Terrorism and insurgency
THE job of the police is inherently conflictual. It is difficult and hazardous even in normal times when it is related to prevention and detection of crime and maintenance of law and order. It becomes all the more challenging in situations of serious threats to internal security such as terrorism and insurgency which, besides posing a danger to the life and property of the people, aim at undermining the authority of the state, subverting political institutions and destroying its core values.
Before the emergence of terrorism in Punjab in the early 1980s, the police in India had faced communalism and leftwing extremism as major challenges to public order in some parts of the country. These could be handled effectively by the state police with assistance from central paramilitary forces and the army. The insurgency in the North East had primarily been under the charge of the army because of the magnitude and complexity of the threat it posed and the absence of any effective system of policing in that region.
Terrorism in Punjab was the first real challenge to the administration, particularly the police, in India after Independence. Its inept handling by a professionally mediocre police leadership and its exploitation by unprincipled politicians for party and personal interests, helped it assume the character of a malignant disease, threatening the very existence of civilized society. The menace was ultimately controlled by using methods which will always remain questionable. Unfortunately, the success of the Punjab police in combatting terrorism has encouraged police in other states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh to adopt a similar recipe in fighting organised violence.
The threat of residual terrorism trying to raise its head in Punjab cannot be taken lightly in view of the determined designs of Pakistan’s ISI to destablise India through sabotage and subversion. Despite a significant improvement in the overall situation in j&k after the installation of a popular government, a comprehensive victory against insurgency is yet to be achieved. The North East continues to simmer with the violent activities of a number of insurgent groups motivated and guided by the mother of all insurgencies – the Naga insurgency. Andhra Pradesh and Bihar continue to be in the grip of Naxal violence which has further spread to parts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The internal security scenario in the country is dismal enough to warrant a reappraisal of the strategies, methods and means employed by the principal agency, the police, in meeting these challenges.
A basic requirement of police effectiveness in dealing with terrorism and insurgency is conceptual clarity about the nature and magnitude of the problem and the role of police in solving it. Terrorism is entirely different from any other form of violent criminal activity. Behind every terrorist action is a cause, a political goal, which could not be achieved/articulated through conventional methods of protest and agitation. Terrorism may also emerge as a product of despair resulting from the inability of its propagators to launch and sustain a mass movement for achieving their political objectives. The roots of terrorism lie in misery and frustration arising from neglected causes which the terrorists bring into public focus by symbolic acts of violence invariably directed against innocent targets.
Insurgency is an organised armed struggle to capture state power. The insurgents aim to control the population by subverting its loyalty to established authority. This is achieved through intelligent propaganda to mobilise popular support for their cause alongside terror-inspiring violence designed to demonstrate the inability of the government to provide security to citizens. A supportive climate of public opinion and military successes can turn insurgency into a revolution, leading to a fall of the established order. A hopeless and frustrating situation on the other hand, characterised by a lack of public support and comparative superiority of the security forces, causes degeneration of insurgency into terrorist acts of mindless and indiscriminate violence.
Terrorism and insurgency are complex phenomena imbued with political, social, economic and psychological factors. The emergence of terrorism as a weapon of proxy war between hostile nations further adds to this complexity. These challenges call for a comprehensive strategy based on coordinated plans involving administrative, legal, military and diplomatic measures. Viewing them merely as problems of law and order would result in losing our perspective about the real issues.
Punjab was afflicted by terrorism which lasted over a decade. j&k has been facing the challenge of insurgency since 1989. The north-eastern states are confronting insurgent movements rooted in ethnicity and sub-nationalism. The Pakistani support to Kashmiri militants and increasing contacts of the isi with insurgents in the North East have made these challenges even more formidable.
Every militant movement has a distinct identity moulded by its geopolitical and socio-economic context. Terrorism in Punjab was different from the ongoing insurgency in j&k, while the north-eastern insurgency has little in common with either. However, all these movements shared a common genesis – misgovernance of the state reflected in the unresponsiveness of the administration to the demands and grievances of the people and the inaction of the establishment.
Terrorism and insurgency do not develop instantaneously and without notice. Every militant movement has an incubation period specific to it. The armed struggles are preceded by a number of preparatory activities open to detection by a vigilant police. It is a measure of the ingenuity of the local police to read and heed the signs like snatching/theft of licensed arms, attacks on banks and post offices in rural areas, unexplained explosions at remote places, disappearance of school dropouts and unemployed educated young boys – all of which indicate a militant movement in the making.
