country, outside J&K, registered a low, albeit marginally rising, incidence, after their peak in 2008. There were 25 fatalities in Islamist terrorist attacks across the country, with the worst incident recording 17 killed and at least 60 injured in the explosion at the German Bakery in Pune on February 13, 2010. 2009 had recorded no major incident (involving three or more fatalities), and a total of eight deaths in such attacks. 378 persons were killed in 2008 in Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K, with the Pakistan-backed 26/11 Mumbai attack alone recording 166 fatalities.
India’s security and intelligence apparatus also took cognizance of an emerging threat of ‘Hindutva terrorism’, confirming or investigating the role of right wing extremist Hindu groups in a number of terrorist incidents dating back to 2006-07. While no incident of suspected Hindutva terror was recorded in 2008, 2009 or 2010, there 12 extremists were arrested on charges of involvement in earlier incidents, particularly the Malegaon (September 8, 2006) Hyderabad Mecca Masjid (May 18, 2007) and Ajmer (October 11, 2007) blasts, even as linkages to the Samjhauta Express attack (February 19, 2006) were exposed.
310 of the country’s 636 Districts are currently afflicted by varying intensities of chronic activity, including subversion, by insurgent and terrorist groupings. 223 Districts across 20 States register Maoist activity; another 20 Districts in J&K are affected by Pakistan-backed Islamist separatist terrorism; and 67 Districts in six States in the Northeast are affected by numerous ethnicity based terrorist and insurgent movements.
The broadly positive trends – with the exception of Maoist violence – do not, however, provide an accurate index to the quality of the state’s responses over the intervening period. Indeed, in all spheres, it is a range of complex extraneous factors that has led to dramatic improvements, where these have been registered.
The sheer incoherence of the state’s response to the crisis of militant-backed street violence in J&K is a case in point. In a heavily securitized State, with a 20-year insurgency, 17 years of high-intensity violence (more than 1,000 fatalities per year, between 1990 and 2006), and with ample warnings in terms of recurrent incidents of stone pelting over the preceding years, including the major flare-up over the Amarnath Land allocation issue in 2008, both State and Central agencies were caught completely off guard and utterly unprepared in terms of Force deployment and capability, when street violence surged towards the end of June 2010. Sheer public exhaustion, the onset of winter, and a measure of disillusionment with the movement’s leadership led to the dissipation of this violence, but there is little evidence to suggest that the state is now better-equipped to respond to the next, and highly likely, cycle of escalation. The street movement is, in fact, a calibrated strategy on the part of the Pakistani handlers of the separatist movement in J&K to compensate for the declining terrorist violence in the State. This, in turn, is the consequence, not of any fundamental change of objective or intention on the part of the sponsoring agencies – the Pakistan Army and its intelligence wing, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) – but of the increasing international pressure on Pakistan to wind down its export of terrorism, Pakistan’s own increasing preoccupation with internal terrorism and with its more pressing strategic imperatives of disruption in Afghanistan, and the progressive erosion of the loyalty of a number of state sponsored terrorist groupings that have progressively transferred their allegiance to the Islamist extremist combine led by the al Qaeda. There has, of course, been some improvement in the responses of the Army, para-military and State Police security grid across J&K as well, and significant gains from the construction of the border fence along the Line of Control (LoC) and international border in the State. It remains to be seen, however, whether these will be sufficient proof against another cycle of unconstrained terrorism that would inevitably follow a premature withdrawal of the Western powers from Afghanistan, were this to occur.
In the meanwhile, the Union Government has initiated what appears to be a somewhat directionless process to secure negotiations with the more recalcitrant separatist elements within J&K through the appointment of a group of three interlocutors in October 2010. The interlocutors have, however, failed to meet any prominent separatist leader in the intervening months. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupma Rao has also announced the intention of resuming talks – which had been suspended after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, with Pakistan, “on all issues”. The initiative holds out little hope of influencing the trajectory of violence in the region, even as Pakistan manifestly continues to support a number of India-directed Islamist and other terrorist formations on its soil, and demonstrates no evidence of seeking to abandon terrorism as an instrument of state policy to secure its perceived strategic objectives in the neighbourhood.
