The challenge of terrorism


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ON 23 December 1929, a bomb planted by Indian revolutionaries exploded under the Viceroy’s special train but without causing any serious injury to Lord Irwin. At the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress held the very next week, Mahatma Gandhi pushed through a resolution ‘condemning the cowardly deed of the misguided youth.’ Though he urged that the resolution be passed unanimously, a reluctant Congress did so by a thin majority of 81 in a house numbering 1713. Subsequently, Gandhi wrote an article in Young India titled ‘The Cult of the Bomb’, in which he dismissed bomb-throwing as nothing but ‘froth coming to the surface in an agitated liquid.’ At the same time, he warned that it is an ‘easy, natural step’ from violence done to the foreign ruler ‘to violence to our own people whom we may consider to be obstructing the country’s progress.’

To rebut Gandhi’s condemnation, Bhagawati Charan, in consultation with Chandra Shekhar Azad, drafted a manifesto in 1930 titled ‘The Philosophy of the Bomb’. Terrorism, the manifesto asserted, is a ‘necessary’ and ‘inevitable’ phase of the revolution. ‘Terrorism instils fear in the hearts of the oppressors, it brings hopes of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses, it gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering, it shatters the spell of the superiority of the ruling class and raises the status of the subject race in the eyes of the world, because it is the most convincing proof of a nation’s hunger for freedom.’ The manifesto went on to note that it is reason and conscience which force the revolutionary to ‘risk his life’. And it concluded by proclaiming that the revolutionaries will take ‘a people’s righteous revenge on the tyrant’ and that theirs is ‘a war to the end – to victory or death.’


This episode is indicative of the divide that exists between the idea that terrorists are freedom fighters and martyrs, the characterisation of terrorist attacks as cowardly and dastardly, and the in-between view that while terrorism is indeed unjustifiable, the genuine grievances that drive terrorists cannot also be overlooked. In addition, the debate on terrorism has also thrown up the question of ‘state terrorism’. After all, the origins of the modern usage of the word terrorism lie in the ‘state terror’ unleashed by the French revolutionary regime to intimidate those opposed to the revolution or otherwise sympathetic to or nostalgic about the ancien régime. Moreover, states also deliberately target civilians and non-combatants in the course of wars and internal conflicts.

Are we to therefore simply conclude that terrorism is a relative term best defined as ‘violence that I don’t support?’ To chart a path through the minefield that is the debate on defining terrorism and how to address this phenomenon, one approach is to look at terrorism as a strategy, a means to achieve an objective. A strategy adopted by a political group in which civilians and non-combatants are deliberately targeted to generate terror as well as to highlight the cause. The objective is to undermine the foundations of the state, its legitimacy, and its ability to command the people’s compliance. Terrorist actions are conceived as either ends in themselves or designed to be precursors to a mass uprising. Terrorism is thus a subset of political violence.


Terrorism, however, needs to be distinguished from other forms of political violence employed by armed rebel groups. This is particularly the case with guerrilla warfare (or insurgency) with which terrorism is often confused and conflated. True, guerrilla warfare, like terrorism, is a weapon of the weak, employed precisely because weakness precludes a rebel group from engaging in regular war against organised state forces. Notwithstanding this surface similarity, the two strategies proceed along very different paths. Guerrillas (or insurgents) primarily target state forces, mobilise people and acquire popular support, establish a parallel government in ‘liberated zones’, and over time seek to expand control over surrounding territories and transform their ragtag forces into a regular army. Guerrillas, in Mao’s famous formulation, are the fish and people the water.

In contrast, the people have become the target of terrorist violence, especially since the 1970s. Gandhi’s prophetic words about the ‘easy, natural step’ from violence done to the oppressor to violence inflicted on non-cooperative or unresponsive compatriots, have indeed become a reality. The deliberate targeting of innocent civilians is a hallmark particularly of the contemporary avatar of terrorism. This was not the case in the historical practice of terrorism, which largely involved targeting the symbols of political authority – heads of state, viceroys and proconsuls, ministers, civilian and military officials, leading political figures, among others. These attacks were intended as ‘propaganda by deed’ in an era when terrorism was considered the ultima ratio, the final resort. But the ‘new’ terrorism does not discriminate in its choice of victims and its motto is, ‘there are no innocents.’