An efficient police should intervene effectively at the preparatory stages and prevent the growth of the movement. Experience shows that these movements gained strength from the apathy and inaction of the police in the initial stages. The killing of dig Police Atwal at the entrance of the Golden Temple in April 1983, is an example. Proper police intervention at the time would have, no doubt, cost some lives but could well have averted Operation Blue Star and the consequent hurt to the Sikh psyche.
The best way for police to check terrorism or insurgency is not to allow them to develop. This is possible only by a firm and impartial enforcement of law immediately on sighting any symptom of a developing situation. Once this stage is crossed, the situation becomes much too complex for the police to handle without assistance of security forces and application of special laws.
The use of security forces, particularly the army, in aid of civil power to deal with grave situations of internal security invariably creates serious problems of command, control and coordination. The unfamiliarity of the security forces with the history, origin, growth and mass support of the movement imposes a handicap on their operational performance which is further impaired by ego clashes with the civil administration. The frequent and prolonged deployment of the army on internal security duties adversely affects the combat orientation of army personnel and their preparedness for war.
Army officers, particularly those at junior levels of command, often lack an understanding of the parameters of the army’s role in aid of civil authority. Instead of accepting their deployment as assisting civil power in dealing with a particular emergency, they generally insist on assuming command (of the area or the situation), making the civil authorities redundant. Their advocacy of a unified command is a clever ploy to make the civil administration, particularly the police, subordinate to the army which is not implied in the principle of aid to civil power.
Though the dependence of the police on the security forces, including the army, in combatting terrorism and insurgency cannot be denied, a major role must be played by the police. This was the British experience in dealing with the deteriorating situation in Ireland in 1972. It may be noted that deployment of the army clothed with special powers of surveillance, head-checks, arrest, search and seizure while bringing about impressive gains in material terms had made no headway in winning the support and cooperation of the people. The army was therefore withdrawn as soon as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) could be reformed and strengthened to take on the major burden of the battle against terrorism.
The British success in containing terrorism by a professionally competent and people-friendly police has been acknowledged the world over. Our own experience in Punjab showed that a comprehensive victory against terrorism could be achieved only when the fight was spearheaded by the civil police, with the army playing a supportive role. The credit for major successes in anti-terrorist operations leading ultimately to the collapse of terrorism in Punjab belong to the specially raised, well trained and highly motivated commando units of the Punjab police.
While emphasizing the need of the police in terrorism affected states to raise and train its own special units for meeting these challenges, I would like to decry the growing tendency towards a general militarisation of the police. It is an imperative requirement of democratic policing that the police retains its civil character to inspire the trust and confidence of the public by using persuasive methods and observing norms of decency.
I had observed in Punjab, in 1987-88, that an undue emphasis on military type operations with total neglect of police work of investigation and prosecution of terrorist crime, coupled with K.P.S. Gill’s open advocacy of the ‘killer instinct’, had weakened the civil complexion of the police and produced an authoritarian streak in its psyche at all levels of command. The standards of normal policing had so declined that even a simple task like the recording of an fir (first information report) became a matter of specialisation confined to a few experts in the district police with majority of staff engaged in operational work of catching and disposing off terrorists. This resulted in making the Punjab police, which even otherwise was known for its aggressive and arbitrary style of functioning, a law unto itself – out of control of its own officers except a handful who commanded personal loyalty.
In serious situations of internal security, fought with a multiplicity of forces, the police chief must assert that different agencies including the police are assigned specific roles with well-defined areas of responsibility in accordance with their capabilities. A comprehensive system of coordination has to be worked out at the directional level, i.e. state HQS and the functional levels from district HQ downward. The search and cordon operations which are likely to hurt the susceptibilities of the local population and cause harassment to law-abiding citizens should never be exclusively left to the security forces. As far as possible, the army must be kept out of such tasks which should be taken up jointly by the police and paramilitary forces. Besides ensuring an efficient utilisation of available manpower, this would minimise complaints by the public about excesses committed by security forces.