Sheer exhaustion and the loss of safe havens abroad have been the principal causes of the progressive collapse of enduring insurgent and terrorist movements in India’s Northeast, though operational successes have, again, been an integral element in processes of gradual attrition. The gains in Assam were substantially the consequence of a windfall resulting from a change in policy in Bangladesh after the Sheikh Hasina regime assumed power in January 2009, ending the state support and assured safe havens that had earlier been provided to insurgent groups operating in India’s Northeast, and handing over several leaders and cadres of various insurgent groups to Indian authorities. It is, nevertheless, the case that some insurgent groups retain significant residual capacities, even as others – ominously including the Maoists – are just waiting to fill the emerging vacuum. There is also some evidence that China is now extending support to the surviving groupings in the region, prominently including the Paresh Baruah faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).
The decline in violence in Manipur, and the reverses that have been inflicted on various militant groups, have also opened up avenues for a more enduring stability in what had emerged as the State afflicted by the region’s most virulent insurgencies. Unfortunately, the political space in Manipur continues to be occupied by an incompetent kleptocracy. In the absence of greater political probity and administrative maturity, the gains of the recent past may yet again be frittered away, as were the opportunities of declining strife in 2002-2003. Unless the gains of 2010 are consolidated and translated into political initiatives providing economic and administrative relief to the people of Manipur, the contracting spaces for violence may once again begin to expand.
There has been a gradual consolidation of peace in most of the other States of the Northeast, though Meghalaya saw a transient spike in fatalities. The Union and State Governments initiated negotiations and signed truce agreements with a number of insurgent groups and factions in the region in 2010, even as earlier agreements, such as the protracted Ceasefire Agreement signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in 1976, continued to hold out, despite misgivings and missteps. The Northeast insurgent groups currently engaged in talks with the Government include the Isak-Muivah (IM) and Khaplang factions of the NSCN; the pro-talks faction of the ULFA; the pro-talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB); the Nunisa faction of the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD); Black Widow (BW), United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS); Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC); Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF); Kuki National Organization (KNO) and United Peoples Front (UPF). On August 25, 2010, Union Home Minister Chidambaram stated, “We have appointed two Interlocutors: RS Pandey to talk to the NSCN (IM) and PC Haldar to talk to NDFB (PT), DHD (Nunisa), DHD (J), KLNLF, UPDS and ANVC, besides ULFA.”
Significantly, an eight-member ULFA delegation led by ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa held its first round of talks with Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram at North Block in New Delhi on February 10, 2011. Chidambaram is reported to have conveyed to ULFA that the Government of India was willing to amend the Constitution, if the need arose, to solve any problems in Assam.
There have been renewed Governmental efforts to bring almost all militant outfits in the Northeast to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, several contentious issues concerning post conflict repatriation, resettlement and, most importantly, demilitarisation of ex-combatants remained unresolved in the ‘normalised’ pockets of the region, complicating the contours of ongoing and emerging peace processes.
