June 20, 2021
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An Enveloping Blindness

India’s capacity for self-deception is extreme, and this constitutes the gravest threat to national security.

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An Enveloping Blindness

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.

—" When doing nothing looks like success

For the first time since 1994, the year 2012 registered a total number of terrorism and insurgency linked fatalities across India in the three digits— at 804, as against 1,073 in 2011 and a peak of 5,839 in 2001. The trend of sustained decline in such fatalities has been near-unbroken since 2001 (with a marginal reversal in 2008), giving tremendous relief to theatres of persistent violence. The most prominent among these is Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which has been wracked by a Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist movement since 1988, with a resultant total of 43,439 fatalities (till March 10, 2013). J&K recorded 117 fatalities in 2012, down from 183 in 2011; and a peak of 4,507 in 2001.

Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K also registered a remarkable drop, with just one incident— a low intensity blast in Pune (Maharashtra) on August 1, with no fatalities— recorded through 2012. Forty two such fatalities had occurred in four incidents in 2011, and a recent peak of 364 killed in seven incidents in 2008.

No incident of suspected Hindutva terrorism has occurred since 2008, though two extremists were arrested in 2012 on charges of involvement in earlier incidents— the 2006 Malegaon bombing which left 40 dead.

The Maoist insurgency, which had surged after the unification of the erstwhile People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in September 2004, and had come to be regarded as the country’s ‘gravest internal security threat’, has also witnessed a dramatic decline in violence and fatalities. From a peak of 1,080 fatalities recorded in 2010, there was a near-halving, to 602 in 2011, and a further and substantial drop to 367 in 2012.

Bucking these trends, however, India’s troubled Northeast saw fatalities rising to 317 in 2012, from 246 in 2011. While this is natural cause for concern, it is useful to recall that the region recorded 1,051 fatalities in 2008, and has seen a continuous decline in insurgency-related killings since. The recent reversal in this trend is substantially the result of an escalation in fratricidal killings between various insurgent formations, particularly in Nagaland and Manipur . Of the 61 fatalities recorded in Nagaland, 55 were of insurgent cadres of various formations, all killed in internecine violence. The remaining six killed were civilians. No Security Force (SF) fatalities have been recorded in Nagaland since 2008. In Manipur, 74 of 111 fatalities in 2012 are of insurgent cadres, of which 25 were killed in fratricidal conflicts, and the remaining 49 by SFs. Twelve SF personnel and 25 civilians also lost their lives. Meghalaya also saw a surge in militant activities, with 48 killed in 2012— including 19 insurgents, 27 civilians and two SF personnel— up from 29 killed in 2011, including eight insurgents, 11 civilians and 10 SF personnel.

Nevertheless, the broadly declining trends in a preponderance of the theatres of chronic violence in India have brought succour to many, and encouraged others to believe that the worst is over, and that the state, finally, has got its act together. Clearly, if all the insurgencies in the country— including those that have long enjoyed external state support— are now crashing into (apparently) imminent oblivion, the Government must have done something right.

However, on March 13, 2013, a suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp at Bemina in Srinagar (J&K) killed five CRPF personnel and two terrorists. On February 21, 2013, twin explosions in Hyderabad by suspected Islamist terrorists killed 17 persons. On January 7, 2013, the Maoists killed 16 CRPF troopers (two Maoists were also killed in the incident); and to add the element of the bizarre, stitched explosives into the abdomens of two dead troopers. Then, on February 2, 2013, Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) militants stormed Williamnagar district Jail in the East Garo Hills district in the Northeastern State of Meghalaya, and shot dead the Assistant Jailor and injured a Warden, who later succumbed to his injuries.

These incidents, among several other ‘lesser’ occurrences, are sharp reminders that India’s vulnerabilities remain intact. Indeed, the declining trends in terrorism and insurgency are the consequence of a range of factors substantially independent of state policy, linked to the broader global environment of the declining ‘tolerance of terror’; the preoccupation of our enemies with other theatres— particularly Pakistan’s currently more urgent priorities in Afghanistan; a tactical hiatus imposed by certain insurgent formations— particularly the Maoists; changing policies of some of our neighbours— most prominently Bangladesh; and in some cases— particularly the many groups in the Northeast— the sheer attrition of time and exhaustion.