While emphasising a major role for the police in the battle against terrorism and insurgency, I would like to point out the limitations of its scope, often missed by over-enthusiastic and ambitious police chiefs. Fighting terrorism and fighting the terrorists are different aspects and controlling violence does not necessarily mean the end of these problems. Police action can, at best, only contain them and create conditions for a political settlement. This would be possible if the terrorists are effectively deprived of resources and support, constantly kept on the run under pressure of attack, and made to realize that they have no chance of succeeding through violence. The police should strive to defuse terrorism instead of pursuing the unrealistic ambition of eliminating it.
Democratic countries run by liberal institutions of governance and kept under constant check by a free press are more vulnerable to threats of terrorism than authoritarian regimes. At the same time, they are also required to be extremely careful about the nature and scale of state response to these threats. The police leadership plays a crucial role in deciding the state response and strategy for its execution. It is unfortunate that the state’s response is invariably found to favour the standard line of general repression. Political activities are banned, moderate elements in the opposition are targeted, rights and liberties of the common people are curtailed, and the entire population is made to feel the harshness of the measures initiated against the terrorists. The terrorists exploit this as a tactical victory with the help of the media and human rights groups to spread general resentment and engineer alienation of the people.
Police involvement in anti-terrorist operations launched by the security forces is essential in order to ensure that innocents are not harmed and the susceptibilities of the people honoured. While harassment to the general public cannot be totally avoided in any anti-terrorist operation undertaken in an inhabited area, the extent of the collateral damage can certainly be minimised by a thoughtful choice of response and careful planning and control of operations.
The militants in j&k deliberately fire at the security forces in congested areas with the tactical objective of provoking retaliatory fire resulting in civilian casualties. Panicky over-reaction of the security forces in such situations resulting in the loss of innocent lives alienates the general public and serves the terrorist cause. In both Punjab and Nagaland I had observed that such situations can be brought under control through intervention by senior police officers who must reach the spot immediately, along with their counterparts from the security forces, to ensure that the wrath of the operations is directed against the genuine suspects and the innocent public is not harassed.
The police need special laws which give additional powers to deal with terrorism and insurgency. The normal penal laws are inadequate in curbing militancy after it has reached a stage where the police finds itself unable to cope with the challenge without the assistance of security forces. A number of special laws have been enacted after Independence to enable the police and security forces to deal effectively with problems of organised violence. These laws, meant for the exigencies of an ordinary situation constituting threat to public order and the security of the state, are bound to deviate from the standards of liberal jurisprudence and natural justice. The special powers provided by these laws carry the potential of their abuse despite the built-in checks and safeguards.
tada was one of the special laws enacted in the wake of a near collapse of the criminal justice system in terrorist affected areas. It provided for concealment of the witnesses’ identity, in-camera trial, stringency in matters of bail and admissibility of confession before a police officer of the rank of sp or above. It was a milder version of the British and American laws dealing with organised violence. It had to be repealed despite confirmation of its constitutional validity by the Supreme Court because it was widely abused. I am of the view that the government should have amended the act in the light of the Supreme Court’s observations that it needed built-in mechanisms for periodic review and internal scrutiny. It would be unrealistic, as also unfair, to expect the police to face extraordinary challenges like terrorism without any additional powers commensurate with the exigencies of abnormal situations.
The National Security Act providing for preventive detention upto two years is a powerful weapon available to the police to deal with the enemies of public order. I had found it very effective against the Naga insurgents who were lodged in jails outside Nagaland to enhance the effect of deterrence. It is unfortunate that the powers granted by this act are being increasingly abused by invoking them against ordinary criminals difficult to punish under normal laws because of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system and the criminalisation of politics. As such actions do not pass the judicial test, the act is losing its deterrence, besides becoming a convenient target of criticism by human rights groups.
It is unfortunate that human rights, the cornerstone of the rule of law, have become controversial in the context of terrorism and insurgency. The respect for human rights is being interpreted by many as a lack of sympathy for the victims and a softness towards perpetrators of violence.
All laws relating to internal security are of necessity restrictive of human rights. In situations of terrorism and insurgency that threaten the very rule of law, the rights of the individual are curtailed in the over-all interest of the society. Though some restrictions in such situations are legally justified, and some inconvenience to the general public cannot be avoided, a blatant violation of human rights through fake encounters, torture in custody, unexplained disappearances, mysterious discovery of dead-bodies and their secret cremations can never be defended, even on the ground that malignant diseases call for radical remedies and that the terrorists have, by the very nature of their actions, forfeited their human rights, including the right to life.
