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Monday, July 20, 2009

Making Strategic Sense Of Terror

By Firdaus Ahmed

16 August, 2008

The ‘Indian Mujahedeen’ has spelt out its manifesto in the warning email apparently delivered five minutes prior to the Ahmedabad attacks at media offices and headquarters of investigation agencies. The email gives out clues as to the motivations, aims and strategy. But first a look at the two strands of commentary that the blasts have evoked.

The first is on management of counter terrorism. This perspective has it that Pakistan’s ISI has managed to create an Indian fifth column in the form of ‘sleeper cells’ in then minority community. These subscribe to radical Islamism as guiding philosophy. To them India is a land of infidels in which the supposed persecution of Muslims legitimizes ‘Jihad’ as a religion ordained response. The external global and inter-state contexts of GWOT and adversarial India-Pakistan relations respectively, manifest in India along the civilsational faultline that cleaves India. The prescription of the counter terrorism approach is transformation of India into a ‘hard state’ along the lines of Israel and the US with its homeland security driven agenda.

The second strand is a wider socio-political approach focusing on denying terrorists a legitimising cause. This involves understanding motivations, discerning the political context, highlighting policing excesses and suggesting long term measures to include preserving a secular polity, enlarging economic opportunities for the minority and reforming madrasa education. Commentary emanating from this perspective privileges internal causes such as the ascendance of rightist ideologies, incapacity of juridical and policing measures in curbing right wing violence and the deprivation-alienation linkage in forming the minority psyche. The prescription is in the state reclaiming its secular credentials and a professionalisation of its internal security and judicial mechanism.

It would appear that both highlight valid issues that should be pursued together. A proactive approach to internal security as advocated by the first strand is to deter future terror, downgrade impulse towards vigilantism and deprive the right wing the pressure point of India being a ‘soft state’. The long term approach is also necessary to address legitimate grievances, keep the state on even ideological keel and reduce the fertility of India’s internal space to manipulation from without.

A third perspective has not been explicitly articulated; but can be discerned from the subtext of the comments on the terror attacks originating from minority quarters. These unanimously and unambiguously condemn the terror purportedly perpetrated in their name. The call is for a concerted search for the terrorists and exemplary punishment. The subtext of suspicion of the origins of the so called ‘Indian Mujahedeen’ originates in incomprehension of the motives of the terrorists, given the strategic imbecility of both the terrorist acts and its justification as carried in the email.

An assessment of motives is in order. Even if revenge is ‘a dish best eaten cold’, revenge attacks six years since the pogrom in Gujarat brings into question the credibility of the motive. Why also target Banglalore and Jaipur in that case? If policing excesses, in follow-up of investigations of earlier terror attacks in Hyderabad and Mumbai, mentioned in the email, are factored in then the level of vengeance is wholly incommensurate and against the wrong targets. Vengeance attacks set the stage for an interminable cycle vengeance-provocation that could only lead to further marginalisation of the minority. They also edify the earlier misplaced formulation of ‘action-reaction’ heard in the wake of Godhra and other such hark back to history as reprisal now for acts in Babur’s time!

On stronger grounds as candidate motive is that these were to serve as a provocation for another pogrom against the minority. That these attacks have been in BJP ruled states and the email has incendiary references to the Hindu pantheon, the intention may have been for a minority targeting backlash that could be capitalised on by the group for legitimacy and penetration of the minority community. That there is no political front of the terror organisation that could take advantage of this detracts against this possibility. The obverse is that such a situation would only lead to continued ghettoisation of the minority and political ascendance of the majoritarian right wing, currently rudderless, in the run up to national elections.

The email also carries threat of future retribution in case minority communities’ rights are trampled. This appropriation of the protection function by this group does not carry the imprimatur of the wider community, undercuts ongoing efforts at ensuring the same through the liberal state and judicial intervention and has no possibility of substituting monopoly power of state agencies with respect to the function. In relation to the power and propensity to violence of right wing formations, the group miscalculates as to its relevance and potential. The liberal order, anchored in the constitutional order and a secular majority, is the only defence of minorities against right wing targeting and state culpability, to the extent there is, in the same.

The oft averred to ‘external factor’ requires interrogation. It is well acknowledged that India is off the radar screen of Arab-centric radical Islamism. The ‘ISI hand’ is a self-servingly exaggerated threat, predicated as it is on the potential of subversion of the minority; an expectation having well-spring in the contestable notion of nationalism that motherland and holyland need to be coextensive. It emerges that there is more to ‘Indian Mujahedeen’ than meets the media eye. The subtext of Indian Muslim wholesale condemnation of the group should provoke a closer scrutiny of its origins by investigation agencies.

Three suspicion raising pointers are necessary to record. One, in light of larger manpower requirement for the kind of attacks that took place, enormous coordination, considerable manpower and impunity would have been required to conduct these. Terrorist ‘sleeper cells’ having a cellular structure and already under watch of wary government agencies could not have been able to mount such a country-wide demonstration of their supposed power. Instead it is worth considering whether in this age of Information Warfare, a right wing conspiracy is not at root. The largescale movements - as seen from the routing of the two vehicles stolen from Navi Mumbai for placing of bombs in the hospitals in Ahmedabad and over two score bombs placed all over – indicate levels of impunity that cannot be commanded by minority elements in today’s India. This therefore could have origin in a right wing conspiracy with technical assistance from rogue elements of the Vanzara mould in a compromised state.

Two, casualties have been relatively less than earlier bomb blasts with the proverbial ISI hallmark. For an attack of this size, attendant vulnerability and likelihood of eventual exposure, the terrorist group would have had higher ambitions. Fewer casualties indicate an unaccountable ‘pulling of punches’, alien to the terrorist scheme. Also, the discovery of several unexploded bombs in Surat appears too pat by far. The terrorist group would not have run such high risks of exposure in operation and detection post-operation for infliction of the limited number of casualties actually felled. Therefore logically the needle of suspicion should point elsewhere to include those who could profit politically from the attacks. Such preparation was earlier detected in Nanded should arouse suspicion along this line.

Lastly, reflection on this very question. These blasts could only place terror, its origins and attempt at legitimacy in an ‘action-reaction’ logic irrevocably outside the pale. This would enable treating it as an act of ‘war’ and justify measures modelled on the ‘homeland security’ initiatives elsewhere. Bills on terrorism forwarded by some states, such as Gujarat, are pending President’s assent. Further, national elections are scheduled for next year and polarisation along communal lines may prove of electoral value to any political formation hoping to rely on the majority as a vote bank. The legitimising logic for such circles would be that ends justify the means and saving India by taking it over, through fair means or foul, is in their final analysis for the good of the country and its defining community.

There is therefore scope for expansion of the arc of suspicion beyond the usual confines in the aftermath of terror to include those not in the default lineup. While investigating agencies may like to take this on, it is a fit case for a Tehelka style exposure by intrepid investigative journalists.

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