October 9, 2002


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Praful Bidwai

Anti-terrorism lessons from Akshardham

The ending of the nightmarish takeover of the Swaminarayan temple in Gandhinagar by two terrorists -- who mowed down 37 innocent worshippers -- produced a widespread sense of relief. But there is also smug self-congratulation in the Gujarat government and the Union home ministry over the "professionalism" of the National Security Guard operation which led to the terrorists' killing, and the "effectiveness" with which the Gujarat police contained the fallout of the episode, preventing communal disturbances, unlike after the Godhra carnage. Part of the success is being attributed to the welcome presence of the prime minister, deputy PM and the leader of the Opposition in Gandhinagar.

On a critical, clinical, assessment, however, one can only say "two cheers" to the NSG, and at best "one cheer" to the Gujarat government. If this sounds churlish, consider the fact that the NSG -- undoubtedly our best-trained and -- equipped commando force with a well-deserved reputation for valour, is distinguished from ordinary police units by virtue of being drilled to overpower terrorists and hostage-takers, ie. capture them alive. It closed in on the two culprits well after they had stopped shooting with their small automatic firearms -- that is, under a favourable situation. But instead of using stun-grenades, the NSG pumped bullets into the two men: 46 in one, and 60 in the other. Thus, the NSG lost an opportunity to interrogate the terrorists and collect evidence about their origins, their inspiration, their organisational links, training and funding.

Such evidence can make or break the government's well-reiterated case that the real source of big-time terrorism on Indian soil lies -- as Mr L K Advani emphasised at the directors-general of police conference last week -- in Pakistan. "Live", hard, concrete, evidence alone can convince the Indian and world public of this -- as opposed to "suggestive" evidence such as notes in Urdu and cinema tickets found after the culprits are killed. It is precisely because the Indian police lack such solid, irrefutable evidence that they have repeatedly failed to secure the deportation or extradition of numerous criminals, including the 20 in the list famously handed over to Pakistan.

As for containing the fallout of the Akshardham attack, the Gujarat police were indeed effective -- because they were not prevented by Mr Narendra Modi and Co from doing what they are trained and duty-bound to do. Unlike on February 27-28, they took prompt fire-fighting measures, protected the minorities, rounded up suspects, and set up armed pickets in sensitive areas. This only proves the well-established proposition that the administration can prevent communal disturbances when it wants to; no large-scale violence can occur without its nod. Why did Mr Modi behave better this time? A minor factor was the presence of Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee, which was missing in the crucial first 100 hours post-Godhra. The major reason was simply that the BJP and its associates didn't want communal trouble. Besides international opprobrium -- even the US would break its long silence on the Gujarat pogrom -- this would invite further postponement of the assembly election, which the BJP is obsessively keen to hold soon. The reason for the relatively good outcome in Gujarat is a bad, dishonourable, self-serving one.

Mr Advani's self-congratulatory tone as regards Akshardham is wrong for a more fundamental reason. The issue is not intelligence failure, which the Opposition makes much of. That the episode occurred at all shows that Gujarat remains trapped in a vicious cycle of violence-retribution-counter-violence. Yet, the Gujarat government refuses to recognise that it has promoted what former DGP Julio F Ribeiro calls "the politics of hate." So long as this politics continues, says he, "pitting communities against each other can only breed insecurity."

Grave wounds have been inflicted on Gujarat. First came Godhra and the burning alive of 59 Hindus in February. Then followed the butchery of 2,000 Muslims, and the community's further humiliation and ghettoisation. The administration has treated Muslims in the most outrageous manner, losing no chance to shut down relief camps, depriving them of food and compensation, insulting and chiding them with slogans like Hum panch, hamare pachees. There has been no process of healing, no expression of remorse, no attempt at reconciliation. On the contrary, there is the Gaurav Yatra. This situation is ripe for extreme resentment and desperate overreaction -- out of frustration and the certain knowledge that justice is almost impossible. Such overreaction is condemnable. Nothing -- categorically, nothing -- can justify the taking of innocent lives. But the overreaction will happen in extraordinary circumstances in which people feel cornered and insecure.

