It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Charles Dickens’s paradox applies rather well to the extraordinary situation in India today, where most indices of terrorist violence and mass conflict show dramatic contraction or relative stability, while public assessments reflect a measure of hysteria unprecedented even when violence was peaking in multiple terrorist and insurgent movements across the country.
The year 2001 saw 5,839 fatalities in terrorist and insurgent violence across India, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal data, and the decade between 1994 and 2003 saw this figure consistently well above 3,000. There have been 761 such fatalities in the current year (all data till October 30), manifesting a reversal of the trend of sustained decline since 2002, with the exception of 2013, which, again, saw a rise to 884 fatalities from the 803 the preceding year. While these occasional reverses are far from acceptable, they do not reflect any radical disruption of the broadly positive trends.
Other indices of mass violence — fatalities in and incidents of communal violence and crimes against scheduled castes — also demonstrate stable trends, though there has been a sharp spike in crimes recorded against scheduled tribes in 2014 and 2015. Data in these categories for the current year is unavailable.
Of course, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and along the Line of Control (LoC) and international border with Pakistan gives cause for concern. Terrorism-linked fatalities have spiked to 223, as against 174 last year. They had reached a particular low, at 117, in 2012, but have since been rising. They remain, however, a fraction of the 4,507 killed in 2001. It is useful, moreover, to recall that J&K was the theatre of a high intensity conflict (recording over a thousand fatalities each year) for all of 17 years, between 1990 and 2006, and that, for 11 of these, fatalities were above 2,000 each year. By that measure, and despite transient reversals, the current situation reflects a dramatic improvement.
Of course, the stone-pelting campaign, which has resulted in 96 deaths and some 18,050 injured, including 4,050 security personnel, as well as the disturbing images of people maimed and blinded by pellet guns, add to the state’s enduring crisis. However, assessments from the establishment describing the situation as “extremely fragile” are misconceived, reflecting an unrealistic expectation of compete calm in a state that is yet to escape the dynamic that has fed terrorism and extreme violence there for over two-and-a-half decades.
The current ascendancy of jingoism, pseudo-nationalism and the politics of religious polarisation have enormously added to the problems of J&K. While the “surgical strikes” across the LoC, in response to the terrorist attack at Uri, cannot be faulted, their domestic and international politicisation has caused enormous harm. The continuous and strategically purposeless exchange of fire along the LoC and international border feed into the polarising politics of the right both in India and Pakistan, but will secure no lasting gains for either country, even as they notch up daily loss of life.
Crucially, while politicians can celebrate the “lessons” they are teaching the other side, it is soldiers and innocent civilians who pay with life, limb and property in an enveloping environment of fear. Unless such retaliatory use of force is backed by a more comprehensive and sustained deterrent and punitive strategy against Pakistan, it cannot contribute to a broader solution to the interminable problems of Kashmir, and the wider threat of Pakistan-backed terrorism across the country. There is little evidence that such a strategy has now found root in Raisina Hill, though its fitful beginnings may be visible.
“New trends” in Islamic terrorism have inspired great frenzies in the public and media discourse, particularly since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in West Asia and the creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) in the latter half of 2014. The real impact is negligible. No single attack — major or minor — linked to either organisation has yet been recorded on Indian soil, and recruitment and mobilisation in favour of these groups has been marginal, and is likely to fall further despite aggressive efforts as the IS suffers devastating reverses in its heartland areas. As far as India is concerned, the Pakistani state-backed formations remain the most potent surviving Islamist threats, both in J&K and beyond.
Both the Maoist threat and the multiple insurgencies of the Northeast have suffered a relative collapse too. Maoist-linked fatalities across the country have dropped from a peak of 1,180 in 2010 to 381 this year, significantly higher than the 2015 tally of 251, principally as a result of a rise in Maoist fatalities from 101 to 211. It would be premature to declare the Maoist problem “solved”, but the movement is currently under an existential crisis that creates decisive opportunities for state consolidation.
Similarly, combined fatalities in the northeastern states have dropped from a peak of 1,317 fatalities in 2001, to 142 in 2016, down from 273 in 2015. Insurgencies of the Northeast are now ideologically bankrupt movements dominated by criminal-extortionist networks, and require coherent policy interventions to be brought to a final resolution.
While these conventional threats to India’s internal security recede, now dangers are being seeded by a polarising, often violent, identity politics and by increasing contempt for constitutional norms, the latter most visible in the destabilisation of elected governments in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
Further, our vulnerabilities persist, though threats have declined, as little has been done to address the endemic crisis of capacities in the country’s security and intelligence infrastructure (police-population ratios, for instance, actually declined last year). Despite its vaunting rhetoric on the subject, it appears that national security is not particularly high in the government’s policy priorities.
(The writer is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal and an expert on counter-terrorism.)