In the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Indian government took some initial steps toward a more robust counterterrorism policy. Since then, however, a spate of deadly attacks on high value targets have continued, most recently against the High Court premises in New Delhi last month.
By Harsh V Pant
India’s response to a terrorist event follows a predictable pattern: The government pledges to bring the perpetrators to justice while the opposition denounces the government’s counterterrorism policy without offering any constructive solutions. Media coverage surges for a few days but soon reverts back to discussions about Bollywood stars’ latest foibles.
India faces a structural problem given its location in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods – South Asia – which is now the epicenter of Islamist radicalism. India’s neighbors harbor terrorist networks and use them as instruments of state policy. The tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which have long been outside the realm of effective control, have become a breeding ground for Islamist radicals.
India began dealing with the threat of terrorism long before it reached Western shores. The terror saga in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is more than three decades old. But until September 11, the West viewed the Kashmir problem through the lens of India’s inability to improve its human rights record. The threat spiked in the early 1990s; Mumbai witnessed multiple terror strikes in 1993, and then in November 2008, jihadists, aided and abetted by Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), openly confronted the might of the Indian state in full glare of the global media.
Internally, the Indian state is witnessing a gradual collapse of its authority. From left-wing extremism to right-wing religious fundamentalism, it is facing multiple challenges that threaten to derail the story of a rising India. India remains – in the words of Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post-American World – a strong society with a weak state, unable to harness its national power for national purpose. A remarkable degree of uncertainty has gripped Indian internal security, leading to a situation where a band of thugs can force the state to come to its knees. Violence is becoming the currency of political and social discourse in a modernizing, economically galloping India. Those who seek to challenge the authority of the state feel emboldened enough to take advantage of paralyzed decision-making processes in New Delhi. Maladministration, dithering and incompetence are making India ungovernable, with a growing loss of respect for all major state institutions.
The present government is in turmoil because of numerous corruption scandals that have erupted in recent years. The governance deficit is affecting every sphere of society – and internal security is no exception. Across the political spectrum, no consensus exists on how best to fight terrorism and extremism. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is interested in making terrorism a primarily Muslim issue to generate Hindu votes. The ruling Congress Party, on the other hand, has not allowed open discourse on Islamist extremism to take place for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. Such vote-bank politics have created an environment in which political and religious polarization has been so complete as to render effective action against terrorism impossible.
India had long claimed to be detached from Al Qaeda or any international terror plot – even though it has the second largest Muslim population in the world. This of course has turned out to be false: every major Islamist urban terror cell in the country since 1993 has seen a preponderance of Indian nationals. India is fast emerging both as a target and a recruitment base for organizations like Al Qaeda, and attacks are being carried out with impunity by home-grown jihadist groups, trained and aided by organizations in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Much like Al Qaeda, the most prominent terrorist group in India today – the Indian Mujahideen – is a loose coalition of jihadists bound together by ideological affiliation and personal linkages, with its infrastructure and top leadership scattered across India.
Learning from experience?
Institutionally, India remains a poor performer with no lessons learned despite numerous tragedies. India’s intelligence coordination and assessment apparatus is not suited to the changing nature of the terrorist threat facing the nation. Despite the horrendous attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, it took the government nearly three years to approve the proposal for a National Intelligence Grid, a facility to improve coordination among government agencies to fight terrorism. The other major proposal – to create a National Center for Counterterrorism (NCTC) – is yet to move forward. The government did set up the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to improve intelligence-gathering and sharing but it remains underfunded. Despite the creation of the NIA, modeled on the US FBI, none of the terror investigations in recent years have yet reached their logical conclusion.
Rather than improving grassroots capabilities to effectively counter terrorism, the government has gone for grand initiatives such as the NIA and the NCTC. Police modernization is lagging; the police forces, the frontline agencies in dealing with the threat of terrorism, remain underfunded and ill-trained. For example, the police force in Mumbai does not have the funds to purchase bulletproof vests – even after the traumatic attacks on the city.
Terrorist organizations appear to be able to strike at will, demoralizing an entire nation even as the government continues to rely on symbolism to deal with terrorism. In this day and age, no government can provide its citizens with a foolproof guarantee against terrorism. But in India, citizens continue to suffer around 700 terror attacks every year without any accountability. This will have to change if India wants to be taken seriously as a global power to reckon with.
Harsh V Pant is a Reader in International Relations at King’s College London in the Department of Defense Studies. He is also an Associate with the King’s Centre for Science and Security Studies and an Affiliate with the King’s India Institute. His current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Indian Foreign Policy in a Unipolar World (Routledge), and The China Syndrome (HarperCollins).
Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)