Further, while the earlier practice of terrorism was largely directed against tyrannical or despotic regimes and colonial or imperial authorities, democracies have emerged as principal targets of the contemporary exercise in terrorism. Thus, from ultima ratio terrorism seems to be becoming the prima ratio of political protest. Another significant difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ terrorism is state support for and sponsorship of terrorist groups. While the earlier breed of terrorists by and large operated on their own, the employment of terrorism as an instrument of statecraft (a cost-effective means of destabilising adversaries) is a key feature of latter-day terrorism. Terrorism has acquired a pejorative connotation over the last few decades precisely because of these changes.


There have been various hues of armed rebellion in India since independence. Telangana and Naxalbari were insurrections. The Maoist groups operating across many states are engaged in a classic insurgency. Most armed political groups in the North East also began as separatist or autonomist insurgencies. But, over the years, some have become mere extortion rackets, while others like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in particular have taken to terrorism. Terrorism, the deliberate targeting of civilians, was first practised by separatist groups in Punjab. In the 1990s, this practice also became prevalent as part of the separatist struggle in Jammu and Kashmir. The involvement of Pakistani and transnational groups in the so-called jihad in Kashmir has contributed to the further expansion of the terror campaign to the hinterland.


The most significant terrorist group in the North East today is ULFA. Founded in 1979 with the aim of establishing a ‘sovereign socialist Assam through armed struggle’, it built up its armed strength and ran a parallel government in Assam in the latter half of the 1980s. When it initiated armed action in the 1990s, targets were limited to the security forces, railway lines, the oil pipeline, and political opponents. However, after the group was expelled from Bhutan in 2003 and it relocated its base areas in Bangladesh, ULFA has initiated a terror campaign inside Assam. Most targets struck since then have been civilian.

The August 2004 bombing in Dhemaji town, which killed 17 people, mostly children, has come to be seen as the turning point in this regard. 73 bomb explosions were triggered in 2005, 59 in 2006, 54 in 2007, and 10 in 2008 – all in public places. ULFA has also been targeting Hindi-speaking migrant labourers over the last couple of years. Its turn towards terrorism seems to have coincided with its linkages and dependence upon the intelligence agencies of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The support it receives includes arms training, safe havens, funds and weaponry. ULFA is also known to have links with the Bangladeshi jihadi group, Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami.


In Punjab, competitive politics led to the emergence of a religious extremist like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a key figure. Inspired by the vision of leading the Sikhs to ‘ultimate purity’ and an independent Khalistan, Bhindranwale started an incipient campaign of violence against his political opponents in the early 1980s. But a full-blown terrorist movement emerged only in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, the consequent assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. The terror campaign unleashed by the various groups was indiscriminate in nature and saw the killing of political leaders, officials, journalists, businessmen, and the common people at large, both Sikh and Hindu.

K.P.S. Gill notes that in the peak years of 1990 and 1991, 1702 and 1851 Sikhs, respectively, were killed by the terrorists. The number of non-Sikhs killed in these two years was 765 and 740. One of the worst massacres was the mid-air bombing of the Kanishka in 1985, killing all passengers and crew on board. Bombs were also placed in public transport in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir. In all, 11,500 civilians were killed in Punjab between 1981 when the terrorist violence first manifested itself and 1993 when the back of the terrorist movement was broken. About 1750 security forces personnel also died during the same period. A significant factor in the greater intensity of violence was Pakistan’s provision of sophisticated weaponry and explosives as well as training to the terrorist groups.


