The Mumbai blasts: cleaning up our act - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 30 January 2007

The Mumbai blasts: cleaning up our act

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 18th July 2006

A week after last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on the Mumbai suburban rail network, nobody knows for sure --- despite contradicting and barely credible rhetoric about RDX, Lashkar modules, fedayeen and SIMI operatives --- who was responsible for the attacks and how they were executed. What is shamefully clear is an incoherent response across government, driven almost entirely by the fear of opposition charges of being soft on terrorism and on Pakistan. Despite its initial inclination to go ahead with the foreign secretaries’ meeting later this month, New Delhi eventually (and reluctantly) postponed the talks. The Prime Minister is now focusing on an anti-terrorism resolution from the G-8 countries in St Petersburg. And instead of cracking down on the organised crime and smuggling networks and the radicalized modules that translate mere malevolence into actual attacks, we have instead a cacophony of accusations against the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and, incredibly, after a dubious phone call in Srinagar, the Big Al itself.

It would be a strategic blunder to allow politicised accusations from the opposition parties to entirely shape our response to the Mumbai bombings. National responses must be guided by the long-term national benefit, not by political point-scoring in the domestic and international arena. But while justifiably pointing to Pakistan as one of the global sources of jehadi ideological motivation there are no signs of what could be the only positive outcome of such attacks: putting our own house in order.

It is easy to rail at the convenient target of international Islamic terrorism. Far more productive, however, would be to examine which links in the chain of terror should be tackled with the greatest vigour --- a chain that connects at one end the abstract idea of attacking the foundations of the Indian state, to the explosions that kill and maim at the other end. By now, even the most entrenched Lashkar-bashers admit that the bombs were physically planted and probably even assembled and timed by Indian nationals. Referring to them as “Lashkar modules” or “sleeper cells” cannot hide the simple fact that, just like in the 1993 bombings, Mumbai’s citizens were killed by Mumbai’s criminals using explosives brought into the country by Mumbai’s smuggling network.

But while outrage is easily fanned against the LET, Musharraf, the ISI and Al Qaeda, there is little interrogation of our own policing and intelligence failures. Nor are there any notable calls for a crackdown on organised crime in Mumbai, one of the vital executive elements in organising last Tuesday’s attacks. Does Indian anger only crystallise against identifiable anti-national figureheads like Dawood Ibrahim, who symbolise the Pakistan connection. In the absence of Dawood, the cosy symbiosis between the (now weakened) “bhai-log” and the Mumbai police continues unabated. It is these networks that radicalized groups tap into for executing terrorist strikes.

The BJP’s response symbolises the opportunism that feeds every Indian tragedy. In demanding the re-enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which had been repealed by the UPA government in December 2004, the BJP does not mention that most of that act’s teeth were transferred to a greatly beefed up Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that was passed on the day that POTA was repealed. In addition, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA) gives ample powers to the Maharashtra police and intelligence agencies, were they inclined to act.

On Sunday, LK Advani said, “I personally advise Home Minister that to prevent incidents like Mumbai Blasts, we need to revive POTA.” Three years of POTA (2001-2004) proved only one thing: that draconian anti-terrorist legislation simply does not cut down terrorism. Soon after the ordnance was enacted in 2001, Parliament House was attacked by terrorists. Weeks after it passed into law in March 2002, Kaluchak army base was attacked in Jammu (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). And many reports indicate that POTA was used after the Gujarat riots to harass the Muslim community, pushing furious youngsters towards fighting the Indian state, creating disaffection rather than order. 

Demands for installing surveillance cameras, metal and explosives detectors and inevitably sniffer dogs simply push us along a path of paranoia that brings to mind countries like Israel. India’s greatest strength in battling separatism and terrorism is the attribute of a giant country: the ability to absorb bloody punishment without over-reacting or feeling seriously threatened. This week, Israel, that totem symbol for worshippers of the tough state, finds itself in far more dire straits than India, staring into the abyss of a regional conflict. 

Let PM Manmohan Singh chivvy along the anti-terrorist resolutions in St Petersburg. They will be passed and, like so many others, will change little in the short term in either Islamabad or Muridke. But our real battleground remains here in India, and the weapons: sharp intelligence, the wise use of legislation and effective investigations to crack down on domestic elements in the chain of terrorism.

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