Monday, Dec 06, 2021
Book Review

The Spectre That Haunts Us

Despite some gaps and deficiencies, the two volumes are a commendable effort towards a holistic study of the phenomenon of terrorism in South Asia.

The Spectre That Haunts Us
The Spectre That Haunts Us
Understanding Terrorism in South Asia
By Imtiaz Ahmed (edt.)
Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi 418 pages, Rs.900

Under a Ford Foundation grant, the Regional Centre of Strategic Studies of Colombo has brought out a two-volume study on "Terrorism in South Asia" consisting of papers contributed by eminent scholars from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Prof. S.D. Muni, formerly of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is now associated with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) of New Delhi, has been the over-all co-ordinator of the study as well as the Editor of the second volume titled Responding to Terrorism in South Asia ( 542 pages, including the index, Rs.1095).

The first Volume titled Understanding Terrorism in South Asia (418 pages, including Index, Rs.900) has been edited by Mr Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, and Executive Director of the Centre For Alternatives.

In his Preface to the second volume, Prof.Muni explains the scope of the study as follows:

"The study is divided into two sections. In the first section, the way in which each of the South Asian States has responded to terrorism has been studied carefully. In the second section, some of the comparative aspects of the regional perspective such as the role of civil societies, consequences of the strategies pursued, role of the third parties, and political economy of terrorism and responding strategies have been taken up for discussion and analysis."

The "Overview" contributed by Prof. Muni on the basis of the conclusions emerging from all the papers provides a lucidly-expressed holistic perspective to the problem of terrorism of different hues and mutations confronting South Asia. It tries to rise above being merely a scholar’s ex-parte judgement on those responsible for dealing with terrorism.

Responding to Terrorism in South Asia  
by S.D. Muni (edt.) 
542 pages; Rs.1095,
 RCSS, Colombo

In addition to Prof. Muni’s "Overview", two other papers stand out by their sheer excellence. The first is the one titled " The State and the Limits of Counter-Terrorism—the Experience of Pakistan and Sri Lanka" in the first volume written by Ms.Rubina Saigol, Country Director, Action Aid, Pakistan.

The second is the one titled " Responding to Terrorism—the Pakistani Response" in the second volume by Ms. Samina Ahmed, Senior Researcher, International Crisis Group (ICG).

Both of them, despite being based in Pakistan, have shown tremendous moral courage and intellectual honesty in analyzing the origin and consequences of terrorism in Pakistani territory, its impact on Pakistan’s own stability and on its relations with the other countries of the region.

In an exquisite paragraph, Ms.Saigol points out that the war against terrorism in Pakistan has partly to be a war waged by the state against itself because many of the terrorist organizations were initially sponsored by the state itself to serve its internal and external objectives.

In a devastating comment on the role of the leaders of the jihadi organizations, who send their followers on suicide missions, while themselves enjoying a luxurious life with the funds collected under the pretext of jihad, she says: "Jehad, like all other wars, is a classed phenomenon in which the foot soldiers are exploited while the leaders make profits."

Some interesting statistics are to be found in her paper: About 8,000 Pakistani Punjabis, about 3,000 from the North-West Frontier Province and about 500 from Sindh are estimated to have died in the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. As against this, only 112 Balochs have died in Jihad, mostly in Afghanistan. The Balochs have not contributed substantially to the jihad—whether in Afghanistan or in India.

Ms.Samina Ahmed says:

"Despite the evident threat posed by religious and sectarian extremism, the military is reluctant to part ways with its Islamic extremist allies, who have, in the perceptions of Pakistan’s authoritative decision-makers, played a valuable role in the past in the domestic and external context, and who continue to play a useful role in advancing the military’s regional agendas and in helping the military retain the control over the State."

Commenting on the post-9/11 policies of the West, she says

" Even as the US and its Western allies focus their attention on the elimination of regional terrorism in Pakistan and its neighbourhood, they have yet to understand that their support for Pakistan’s military-dictated political status quo will undermine their attempts to curb and eliminate terrorist-related activities within and from Pakistani territory."