While the shooting of terrorists in ‘hot-chase’ situations may be justified by the exigencies of an extraordinary situation, the cold-blooded killing of terrorists after taking them into custody is not only legally and morally repugnant but also practically unwise and counter-productive. The extra-judicial killings and torture in custody place a question mark on the authenticity of even real encounters, inhibit surrender of terrorists who are willing to give up the path of violence, create problems of morale and discipline in police and security forces, and inevitably result in the brutalisation of the rank and file.
The Vienna Declaration passed after the World Conference on Human Rights in June 1993 has, by recognising terrorism as the greatest violator of human rights and emphasising the observance of human rights in a ‘just and balanced’ manner, placed the issue in the right perspective. Though the attempts of human rights activists to extend the issue to absurd limits must be resisted, the police is duty-bound to enquire into every complaint of violation of human rights and decide the quantum of punishment on merits of each case. Transparency in the conduct of such inquiries and the wide publicity of their outcome would help the police in gaining credibility with the public.
Corruption in police acquires menacing proportions in situations of terrorism and insurgency because of special powers available to the police and a loose system of accountability. In Punjab, as IGP (border), I had to counter a widely prevalent view that efficiency and corruption go together, that insistence on integrity hinders police success in the fight against terrorism. I found that selection of police chiefs and shos for the worst-affected districts was made solely on the grounds of their proven ability to take on the terrorists, with total disregard of their ‘bad’ reputation for integrity. I found them equally fearless in fighting terrorists and indulging in corrupt practices. This further served the cause of the terrorists by breeding injustice and eroding the credibility of the police and government.
I am firmly of the view that areas affected by terrorism and insurgency have a much greater need for an honest and efficient administration. The police machinery has to be cleansed and strengthened and its working demystified by allowing transparency and openness. Only competent and courageous officers with leadership qualities, high standards of integrity and who can earn the support and cooperation of the people, can tackle terrorist violence.
Actionable intelligence is the key input for the success of anti terrorist operations. Police is the sole agency to procure it through its grassroot functionaries. The conventional method of collecting intelligence through paid services virtually stops in the face of selective killing of police informers by the terrorists. The only source of intelligence available in such situations is the interrogation of captured terrorists and their accomplices.
The practice of security forces of keeping captured terrorists in custody for the purpose of interrogation, in violation of the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, must be resisted. The police should evolve a system of joint interrogation of arrested persons after obtaining a regular police remand. Unchecked interrogation by untrained and inexperienced personnel of the security forces is a major cause of custodial deaths, which are then ‘regularised’ by staging encounters.
Kidnapping for ransom is a popular tactic used by terrorists to obtain concessions from the government and expose its vulnerability and impotence. The police will, therefore, find itself actively involved in hostage negotiations. The Rubaiya Sayeed episode in j&k proved beyond doubt that accepting the demands of the militants only results in exposing more soft targets and increases the cost of the next incident.
The police must evolve a well-defined and consistent strategy to deal with hostage taking such that the law is not brought into contempt and the hard-earned achievements of the security forces are not bartered away for illusory gains. It has to be careful in selecting its response out of the four options of attack, bargain, concede or delay. Though no set formulae can be laid down and each situation will demand a different handling on its own merits, a strategy that can maximise delay and involve a minimal amount of bargaining would constitute a pragmatic balance between deterrence and saving of lives.
The role of media in situations of terrorism and insurgency is far more important and sensitive than its peace-time function of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Publicity has been rightly described as the oxygen of terrorism. The modern terrorist is the creation of the mass media, in the sense that the sensational and dramatic reporting of his acts has the effect of glorifying violence and according him prestige and status disproportionate to his actual power. Unfortunately, most journalists often accept the terrorists on their own evaluation and project them as freedom fighters or social reformers.
Media sensationalising terrorist incidents enhances the very climate of intimidation that terrorists seek to produce. It blunts the people’s sense of outrage and makes them immune to violence. In Punjab, sections of the vernacular media had virtually acted as spokesmen for terrorists by publishing exaggerated claims and magnifying their power and influence. It is no different in j&k, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur.
