Hyderabad is bloodied again by terrorism, exposing once more our failure to marshal the political will, the legal instruments, the organizational structure and the required technical skills and manpower resources to combat this grave threat to the nation.
Admittedly, combating terrorism is extraordinarily difficult because a few individuals armed with rage, rudimentary bomb making techniques and the most ordinary means of “delivery” like tiffin boxes and bicycles can cause mayhem in crowded localities in our overpopulated and disorganized cities when they choose.
More importantly, terrorism has a vast international dimension outside not only India’s control but also of countries more powerful, resourceful and determined to fight terrorism than us. At its centre is the sense of grievance nourished in Islamic circles against the enemies of Islam and the moral legitimacy accorded by religious texts as interpreted by them to the act of killing innocent people haphazardly as redressal.
While it would be unrealistic to expect the government to provide total protection to the public against any possible terrorist attack, the people can legitimately expect credible and comprehensive steps to secure their lives against such deadly violence, without being necessarily able to emulate the US success in this regard. The US is oceans away from the epicenter of terror; its neighbours cooperate fully to shield North America from terrorism; by drawing its frontline against terrorism thousands of miles away from its shores the US has given itself vast protective geographical depth.
India has no such cushions. Our neighbour has used terrorism as a weapon against us for almost 30 years now. Having long judged our weak response, Pakistan can fine tune the timing, periodicity and degree of its provocations to suit its political needs. It knows that deniability is important to create space for doubt about its culpability so that an immediate Indian riposte is deflected and the risk of being declared a terrorist state is avoided. For that it has raised jihadi groups to attack India, whose violence is then politically justified as being driven by the unresolved Kashmir question. As international scrutiny of its terrorist links grows, Pakistan has also outsourced terrorism to extremist groups in India by mobilizing them through pan-Islamist ideologies on the back of local grievances.
Pakistan also has a class of politicians, diplomats and members of civil society that come across as educated, modern, articulate and rational and they counter with finesse accusations that it is promoting terrorism. The rise of domestic terrorism, although an offshoot of the complicity of state organizations with jihadi groups, gives them an added argument to deny Pakistan’s terrorist affiliations.
Additionally, the rampant belief in conspiracy theories in Pakistan about the West, Israel and India conniving at slandering Islam creates a sense of victimhood, precluding self-introspection about its own failings as a society. In this narrative, Islam is the embodiment of peace and justice and terrorism is alien to it. If Islamic groups commit acts of terrorism, it is because of manipulation by hidden hands. The other defence is that either those guilty are not true Muslims, or that the entire community should not be tarnished because of the misdeeds of a few with no proper understanding of Islamic tenets. This explains the widespread belief that the 9/11 attacks against America was a Jewish conspiracy. The remarks in Delhi by Pakistan’s interior minister alleging an external hand behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks is part of this syndrome.
Iran and North Korea are castigated for terrorism, as was Libya earlier, even if what is attributed to them has no parallel in scale and scope to Pakistan’s involvement with such activity. Pakistan is spared the same ignominy because its relationship with the West is not one of unalloyed hostility. Its attitude to western demands, even on terrorism, is both compliant and defiant. In any case, a non-Nato US ally, receiving substantial American arms and economic assistance and geopolitically vital for extricating the US from Afghanistan, can hardly be declared a terrorist state. This western ambivalence towards Pakistan severely limits the extent to which India can bilaterally and multilaterally make Pakistan more accountable for its terrorist misdeeds. A nuclearized Pakistan makes the problem even more complex to handle.
India’s democratic system, its openness, its internal watchdogs such as the independent judiciary and the press, the accountability of the instruments of force in the hands of the executive in a constitutional system, do not allow India to use the instrument of terrorism against Pakistan as a deterrent.
While all these difficulties and handicaps are understandable, what is not is the absence of a coherent national strategy to combat terrorism despite repeated assaults. We have made matters worse for ourselves by diluting the centrality of terrorism in our dialogue with Pakistan; we have accorded Pakistan the status of a terrorism stricken state just like us; we have lowered the heat on Pakistan by conceding the amplitude of our problem of home grown terrorism; we have weakened our position by equating a few isolated terrorist attacks by Hindus with scores of such attacks over two decades by jihadi groups; further harm has been done by the Home Minister accusing the main opposition party of training Hindu terrorists; we have politicized the terrorism issue for electoral reasons so much that any corrective action will be interpreted with political bias; the disproportionate sympathy in sections of our intelligentsia for Afzal Guru shows the soft belly of any potential resolve to combat terrorism without quarter.
No wonder that all we can do when a terrorist attack occurs is to call it “dastardly” and vow that the “perpetrators” will not go unpunished, and repeat the same clichés when innocent Indian citizens are bloodied again by jihadi groups.