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    South Asia
     Jul 22, 2006
India playing politics with terrorism
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Indian government has come under immense pressure to adopt a more robust policy toward tackling terrorism. While on the external front there is demand for stern action against Pakistan - some are even calling for military strikes on terrorist camps based in Pakistan - on the domestic front there have been strident calls for reviving draconian anti-terrorism legislation that was repealed a couple of years ago.

A series of bomb blasts ripped through suburban trains in Mumbai on July 11, killing 182 people and injuring more than 700. Investigations into the blasts are on. Hundreds have been rounded up and questioned, with three people arrested on Friday morning.

Meanwhile, India's political parties have swooped down on the

tragedy to score points vis-a-vis their political rivals and consolidate their vote banks. First off the block was the Hindu right wing - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiv Sena and the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Others who have joined in the race include the Samajwadi Party (SP), which appeases Muslim extremism.

Within days of the tragedy, the BJP organized an anti-terrorism rally in Mumbai, which was addressed by Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat. The choice of Modi as the mascot for its anti-terrorism campaign was not without reason. Modi was at the helm in Gujarat when mobs led by Hindu right-wing activists massacred thousands of Muslims in 2002. And in the years since, he has adopted a virulently anti-Muslim, pro-Hindutva (an exclusivist Hindu ideology that the right wing advocates) agenda.

In Mumbai, Modi launched a blistering attack on the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's "soft" approach to tackling terrorism and demanded that Delhi re-enact the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) or else give the states the power to enact their own anti-terrorism legislation. Several other BJP leaders, including L K Advani, home minister when POTA was enacted in 2002, have demanded that it be revived. So far the government has ruled out re-enacting the legislation.

Some believe that POTA or similar legislation is essential to prevent terrorism in India. They miss the point that when it was in effect it didn't prevent terrorist attacks. India's parliament building was attacked in December 2001, when POTA was an ordinance. The Kaluchak army base in Jammu was attacked (May 2002), followed by a string of terrorist strikes on the Akshardham Temple (September 2002) and the Raghunath Temple in Jammu (March and November 2002).

In fact, POTA might have been instrumental in fueling terrorism. Its misuse - POTA was used by the Modi government in Gujarat to harass Muslim youth after the riots - is said to have contributed to deepened rage, prompting hundreds of them to join extremist outfits fighting the Indian state.

Those who are clamoring for tough new legislation to tackle terrorism are also ignoring the fact that existing legislation provides police with powers they need to fight terrorism. Soon after POTA was repealed by the new Congress-led government, some of its provisions were retained by amending other laws. For instance, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 was amended to include POTA provisions for banning terrorist organizations and their support systems, including funding.

The militant organizations banned under POTA therefore continued to remain illegal. This legislation imposes penalties that are as stiff as POTA's for a wide range of offenses, including committing a terrorist act, harboring terrorists, being a member of a terrorist group and holding proceeds of terrorism. And as under POTA, intercepted communications are admissible as evidence. And in insurgency-racked Kashmir and the northeastern states, even tougher laws - the Public Security Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act - are in operation to fight terrorism there.

After the repeal of POTA India might not have a special law against terrorism, but there are laws that contain provisions specifically meant to combat that problem.

In Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act, 1999, gives police and intelligence agencies ample powers. Yet these laws and the powers they provide the police were not sufficient to prevent the serial blasts on July 7.

To prevent terrorism, intelligence-gathering must be improved. The online Public Affairs magazine points out that "terrorism must be preempted at the planning stage, and key to this is human intelligence ... Once the terrorist planning stage is passed, and the sleeper cells and modules are activated, it becomes harder to contain the violence. Between planning and managing the logistics, officials say, there was a long gap in which terrorist attacks could be foiled, but this gap is shrinking as the terrorists get more proficient, and more confident when they see the state not pursuing them single-mindedly."

Intelligence and police officials complain of political interference neutralizing their work. They say that the definition of a terrorist seems to change with changes in government. In the process, even if they provide input regarding possible terrorist attacks little is done by the political authorities to prevent it from happening. There were several indications that terrorists were planning to strike in Mumbai, which apparently was conveyed to the Maharashtra government. The government did not act and the result was the July 11 strikes.

It is not just laws, then, that will prevent attacks but the political will to prevent them. And the political will is often not there because politicians are constantly eyeing their vote banks even when decisions related to national security need to be made.

Despite the ban on the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and its reported involvement in terrorist attacks - the probe into the Mumbai blasts suggests that SIMI activists executed the attacks - the Uttar Pradesh government has defended the outfit. The SP, which heads the government in Uttar Pradesh, is eyeing the Muslim vote and is projecting itself as a champion of the Muslims. With the state due to go to the polls next year, the SP is wooing the Muslim vote by turning a blind eye on Muslim extremism. It is impossible, say police officials, to crack down on terrorists when the government backs them. Similar is the case with Hindu extremists in states ruled by the BJP. The UPA makes decisions regarding national security keeping in mind their electoral impact.

The Congress party blames its main rival, the BJP, for deepening Muslim alienation from the Indian state and for the flow of Muslim youth to extremist outfits. It has a point. The destruction of the Babri Masjid by the BJP and its fraternal outfits in 1993 and the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat have provided a boost to Islamic extremism in India. Videos of these events and anti-Muslim hate speeches delivered by leaders of the Sangh Parivar (the family of Hindu organizations of which the BJP is a part) constitute part of the material that Muslim extremists use to motivate their operatives.

But the Congress is no less guilty. In 1984, mobs led by Congress leaders massacred Sikhs in Delhi. The Congress carried out an intensely communal campaign in the elections soon after. It criticized the BJP for not banning the Bajrang Dal (a Hindu extremist outfit that is part of the Sangh Parivar) under POTA. But it has not proscribed the organization either for fear of turning away the Hindu vote. It made a big show of repealing POTA to score points over the BJP and to appease Muslims but quietly included many of its provisions by amending other laws. In states where it is in power, it has been soft on Muslim extremism and allowed terrorist modules to proliferate. The number of terrorist modules busted in 2005 was a third of the figure for 2004.
If Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf turns off the terror tap, a significant proportion of India's problem with terrorism will no doubt be addressed. But with terrorism in India increasingly taking on an Indian face, India will need to focus on setting its house in order. Its politicians will have to stop playing politics with terrorism.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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India's soft response to the Mumbai bombings (Jul 19, '06)

The roots of Muslim anger in India (Jul 15, '06)

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