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Bogus debate on terrorism

There is a constant clamour about the failure to solve cases of terrorist attacks. But when a case is cracked and the guilty tracked, there is an immediate uproar over the 'targeting of innocent Muslims' and human rights activists come up with bizarre conspiracy theories

Exactly two weeks after the September 13, 2008, serial attacks at crowded market locations in Delhi, terrorists struck the national capital on September 28, killing one and injuring over 20. The intensity of the explosion this time was lower, and the 'tiffin bomb' -- packed in a plastic bag -- was simply tossed off a motorcycle in the Phool Walon ki Sair flower market at Mehrauli in south Delhi.

The intervening two weeks had seen frenetic activity in the intelligence and security establishment across the country, as much of SIMI and its front, the Indian Mujahiddeen (IM), network unravelled, with the killing of two SIMI and IM cadre in Delhi and the arrest of several others in Delhi, Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh, building on significant detentions in Gujarat (which had followed the serial explosions in Ahmedabad on July 26, 2008).

Exaggerated (and often distorted) reportage by a hysterical media on the Delhi encounter and the arrests across the country had created the irrational expectation that the spate of arrests and the 'neutralisation' of the SIMI-IM network would somehow spell the end of the succession of terrorist attacks that had been inflicted at apparently diminishing intervals over the past months and years -- but the flower market bombing has, unsurprisingly, put paid to that rather quickly.

Investigators are still to identify the perpetrators of the latest bombing, but it should be abundantly clear that, despite the body blows inflicted on the SIMI-IM networks, this organisation's capacities are yet to be entirely extinguished. Moreover, the various other Pakistan-backed Islamic terrorist groups that have operated -- separately and in tandem, often with SIMI -- to execute numerous terrorist attacks across India, show no signs of any significant decline in capacities or loss of support from their state sponsors in the neighbourhood -- Pakistan and Bangladesh. Under these circumstances, there is little reason to believe that recent police successes will have any permanent impact on the Islamic terrorist acts across India.

It must be evident, consequently, that the question of containment of the threat and the creation of necessary counter-terrorism capacities must remain at the forefront of all policy discourse. It is, in some measure, gratifying that the debate at the Centre in the aftermath of the September 13 blasts in New Delhi -- polarised and incoherent as it no doubt substantially remained -- is beginning to show some signs of urgency. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has conceded that there are "still vast gaps in intelligence", and this observation was followed, on September 17, by a Cabinet decision to augment the Intelligence Bureau's (IB's) strength by an additional 6,000 personnel. The IB was also tasked to set up a new Research and Technology Wing dedicated to the continuous monitoring and analysis of patterns of terrorist activities and responses.

At the same time, significant augmentation of capacities was disclosed for the Delhi Police as well. The Home Secretary revealed that recruitment for 5,000 posts sanctioned earlier was ongoing, and an additional 7,612 posts also received sanction. Further, plans to install a network of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in markets and at various border checkposts, and a centralised database with face recognition software under the Delhi Police were also outlined, even as the projected augmentation of transport and communications capabilities was announced.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether, in what measure, and within what timeframe these decisions are actually implemented. Crucially, however, as has been repeatedly emphasised in the past, the idea that terrorism can be contained at its points of delivery, or that India's cities can be protected even while its 'hinterland' -- the vast rural and mufussil areas -- remain lawless and un-policed, is fundamentally flawed. The success of the national counter-terrorism effort will depend not only on high measures of efficiency of New Delhi but in a reformation of the policing and intelligence systems across the country. Processes to secure this objective have, however, yet to begin, and most States simply lack the political and administrative capability and -- perhaps more crucially -- integrity and intent, to take up the tasks of counter-terrorist capacity building with any degree of seriousness or urgency.

Even more dangerous, however, is the evidence of increasing communalisation, exceptionalism and a deeply destructive political dynamic that is progressively crystallising around the discourse on Islamist terrorism across political parties, sections of the media, and the country at large. Among the principal objectives of irregular warfare, Mao Tse Tung notes, is the "destruction of the unity of the enemy". Terrorists targeting India, it is ever more evident, require very little effort to secure this objective, as political leaderships and social elites engage in an increasingly perverse debate on particular terrorist acts and state responses, or on the issue of terrorism in general.

It is, for instance, a matter of tremendous concern that an encounter in broad daylight, in the crowded Batla House locality of Jamia Nagar in south Delhi, and in which one policemen -- Inspector MC Sharma -- was killed and another was injured, should provoke significant scepticism not only among people in the immediate neighbourhood but in a much wider constituency among political parties, the media and what passes for India's 'intelligentsia'. This is an index, equally, of the degree of communal polarisation, particularly in ghettoised neighbourhoods, as of the loss of confidence in the police, especially among members of minority groups.

Some human rights organisations, in a knee-jerk reflex, raised the bogey of a 'staged encounter', while the All-India Minority Forum has called for a judicial inquiry into the killings. Other communal leaders and some political parties have jumped on to the bandwagon, perhaps cynically seeing an opportunity for some harvesting of votes or support through the adoption of partisan and extreme postures. The argument has been put forward that 'innocent Muslims' are being targeted in the spate of recent arrests -- but no evidence has, at any point, been cited to support the thesis other than an undercurrent of sustained denigration of the police. Crucially, the responses of enforcement agencies are increasingly being held hostage to an irrational media backlash that follows both the failure to act and effective action.

(Published in The Pioneer, October 1, 2008)





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