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Counterpoint: After the blasts

Instead of wasting time on debates about Pota and Shivraj Patil’s clothes, let’s get to the heart of the problem: why don’t our intelligence agencies ever know anything? writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2008 12:45 IST
Vir Sanghvi

In the aftermath of the Delhi blasts, a consensus seems to have developed over the latest incidents of terrorism. The basic elements of this consensus are as follows: these blasts were the work of home-grown terrorists. This is a symptom of the radicalisation of the Indian Muslim who is now turning to violence. Perhaps this is a consequence of the failures of Indian secularism. At any rate, it could grow and plunge India into chaos. Therefore, we need to react by introducing Pota-type anti-terror laws and by sacking the Home Minister.

Here’s my problem: I disagree with nearly every element of this consensus.

Let’s take it apart, one by one.

Domestic origin: Yes, the terrorists did not cross the border into India from Pakistan (though intelligence agencies say they were helped by the ISI) and are certainly, home-grown.

But does this mean that their terrorist acts were a response to events within India?

This does not necessarily follow. They may talk about Gujarat or the Babri Masjid, but the terrorism has begun too many years after those events for there to be a direct causal link. It is hard to see the Delhi bombings, for instance, as a response to the Gujarat massacres.

Nor is this a manifestation of a Muslim minority revolt against ‘Hindu majority India’. The truth is that there is a global trend towards jehadi violence among some Muslim youth. And this trend is actually more pronounced in Muslim countries than in ‘Hindu India’. Why is there terrorism against the state in say, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt or even, closer to home, in Pakistan? In none of these countries are Muslims a minority. In none of them can they claim to be discriminated against.

So it would be a mistake to see the blasts entirely in Hindu-Muslim or majority-minority terms. There is a global pan-Islamic jehadi trend and India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population, cannot possibly be immune to it.

Radicalisation of the Muslim minority: There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that these terrorists are truly representative of India’s Muslims and even less to suggest that they have any real support within their community.

It is tempting to make knee-jerk associations between cause and effect and to argue that the anger of the bombers stems from the grievances of India’s Muslims. But we must not forget that India has been here before.

For much of the 1980s, Sikh militants wreaked havoc around the country. They planted explosives in cities, they killed innocent civilians in Delhi with transistor bombs, they stopped buses and shot Hindu passengers, they blew up Kanishka, an Air-India Boeing 747, killing hundreds, and they even assassinated a Prime Minister.

Their terrorism did not stem from any deep-rooted discrimination against India’s Sikhs or from the community’s sense of alienation from the mainstream. They were just murderers and fanatics.

The experience of the 1980s holds two lessons for us. One: we must not panic unduly or worry needlessly. We have survived much worse. And two: never judge a community by its terrorists. The Sikh militants did not represent their community. These bombers do not represent Indian Muslims.

So why is it happening?: Thousands of books have been written on the jehadi resurgence and I don’t claim to know all the answers. But if you think that India, a country of over a billion, is in a bad way because of these blasts, then think of tiny England. The British security services are monitoring 200 terrorist networks. They estimate there are 16,000 known terrorists in the UK, 3,000 of them trained in Al Qaeda camps.

There is no history of anti-Muslim feeling in Britain. Yet after such events as the 7/7 attacks, polls have found support for the terrorists among some Muslims and pollsters say that over half of Britain’s Muslims have some sympathy for Osama Bin Laden.

So, no country can be immune to a global trend. And given the size of our Muslim population, we have done better than most.

New laws:

The demand for ‘new anti-terror laws’ routinely made by the BJP is a demand for laws that allow the police to pick up people and imprison them without having to provide any evidence to a court of law.

As illiberal as it sounds, and though intellectuals in Western countries angrily fight it, this law does have some place in the battle against terror. Often, evidence is hard to come by and witnesses are nearly always too terrified to testify against terrorists. So bombers are either given bail or let off by judges — and are therefore free to strike again.

The only question to be asked in the Indian context is this: is the presumption of innocence hampering investigations? In other words, is it true that the police know who the terrorists are but cannot arrest them because of a lack of evidence? Are judges being too lenient?

The answer here has to be no. Such is the mood in the country that no judge will refuse to remand a terrorist. Besides, the problem is not that the police can’t arrest known suspects.

The problem is that they don’t know who or where the suspects are.

If the police can demonstrate to us that their main problem is a lack of evidence, then I would happily support such a law. Certainly, in the past, there has been evidence that judges were too liberal in granting bail. In the present context however, I don’t see how it would help. We had such a law during the NDA regime and terrorists managed to attack Parliament anyway.

Not only did the law not deter terrorists but it also alienated innocent Muslims who were locked up for no reason. While the terrorists are fanatics and criminals who represent nobody, it is ham-fisted implementation of laws like Tada or Pota that has the potential to radicalise the Muslim community.

The Home Minister: Isn’t it fun to attack Shivraj Patil? To laugh about his clothes? To demand that he be sacked? We are all so shaken that we need somebody we can take our anger out on.

If removing Shivraj Patil would reduce the terror threat, I would be out on the streets, demanding his dismissal.

The trouble is that even if Patil goes, it will make absolutely no difference. A sacrificial scapegoat may make us feel better but Patil’s removal will not address the basic problems in our fight against terrorism.

Nowhere in the world is the battle against terrorism conducted solely by the police. A beat constable may notice something: a suspicious package or strangers in a locality. But in a city as large as Delhi, the police cannot possibly guard every trash can, check every car, screen every train passenger or go door-to-door in every neighbourhood. They are already paying for our safety with their lives — as the tragic death of Inspector MC Sharma demonstrates.

The only way to fight terror — as the experience of Israel and the West has shown us — is through intelligence. A good intelligence service will intercept terrorist communications, it will track the networks, it will infiltrate their ranks and it will provide the police with solid intelligence about the movements of terrorists and their plots.

The basic weakness in the Indian battle against terror is the abysmal quality of our intelligence. Over the last few years, the security services have failed to do much more than provide cover-your-ass warnings (“There is a possibility of a terrorist strike in Delhi during Diwali”).

It is now clear that the recent blasts in many of our cities are linked. But even though the intelligence services always announce, after each blast, that they’ve arrested ‘the terror mastermind’, the reality is that they don’t have a clue.

Otherwise they would find the network and disable it. At the very least, they would have specific information about the next blast. But each time there is a terrorist strike, the agencies are clueless.

It will not help to sack the Home Minister. But it will help if we demand some accountability from the intelligence agencies who must answer for their failures. Perhaps they need more resources — CCTV cameras on the British pattern is one demand — in which case, these must be granted at once.

But instead of wasting time on debates about Pota and Shivraj Patil’s clothes, let’s get to the heart of the problem: why don’t our intelligence agencies ever know anything?

Until they find out who the terrorists are and track them down, innocent Indians will continue to die.