Such circumstances exist in large parts of India -- most emphatically, in Gujarat. That's why terrorists don't have to be "outsiders," from Pakistan; they are bred in and by our own conditions -- as seems to be the case with one of the two Gandhinagar men, who was reportedly a fluent Gujarati speaker. Given India's internal rot, the extreme alienation of vulnerable groups creates extreme insecurity for all.

No successful strategy against terrorism can fail to recognise such alienation, or address its root-causes, not just symptoms. Indeed, what is needed is a combination of three approaches: short-term "police" action to deal impartially and effectively with terrorist violence (the "symptoms"); medium-term policies to reform and rectify biases in state agencies compromised by their partisan involvement in social-conflict situations; and long-term remedies to win hearts and minds of people through affirmative action, non-discriminatory protection, and social cohesion.

Put bluntly, there has always been an over-emphasis in India on the short-term and the ad hoc, only half-hearted pursuit of medium-term measures, and total lack of will even to try out long-term approaches. The Northeast, Punjab, Kashmir are all examples of this skewed strategy. The Centre wakes up to the Northeast only when there is a massacre or large-scale violence -- even 10 or 15 deaths don't jolt it into action. A fourth of the country's military budget can be spent on Kashmir, but not even a thousandth of that amount is spent on relief or psychiatric help to the victims of violence in the state. The number of reports on police reforms is legend. Little action is taken on their thoughtful recommendations. Corruption, sloth and ineptitude ensure that the vast majority of our heinous crime cases remain unsolved -- as in Fourth World countries, or Pakistan, where the success rate is "only four or five" of the last three years' 200 bomb attacks, according to home minister Moinuddin Haider.

The imbalances in the Indian official approach to terrorism have worsened. Since 9/11, India has emulated US-style Rambo methods, trying purely military "solutions" to problems which have large social and political dimensions. Terrorism here is reduced to a non-State or militant-group phenomenon, and State terrorism is seen as the appropriate response to militant violence -- at enormous cost to freedom and democracy itself. This is reflected in the evolving hard, militant official vocabulary: Thus, after the October 1, 2001 J&K assembly attack, India warned Pakistan that it "cannot accept such manifestation of hate and terror," its "patience" is running out. After December 13, it threatened to "liquidate" all terrorists-wherever and whoever they are.

The NDA government feels frustrated that a military solution to terrorism is now effectively ruled out. The US will not permit a "limited" India-Pakistan war. Conventional war risks escalation to the nuclear level, with unspeakable consequences. The frustration, some of it justifiable, has grown, as Pakistan, according to The New York Times, has recently resumed limited support to cross-border militant operations. Frustration and resentment are at the root of the recent irrational statements from the government, including Mr Advani's unctuous remarks on the media highlighting "mangled corpses."

Take the official optimism over Abu Salem's possible deportation. The hype is uncalled for. If the man is indeed deported, it won't be because the Indian police have done meticulous homework to convince the Portuguese courts, but because of heavy political pressure on Portugal through the US. More generally, despite Mr Vajpayee's assertion that terrorism is on its "death-bed," "breathing its last breath," it has actually grown. The Intelligence Bureau has just disclosed that no fewer than 2,800 suspected terrorists were killed in the past year. But a year on, India is more vulnerable and insecure.

This calls for a radical change of approach, one which brings in the neglected second and third components of the strategy outlined above. It is the duty of the Indian State to protect innocent citizens against terrorists. But it must protect them against communalists and psychopathic criminals too -- which it regularly fails to do. It is equally its duty to address the root-causes of social discontent and insecurity. It would be futile for this soft, unbalanced, internally compromised, State to pretend it can wield draconian powers and act wisely, without undermining freedom and hence its own legitimacy. People like Mr Advani entertain grand delusions and pretend to wear the mantle of Sardar Patel. The result is a terrible caricature. We citizens always end up paying for the pseudo-Sardar's vanity.

Praful Bidwai

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