Such an assessment may appear churlish in denying due credit to the security establishment and apparatus for the sustained gains registered over the past 12 years. It is not the case, moreover, that operational successes have been lacking. Since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, for instance, at least 626 persons involved in Islamist extremism, particularly including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militants and Students Islamic Movement of India— Indian Mujahideen (SIMI-IM) cadres and Pakistani nationals, have been arrested. However, such operational successes are entirely consistent with the past, at times when little or no relief from the threat of Islamist terrorism was visible, and, indeed, even during phases when the situation was worsening sharply. The correlation between operational successes and security gains is complex, and a range of other factors need to be assessed to arrive at a clear picture.

It is significant, within the context of Islamist terrorism, for instance, that operational successes have themselves exposed an expanding network of Pakistan-backed groupings into areas hitherto regarded as relatively unaffected by their activities. Between August 29 and September 2, 2012, Police arrested at least 18 persons across Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and claimed to have dismantled terror modules linked to the LeT and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami ( HuJI). Significantly, at that time, the then Director Intelligence Bureau, Nehchal Sandhu, had underlined the fact that groups such as HuJI and Indian Mujahideen had developed a formidable complex in Southern India through the SIMI network. Similarly, the arrest of Abu Jundal aka Zabiuddin Ansari, the prime handler of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, on June 21, 2012, on his deportation from Saudi Arabia was another major success; as were the following deportations and arrests of A. Raees on October 6, 2012, who was linked with a consignment of explosives seized in Malayalamkunnu in Kerala in 2009; and Fasih Mohammad on October 22, 2012, a suspect in the Chinnaswamy Stadium blast in Bangalore, on April 17, 2010, and the Jama Masjid shooting on September 19, 2010. However, evidence emerging from their interrogations exposed the degree to which Saudi Arabia had been consolidated by the Pakistan intelligence and terrorist apparatus as an operational hub for terrorist recruitment and coordination of operations against India. Earlier, substantial evidence had already been amassed demonstrating the degree to which Saudi Arabia was being used for funding the subversive-terrorist SIMI-IM complex in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

It is useful, here, to recall that 252 of the country’s 640 districts continued to be afflicted by varying intensities of chronic subversive, insurgent and terrorist activity in 2012, including 173 districts where the Maoists remained active; 15 districts in J&K afflicted by Pakistan-backed Islamist separatist terrorism; and 64 districts in six Northeastern States where numerous ethnicity based terrorist and insurgent formations operate. This is, of course, down from a peak of 310 districts so listed in 2010, principally as a result of the abrupt contraction of the Maoist rampage which had escalated enormously in the 2009-10 period. Maoist violence and activities have diminished partly as a result of severe losses at leadership level that resulted from their over-ambitious and premature plan to “extend the people’s war throughout the country”, and particularly their forays into urban areas; and partly because opportunities created by the perverse pre-election politics of West Bengal— where the Trinamool Congress (TMC), then in the Opposition, colluded with the Maoists in its successful bid to unseat the then-ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)— ended with the new TMC Government discovering that a collusive arrangement between a Government and a rebel formation was not sustainable. It is crucial to note, here, that the Maoists have, essentially, withdrawn to their areas of traditional strength in the so-called ‘Red Corridor’ States, and that the overwhelming proportion of their leadership losses were sustained in narrowly targeted intelligence-led operations far from their ‘heartland’, and not in the blundering ‘clear, hold and develop’ or ‘cordon and search’ operations that much noise has been made about. Indeed, 2012 estimates of Maoist armed cadres indicated further strengthening, at 8,600, as against 7,200 armed cadres in 2006; an additional strength of 38,000 ‘jan (people’s) militia’ and unnumbered ‘sympathisers’ back the ‘full time revolutionaries’ of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA).

Despite the demonstrable success of intelligence-based operations against the Maoists and the evident necessity of the dominance of the State Police apparatus throughout its jurisdiction, the lessons the Centre and many of the States have ‘learned’ are both counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Inordinate emphasis continues to be placed on the raising and training of Special Forces, despite the demonstrable necessity of improving general Force and intelligence capabilities at State level. Indeed, in a complete misreading of the experience of the successful anti-Naxalite campaign in Andhra Pradesh, the Centre is now funding a scheme for the raising of Special Forces in the worst afflicted States— Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar— “as per the approved guidelines of Greyhounds”. Meanwhile, the general policing apparatus in these States remains largely dysfunctional and divorced from the challenge of the Maoist insurgency, even as a comprehensive failure to develop effective intelligence capabilities hobbles operations by both Central Forces and the States’ special and ‘commando’ units.

