By Ajai Sahni*
Despite shrill assessments across the board and an enveloping sense of apprehension promoted by polarizing politics, the past year has been astonishingly peaceful in India in terms of terrorist and insurgent violence. Total terrorism/insurgency related fatalities across India at 772, are at a dramatic low – certainly the lowest since 1994, when the South Asia Terrorism Portal began maintaining data for this category. Indeed, since 2012, total fatalities across the country have remained below the ‘high intensity conflict’ threshold of a thousand fatalities per year. It is useful to recall that fatalities remained above 2,000 for 18 of these 22 years; out of which they were above 3,000 for 11 years; above 4,000 for five years; and over 5,000 in 2001.
Indeed, in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) alone, fatalities remained above the critical ‘high intensity’ threshold from 1990 to 2006 – and had risen to 4,507 at peak in 2001.
Cumulative totals of the multiple insurgencies in India’s troubled Northeast, similarly, remained above the ‘high intensity’ threshold in 2007 and 2008, but have declined enormously since, with 273 killed in 2015.
The Left Wing insurgency saw a thousand-plus fatalities in just a single year, 2010, (at 1,180), which have declined continuously since, to 251 fatalities in 2015.
With the spectre of Daesh (the Islamist State, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham) dominating the global discourse, and with al Qaeda declaring its new project – al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS, or Jamaat Qaiadat al Jihad fi Shibhi al Qarrat al Hindiya or Organisation of the Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent) – in September 2014, commentary on the threat from these sources, and from ‘Islamist terrorism’ at large, has bordered on the hysterical. A map of Daesh’s imagined Khorasan region, including India, and various declarations of intent have been repeatedly cited as cause for grave alarm, as have occasional cases of individuals travelling or attempting to travel to Syria or Iraq to join the terrorists there. The reality, as far as India is concerned, is astonishingly reassuring. Just 23 Indians are confirmed to have joined Daesh, of whom six are dead and another two have returned to India and are under detention. This leaves just 15 Indians actually fighting alongside Daesh in Iraq-Syria. Significantly, just six of these 23 went from India; the remaining 17 had been residing abroad for extended periods of time before they joined Daesh. Another 30 youth have been stopped from travelling to Iraq-Syria to join Daesh – in many cases on the basis of information provided by family and friends – and 35 have been deported from various countries for activities linked to Daesh. These are minuscule numbers in view of the 175 million Muslims in India. Alarm bells also went off when a series of arrests in January-February 2016 neutralized an incipient Daesh-linked formation, Junood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind (JuKH, Army of the Caliph in India). The group had been recruited by Shafi Armar, the brother of Sultan Armar, both of the Indian Mujahiddeen and located in Pakistan since 2008. Sultan Armar had broken away from IM and formed the Ansar-ul-Tawhid (AuT, Group for Monotheism in the land of India) that subsequently pledged allegiance to Daesh; he subsequently joined Daesh fighters in Syria and was killed there. Shafi Armar then took over the group and initiated online recruitment, picking up the remnant threads of the Students Islamic Movement of India and IM in India. The 15 persons recruited by him into the newly formed JuKH were among a total of 26 arrested for Daesh links across India since 2014. Latest reports indicate that Shafi Armar may now have been killed in a US drone strike in Syria. These occasional and dispersed arrests, detentions and deportations are the sum of the Daesh ‘footprint’ in India.
Al Qaeda has been making efforts to extend it so called jihad to India at least since 1996, when Osama bin Laden referred to India in general, and Jammu & Kashmir and Assam in particular, among the regions where the Muslims were living under ‘oppression’, and as legitimate theatres of jihad. Numerous similar exhortation followed including, prominently, bin Laden’s articulation, in 2006, of the theory of a global ‘Crusader-Zionist-Hindu’ conspiracy: “It is the duty for the Umma… to give away themselves, their money, experiences and all types of material support, enough to establish jihad, particularly in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kashmir and Chechnya.” The project failed utterly, and nearly 18 years after its initiation, al Qaeda issued a video and pamphlet directed at the Indian Muslim, titled “Why is there no storm in your ocean?” Nearly two years after the formation of AQIS, moreover, AQIS ‘chief’ Asim Umar aka Sana ul Haq, again interrogated the Indian Muslim in a video, demanding, “Will the land of Delhi not give birth to a Shah Muhadith Dehlvi who may once again teach the Muslims of India the forgotten lesson of Jihad and inspire them to take to the battlefields of Jihad?”
