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War of thousand cuts

There is a general tendency to verbal excess in crises and in the glut of hyperbole that has marked the aftermath of the recent hijacking, one leading columnist declares that "India has been handed its most serious defeat of the entire Kashmir war." Are we to understand that the release of three terrorists – whatever their significance – has inflicted greater damage than the loss, in 1948, of more than 80,000 square kilometres of Indian territory? Than the release of Rubiya Saeed? Than the disaster at Charar-e-Sharif?

In this context, let us look at some of the major reverses in counter-terrorist efforts outside Kashmir, such as Operation Blue Star in Punjab. Or the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. The assassination of Beant Singh. In Assam, the squandering of all the advantages created by, and the political betrayal of, Operation Rhino. Indeed a far greater failure, in the eyes of those who are even remotely acquainted with the situation on the ground, was the state’s failure to come to the aid of policemen in Punjab when they were targeted in a massive and co-ordinated campaign of malicious litigation by the front organisations of separatist forces after the manifest defeat of terrorism in that State.

But in the infinitesimal attention span of most contemporary analysts, the history of terrorism possibly extends no further than the last outrage they can remember. The reality, however, is that India has not only survived, but recovered in strength, from each of these crises. There are, as Mark Tully evocatively expresses it, no full stops in India. As a nation we have the capacity and resilience to rise out of each of these calamities. This must not, of course, give us cause for complacence. However, it is now the time to extricate ourselves from the mesh of partisan exculpation and blame, to confront the more urgent question: what needs to be done now?

This is a question that has been asked again and again, in the wake of various crises. But as soon as the problem is ‘resolved’, for better or for worse, the entire exercise of reorganisation and reconstruction is forgotten. I have sought again and again, as have many others who have actually confronted the menace of terrorism, to make successive governments take note of the inevitable changes that must shape our responses, if we are to purchase any permanent victories against the ‘war of a thousand cuts’ unleashed against us. The official response has, on the one hand, been disappointing; on the other, these suggestions have often met with a barrage of ill informed, stubbornly deluded, and often motivated criticism that has consistently sought to underplay the dangers of contemporary low intensity wars in India, and to exaggerate the risks of a firm response. One of the inadvertent consequences of Pakistan’s misadventure in Kargil and of the recent hijack is that there now exists a broad consensus that the soft options of the past cannot suffice if Indian democracy is not to "commit suicide" by capitulating in the face of the terrorist onslaught. This consensus, and the government’s commitment to forge a proactive response to terrorism, must now be translated into actual mechanisms of defence.

Almost two and a half years ago, in my letter to the then Prime Minister, I had called for a radical reorganisation of our counter-terrorism forces, since neither the police nor the army, by virtue of their basic orientation and training, are properly equipped to handle low intensity warfare. Sweeping reforms must now be initiated, creating the skills, knowledge, attitudes and infrastructure necessary to confront this danger. Equally, the parameters within which each agency of government must respond to such challenges should be debated and clearly defined, as must be the relationship between these various agencies. The structure of command and control, the sharing of intelligence and the co-ordination of joint action in terrorist affected areas has been the source of a great deal of conflict and wasted effort. Enormous flexibility, a willingness to explore alternatives outside the hidebound and hierarchical patterns of the past, is needed both to speed up responses and to make them more effective.

It is also imperative that the powers, the range of extraordinary actions permitted in these situations, and the applicable legal criteria and context of evaluation of these actions – whether these are the same as those applicable in peacetime or are to be akin to articles of war, or to some intervening statutes – should be clearly determined and suitably legislated.

Another aspect I have repeatedly sought to draw attention to is the complete collapse of the institutions of governance – other than the uniformed services – in situations of terror. In a democracy, the conduct of every arm of government must be subject to review. And yet, the conduct of the judiciary and the civil administration has completely escaped examination. In 1997, I had written to the Prime Minister,

"What is to be said of judges who failed to consider overwhelming evidence of the most heinous crimes? Who fail to administer justice according to the laws of the land for over a decade in terrorist related cases…? How can we be told that men who refused to do their sworn duty for over ten years are in no way intellectually and morally compromised?"

In J&K as well, the courts are yet to pass sentence against a single act of terrorism. It is time, now, to acknowledge that one of the greatest violations of human rights is a justice system that refuses or fails to punish perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, abandoning the common citizenry to the savagery of the forces of disorder. The judiciary has been unequivocally guilty of a great deal of populist posturing and of what can only be described as criminal irresponsibility on this issue. It is time to put an end to this self-defeating charade, and to create a system where the guilty are punished, are punished within reasonable time, and are seen to be justly punished in proportion to the enormity of their crimes. Without such a system, we have little hope of bringing terrorism to heel.

Our management of the media and the projection of terrorism also leave much to be desired. A critical aspect is the misreading of public opinion, and a tendency to see events through communally coloured glasses. The idiom of discourse on terrorism should not be clouded by the animus of Partition – for if it is, we are inadvertently but inescapably trapped in the two-nation theory that created that disaster. Terrorism is a method of the employment of merciless and overwhelming violence for a variety of ends. There are no Islamic, Hindu, Christian or atheistic terrorists. There are, simply, terrorists.

There is also an unfortunate tendency to panic reactions in government – such as the ill-advised decision to put commandos on commercial flights. What we need are not emergency measures – including special forces, special courts and special laws. These only create an illusion of security till the next catastrophe plunges the nation into despair. What we need is clear headed and good governance, and the restoration of the institutions of civil society.

A final word on diplomacy and our somewhat frenetic campaign to have Pakistan declared a terrorist state. Cold evidence, and not hysteria, will have a greater impact on the international community – which, however, will continue to be guided by considerations of partisan and national gain, rather than any objectively moral principles. In any event, even if we can convince the world of Pakistan’s perfidy, we will have to win the war against terrorism on our soil entirely by ourselves.

(Published in Indian Express, January 7, 2000)





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