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UPA anti-terror 'strategy': When doing nothing looks like success
Ajai Sahni

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal ( database, terrorism and insurgency-related fatalities in India have fallen from a peak of 5,839 in 2001 to 804 in 2012. Indeed, the decline has been sustained in each year since 2001, with a significant reversal of the trend only in 2005, and a marginal reversal in 2008.

The most dramatic drop has, of course, been in Jammu and Kashmir, for long the country’s worst insurgency, which witnessed a collapse from 4,507 fatalities in 2001 to 117 in 2012 (down from 183 in 2011, and 375 in 2010).

For a while, it appeared that a rampaging Maoist rebellion would escalate to fill up the gap, as fatalities surged from 675 in 2005 to 1,180 in 2010. Worse, the Maoists appeared to be expanding their theatres of operation at an unprecedented pace, confronting India with the most widespread insurgency of its Independent history. By 2010, 223 districts (out of a total of 636) in 20 states were thought to be affected by varying levels of Maoist ‘activity’, though only some 65 of these witnessed any recurrent violence. But the Maoist insurgency also appears to be in retreat. Total fatalities in Maoist violence dropped to 367 in 2012, even as the number of afflicted districts shrank to 173.

The broad trends in the chronically-troubled North-east have also been salubrious, with total fatalities declining from a recent peak of 1,051 in 2005 to 317 in 2012. Disturbing proclivities, however, do persist. The Maoists have extended their presence into this unstable region and are creating new partnerships with its fractious and collapsing insurgencies.

Some states, most prominently including Manipur, see a cyclical trend in violence. So, while fatalities were down to 190 in 2002, they rose almost steadily thereafter, to 485 in 2008, dropping to just 65 in 2011, and rising, again, to 111 in 2012. Fratricidal turf wars between various rebel Naga factions have also seen a spike in killings in this state, from 15 in 2011, to 65 in 2012.

Attacks by Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists across India recorded a remarkable decline, with just one incident in 2012 outside J&K – a low intensity blast in Pune. 2011 had registered three such attacks outside J&K, with at least 42 killed. 2008, of course, saw such incidents peaking, with seven attacks, and 364 fatalities, of which 195 (166 civilians, 20 SF personnel and nine terrorists) were accounted for by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack alone.

It is natural, in the present circumstances, to attribute this broad trend towards internal security stabilisation – at least in part – to state policy. The argument, crudely put, is that the government must be doing something that is right if all our insurgencies are collapsing, and Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists are in evident retreat, both in J&K and across the rest of the country. Such an assessment, the argument goes, cannot be undermined by an occasional attack, such as the 21 February 2013, twin blasts in Hyderabad, which killed 16.

Indeed, some supporters of the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime have sought to interpret the contrast between insurgency-terrorism-related fatalities under the preceding National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and the current trend as evidence of the great sagacity of strategy and policy that the former has brought to internal security management.

Curiously, as an aside, it is interesting to notice that, on the one hand, the government and its supporters argue that declines in violence are the result of the ‘success’ of ‘policies’ and ‘strategies’ (neither of which appear to have been defined in any distinctive terms, or to have been implemented on any measurable parameters); on the other, at the first sign of trouble – the Hyderabad blasts, for instance – they insist that it is necessary to create the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) if terrorism has to be fought successfully.

But if recent improvements in trends are the consequences of ‘good policies and strategies’ – obviously implemented by existing institutions – the NCTC is, evidently, not necessary. On the other hand, if the NCTC is, indeed, necessary, then the declines in terrorist violence would need to be attributed, not to any great strategic coherence or operational effectiveness, but to extraneous factors for which the government cannot claim credit.

The Hyderabad blasts, in fact, tell us precisely that our vulnerabilities remain undiminished, and that it is in a wide range of other factors – and not in any spectacular augmentation of state capacities and capabilities, or any impressive evolution of national strategy – that we would find explanations of the broad decline of insurgent and terrorist violence in India.

This is not to say that the state and its agencies have done nothing, or that there has been no capacity augmentation. Rather, what is being done does not constitute any radical departure from what was being done earlier – with very limited impact – and capacity augmentations have been far too modest to register any remarkable improvement in efficiency and effectiveness of CI-CT capabilities and responses.

To take one obvious and visible parameter, between 2008 (the year of the 26/11 attacks) and 2011 (the last year for which credible data is available) the police-population ratio rose from 128 to just 137; significant, of course, but nowhere near the strengths required even for peacetime policing – which, on international estimates, should range well above 220 per 100,000.

Various institutional innovations, prominently including the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI) in the IB, and the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), which were to provide the core of augmented CI-CT capabilities, remain mere shells, years after they were sanctioned, with no measurable impact on ground level capabilities of the state.

Of course, state and central agencies have made continuous arrests and have successfully identified and neutralised a wide range of the state’s enemies on a fairly regular basis. However, such preventive operations and arrests were also carried out when violence was rising, and there is no evidence to suggest that the plummeting trends in insurgent and terrorist violence are the consequence of extraordinary operational efficacy.