While flashy technological acquisitions and ‘architectural’ innovations and proposals are paraded by the political executive as ‘solutions’ to the challenges of insurgency and terrorism, the hard core of capacities and capabilities continues to be substantially neglected. Many of the most important initiatives continue to founder, often due to the structural inflexibility of the existing system, and significantly because of the sheer dearth of an appropriate profile of manpower. According to a statement in the Lok Sabha by the minister of state of home affairs, R.P.N. Singh, on August 16, 2011, a total of 9,443 posts were lying vacant in the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The situation has improved, at best, marginally, since then. On March 12, 2013, in a written statement to the Lok Sabha, Singh disclosed, “As against a sanctioned strength of 26,867 personnel in IB, at present 18,795 personnel are available with a total of 8,072 vacancies (30%).”

The statement speaks volumes of the disarray in the national intelligence establishment. For one thing, a total sanctioned strength of just 26,867 personnel (including an undisclosed proportion of staff unrelated to the principal tasks of intelligence gathering, analysis and operations) for an organisation with as wide a mandate as the IB, and for a population of 1.24 billion is, in itself, an absurdity. That a 30 per cent deficit exists against even this meagre allocation of manpower is utterly inexplicable, particularly within a context where the Centre is pretending that it has the capacities to set up a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) ‘like the US NCTC’. The sheer stupidity of the national approach to counter-terrorism (CT) in general, and to CT intelligence in particular, is abundantly manifested in this single snapshot of the Centre’s scandalous approach.

India’s capacity for self-deception is extreme, and this constitutes the gravest threat to national security. The state’s counterterrorism (CT) ‘policies’ have been based principally on political posturing, and not on objective and urgent considerations of strategy and response. Over the past years, and sharply since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008, creating an illusion of security has been given far greater priority than giving real muscle and substance to the CT apparatus. Flashy, superficially imitative and wasteful initiatives such as the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) have been projected as panacea in an atmosphere of hysteria that follows major terrorist strikes, and have unfortunately captured the imagination of the political leadership, the media and the public, with very rare individual exceptions. No objective assessment of the utility of such institutions, given the actual profile they can be expected to attain within the Indian context, has been forthcoming. The obtuse narrative advanced by camp followers at the Centre and lapped up by the opposition, the media, and the public, for instance, is that 9/11 occurred in the US; then the US created the NCTC; and there has been no incident of domestic terrorism in the US since. This narrative is false at every level National Confusion on Counter-terrorism], and yet, it constitutes virtually the sum of the rationale advanced for the creation of the NCTC in India. That the US has spent trillions of dollars on virtually reinventing its domestic intelligence, CT and security apparatus; launched two wars; hunted down and killed terrorists across the world; located and executed Osama bin Laden in the heart of a military cantonment 192 kilometres inside Pakistan; and virtually violated every principal of its own Constitution and international law to detain and torture suspects and enter into unprincipled ‘rendition’ treaties with a multiplicity of regimes notorious for human rights violations, is entirely missing from this narrative. That we cannot, or in many of these elements may not wish to, do most of these things is also entirely ignored. But our NCTC will be ‘like the US NCTC’, just as our National Investigation Agency (NIA), with a 2011-12 budget of USD12.53 million, was intended to be ‘like the FBI’, which had a 2012 budget of over USD 8 billion, seems to be an entirely acceptable proposition to the many ‘blind men of Hindoostan’.

In the meantime, essential institutional capabilities— most importantly the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) and the national database it was intended to create, and the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS)— fail to attain the critical mass necessary to impact on the country’s operational capabilities. The Police-population ratio, repeatedly falsified by the Home Ministry in statements to Parliament, has barely crept up from 128 in 2008, to a severely inadequate 137 as on December 31, 2011. By most objective measures— with the exception of the unwarranted emphasis on Special Force capabilities— broader Police capabilities and the efficiency of the security system as a whole have not manifested any dramatic improvement, and each new crisis exposes vulnerabilities that are no different from those that disgraced India during the 26/11 attacks in 2008.

It would be a grave error to take declining trends in terrorist and insurgent violence in India as proof that we are now proportionately more secure against these threats. India’s vulnerabilities have not diminished, though her enemies’ strategic priorities may have temporarily shifted, or their energies or motivation may have flagged. The substructure of enveloping factors—mis-governance, corruption, abysmal poverty, rising demographic stresses, a hostile neighbourhood, and global instability— remain unchanged, and will yield new cycles of future violence. The limited relief India is currently experiencing offers a brief opportunity to strengthen our systems and to enhance our capabilities, so that we are better prepared for what might well be an even more devastating phases of violence in future.

Ajai Sahni is Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR); Executive Director, Institute of Conflict Management ( ICM) & South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP)

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