Tuesday, February 12, 2013

India’s Compass on Terror is Faulty

Kanwal Sibal 
(Member, VIF Advisory Board)

Afzal Guru’s hanging shows the ineptness with which our political system deals with the grave problem of terrorism.The biggest challenge to our security, and indeed that of countries all over the world that are caught in the cross currents of religious extremism, is terrorism.

Traditional military threats can be assessed on the basis of the size of the armed forces, equipment and logistics available to the adversary. A militarily weak country would normally hesitate to attack a stronger one as defeat is never honourable and the price could be loss of territory. A casus belli has to be established to negate any charge of unprovoked aggression; the laws of war are applicable. The international community can intervene through the UN or otherwise against a state resorting to military aggression.


Terrorism has a different logic. It is asymmetric warfare by non-state actors outside any law. The numbers involved are small and the targets are unsuspecting and unprepared individuals in the street, in public transport, hotels or restaurants or peaceful public spaces. Suicide bombers and car bombs can cause substantial casualties indiscriminately. Shadowy groups with leaders in hiding orchestrate these attacks. The involvement of state institutions through groups nurtured by them is on the basis of the practiced art of deniability. The international community cannot even agree on the definition of terrorism. The extraordinary challenge that terrorism poses to societies has to be dealt with exceptional levels of alertness, discipline, training of personnel, technical capacity, policing and organisational response.

India’s problem with externally supported terrorism is amongst the severest that any country faces. Our next door neighbour has been long using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Even if some countries like Libya were accused of supporting terrorism, the acts imputed to them were not so blatant, wide-spread and persistent as those of Pakistan-based terrorists against India. North Korea has been accused of sporadic terrorist acts and Iran has supposedly targetted political opponents abroad and supported terrorist groups attacking Israel, but the Israeli-Arab confrontation has no parallel with the reasons for Pakistan’s animosity towards India and North Korea and Iran have no territorial claims that they seek to advance through terrorism. Pakistan supports terrorism to destabilize India, to make governance in Kashmir as difficult as possible, to nourish separatism there, to cause a communal divide in India. It is also a consequence of the deepening Islamisation of its society.

To meet the enormity of such a threat India needs political consensus and cohesion within the country. We have, instead, political bickering and confused thinking in the civil society and sections of the media. Afzal Guru was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court, his review petition was rejected by the same court and yet the government took well over 6 years to decide on his mercy petition. To claim that this delay was not political in character is being disingenuous. Because the delay was motivated by political considerations, the decision to hang him is being inevitably attributed to political calculations. Action against terrorists should not be vitiated by competition between government and the opposition for political or electoral advantage. With those responsible for killing Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh escaping hanging so far, the question of selective decisions arises. Sections of our mainstream press consider it appropriate to present Afzal Guru as a victim of the Indian judicial and political system rather than a brutal terrorist deserving condign punishment.


The dictum “better late than never” would have provided adequate social catharsis if the delay in hanging was actually for reasons beyond government’s control. If some members of the National Advisory Council could plead with the President to save Kasab- a Pakistani who personally killed hapless, innocent Indians- from the gallows, one can imagine the resistance within the system to hang Afzal Guru. If the milk of human kindness flows within our society for terrorists like Kasab, who were actually waging a proxy war by Pakistan against us, it is hard to imagine how we can steel our will and hone our organizational responses to combat terrorism zealously.


We have voluntarily confused the debate over Pakistan’s culpability for terrorism against us by declaring that both countries are victims of terrorism. We have damaged our case further by not resisting Pakistan’s attempts to equate the Mumbai terror attack with the attack on the Samjhauta Express. By playing up of disclosures about terrorist attacks by right wing Hindu extremists we are bracketting Pakistani abetted terrorist attacks in India and local acts of terrorism that have nothing to do with Pakistani territory. The previous Home Minister blurred the focus on externally supported terrorism by highlighting domestic religious extremism. His successor has scored a self-goal by speaking of Hindu terrorism and RSS/BJP run training camps. The External Affairs Minister, whose words have more echo outside because of his position, has endorsed the Home Minister’s accusation, no doubt adding to the confusion abroad about the ground realities.

There is no parallel between the highly deplorable but isolated terrorist activity of vengeful Hindus and the terrorist industry in Pakistan and the Islamic world sustained by oil wealth and pernicious religious thinking. There are no NGOs or Hindu preachers in India publicly advocating religious violence against Pakistan on the basis of religious texts. There is no state support for such activities. If we think our domestic jockeying for political advantage can be insulated from the external dimension of the terrorist threat facing us, we are committing a costly error. We let the Kashmiri separatists, who are de facto political accomplices of the terrorists, travel to Pakistan to meet even the Army and ISI chiefs there without reaction. Our compass on terrorism is faulty.

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