It is, indeed, safe to say that, in the main – though not in their entirety – the improvements in India’s internal security environment are consequences of factors extraneous to the strategies, policies and actions of the state and its agencies; unless, of course, an attitude of majestic indolence can be regarded as ‘strategy’, ‘policy’ or ‘action’. It would, in fact, not be far from the truth to say that India has, more often than not, simply worn out its enemies by its indifference, than defeated them by the vigour and sagacity of its responses.

There are, of course, exceptions to this broad observation – Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh provide dramatic examples of what the state and its agencies can do when they actually find the clarity of purpose and the determination. But the lessons of these theatres have largely been ignored in a muddled discourse on ‘developmental’ and ‘political’ solutions, and by those who have given vent to immature anti-Maoist fantasies on ‘clear, hold and develop’, or to theatrical institutional innovations such as the NCTC, to the abiding neglect of the nuts and bolts of capacities and capabilities of the country’s intelligence and policing apparatus on the ground.

It is not a coincidence that the sustained reversal in terrorism-insurgency trends commenced after 2001. The 9/11 attacks in the US signalled the beginning of a new age in which the opportunistic ‘tolerance of terrorism’ that had marked the attitudes of the West was brought to an end. The enveloping global environment became abruptly hostile to those who used extreme violence to secure their political ends, and to the states that sponsored them.

The attacks of 9/11 also brought the massive US-led Western intervention in Afghanistan, and its gradual impact on the wider AfPak region. The result was progressively rising pressure on the Pakistani covert establishment to end at least visible levels of support to terrorism on India soil, as well as the impact of escalating domestic destabilisation that came to afflict Pakistan as a result of the ‘blowback’ of its support to international terrorism and its campaigns in Afghanistan.

A shift in Pakistan’s strategic priorities, towards the more urgent imperatives of its campaigns in Afghanistan, and away from Kashmir and India, further weakened India-directed terrorist impulses, providing tremendous relief, particularly in J&K. It remains the case, however, that Pakistan has kept anti-India terrorist formations of various hues alive and in reserve, hoping that a Western withdrawal from the region will reopen opportunities for a renewal of its Indian campaign.

The collapse of the regime of ‘tolerance of terrorism’ had it wider impact on other insurgencies in India. It was in December 2003 that the multiple insurgencies of India’s North-east received their first body blow, when the groups – led by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) – were expelled from Bhutanese soil, where they had received safe haven for years. After 2007, the environment became hostile in Bangladesh as well, and after the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government came to power in 2009, Bangladesh intensified action against the North-east insurgent groups and even dismantled the structure of Islamist extremist and terrorist groupings that had crystallised on its soil.

Large proportions of the North-east insurgent leadership were simply handed over to Indian authorities. Others found surrender or negotiations with the state more attractive, against the now-rising uncertainties of a fugitive life. The degraded insurgencies of the North-east are now also afflicted by an exhaustion brought about by the protracted and ponderous insensitivities of the Indian state.

Significantly, as the West grew more intolerant of their antics, insurgent groupings have been finding it difficult to secure some measure of political and propaganda space abroad, even as many of their domestic apologists have started running out of enthusiasm in the face of rising criticism. This has certainly blunted recruitment potential and the political space for extremism, once again, eroding prospects of insurgent mobilisation.

The Maoists remained substantially insulated from these developments. Reinvigorated by the merger of the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre in September 2004, the newly formed Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) embarked on an ambitious adventure to “extend the people’s war throughout the country”. Over the succeeding six years, they expanded into regions that were far from the population, geographical, administrative and developmental profile of the Red Corridor areas where they had found their natural habitat.

This was a tremendous strategic miscalculation, exposing them to the obvious risks of penetration during a phase of rapid expansion, compounded by the fact that these regions were much better connected, better serviced and (relatively) better administered. The result was that the Maoists suffered massive leadership losses – for instance, at least 18 members of the 39-member Central Committee of 2007 were arrested or killed during this phase. An overwhelming proportion of these losses were far afield, in urban centres and in states where the Maoists were making tentative forays to set up their networks, and not, with only occasion exception, as a result of the vaunting ‘clear, hold and develop’, or ‘cordon and search’ operations that the Centre launched in 2009 – and that came to a virtual and abrupt end with the Chintalnar massacre of April 2010.

Much of the Maoist escalation during the 2009-10 phase was, in fact, a retaliation against the Centre’s decision to challenge them in their areas of strength, though the pre-election mischief in West Bengal also gave them space for dramatic intensification in that state. Nevertheless, it is the leadership losses that have now forced the Maoists into a tactical retreat and an effort to reconsolidate their bases in their areas of strength – the Red Corridor.

Right to the end of his tenure as Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram had repeatedly stated that, despite the enormous investments and institutional transformations he took credit for, “all of India’s cities” remained vulnerable to terrorist attack. This would be a fairly correct assessment of the overall situation even now – we remain as vulnerable today as we were on 26/11, or as our forces were at Chintalnar.

It is true that our enemies have weakened – some temporarily, some more permanently; but it would be wrong to believe that we have become significantly stronger.

[Published in First Post, June 7, 2013]





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