The good news first. Under a new leadership, a moribund union ministry of home affairs (MHA) has been galvanized into unprecedented action by the shock of the November 26, 2008, Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist outrage in Mumbai. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, total terrorism/insurgency related fatalities have fallen from a peak of 5,839 in 2001, and from 2,611 in 2008, to 2,226 in 2009. Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), which accounted for an overwhelming proportion of casualties (4,507) at this peak, has seen the most precipitate decline, with 377 killed in 2009. Every year since 2001 has seen continuous diminution in total fatalities in J&K, and 2009 was the third year running with total fatalities below the ‘high intensity conflict’ benchmark of 1,000 killed. Consistent with past years, moreover, the bulk of fatalities have been inflicted on the terrorists, accounting for 65 per cent of the total of 377 killed in 2009.
Across India’s Northeast, total fatalities dropped from 1,054 in 2008 to 843 in 2009. Even Manipur, the state worst affected by a multiplicity of criminalized insurgencies, saw a marginal improvement, with fatalities declining from 492 in 2008 to 416 in 2009 – a figure that is still devastatingly high in this tiny state of 2.4 million people. Counter-insurgency (CI) gains in Manipur are, however, tentative and remain reversible, with little evidence of civil governance in the state.
Though Assam saw an escalation in total fatalities, from 373 in 2008, to 392 in 2009, virtually the entire ‘executive committee’ of the United Liberationa Front of Asom (ULFA) is now in custody, barring the group’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah. Another of the state’s virulent terrorist groupings, the Black Widow (BW) was forced to surrender en masse after the capture of its ‘commander-in-chief’, Jewel Gorlosa. The year also saw the mass surrender of the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) cadres . By and large, the most dangerous terrorist and insurgent formations have suffered dramatic reverses in the state.
Despite soaring apprehensions after Mumbai 26/11, no major Islamist terrorist attack was witnessed at any urban centre outside J&K. However, union home minister P. Chidambaram has repeatedly spoken of at least 13 terrorist attempts that have been averted by intelligence and enforcement agencies in the year after 26/11, and continuous alerts, arrests and exposures of international networks and conspiracies have kept the temperature high.
Bangladesh, which had emerged under Pakistani and radical Islamist influence, as another canker in India’s side, gave dramatic evidence of a sharp reversal of its policy and orientation after Shiekh Hasina’s electoral sweep in December 2008. The Sheikh Hasina government has, since, cracked down on terrorists of all shades, including the Islamists, as well as various insurgent groupings active in India’s Northeast, who had long secured patronage and safe haven on Bangladeshi soil.
And now the bad news. The Maoist rampage escalated, pushing fatalities to just below ‘high intensity’ levels, with 998 killed in 2009, underlining the enduring incoherence of state responses. Left Wing Extremism (LWE) related fatalities have escalated continuously since 2001, even as increasingly wider areas have come under their sway. The current tally, according to home minister Chidambaram, works out at 223 districts across 20 states, out of a total of 636 districts in 28 states and 7 Union Territories, variously afflicted by Maoist activities. In a recent statement, the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) Central Committee spokesman, Azad, threatened that the party would "expand to wider areas, mobilise wider masses... gather new momentum and get new dynamism", in the wake of the Centre’s disjointed efforts to launch multi-state CI operations.
No doubt, the situation is not quite as alarming as the 223 district figure may initially suggest. A third of the country has by no means been ‘captured’ by the Maoists, nor are these vast areas seething with disruptive violence. The home minister thus clarified that violence "has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police Station areas of around 90 districts in 13 states" (there are over 14,000 Police Stations in the country). But 90 districts experiencing ‘consistent violence’ is significantly greater than the total of 55w variously affected districts in 2003. The steady expansion of Maoist networks and the calibrated extension of their violence reflect a significant strategic failure on the part of the state. The data on fatalities provides an index of the degree to which the Maoists have monopolized the initiative, with civilians and Security Forces (SFs) accounting for nearly 71 per cent of the 998 killings in 2009, as against 66 per cent of the 638 fatalities in 2008.
Nevertheless, in the overall context, threats, at the beginning to 2010, appear to have diminished. Crucially, however, the potential has not, even as capacities of response, despite the sound and fury of the media and policy discourse after 26/11, have not been satisfactorily augmented.