It is in the theatres of escalating Maoist violence that the most visible indices of state incoherence, indeed, incompetence, have been notable. As noted, 223 Districts across 20 States register some Maoist activity, though not more than 67 of these are categorized as ‘highly affected’, with high levels of insurgent organization and persistent violent activity. Divergent assessments of the intensity of Maoist activities have been provided by official sources from time to time. Home Minister Chidambaram, on September 15, 2009, claimed that Maoist violence “has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police Station areas of around 90 Districts in 13 States”. There are well over 14,000 Police Stations in India, and this assessment suggests that the problem is, at worst, marginal. On March 12, 2010, with, no evidence of any change in the situation on the ground, the Home Minister went on to state that 34 Districts were “virtually controlled” by the Maoists. In late 2009, the Centre launched what were repeatedly described a “massive and coordinated operations” by Central Paramilitary Force in combination with State Police Forces, across the five worst affected States – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Odisha. There was great initial optimism, but the bluster quickly faded into hysterical demands for Army deployment and the use of the Air Force for offensive operations, after a succession of bloody Maoist ambuscades predictably left hundreds of Security Force personnel dead in the early days of the ill-planned and undermanned Union Home Ministry-backed misadventure. Fortunately, the MHA’s calls for Army and Air Force deployment were quickly shot down. Unfortunately, however, the great enthusiasm of early 2010 quickly faded into a defensive sulk, and, despite claims to the contrary, operations against the Maoists have been substantially scaled down in desperate measures to save face and minimize SF casualties. On September 16, 2010, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, nevertheless, saw fit to boast that the SFs, had “regained control” over more than 10,000 square kilometres from the Maoists. It is not clear when the Maoists had ‘liberated’ these areas, nor where the Indian flag has once again been unfurled. What is evident on the facts, however, is that the Maoists have not been pushed out of any of the areas where they had established their disruptive dominance prior to the launch of the Centre’s “massive and coordinated operations”, and there is reason to believe that they have substantially expanded their areas of subversion.
Significantly, West Bengal, with Assembly Elections due this year, has emerged as the State worst affected by Maoist violence, as the rebels have chosen to fish in the troubled waters of a murky face-off between the ruling Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) and its challenger, the Trinamool Congress. West Bengal saw as many as 425 fatalities in 2010, up from 158 in 2009, as against Chhattisgarh, with 327 in 2010, and 345 in 2009.
While a detailed assessment of these is not possible here, huge sanctions for Force and technology augmentation, and for financial allocations for the Internal Security and Intelligence apparatus, have been approved over the past two years, but there is very limited impact on the ground, as implementation drags on at the majestically elephantine pace of the Indian bureaucracy. Questionable claims have, of course, been advanced by various departments regarding capacity improvement. The MHA, for instance, claims that the Police-population ratio for the country has been raised from 128 per 100,000 at the end of year 2008, to a present 161. In fact, the latter figure has been calculated on population estimates of the 2001 Census, and does not account for the roughly 20 per cent increase in population since. If this increase is factored in, the actual numbers will revert roughly to the original 128. These ratios, moreover, are often calculated in terms of sanctioned posts, and not actual Force available. As of January 1, 2009, there were 530,580 vacancies in the State Police Forces. 116,903 personnel were recruited after this, till November 30, 2010. It is not clear what proportion of these simply replaces personnel lost to superannuation, disability, death, pre-mature retirement and other factors. Central Force allocation to the States remains meager, particularly in the Maoist-afflicted areas. Just 62 battalions of CPMFs, yielding a mere 24,800 personnel on the ground (400 personnel per battalion), are currently allocated to the six worst affected States, which account for an area of 829439 square kilometers and a population of over 446 million.
The leadership gap in the Police also remains crippling. Of 4,013 authorised posts, as on January 1, 2010, in the Indian Police Service (IPS), just 3,383 were in position, leaving a deficit of 16.7 per cent. It is widely acknowledged that authorized strength is a fraction of what is actually needed. The annual intake into the IPS was to be enhanced to 150, from the present 130, from 2009, but the proposal has been blocked by technical objections from the Union Public Services Commission.
The capacity augmentation measures that have been initiated will, of course, begin to have an impact in time. No significant gains in any theatre of insurgency or terrorism have, however, been registered over the past years as a result of a strategic or policy re-orientation. India continues to benefit through the sheer inertial advantage of its size and diversity, as a range of movements succumb to exhaustion. This can, however, provide only very qualified satisfaction, as the wider environment shows signs of continuous deterioration, and as capacities for governance and particularly for security and justice administration, fail to keep pace with the growth of population and with the increasing discontents unleashed by uneven processes of modernization and rapid transformation of the economy, within a political ethos and culture permeated by corruption, nepotism and stifling stratification.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management