The threat of Islamist extremist terrorism in India, consequently, remains confined to the proxy formations of the Pakistani state and its military intelligence wing, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). These groups remain active in J&K, and have made occasional forays beyond, though the intensity, effectiveness and frequency of attacks has been dramatically diminished – in part, as a consequence of a shift in Islamabad’s more urgent ‘strategic’ priorities of fomenting terrorism in Afghanistan; in part, as a result of sustained operational successes by Indian intelligence and enforcement agencies; and in part, finally, because of a growing disillusionment of the radical fringe among Indian Muslims in the idea, ideology and aspirational status of Pakistan. Nevertheless, 174 persons were killed in terrorist-linked violence in J&K through 2015, and another 43 have died in 2016 (data till April 24). It is significant, however, that this includes a comparatively low figure of 20 civilian fatalities in 2015, and just one civilian killed, till date, in 2016. Crucially, the last major attack (involving three or more fatalities) on record in the State dates back to December 5, 2014. when militants had exploded a grenade in the Tral town of Pulwama District, near the Bus Stand, killing one person and injuring another 12. One of the injured persons died later the same day, while another succumbed to his injuries on December 12, 2014. A range of other indices demonstrate declining terrorist and extremist activities and violence in the State. There is, however, sufficient evidence to suggest that Pakistan’s long-term intent remains unchanged, and that terrorist formations continue to be provided safe haven, resources, weaponry and training by the ISI and military – including cover of cross border firing for infiltration.
While terrorist operations have diminished enormously, subversion and political mischief continues in the State, taking advantage of the significant administrative and political disarray, despite the rejection of the separatist groups by the wider Kashmiri community. Violent protests have been repeatedly provoked by separatist leaders, and partial data compiled by SATP indicates that at least three protestors were killed in alleged Security Force (SF) firing on violent demonstrations in 2015, as against two in 2014. Eight persons have already been killed in five such incidents in 2016.
Pakistan backed Kashmir-oriented groups also executed two major attacks in Punjab – the assault on the Indian Air Force (IAF) Base at Pathankot through January 2, 2016, and January 3, 2016; and the strike at the Dinanagar Police Station in adjacent Gurdaspur on July 27, 2015 – exposing tremendous vulnerabilities in Punjab and gaping holes in national Counter Terrorism (CT) response protocols, capacities and capabilities. The Pathankot incident was particularly worrisome, providing an index of the extraordinary weakness in the protection of the country’s critical strategic assets. The IAF Base constitutes the frontline air defence for any confrontation with Pakistan, and yet the terrorists succeeded in penetrating into the campus and inflicting significant casualties. This was despite nearly 20 hours of clear warning, a definitive identification of the intended target, and a systemic response that had been initiated fairly early on January 1, 2016.
In addition, 11 SIMI cadres were gunned down by the Telangana Police in three separate incidents between April 1 and April 7, 2015, in Nalgonda District in Telangana. On November 2, 2015, two persons were killed by masked gunmen, believed to be linked to fugitive Dawood Ibrahim – residing in Karachi under ISI protection – in Bharuch town, Gujarat.
Significantly, the Government informed the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of India’s Parliament) on March 9, 2016, that Central and State agencies had arrested 46 Pakistani ISI agents between 2013 and 2016. Further, according to partial data compiled by SATP, at least 159 ISI modules have been neutralized across the country between 2004 and April 24, 2016, indicating Pakistan’s sustained efforts at subversion and destabilization.
