India Under Terrorist Siege
Television footage of the landmark Taj Mahal Hotel in flames and a 24-hour gun battle inside Mumbai’s other renowned hotel, the Trident-Oberoi, may have sent shivers down the spines of international investors and tourists, but it also laid bare the new face of terror. The brazen Mumbai terrorist assaults, which bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, are just the latest example of how the world’s largest democracy is increasingly coming under siege from the forces of terror. They also serve as a reminder to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama that even as he seeks to deal with the financial meltdown, the global war on terror stands derailed, with the scourge of terrorism having spread deeper and wider.
International terrorism threatens the very existence of democratic, secular states. Yet the U.S. occupation of Iraq not only helped fracture the post-9/11 global consensus to fight terror, but also handed a fresh cause to Islamists and gave a new lease of life to Al Qaeda. The Obama administration will need to bring the anti-terror war back on course by building a new international consensus and focusing on rooting out terrorist sanctuaries in the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt, the epicenter of international terror.
It will, of course, require a sustained international campaign to eliminate the forces of jihad that pursue violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. The challenge is also broad: The entire expanse from the Middle East to Southeast Asia is home to Islamist groups and troubled by terrorist violence, posing a serious challenge to international and regional security.
But as the Mumbai strikes show, India–because of its location next to the Pak-Afghan belt and its eyesore status for jihadists as the only real democratic, secular state in the arc stretching from Jordan to Malaysia–will stay on the frontline of the fight against global terror. To unravel the Indian republic, the jihadists have sought to undermine its rising economic strength by repeatedly making its financial capital their target since 1993, choosing to carry out their latest strikes at a time when foreigners already have been heavy sellers of Indian equities, and Obama is inheriting problems of historic proportions.
The attacks were exceptionally brazen and daring, even when viewed against the high level of terrorism now tormenting India. Indeed, since 9/11, the world has not witnessed terrorism on this scale or level of sophistication and coordination. However, the most troubling questions arising from the latest terrorist attacks–the eighth in a spate of attacks in India in the past five months–relate to why the country has become an easy target for terrorists. Transnational terrorists, including those tied to Al Qaeda, are waging an open war on India, yet the Indian leadership is unable to declare a war on terror.
The question India needs to ask itself is: Why has it turned into a laboratory for international terrorists, who try out new techniques against Indian targets before seeking to replicate them in other pluralistic states? Innovative strikes carried out against Indian targets first and then perpetrated in the West include attacks on symbols of state authority, midair bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on a city transportation system. Now, the jihadists have innovatively carried out a series of horrific assaults in Mumbai that are not only unmatched in scale and daring since 9/11, but also set up a model for imitation elsewhere.
What India needs is a credible counterterror campaign. But what its harried citizens get after each major terrorist attack are stock platitudes, such as a commitment to defeat the designs of terrorist forces. Empty rhetoric is eating into the vitals of internal security. Indeed, after the government’s ritual condemnation of each attack and the standard promise to defeat terror, India puts the strikes behind it and goes back to what now defines it–partisan politics and scandal. That is, until terror strikes again. Worse, the fight against terror has been increasingly politicized and got linked to communal, electoral and vote-bank considerations.
Combating terror demands at least four different elements–a well-thought-out strategy, effective state instruments to implement that strategy, a credible legal framework to speedily bring terrorists to justice, and unflinching political resolve to stay the course. India is deficient on all four.
Unlike other important victims of terror in the world, India has no published counterterror doctrine. And a retiring Chief Justice of India was compelled to remind fellow citizens that, “We don’t have the political will to fight terrorism”. Weak leadership, political one-upmanship and an ever-shifting policy approach indeed have spurred on more terrorism. Not a single case of terrorist attack in recent years has been cracked, yet in the ongoing Malegoan bombing probe, the nation has witnessed the bizarre spectacle of authorities deliberately leaking tidbits of information on a daily basis.
The Indian system has become so effete that terrorists have again exposed the woeful lack of adequate training and preparedness on the part of those tasked to fight terror. Such was the level of police ineptitude that several high-ranking law enforcement officials, including the anti-terrorism squad head, were killed soon after the terrorists struck. As a result, the army had to be called in to deal with the situation.
Against this background, India serves as an exemplar of how not to fight terror. In fact, through its forbearing approach, the country has come to accept terrorist strikes as the ostensible products of its unalterable geography or destiny. Its response to the jihadist strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts has been survival by a thousand bandages. Just as it has come to brook a high level of political corruption, it is willing to put up with a high incidence of terrorism.
Turning this appalling situation around demands a new mindset that will not allow India to be continually gored. That in turn means a readiness to forge a bipartisan consensus to do whatever is necessary to end the terrorist siege of the country. What is needed is a new brand of post-partisan politics, coupled with political will and vision.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately-funded Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.