In an interesting paper in the first volume. Mr Shahedul Anam Khan, a retired officer of the Bangladesh Army and presently, Editor of the journal Defence and Strategic Affairs, compares the counter-terrorism methods and experiences of India and Bangladesh and says:

"India and Bangladesh provide two very different canvasses of the terrorism phenomenon, although the root causes and the methods used by them are very similar, so are the impediments that these two countries are facing. Many of the limits are inbuilt in the system and in the attitude of the politicians and bureaucrats. While external factors exacerbate terrorism, taking refuge in this may not help us to totally eliminate the phenomenon."

In a paper on Bangladesh in the second volume, Mr Abul Kalam, Professor of International Relations at the Dhaka University, correctly points out as follows:

"The country’s lingering confrontational politics, providing a climate favourable for the terrorists to operate has to end…..To curb terrorism, a spirit of communication and mutual exchange between the Government and the opposition has to replace the current violence-prone culture of hartal and boycott, with a mutual recognition of shared needs."

He also refers to the continuing perceptual divide between India and Bangladesh on the question of cross-border terrorism allegedly emanating from the Bangladesh territory, which is coming in the way of counter-terrorism co-operation between the two countries.

There are three comprehensive papers on Sri Lanka and two on Nepal. The papers on Sri Lanka have been contributed by Mr Jehan Perera, Director, Media and Research at the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, and Mr Ketheshwaran Loganathan, of the Centre For Policy Alternatives, Colombo. Ms.Saigol’s paper partly touches upon Sri Lanka also.

The papers on Nepal have been contributed by Mr Dhruba Kumar, Professor of Political Science, Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, and Mr Deepak Thapa, a senior journalist of Nepal.

Unfortunately, these papers have been overtaken by the events in the two countries since the beginning of this year. They do provide a detailed account of how the problem of terrorism was sought to be addressed in the past, but having apparently been written before the recent events, do not touch upon the two burning questions of the day: How to end the renewed bloodshed in Sri Lanka? Are the Maoists’ conversion to democracy in Nepal genuine?

Apart from Prof.Muni, the other Indian contributors are Mr Ranabir Samaddar, Director, Calcutta Research Group, on "Colonial State, Terror and Law", Dr Ajai Sahni, Executive Director, Institute For Conflict Management, New Delhi, on "Responding To Terrorism in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir", Shri Vijendra Singh Jaffa, a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, who had served in the North-East, on "Insurgencies in North-East India", Mr Wasbir Hussain, Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati, on "Bhutan’s Response to the Challenge of Terrorism", Lt.Gen. (retd) V.R.Raghavan, former Director-General of Military Operations and, currently, Director, Delhi Policy Group, on the "Role of Third Parties in Resolving Terrorism-generating Conflicts", Mr Mahendra P.Lama, Professor of South Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on the "Political Economy of Terrorism", Shri Sanjoy Hazarika, journalist, on "India and the Sub-Nationalist Movements in Mizoram and Nagaland", and Dr P.V.Ramana, Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF),New Delhi, on "Data Paper on Terrorism in South Asia".

Mizoram is a success story in the history of India’s Counter-insurgency Operations. So is Punjab in the history of India’s Counter-Terrorism Operations. The credit for the restoration of normalcy in Mizoram and for finding a political solution to the problem there should go to the Army and the political leadership, particularly to Mrs.Indira Gandhi, as well as to the far-sightedness and amenability to compromise exhibited by the late Mr Laldenga, the head of the Mizo National Front (MNF). Mr Laldenga’s disenchantment with Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which had tried to keep the Mizo insurgency alive, was the trigger which led to the peace process.

