India: states of insecurity

Ajai Sahni
28 November 2007

A series of blasts in court compounds across three cities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh killed fifteen persons and injured over eighty on 23 November 2007. They are the latest link in a chain of comparable terrorist attacks by Islamist groupings that have long received safe haven, sustenance and support from Pakistan and, increasingly, Bangladesh - a chain that includes, over the past three years alone, major terrorist strikes in Delhi, Bangalore, Ayodhya, Mumbai, Varanasi, Hyderabad, Malegaon, Panipat, Ajmer and Ludhiana, and lesser attacks at a number of other locations.

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

Also by Ajai Sahni in openDemocracy:

"Massacre in Mumbai: the Pakistan connection" (11 July 2006)

"India under assault" (20 February 2007)

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

At this preliminary stage of investigation it is not yet possible definitively to identify the group(s) involved in the latest case; but initial clues do tie up to "the usual suspects" - at least one eyewitness has identified a known Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) militant from police records, and investigators are focusing additionally on Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi) networks. Some arrests have already been made, but linkages are still to be conclusively established.

Uttar Pradesh: state of insecurity

In addition to the usual clichés about "dastardly deeds" and "terrorist acts" from the political establishment, the serial bombings provoked a cacophony of mutual recriminations between India's central government and the government of Uttar Pradesh (UP) - India's largest and most populous unit, as also among its most backward and worst-administered.

Mayawati, chief minister of UP, demonstrated a startling ignorance of the constitutional division of powers and obligations by declaring that the centre was to blame because central intelligence had failed to warn the state that such an attack was imminent. She then proceeded to transfer the state's additional director-general of the special task force (STF) responsible for counter-terrorism responses in UP, and to berate state police officers for their laxity.

The national opposition parties joined the fray, accusing the centre of "intelligence failure" and of being "soft on terror". A "rebuttal" by the union minister of state for home affairs, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, then claimed that UP had, in fact, been "alerted about the possibility of terrorist attacks at public places". It is incomprehensible how such a generalised "alert" could have helped prevent an attack on any specific target.

The reality is that no specific intelligence relating to the strike on the courts existed. At the same time, Uttar Pradesh has an extended history of Islamist terrorist activity; and a general threat to the courts was anticipated in view of the extraordinary conduct of lawyers in Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi, who had as a body refused to represent any accused in terrorism cases, and had even physically assaulted such accused on at least two instances. Thirty-four of UP's seventy districts are categorised as "sensitive" in terms of Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist and subversive activities; one state-police assessment says that "UP had emerged as one of the major centres of the activities of the [Pakistani intelligence agency ] ISI and its proxy terrorist groups in India", and that "sleeper modules" had infiltrated several cities and small towns in the state.

These broad indicators notwithstanding, it would hardly be considered possible for any security system to eliminate the risk of soft-target terror attacks across India, or, indeed, even across a state like UP. Two further elements undermine the state's capacities to act effectively against terrorism in UP. First, there are acute deficits in the police and intelligence establishments, and primitive policing infrastructure and practices which have long been in urgent need of reform. To take a single index as an example, the state has a ratio of just ninety-four policemen per 100,000 population, as against a national average of 143 (in 2006), and international norms that recommend at least 222/100,000.

Second, and worse, an entrenched element of the state's "vote-bank" politics is the appeasement of the radical elements of the Muslim constituency. A consequence of this is that political parties have actively obstructed enforcement agencies from taking effective action against a tendency that has facilitated and established terrorist networks in the state.

These factors combine with the continuous and endemic erosion of administrative capacities and of the quality of political management to create conditions in which the enforcement and intelligence establishment is comprehensive unpreparedness for major incidents.

West Bengal: the politics of land

The conditions in Uttar Pradesh are abysmal enough, but they are also only part of a wider malaise in India. This has been evident in the recent eruption of violent demonstrations by Islamist fundamentalists in the state of West Bengal (WB), ruled for more than a generation by the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M).

West Bengal has experienced persistent, albeit peripheral, disturbances for the past year over the issue of land acquisition in order to create a "special economic zone" in Nandigram, some seventy kilometres southwest of the state capital, Kolkata.

The Nandigram confrontation can be said to originate in classical democratic oppositional politics and the frictions of globalisation and neo-liberalism. What has made it in political terms crucial - and perhaps prophetic - is the manner in which this originating element has unexpectedly begun to coalesce with, and been harnessed by, two of India's principal extremist movements: the Islamist and the Maoist.

The West Bengal government, in attempting to "recapture" Nandigram from villagers opposed to its plans (and who had earlier ousted Marxist sympathisers from the area), has displayed extraordinary incompetence; its police forces as well as armed CPI-M cadres have used excessive force, committed murder and inflicted "punitive" rape on local people. The result is that a small and altogether manageable local dispute has been transformed into a major conflict and iconic source of extremist mobilisation.

A relatively insignificant Islamist organisation based in West Bengal, the All India Minority Forum (AIMF), has used the events in Nandigram (which has a predominantly Muslim population) as a focal-point of its propaganda. More recently, the AIMF combined the issue of state repression with demands for the expulsion from Kolkata of the "blasphemous" Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. These demands were accompanied by days of open incitement by AIMF office-bearers, including inflammatory statements on national television news channels. The result was predictable: violent demonstrations and riots across Kolkata, necessitating deployment of the army and (on 21 November 2007) the imposition of a night curfew on the city.

The state government, despite ample warning of disorder, had taken no preventive action. Here too, local negligence reflects a long history where the the Marxists of West Bengal have treated Muslims in the state as part of its reliable "vote bank" and thus shortsightedly failed to challenge rising Islamist currents. In addition, they have long denied (until a recent modification of their position) the continuous demographic change in the composition of the state as a result of illegal migration from Bangladesh, and the implications of such open borders for national security.

The incidents in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are only the latest in the ongoing and unedifying - indeed appalling - spectacle of India's official responses to extremism and terrorism across wide areas of the country. At present, hysteria and speculative commentary dominate the immediate reaction to every new incidence of violence. But there is little evidence of a sustained focus by India's state agencies to improve their capacities and patterns of response, and to build an effective national-security system to protect against the augmenting threat of radical political violence.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData