India after Ahmedabad’s bombs

About the author
Ajai Sahni is executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, and editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review.

Another succession of bomb blasts momentarily interrupted India's national slumber. The latest occasion was in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat on 26 July 2008, which followed those a day earlier in Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka. It may or may not be coincidental that the states targeted in the last three major serial blasts (including Jaipur in Rajasthan, bombed on 13 May) are all ruled by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ajai Sahni is editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi

Also by Ajai Sahni in openDemocracy:

"Massacre in Mumbai: the Pakistan connection" (12 July 2006)

"India under assault" (20 February 2007)

"India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)

"India: states of insecurity" (28 November 2007)

A longer version of this article is published in the South Asia Intelligence Review

The Ahmedabad explosions - seventeen in all - occurred in rapid succession in a densely populated band along the eastern part of the city, killing at least forty-nine persons and injured 145 (many of them critically). The areas affected were of mixed populations, and included areas of high Muslim densities. There is at the time of writing no information as to the religious affiliation of victims, but it is clear that these must include a large proportion of Muslims.

Who perpetrated these attacks? An email message sent to media organisations minutes before the explosions claimed responsibility in the name of the "Indian Mujahideen" - probably a front for a Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi) combine. The email was traced back to an account held by an American corporate executive located in Mumbai, and initial reports suggest the account was probably hacked.

The Indian Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for two earlier incidents - the serial blasts in court compounds in Faizabad, Lucknow and Varanasi on 23 November 2007; and the serial blasts in Jaipur on 13 May 2008. While investigations are far from conclusive in both these incidents, there is a wide range of corroborative evidence that suggests that both these incidents were orchestrated by cadres drawn from the HuJI and Simi (see "India: states of insecurity", 28 November 2007).

The damage of the most recent bombs could have been even more extensive - for two live bombs were defused in Ahmedabad, while on 27 July two vehicles loaded with explosive materials were recovered in Surat (southeast Gujarat, some 294 kilometres from Ahmedabad). Two days before that, on 25 July, a coordinated series of eight low-intensity explosions had killed one person and injured at least seven in Bangalore. The persistent and widespread nature of this violent threat to human life and national security in India is evident.

The real question

In a frenetic search for novelty, India's media have discovered a "new sophistication" in the Ahmedabad operation, and startling innovation in the fact that the attacks in Bangalore and Ahmedabad occurred on successive days. They also discovered the usual "prior warnings" and "intelligence and police failures". On their part, the New Delhi and state governments have called meetings of senior officials, made routine declarations of shock, and expressed determination to confront terrorism.

All this is par for the course. The reality is that there is absolutely nothing new in the Bangalore and Ahmedabad serial blasts, other than elements of tactical detail (which largely remain to be uncovered by investigations). The claim that the Ahmedabad explosions reveal greater "sophistication" is nonsense. The real genius of the serial blasts over the past years has actually been the extraordinary simplicity of operations - relying on widely dispersed cadres, opportunistically drawn from different and often unconnected modules, and on locally procured explosives and materials; all of this makes the task of tracing linkages backwards virtually impossible.

Also on India's security issues in openDemocracy:

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, "Delhi's bombs: landscape of jihad in south Asia" (2 November 2005)

Suhas Chakma, "India's war with itself" (2 April 2007)

Animesh Roul, "Al-Qaida in India" (15 August 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard" (2 May 2008)

The flurry of questions that follows every new terrorist attack is by now familiar - both in the media (who did this, why here, why now?) and among the political class (which government is better and stronger at fighting terrorism, what laws are needed, why do they differ between states?). The media debate is too often hysterical, the political debate too often partisan and perverse; neither lasts long - until the next attack reignites the same responses.

Meanwhile, the principal questions remains largely unasked: what has been done to diminish the likelihood of terrorist attacks, and beyond that how are any improvements in this direction being measured? Amid all the discussions about "red alerts" and "coordination committees" this critical variable never comes up for discussion - because the embarrassing (indeed humiliating) answer would be that nothing whatsoever has been done, so that there is nothing to measure.

The terminal sickness

There was a glimmer of light in the fact that in the wake of the Ahmedabad blasts, India's minister for home affairs for the first time in such a context demonstrated awareness of the fact that the country was severely under-policed and had meagre intelligence cover to deal with the challenge of terrorism. The reality is in fact worse, that India's entire justice system appears to be in a state of terminal sickness, incapable of imposing the law of the land, or of reacting to the rising challenges of violence and disorder in any timeframe that is relevant to counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency war. This is the critical issue confronting the country.

There are many ways of expressing this sickness. A brief statistical excursus makes the point. India's police-population ratio is 126 per 100,000 (as against western ratios that vary between 250 and over 500 per 100,000); Gujarat has a ratio of 152 per 100,000 (above the national average, but well below the at least 222 per 100,000 recommended internationally for peacetime policing.

Moreover, across India policing is primitive in comparison to the technical and technological resources that have been committed to law enforcement in modern systems in the west. There are also crucial deficits in police staffing levels of around 9.75% across the country and up to 40% in some of the worst performing states. The deficits are acute also in the top Indian Police Service (IPS) cadre.

Despite all the talk of - and, indeed, investment in - "police modernisation", security forces in India have made little progress in this direction. True, replacing a first-world-war-vintage .303 rifle with an SLR- or AK-series rifle, or a sixteen-kilo bullet-proof vest with an eight-kilo bullet-proof vest, constitutes an incremental improvement - but this hardly brings the country's forces into the spectrum of "modern" enforcement agencies.

India's police and intelligence forces - with tiny exceptions - remain overwhelmingly undermanned, under-resourced and primitive in their day-to-day functioning. India has failed, for example, even to create a national database on crime and terrorism - despite a mandate to create such a database and supporting organisational structures, including the Multi-Agency Centre and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence in the Intelligence Bureau, that dates back to 2001.

The gravest threat

All this is - or should be - well known. There have been numerous and critical counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency successes across the country, and the tactics and strategies that have succeeded (or that have failed) again are - or should be - well known. What needs to be done is no secret, nor is it complicated. Yet, year after year, with major terrorist attacks executed virtually across the country, the national and state leaderships have failed to initiate effective responses and to build capacities virtually across the entire spectrum of what is needed.

India's political leaders strut about proclaiming that India is a "world power", but the reality is that the country has a crumbling political and administrative system that looks good only in comparison to near-failed states in its neighbourhood such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. The most urgent question that India must ask itself today is: how does a country, which does not have the administrative and technical competence to construct a half-way decent road transport system in its capital city, evolve the capabilities to confront and neutralise one of the most insidious ideologies and complex movements of political violence in global history?

The gravest threat to India's security is not Pakistan, not that country's Inter-Services Intelligence, not terrorism, but the limitless acts of omission, the venality and the ineptitude of the political and administrative executive, and the complete absence of accountability in the top echelons of government. In this sense India's greatest enemy is within.

Unless these endemic and structural infirmities are addressed, the terrorists will continue to operate with impunity across the length and breadth of India.