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Sri Lanka bombings carry a stark message for India

The main group behind the bombings, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing, Saudi-funded Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ)

columns Updated: Apr 26, 2019 14:58 IST
Brahma Chellaney
Brahma Chellaney
Security personnel stand guard in front of St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 23, 2019, two days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka(AFP)

The Sri Lanka bombings — one of the world’s deadliest acts of terrorism — highlight the growing terrorist threat to democratic, secular states. Far from a concerted and sustained global war on terror, the anti-terrorism fight is being undermined by geopolitics. The global ideological movement fuelling terrorism is Wahhabi jihadism. Yet, the US-ordered total ban on Iranian oil exports from May 3 will reward this jihadism’s financiers.

Despite specific and detailed Indian intelligence warnings, Sri Lanka failed to avert the bombings, in large part because of a divided and dysfunctional government. However, Sri Lanka was quick to detain the bombers’ family members for questioning once the suicide killers were identified. By contrast, the Pulwama bomber’s family members not only remained free but also gave media interviews rationalising the suicide attack.

Sri Lanka has a blood-soaked history, but the scale and intensity of the latest attacks were unprecedented. The coordinated bombings, in less than 30 minutes, killed more people than the 2008 Mumbai terrorist siege, which lasted nearly four days. Actually, in terms of sophisticated methods and synchronised lethality, they were eerily similar to the 1993 serial bombings that targeted Mumbai. Jihadists have long used India as a laboratory: Major acts of terror first tried out in India and then replicated elsewhere include attacks on symbols of State authority, mid-air bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on a city transportation system.

The series of extraordinary steps Sri Lanka took after the bombings — blocking social media, imposing a daily dusk-to-dawn curfew, closing schools until April 29 and proclaiming an emergency law — may seem unthinkable in terrorism-scarred but rights-oriented India. But such measures were necessary to maintain control and to deter large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslims.

Ironically, in the days leading up to the Sri Lanka bombings, the 2008 Mumbai attacks were back in the news in India because of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Pragya Thakur’s controversial comment on Hemant Karkare, the police officer gunned down in that siege. The irony of ironies is that those 26/11 attacks received more Indian attention this month than on their 10th anniversary five months ago. This underscores a troubling truth: Nothing draws the attention of Indians more than political controversy, however petty.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is especially true of India, which — far from heeding the 26/11 lessons — doesn’t remember its martyrs. How many Indians know the name of Tukaram Omble, the “hero among heroes” of 26/11? An ex-army soldier, who became a police assistant sub-inspector, Omble — by ensuring terrorist Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive — provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11. Kasab was captured after the ambush killing of six cops, including Karkare and additional commissioner Ashok Kamte. Omble grabbed the barrel of Kasab’s AK-47 and took a volley of fired bullets, allowing others to seize Kasab.

All the 10 Pakistani terrorists involved in 26/11 wore red string wristbands for Hindus that Pakistani-American David Headley got for them from Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple. But for Kasab’s capture (and confession) helping to indisputably establish Pakistan’s direct involvement, Pakistan’s wicked plan was to portray 26/11 as exemplifying the rise of Hindu terrorism by capitalising on the then Manmohan Singh government’s classification of the 2006-07 blasts in Malegaon, Ajmer Sharif, Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express as “Hindu terror”.

Omble’s extraordinary bravery thus should never be forgotten. Nor the sacrifices of the other 26/11 martyrs awarded the Ashok Chakra — Sandeep Unnikrishnan, Gajender Singh, Vijay Salaskar, Karkare and Kamte. The 26/11 siege affected the national psyche more deeply than any other terrorist attack. Yet such is India’s lack of a sense of remembrance that it laid the Kartarpur Corridor’s cornerstone on the 10th anniversary of 26/11, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”. Pakistan couldn’t have received a better gift from India.

Make no mistake: The Sri Lanka attacks hold major implications for Indian security, in part because the main group behind the bombings, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing, Saudi-funded Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ). The TNTJ, wedded to fanatical Wahhabism, rails against idolaters. It helped establish the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath, from which the bomber outfit NTJ emerged as a splinter.

Like the 2016 brutal Dhaka café attack, the Sri Lanka slaughter was carried out by educated Islamists from well-off families. And just as Bangladesh blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for the attack, the NTJ has ties with ISI’s front organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, through its Sri Lanka operations, has sought links with the TNTJ in India. NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim was inspired by fugitive Indian preacher Zakir Naik’s sermons and received funds from Indian jihadists. It would be paradoxical if India, which tipped off Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, became a victim itself of Thowheed Jamat terror. First of all, it must outlaw the TNTJ.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 26, 2019 14:57 IST