On 14 October, India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, speaking at the inaugural session of the National Conference of Chiefs of Anti-Terror Squads/Special Task Force organised by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), seemed to suggest that if the media stops reporting incidents of terrorism, the latter would die a swift death. Mr. Doval quoted former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in his defence. In addition, Mr. Doval touched upon several other important aspects of an effective counter-terrorism (CT) approach, including the need for judicial reform and a central anti-terror organisation. While such proposals may serve as the beginning of yet another CT rejig in the country, the NSA’s thesis brings into focus following debates on why terrorism occurs and the best way to deal with it. The purpose of this column is to contextualise the debates in the context of left-wing extremism (LWE) and identify key features of a successful counter-LWE policy.
(i) Democracies and Terrorism: the debate whether a totalitarian state or a democracy is better equipped to fight terror is inconclusive. Until recently, scholars did consider democracies are inherently prone to terrorism, as terrorists are able to exploit the openness provided by such regimes. Especially following the watershed 9/11 attacks, democracies, in the name of protecting themselves from terrorism, started adopting laws and embracing practices which violated the very principles of liberal democracy. Policy makers and practitioners talked openly about how a free press, which provides a wide audience for acts of spectacular violence, do provide the terrorists some sort of ‘strategic influence’. Individual states attempted in vain to curb such press freedom.
Contrarian views, however, express that democracies indeed have deterred terrorism. Since democracies allow expression of opinion including dissent, in press or in public forums, they take the wind off the sails of terrorism, which is understood as form of a rebellion against the prevailing order. According to a scholar, for instance, democracies indeed have a triple advantage vis-à-vis undemocratic states. They suffer fewer attacks than other regime types, with a lower rate of increase, and fewer fatalities. According to this view, regimes that are essentially totalitarian or democracies that are inclined to adopt totalitarian measures, must embrace openness in order to effectively fight terrorism. While some degree of hardening of approach and curbs on personal freedom are essential to deal with terrorist violence, a linear movement that fancies getting rid of democratic principles could be counter-productive. It is useful, therefore, to appreciate the strength of democratic principles as critical constituents of an effective CT policy.
(ii) State Fragility and Terrorism:The destabilising impact of terrorism on regions is a well-recognised fact. It is also true that terrorism finds easy breeding ground in regions marked by absence or failure of governance. Fragile states or misgoverned or ungoverned spaces within an otherwise functioning state are more likely to be affected by terrorism than a thriving and well governed region. Regions affected by LWE in India symbolise this truism. To begin with, the model of alternate governance that the extremists preach does not necessarily aim at replacing an existing order, but is an attempt to supplant a model where none exists. As the will and capacity of different states to implement governance measures increase, extremism has receded. This may not be true in case of Kashmir’s externally supported terrorism. However, several supporting evidences are available in LWE affected states.
It is hence, important, that bureaucracy is used as primary weapons to defeat extremism. While this may not be possible in areas where extremism is well-entrenched and will have to be achieved through security force action, areas that are either extremism prone and where extremism has receded must witness implementation of robust development initiatives. Such approaches can have far-reaching impact by creating new stakeholders in development in fragile regions.
(iii) Information Vacuum and Perception Management:One of the primary objectives of denying extremists media space is to ensure an information vacuum. Since acts of terrorism is understood as directed at terrorising and coercing people and finding sympathisers, zero or negligible reporting of terrorist violence would enable the state to make troubled regions appear peaceful and amplify the achievement of the security forces. However, in addition to the fact that such a strategy will result in the projection of a false peace, and may even lead to the prevalence of a false sense of achievement, in an age of social and alternate media, even this objective would be difficult to achieve.
With specific reference to the LWE theatres, a large portion of on-ground happenings reach the people of the region through either social media or alternate media like community radio. Extremists have their own mechanisms of reaching out to their constituencies. No amounts of curbs on the press, hence, would be able to ensure an information vacuum. On the contrary, in the same way as states imposing prohibition witness increasing levels of bootlegging and hooch tragedies, curbs on media may even promote greater circulation of fake news defeating the very purpose for which restrictions were imposed. What the government should alternatively do is to establish media centres that makes authentic news available to the press on a real time basis. Mr. Doval underlined the need for a ‘transparent’ media policy that takes the media ‘into confidence’.
Even as the security situation has significantly improved in the LWE affected states, official policies remain a mix of effective and avoidable measures. Prohibiting the media from reporting on the extremist violence would certainly belong to the latter category. The larger debates should remain the guiding principles for official policies, rather than short-term measures.
This article was published at IPCS