Punjab, in many ways, was a training ground for Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism against India in Jammu and Kashmir. An armed separatist movement arose in the state in the wake of the fraudulent elections of 1987. Some 20,000 youth crossed the border into Pakistan for military training by the mid-1990s. The pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front stood at the forefront of this movement in the initial years. But Pakistan threw its weight behind the Hizbul Mujahideen, which favoured Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. When India gained the upper hand against the separatists in the next few years, Pakistan began to funnel its own citizens and other ‘graduates of the Afghan war’ into Jammu and Kashmir.

With groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Ansar, and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen assuming a greater role, what was hitherto an internal rebellion, albeit with considerable support from Pakistan, degenerated into cross-border terrorism. Mass killings, especially of minorities, began with the introduction of transnational jihadists. Neither have they spared Kashmiri Muslims, in whose name they wage their so-called jihad. Overall, between 1988 when the violence first began and 2008, some 14,500 civilians have been killed in terrorist violence in the state. In addition, more than 5,800 security forces personnel have also lost their lives during this period.

Involving foreign jihadists has provided a lever for Pakistan to scuttle any movement towards peace in the state, as demonstrated during the short-lived Ramzan ceasefire between Indian security forces and the Hizbul Mujahideen in the year 2000. When Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure failed to revive the flagging interest for the struggle within the state and in the world at large, transnational groups began to engage in fidayeen attacks against security forces. Subsequently, this campaign was extended to other parts of India as well. The first target to be attacked was the Red Fort in Delhi in December 2000. A year later, it was the turn of the Indian Parliament. India’s threat of war against this grave provocation, combined with international condemnation and pressure, forced Pakistan to lower the intensity of operations being carried out by terrorist groups based on its territory. But even as infiltration from Pakistan into Jammu and Kashmir showed a decline in the succeeding years, a terror campaign targeting India’s hinterland began to unfold.


Links between Indian citizens engaged in this new wave of urban terrorism and their friends, if not masters, in Pakistan are gradually unravelling. The shameful tragedy of Gujarat 2002 and the earlier demolition of the Babri Masjid served as catalysts for a handful of youth to travel to Pakistan, acquire training in arms, and forge links with the Establishment as well as transnational groups there. These men have come together under the banner of Indian Mujahideen. The group is a diffuse network spread across several states. Its aim appears to include causing maximum casualties and mayhem by targeting places where people congregate, arousing communal passions by targeting mosques and temples, and disrupting the economy by targeting important sectors like tourism and information technology.

Thus, seven bombs were placed on Mumbai suburban trains in July 2006, killing 209 people and injuring over 700; the Sankatmochan Temple in Varanasi was bombed in March 2006 and the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad in May 2007; and, Jaipur and Bengaluru were targeted in May and July 2008, respectively. According to the email claiming responsibility for the multiple bomb blasts in the markets of Delhi in September 2008, the group’s aim was to ‘stop the heart of India from beating.’ Other places that have been targeted as part of this terror campaign include Ahmedabad, Faizabad, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Surat and Varanasi.

A significant feature of the Indian Mujahideen’s tactics is the use of the widely available fertilizer ammonium nitrate as explosive. The group has also demonstrated its coordination capabilities by carrying out serial bomb blasts on successive days in more than one place – the July 2008 attacks in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and the bombs that failed to detonate in Surat. Their use of email to claim responsibility, the manner in which emails were sent from hacked wi-fi connections, and the ability to vary the intensity of the explosions in Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, all point to the group’s technological capabilities.


Even as Indian agencies were attempting to piece together the Indian Mujahideen puzzle, 10 well-armed and well-trained Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists landed in Mumbai and launched a commando-style operation against the maximum city’s symbols. 164 people and security forces personnel died in this assault, including 26 foreign nationals. The trail led to Pakistani territory and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist commanders and many in India suspected the role of elements within the Pakistani establishment. The reasoning was that the attack was meant to divert the incoming Obama administration’s central focus from the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier towards the India-Pakistan border.

