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Independence Day Terror

For the first time in India’s history, air traffic around the capital city of Delhi was briefly suspended on August 15, 2002, during the nation’s 56th Independence Day Celebrations, for fear of a copy cat attack imitating the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, in the US. Elaborate traffic control arrangements and the sanitization of an extended area around the Red Fort – where the Prime Minister delivers his annual Independence Day Address – were also part of a security forces’ (SFs) response to ensure that the numerous threats of disruption by various terrorist groups were not realized. In another first, cell phones were jammed in key areas of VIP movement and the venue of the Independence Day functions.

This was , in varying measure, a scenario that was being replicated in various strife afflicted regions of the country, particularly in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and parts of the Northeast. In the J&K State capital, Srinagar, all areas within a three kilometre radius of the Bakshi Stadium, the venue of the main Independence Day function in the State, were sanitized to exclude the possibility of an attack using grenade launchers; and all traffic on roads leading to the Stadium was suspended between 0600 and 1100 hours.

In India’s Northeast, the Northeast Frontier Railway had suspended night-time passenger trains between August 13 and 16, and the Chief Minister of Assam expressed apprehensions that terrorist threats ahead of Independence Day may also include suicide attacks by Islamist terrorists infiltrating into the State from Bangladesh.

Much of this is not particularly new. Threats of disruption of Independence Day celebrations have been an annual feature in terrorist and insurgency affected areas, both to demonstrate the power of various disaffected groups, as well as to engineer symbolic attacks on an occasion closely linked to national pride and the prestige of the government. The results include threats of violence, dozens of calls for a boycott of Independence Day by terrorist groups and their overground front organizations, as well as calls for bandhs (strikes or shut downs) to coincide with the celebrations. Some groups in India’s Northeast had declared August 15, 2002, a ‘national mourning day’, while the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in Kashmir commemorated it as a ‘Black Day’. Specific intelligence and communication intercepts in the Northeast had earlier indicated that terrorists were planning strikes against a range of critical infrastructure targets, including oil installations and pipelines, the railways, bridges and government offices. Heightened violence and targeted attacks on SFs, Hindu pilgrims on the annual Amarnath Yatra, and on various venues of Independence Day functions had also been expected in J&K.

Eventually, however, the security blanket was successful, and the Independence celebrations passed peacefully across the country – more peacefully, perhaps, than many a ‘normal’ day in the recent past in some of the affected States. Some ‘minor’ incidents in J&K on the eve of the occasion – including an RPG attack on an Army bus in the Shopian district in which a Captain and a non-commissioned officer lost their lives, and the discovery and diffusing of two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the Doda district – had heightened threat perceptions. But preventive arrests, strong intelligence on terrorist intent and movement, and what some consider the ‘security overkill’ ensured that the day itself went without untoward incident.

By and large, massive security arrangements have succeeded in preventing a major incident on important national occasions such as Independence Day and Republic Day (January 26), as well as on principal public and religious festivals, in the past as well. Last year, despite similar threats and calls for a boycott in J&K, terrorists succeeded in executing only a single strike on an Independence Day function – a grenade attack in the relatively small town of Handwara, some 75 kilometres north of Srinagar, in which 18 persons, including a number of school children, were injured. In the Northeast, the threats of violence failed to materialize in 2001, and the calls for bandhs were generally ignored.

The jubilee celebrations of 1997 had, however, been significantly marred by terrorist violence in India’s Northeast, where as many as 25 persons were reportedly killed in different incidents, including bomb blasts and the torching of three railway stations.

While the belligerence and the threats have thus become an annual ritual, they had a particular and magnified importance in J&K this year. A four-stage election to the State Assembly has already been announced, and is scheduled between September 16 and October 8, 2002, and there is currently a massive campaign, alternately, to challenge the legitimacy of the state and to intimidate voters and political activists who propose to participate in these polls. A major strike on Independence day would be considered by the terrorists and their backers to go some way in furthering both these ends, though, given the current international environment, how this would be the case is entirely unclear. Nevertheless, any escalation at the present stage would tend create problems for the imminent elections, certainly to the extent that securing a ‘respectable’ level of public participation is one of the state’s objectives. Conversely, preventing such participation is among the primary purposes of currently planned terrorist action.

Delegitimising the present election process is also among Pakistan’s urgent priorities. Pakistan has, of course, adopted a public posture that suggests that these elections are irrelevant to the ‘solution’ of the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir. President Pervez Musharraf’s regime is, however, itself currently struggling under an acute crisis of credibility. The Presidential ‘referendum’ of April 30, 2002, is now widely acknowledged to have been rigged, and Musharraf has himself conceded that there ‘may have been some irregularities’. Pakistan is now approaching what is expected to be another rigged poll in October, and fundamental distortions have already been exposed in the selective exclusion of particular candidates, as well as the discriminatory rejection of nominations and the documents for registration of some candidates. With mounting international outrage against the continued operation of terrorist groups from and also within Pakistan, and the persistence of the infrastructure of terrorism in that country despite the display of participation in the US-led global war against terror, the Pakistani leadership is increasingly aware that a peaceful, transparent, and if possible, high-participation election in J&K would immensely erode any surviving legitimacy of its sponsored trans-border jehad in the name of a ‘freedom struggle’ and the ‘will of the Kashmiri people’. It is abundantly clear that the Indian administration is gearing itself for precisely such an election – and this promise was prominent in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Independence Day Address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, as was his assurance that no force would be allowed to disrupt the polls. High participation can certainly be thwarted by systematic intimidation and targeted killings. Over 41 killings of political workers and leaders have already occurred in the State this year, including that of the most vocal pro-election APHC leader, Abdul Ghani Lone; adding to another 49 killed last year. However, India is investing substantially in ensuring that the violence is contained, and that a very significant (though necessarily unofficial) presence of the international media and of foreign diplomats will set to rest any apprehensions of unfairness, coercion or fraud.

The significance of the failure of the terrorists’ threats of disruption on August 15, 2002, particularly in J&K, need to be assessed against this broad background of competing interests. This failure will not, of course, prove definitive, and an uncertain dynamic of a succession of events – not only in India and Pakistan, but also across the world – leading up to the Assembly elections, will cumulatively determine the course of the enduring terror in J&K. It is, however, fairly certain that, irrespective of this course, the terror will outlast these elections, and will probably survive until and beyond Independence Day 2003.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, August 16, 2002.)





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