The dramatic contraction of Left Wing Extremism (LWE) – in terms of geographical areas of influence, violence and capacities – has primarily been the result of successful intelligence-based operations launched by Security Forces (SFs) over the past years, which have helped neutralize top cadres among the rebels. According to the SATP database, between 2010 and 2016, at least 677 leadership elements of the Maoists have been neutralized (84 killed, 391 arrested, 202 surrendered). According to Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) data, the total number of LWE cadres arrested between 2010 and 2015 stands at 11,608. At least 633 LWE cadres surrendered over the same period.
As the SFs establish dominance over increasing areas of erstwhile LWE dominance, efforts at civil consolidation have also increased. UMHA has now claimed the implementation of the Fortified Police Stations (PSs) scheme for construction/strengthening of 400 Police Stations in 10 LWE affected States at INR two million per Police Station on a funding pattern of 80 (Central share): 20 (State share) basis. 284 PSs have been completed thus far. Further, in an effort to improve the communication network in LWE-affected areas, the Department of Telecom has been implementing the Construction of Mobile Towers Scheme for construction of 2,199 mobile towers in 10 LWE affected States, of which 1,424 mobile towers have been put on air up to February 2, 2016. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), under the Road Requirement Plan–I (RRP-I), that has been under implementation since February 2009 for improving road connectivity in the 34 worst LWE-affected Districts in eight States, has constructed 3,904 kilometers of roads (till January 31, 2016). A total of 5,422 kilometers of road are to be constructed under this plan. Moreover, respective State Governments – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Telangana – have also taken several steps to counter the LWE threat.
Despite the pressure they are under, LWEs continue to resist. Sustained efforts, both on the part of SFs and the civil administration will be necessary to ensure that recent declines in Maoist activities are not merely a tactical retreat, as the Maoists claim, but a permanent setback that will gradually be compounded into the irreversible defeat of this enduring movement of violence.
The multiple insurgencies of India’s Northeast have seen dramatic deceleration and disintegration over the years, bringing violence across the region down to some of the lowest levels in the past two and a half decades. Numerous challenges, however, persist, as the region has seen cyclic surges and recessions in insurgent activities over decades. The region is marked by extraordinarily poor governance, and is home to 13 of the 39 terrorist formations currently banned by the UMHA. According to the SATP database, apart from these 13 major extremist outfits, 30 other groups remain active in the region, and another 23 are presently in uncertain peace talks or have signed ceasefire agreements with respective State and the Union Governments. The ambiguity surrounding these various agreements and processes is illustrated by the ‘historic accord’signed between the Government of India (GoI) and the largest rebel Naga group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland–Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) on August 3, 2015, which, far from bringing peace to the State, has provoked greater instability, causing the rival Khaplang faction (NSCN-K) to abrogate its cease fire agreement with the Government and revert to violence against the SFs. NSCN-K is also spearheading a movement to bring all insurgent formations in the region onto a united platform, the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA). With the easy availability of weaponry in the region, the potential for destabilization remains significant, particularly in view of the polarizing identity politics that most parties in the region engage in, and the multiplicity of unaddressed administrative and developmental issues that continue to plague the region.
Indeed, while the immediate challenge of terrorism and insurgency has receded across the country and across the ideological spectrum, the conflict potential in India remains high, and is often exacerbated by state policy and partisan politics. Crucially, first responders, the State Police Forces, as well as most Central SFs and the intelligence apparatus, remain ill-equipped, poorly-trained and under-strength. Despite enormous emphasis, particularly after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks in 2008, technological capabilities of Police, Intelligence and specialized CT Forces remain poor. Critical projects such as the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) and GPS-based surveillance of sea vessels, among others, have been fitfully funded, and implemented, as a result of which the cumulative impact of limited capacity augmentation on capabilities to secure the nation has, at best, been marginal. Further, a rising demographic burden, resource crises, growing unemployment, and adherence to a growth model that has limited potential to address the aspirations of the overwhelming mass of people, continuously exacerbates tensions, leaving the country ripe for the picking for new or resurgent movements of violence.
India is fortunate, at this moment of grave global crisis, to have secured dramatic relief from multiple movements of violence, but its leadership has failed, in the past, to demonstrate the sagacity to take advantage of such good fortune and consolidate governance in sufficient measure. There is little evidence of any deviation from this ruinous pattern at present.
* Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP