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Uncertain wisdom of policy-makers

India has, in various measures, suffered from terrorism for almost five decades, and from a proliferation of immensely virulent movements since the late 1970s. Yet, for all the planners and policy makers, for all the talk of long-term perspectives and of proactivity, I am not aware of a single document in the archives of government that could be passed off as a counter-terrorism doctrine. Policies focus on transient crises, and each initiative cancels out the gains of some other. Inevitably, despite innumerable battles won, the war against terror seems perpetually "unwinnable".

The situation in Assam substantially reflects the consequences of the absence of a coherent larger perspective. Despite the all-round weakening of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the end of terrorism is nowhere in sight. It is a fact that the ULFA has lost virtually any mass support, and its cadres - including some of its senior-most leaders - are rapidly abandoning the organisation in complete disillusionment. Over 1,740 ULFA cadre have already surrendered in this year alone. The ULFA is under extreme pressure throughout the State, and under some pressure in its safe havens in Bhutan as well. And yet, the organisation has succeeded in striking again and again over the past weeks, killing dozens of innocent civilians.

It is ironic, in this context, that a movement that began as a protest against illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh now finds its targets chiefly among the Hindu settlers in the State. In just the past six weeks, 116 "Hindi speaking" persons have been gunned down allegedly by ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) killer gangs. But then, Assam is full of such contradictions.

A great deal of what is happening in the State is a consequence of certain perceptions that have been established in the minds of the people through decades of propaganda, and in the minds of policy makers and the executive agencies of the state through sheer inertia. One of the elements that lends itself to popular confusion is the discourse on the 'threat' to the 'identity of the Assamese'. Assam has seen wave upon wave of migration through the centuries, and it would be as difficult to identify the 'original' inhabitants of the region as it is of most other parts in this country. Yet, the surface assimilation of these migrant populations has been substantial. Almost all the people of Assam speak Assamese. There is a significant sharing of cultures, of ways of life. Yet, this linguistic and cultural assimilation has not yielded any coherence or unity within the social system, and Assam remains a deeply divided society. These schisms are deepened constantly by the inability of the local people to extricate themselves from a discourse that became rigid, repetitive and completely stagnant decades ago. We thus find seminars and discussions enthusiastically being organised at the local level (one of the recent ones was at Jorhat) on the subject of 'Defining the Assamese Identity'.

The main task is increasingly shifting towards a massive effort to bring these diverse people together, and little appears to have been done towards this end. The first precondition of such an effort is the existence of a political consensus on the issue of terrorism, and the current agreement between all political parties in the State suggests that such a consensus is being built. More significantly, it is imperative that the local administration should be involved, in its totality, in the task of reconstruction and of the creation of an atmosphere of peace in the State. This last needs to be emphasised as strongly as possible. This was a responsibility that the police and civil administration shouldered routinely before the administrative decline of the past decade and a half. I recall that, even at the height of the Students' Movement in the early Eighties, Police and Civil officers were in constant dialogue with various groups, often mediating between polarised parties to maintain the peace. It is essential to revive these practices and processes. It is now the time to go beyond merely fighting the terrorists, to mending the damage of the past.

Another point that the recent escalation in violence hammers home relentlessly, is the fact that even a dying group can keep a terrorist movement alive indefinitely, as long as it can retain a few dozen committed cadres and maintain a safe haven abroad. That a few dozen cadres will always survive is no longer a consequence of any ideological strength in these movements, but of the enormous incentives that the economies of extortion and terror create. The fact is, terrorism pays, and pays handsomely. There will, consequently, always be a strong need to deal with terrorism by the use of narrowly targeted and overwhelming force.

This creates the problem of the almost complete absence of legal cover, on the one hand, for the forces and personnel engaged in fighting terrorism, and, on the other, of the inability of the legal system to effectively deliver justice in cases involving terrorist crimes. This is not a problem unique to the Northeast, but one that afflicts all theatres of conflict in the country. There is little evidence of any concerted effort to address either of these two issues.

Another area of ill-conceived and counter-productive policy that needs to be reassessed is the schemes for surrendered militants devised by various State governments and supported by the Centre. To my mind, these schemes, as presently defined, create utterly unrealistic and unjustifiable expectations in the minds of those who surrender, and display a far greater concern among our political establishment for the welfare of the terrorists, than they do for the security and welfare of the common people.

The Centre currently supports a scheme that offers graded cash rewards and 'stipends' to militants who surrender, as also soft loans to set up a business and vocational training as well. There are reportedly some 5,000 surrendered militants in Assam, and many of them have taken to claiming that the promises of rehabilitation have not been fulfilled. There are also recurrent reports of the SULFA (the surrendered ULFA) resorting to extortion and other crimes on an organised basis, and a complete unwillingness on the part of the police and the political establishment to curb these activities. The entire system is entirely beyond justification and, I think, even comprehension.

In the Punjab, during the terminal phases of the terrorist movement, the police actively encouraged surrenders by terrorists, and the campaign met with enormous success. In most cases, the surrendered terrorists were simply allowed to return home. The law was allowed to take its own course in the case of those who were accused of heinous crimes, and the police was far from vindictive. Nevertheless, no financial incentives were ever provided, nor did the state act as if it owed a debt of gratitude to these offenders because they had decided to abandon their criminal activities.

The current surrender schemes are often justified on the ground that unemployment will drive the surrendered terrorists back into militancy. But this should be an argument for the generation of greater employment for all youth, rather than an argument for preferential discrimination in favour of those among them who choose to resort to terrorist or criminal violence.

It is widely conceded that the Punjab economy has suffered a dramatic downslide, that the fragmentation of land holdings and the lack of industrial development have created large pools of the unemployed. Yet, the absence of 'pensions' and 'rehabilitation packages' for the surrendered Punjab militants does not appear to have pushed them back into violence. The lesson has been learned: violence will not pay.

Unfortunately, the uncertain wisdom of policymakers in the Northeast (and in J&K as well) is communicating precisely the opposite lesson. Violence does pay. And after it stops paying, or after it has paid enough to create incentives for 'retirement', or after exhaustion has set in, surrenders can be made to pay as well. The entire policy creates incentives for individuals to join the ranks of the terrorists, if only to surrender shortly thereafter. On the fringes of society, there will always be a significant number of adventurers who will find such an incentive package irresistible.

It is high time that at least a part of the counter-terrorism establishment in this country extricated itself from the imperatives of the moment and the crises of each new day to make a holistic reappraisal of what we have being doing, to clearly document our successes and failures, and to identify the fundamentals that must guide future policies and initiatives.

(Published in The Pioneer, December 9, 2000)





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