Punjab is a remarkable example of success in counter-terrorism operations without conceding the demands of the terrorists. Among the factors, which contributed to this success, were the legendary leadership of Shri KPS Gill, who was the Director-General of Police of Punjab and who showed that a well-motivated, well-trained and well-led police is the best counter to terrorism, the political backing he received from the Governments of India and Punjab, the role of the army in assisting the police when needed, and the tremendous flow of precise intelligence from many Western intelligence agencies after the blowing-up of the "Kanishka" aircraft of Air India off the Irish Coast in June 1985 by the Khalistani terrorists in which a large number of foreigners, mainly Canadians, were killed.

Among other factors, which contributed to the success of the police, one could mention the fact that while Pakistan’s ISI provided the Khalistani terrorists with training, arms and ammunition and sanctuaries, it did not send foreign mercenaries into Punjab to help them.

Dr Sahni has very comprehensively analysed the role played by the police under Mr Gill’s leadership. At the same time, one cannot help having a feeling that he has not done enough justice to the contributions made by other officers in dealing with the Khalistani terrorism at the initial stages, when hardly any worthwhile intelligence was coming.

The difficulties, which we continue to face in J&K, could be attributed to the large-scale involvement of Pakistanis and other foreign nationals in acts of terrorism and the ambivalent attitude of the Western countries, which look upon J&K as a disputed territory and hence are disinclined to extend the same kind of intelligence co-operation as they did in Punjab.

The two volumes are not without deficiencies. They are rich in information, but weak in insights. This could be attributed to the fact that of the 22 contributors, only four—two each from India and Bangladesh— had served in the government and had exercised responsibilities relating to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. The rest are academics, journalists and other intellectuals.

Practically all the contributors have highlighted the failure of the international community to agree on a universally acceptable definition of terrorism, but have not been able to come out with suggestions as to how to get out of this difficulty. I have myself been suggesting for some years that instead of trying to define terrorism, the international community should prepare a short list of acts of terrorism such as hijacking of planes, use of improvised explosive devices against means of public transport and other soft targets etc and declare all organizations indulging in such actions as terrorist organizations.

State terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism are used by many of the contributors as synonymous. They are not so. State terrorism is the use of terror by a state to suppress its own citizens. State-sponsored terrorism is the use of terrorism by a state against another state for achieving a national objective.

The difficulties posed by the emergence of suicide terrorism as a strategic weapon in Sri Lanka and in Pakistan and India, the gravitation of the terrorists from the use of hand-held weapons to that of improvised explosive devices and from attacks on hard targets to soft targets, the increasing use of science and technology by the terrorists and the role of the Internet in terrorism and counter-terrorism have not received much attention. These do have an impact on the way a state responds to terrorism.

Since 1998, the conventional wisdom on terrorism has undergone many changes. Economic deprivation, social backwardness, lack of education, bad governance etc are no longer the only motivating factors. Many of the post-1998 terrorists are well-educated and come from well-to-do families. Their unhappiness with certain aspects of foreign policies—more than any unhappiness with domestic policies— is becoming an important motivating factor. These changes in conventional wisdom are not adequately reflected.

Prof. Muni’s conclusion that "in responding to the challenge of terrorism, the South Asian States have shown a strong inclination towards the use of force, though this use of force is generally mingled with the feeble use of other strategies as political and constitutional accommodation and the developmental approach" is debatable and does not reflect the Indian reality.

There have been very few instances in India (for example in the Golden Temple in Amritsar) where the state has taken the initiative in using force. The use of force has generally been as an act of self-defence. The basic principle of Indian counter-terrorism is to repeatedly deny success on the ground to terrorists through physical security, disruption of terrorist cells, investigation and prosecution. This is also known as the doctrine of passive defence as against the doctrine of active defence followed by the US and Israel.

Despite these gaps and deficiencies, the two volumes are a commendable effort towards a holistic study of the phenomenon of terrorism in South Asia and would be valuable additions to the libraries of academic institutions and the training institutions of the police and other security forces and agencies in South Asia as well as in the countries of other regions. .

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )


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