The new year has begun with an echo of how 2008 ended: terrorism. The serial bomb blasts in Assam, the legislative clearance for a new National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the United States’s provision of the missing link between Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Mumbai blasts have marked the first two days of the new year.
The Assam blasts, despite their lack of sophistication, are an important reminder that militant violence within India still remains the most dangerous threat facing the country. The Assam militant situation today is also a lesson in another way. Namely, that political and police perseverance, through the slow drip of constant effort, can serve to delegitimise such political violence. The United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), the group that leads the suspect list for the blasts, is a house divided thanks to the prospect of autonomy that lies on the negotiating table. A similar situation exists with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, the state’s main tribal insurgency. The Ulfa and Bodo movements are split between those who wish to fight and those who wish to talk. Seen through that prism, Thursday’s blasts may be more about militant weakness than terrorist strength.
If political context is crucial to understanding and planning against terrorism, so is the provison of the right policing and intelligence instruments. The creation of the NIA helps in the latter. It creates an agency free of the Centre-state politicking that bedeviled the Central Bureau of Investigation. But it will take years of development, and probably the lessons of many blunders, before the NIA will be able to produce the sort of evidence that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has come up with directly linking Lashkar with the Mumbai blasts. The budgetary support it will receive from the government will be a measure of how seriously the NIA is being taken by New Delhi. These events underline how much counter-terrorism, in a way it has notbefore, will become an important index of good governance and political credibility both this year and the ones that follow.