Media management by the state police is crucial for fighting militancy. While showing tolerance for detached appraisal and criticism of its actions, the police must help media realise its social responsibility and demand a fair, balanced and dispassionate reporting of terrorist incidents. Instead of imposing restrictions on reporting, journalists should be persuaded to evolve their own code of conduct to which they must adhere. The police should not hesitate taking legal action against inflammatory and subversive reporting to curb the dangerous tendency.
K.P.S. Gill provided an excellent example of effective media management by allowing free, fair and balanced coverage of Operation Black Thunder (1988) by the national and international media. Later, he skillfully used the media to expose the luxurious lifestyle of the crusaders of Khalistan and the criminal character of the vast majority of Sikh terrorists. All this produced the desired effect of destroying the sympathy terrorists enjoyed in some sections of the public in Punjab.
In his book, Punjab: Knights of Falsehood, Gill argues that terrorism in Punjab was defeated not by some mystical force called popular will but by the force of arms. In this, he has not been fair to the small though significant section of the population which had earlier stayed neutral because of police corruption and ineffectiveness but ultimately came out in open support of police action on finding a qualitative change in the character and conduct of anti-terrorist campaigns. They contributed to police success by supplying useful information and neutralising sympathisers in the villages.
Support and cooperation of the local population is a key component of an effective strategy against terrorism and insurgency. The police can develop this asset by establishing professional and moral superiority over the terrorists and honouring the rights and liberties of the people even in difficult situations.
I was mocked by Gill and his followers in the Punjab police for my efforts to win the hearts and minds of people in the Gurdaspur area. In 1987-88, under the morale-boosting appreciation from Julio Ribeiro, I had partially succeeded in convincing the villagers about the absurdity of terrorist violence and their obligation to bring the ‘lost sons’ back to their homes. I had made it compulsory for BSF units placed under my command to take up search and cordon operations only on specific information and associate the village sarpanch or some other respectable local persons with these measures. I had enforced firm orders against taking anybody into custody without informing his family.
I avoided sending arrested terrorists to the high security jail at Sangrur which was producing embittered and hardened militants out of naive first-timers. BSF commandants were persuaded to contact school dropouts and unsuccessful students at the time of Board examination results to preempt the terrorists designs to recruit them. I was involved whole-heartedly in Ribeiro’s drive to recruit young, unemployed boys for the central paramilitary forces. We ensured that selections were made strictly on merit through a totally transparent procedure and the training was arranged at far-off places outside Punjab. This not only insulated them from the criminalising environment of Punjab but also gave them an exposure to the national mainstream.
Inever regretted my decision to allow the release of suspects on the undertaking of the village panchayat to keep a watch on them and produce them before police if and when required. On inquiry, I found most of the complaints about excesses by police/security forces to be true, contrary to the general official belief that people are in the habit of making false and frivolous complaints. I never hesitated from initiating administrative or legal action against the guilty because I do not subscribe to the foolish belief that punishing the wrong-doers causes demoralisation of the force.
My success measured in terms of arrests/elimination of terrorists and seizure of arms/ammunition might not have been spectacular. However, I can claim to have enjoyed an excellent rapport with the people and earned a credibility that proved crucial in achieving peaceful surrender of the terrorists in operation Black Thunder in response to the assurance jointly announced by Sarabjit Singh, DC, ASR and me that they would be dealt with as per the law and not according to apprehensions formed by their previous experience of the Punjab police. Though the primary credit for the success of Operation Black Thunder goes to Ribeiro, Gill and Ved Marwah (NSG chief), a small allowance must be left for those whose word was taken seriously by the surrendered terrorists.
There are no readymade answers or quick fix solutions to the complex problems of terrorism and insurgency. Any hasty cure, including a negotiated settlement achieved through unprincipled politics, only complicates the malady and prolongs its life. Serious challenges of internal security demand a holistic approach and an integrated programme of action where police administration, judiciary, media and the public jointly work to combat the problem. A combination of strong political will and firm governance is the only recipe to create an enabling environment to achieve this.
The police in each state needs to be strengthened and reformed to be able to cope with increasing challenges of internal security arising from a plethora of problems. The National Police Commission has redefined the role, duties and powers of the police, recommended an institutionalized arrangement for insulating it from pressure and interference from all quarters and suggested a system of community control over police. In these times of a deteriorating internal security scenario, national interest demands that the report of the NPC aimed at making the police a professional and accountable public service, integrated in the fabric of a democratic welfare state, be implemented without any further delay.