The external factor remains critical, though the internal responses have had significant impact on insurgent trajectories in several theatres. On the J&K front, for instance, the comparative calm remains principally a consequence, not of any dramatic Indian initiatives or successes, but of Pakistan’s growing internal difficulties and the overwhelming media and international focus on the support regional and international terrorism secures on that country’s soil. Nevertheless, while the tap has been turned down, it is evident that the infrastructure of the anti-India jihad continues to be held in reserve by the Pakistani state, and the ‘flow’ of terrorism continues to be calibrated to synchronize with shifting Pakistani policies and perceptions. Significantly, 2009 saw a spurt in infiltration over 2008, the first time since 2002 that there has been a year-on-year increase. According to MHA data, there were 473 infiltration bids in 2009, as against 342 in 2008. Of these, 367 were thwarted, and 93 terrorists were ‘neutralized’ – arrested or killed – while 227 terrorists were forced back into Pakistan-held territories. Nevertheless, 110 terrorists are estimated to have managed to get into J&K, with an estimated 70 per cent foreign and 30 per cent local component. There is also mounting evidence of an escalation of tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB), with Pakistani troops repeatedly firing on Indian Forces, usually to divert attention from or to facilitate terrorist infiltration. At least 28 incidents of ceasefire violation were recorded along the LoC in 2009.
With regard to the Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism in J&K and across the wider Indian theatre, the most significant and potentially threatening unknown, in the medium and long term, remains the outcome of the US ‘AfPak’ enterprise. This is a project that has been hobbled by persistent incoherence, with each announcement of a ‘surge’ accompanied by unrealistic ‘exit’ deadlines that can only give encouragement to the enemy, and fuel greater violence. A possible failure of the AfPak campaigns threatens not only the descent of the entire target region into anarchy, but would have crucial consequences on India’s internal security. A premature Western withdrawal from Afghanistan would restore the open alliance between the Pakistani state and the Islamist extremists to a "pre-9/11 plus" status, with even more virulent capacities and networks being directed outwards – and substantially into India. While this danger is now increasingly acknowledged within the Indian strategic community, there is little evidence of a sufficient effort to create the necessary capacities for response.
Another troubling external factor has been the rising evidence of Chinese mischief, not only by way of overtly threatening moves along the border and the unqualified support China has extended to its ‘all weather friend’, Pakistan, but through visible efforts to prop movements of internal disorder within India. Crucially, as much of the surviving ULFA leadership was arrested in Bangladesh and handed over to Indian authorities, authoritative sources confirmed that Paresh Baruah, the group’s ‘commander-in-chief’ had made repeated trips to Kunming in China, and that he had been assured aid and assistance to restore his organisation along the China-Myanmar border. There is also evidence of an increasing flow of Chinese small arms into India, in volumes that suggest direct state collusion or facilitation. China’s broader moves across the South and South East Asian regions have acquired a quiet and sustained menace, which India remains unprepared to resist.
Within the internal scenario, while improvements in many theatres are manifest, vulnerabilities persist. The quality of governance remains indifferent, often abysmal, most dramatically in the Maoist affected areas, but also in J&K and the states of the Northeast, as well as across wide territories of many of the states that are still outside the ambit of terrorist and insurgent violence.
Crucially, the crisis of capacities remains substantially unaddressed within the intelligence, enforcement and administrative apparatus. It is not the intention, here, to make a detailed assessment of this crisis, or of the faltering efforts of the recent past to address the colossal cumulative deficits that have crippled India’s security systems. It is useful, however, to note that, notwithstanding a nascent coherence of perspectives at New Delhi, translating this into effective capacities is a project still very much in the future. Regrettably, moreover, the Centre’s efforts have been undermined, at least in some measure, by an obsession with form, to the abiding neglect of content. Moreover, the Centre has failed to impress upon many of the states the urgency and magnitude of what is required of them, and a conflict of perspectives remains recurrent – manifested most recently in the Jharkhand government’s brief suspension of anti-Maoist operations, though this decision was quickly reversed after the hue and cry raised by the media. It is evident, however, that there are several state governments and political constituencies whose heart is not in the CI efforts the Centre is trying to catalyse.
There has certainly been significant relief in many theatres, and in the overall levels of terrorist and insurgent violence experienced across India. A sagacious use of this respite would focus on urgent efforts to build, consolidate and reorient the state’s capacities to deal with threats that remain, at best, dormant, even as new dangers loom on the horizon.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
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