‘Terrorism’ is not a term to be used lightly. The horrific blasts in Bombay on 11 July, which left almost 200 train commuters dead and several hundred more injured, constituted clear acts of terrorism. Bombay 2006, however, was not an isolated incident. In the past year itself, innocents in India have suffered due to the politics of violence in the bazaars of Delhi, the temples of Benaras and the fields of Doda.
In the wake of such dastardly attacks, there is a constant danger that the state and society might draw the wrong lessons. The US-led ‘war on terror’ is an example of the flawed approach that has polarised societies and created new recruitment grounds for terror outfits. Southasian states have fared no better. The political class exerts immense pressure on security agencies to bust terror modules and instantly nab those involved in such attacks. They are egged on by a media that publishes endless commentaries on the ‘soft’ nature of the state that cannot prevent the killing of innocents. A defensive police establishment then arrests people on a mass scale, in violation of every tenet of law, breeding further discontent.
Six million passengers travel on the Bombay commuter trains every day, and checking every one is impossible. However, the intelligence network should have had its ear to the ground when the terrorist outfits were planning the operation and amassing explosives, a process that must have taken several months involving multiple actors. The Indian government is suggesting that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved in the attacks, assisted by the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). While the Lashkar claims to fight for the cause of azadi in Kashmir, SIMI is a banned radical outfit that aims to establish an Islamic state.
The espousal of a certain cause by these groups often prompts sections of the intelligentsia – especially those belonging to the left-liberal spectrum – to relate every act of militancy to the ‘root causes’ theory. This explanation is based on the premise that attacks would continue till grievances of discontented groups in, for instance, the Kashmir Valley, are addressed. This is a valid proposition, and more complete than other explanations, but is not totally adequate. Such a theory neither takes into account the political economy of the terror network and its close linkages with crime-lords, nor the realpolitik calculations of the leadership of these outfits. To believe that granting autonomy to the local government in Kashmir or creating softer borders between the two sides is the all-encompassing panacea to this problem would be over-simplification.
Indeed, militant groups know that accomplishing their stated goals – be they the independence of Kashmir or “freeing Muslims from the Hindu yoke” – is not possible by butchering civilians. If anything, terrorism only serves to harden the position of the Indian state, restricting the space for both engagement and negotiation for a possible solution to the dispute.
If they are under no such illusions, what is the real motive of these groups who have again and again targeted civilians? One part of the answer lies in the peace process between India and Pakistan. Although there is a certain stalemate that has marked the negotiations between the two sides over the past few months, the fact that the ceasefire is in place and channels of communication remain open is remarkable. Jihadi outfits realise that this process, if sustained, has the capacity to marginalise them politically. One of their primary aims is to ensure that the peace process collapses, which would enhance their importance and, in some quarters, legitimacy vis-à-vis the conflict that has engulfed the two states.
The decision by the Indian government to postpone the foreign-secretary-level talks with Pakistan, while perhaps understandable as a political necessity, strikes at the heart of the peace process. South Block must recognise that the Pakistan government could not have been involved in planning the attack, and continue the process of engagement. The fact that the attacks may have been planned on Pakistani soil is not enough reason to scuttle the process. For his part, Pervez Musharraf must act even more firmly on his commitment not to allow Pakistani soil to be used for anti-Indian activities. The onus is clearly on him to clamp down on the militant outfits, which have free run in Pakistan and are supported by sections of the military and intelligence agencies. Any failure to do so will only weaken the détente in Southasia, and help the terror outfits to attain their objective.
The second part of the answer lies north of Bombay, in the persona and politics of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. A person complicit in the massacre of Muslims, Modi is set to lead an anti-terror march in Bombay. His philosophy, like that of his ideological parivar, is simple: a Hindu is naturally patriotic, while a Muslim in India has to prove his nationalism. Extremists on both sides wish to build on precisely such sentiments of distrust. Indeed, the state-sponsored killing of Muslims in Gujarat is used by SIMI as a motivational tool to get new recruits.
And therein lies the other, three-fold purpose of these blasts. First, to polarise the communal situation. Second, to create a situation wherein Hindu groups put the loyalties of the Indian Muslim under the scanner. Third, once discontent sets in, to seek to recruit them into radical Islamist organisations. When security forces engulf Muslim ghettos and slums to arrest possible ‘suspects’, the government plays directly into the hands of the militants and their strategy.
Unfortunately, this is not the last India has seen of terror attacks in this particular ‘series’. What the state must do is strengthen its intelligence network and beef up security measures. At the same time, it must continue to engage in the peace process with Pakistan, for that is the most effective way to sideline those dedicated to terror. Most importantly, India’s political and intellectual community must not allow fundamentalism to dominate the discourse during these troubled times.