Coincidentally, unidentified militants in Pakistan targeted American and NATO military supplies meant for their war efforts in Afghanistan, seemingly to remind the West about its vulnerabilities. It is not clear what kind of a grand bargain was being hinted at. But the Machiavellian strategy came to nought because of the restraint shown by India in the face of such an enormous provocation. However, Pakistan’s conviction that terrorist groups serve as ‘strategic assets’ in its foreign policy repertoire is likely to continue, notwithstanding ongoing American efforts to force a change in thinking.


Each of the above challenges necessitates a distinct policy approach. Separatist groups have to be dealt with through a policy of political accommodation and concessions backed by counter-insurgency and counter-terror measures. In the case of Pakistan-based terrorist groups, domestic counter-terror measures have to be accompanied by diplomatic and covert intelligence campaigns to disrupt and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. And dealing with domestic urban terror groups would involve counter-terror measures, including the strengthening of laws, police and intelligence efforts to trace and neutralise terrorist cells and leadership, and mobilising communities and the people at large against subversives living in our midst.

India’s counterinsurgency strategy has been dealt with elsewhere in these pages. Suffice it to note here that since the 1950s India has followed a consistent and successful policy of using minimum force to deal with separatist groups and bringing them into the political mainstream through accommodation and concessions. While this approach is likely to prove useful in dealing with ULFA in Assam, it is inadequate for dealing with the situation in Jammu and Kashmir where the principal indigenous group, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, has become inextricably intertwined with Pakistani and transnational terrorist groups under the umbrella of the United Jihad Council.

Any attempt by the Hizb to seek a separate peace is likely to result in the whittling down of Pakistani support (as happened in the case of the JKLF) and consequent marginalisation and irrelevance. Under the circumstances, the security efforts in Jammu and Kashmir need to be supplemented by measures to force Pakistan to cease support for terrorist groups targeting India as well as measures to disrupt and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in that country.


At the diplomatic level India’s leverage vis-a-vis Pakistan is limited, especially at this juncture when the state of affairs in that country is delicately poised and when more powerful actors are engaged in attempting to save it from itself. All that can be done at the diplomatic level is to continually highlight Pakistan’s continuing use of terrorism as an instrument of policy and sustain international pressure to force Islamabad to take meaningful action against terrorist groups targeting India. At the same time, military measures aimed at either coercing the Pakistani establishment or disrupting the infrastructure of the terrorist groups would also be ill-advised. As seen during the crises of 2002, military coercion of the Pakistan government on one hand and leveraging military tensions for international diplomatic support on the other can yield only limited dividends.

It was also realised at that time that military strikes against terrorist camps would have only limited impact on the terror infrastructure. Moreover, military action would aggravate bilateral tensions, strengthen hawkish elements, and generally provide Pakistan an excuse for not taking action against terrorist groups which it continues to perceive as ‘strategic assets’. Instead of overt military strikes, India should adopt covert measures to both raise the cost to Islamabad as well as to degrade the terrorist leadership and infrastructure on Pakistani territory. A good example in this regard was India’s response in the late 1980s to the support Pakistan provided for Khalistan groups.


At the same time, India also needs to focus on domestic counter-terror measures, which have indeed received a fillip in the wake of the Mumbai attack. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has been legislated to provide the legal framework for counter-terrorism, and the National Investigation Agency has been established to investigate and prosecute terrorist offences. In addition, a number of measures have been taken to raise ‘the level of preparedness’ and enhance ‘the speed and decisiveness’ in responding to terrorist attacks or threats. These include a fresh mandate to the Multi Agency Centre and its subsidiaries to smoothen the collation and sharing of intelligence, and the establishment of National Security Guard hubs in different parts of the country to enable a quicker response to terrorist attacks.

However useful these institutions and mechanisms prove to be in the coming years, the key to counter-terrorism is the police force which falls within the purview of state governments. Until such time state governments shed their apathy and begin to appreciate the imperative of modernising and de-politicising their police forces, India’s counter-terrorism efforts are likely to remain ineffective.