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Counterterrorism under the New Indian Government


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Posted on 11 Jun 2014

Last updated 28 Jun 2014 00:00:00 +0530

  India, Narendra Modi, Government, Terrorism

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s win with a clear majority in India’s 2014 national elections could play a critical role in shaping the country’s counterterrorism policies. Whether the government’s strong posturing will help reduce terror incidents or lead to more agitation amongst terrorist and insurgent groups remains to be seen.

Antara Desai


From a counterterrorism perspective, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s win in the general elections with a clear majority has great significance for India. First, this win marked the end of coalition politics in India after 30 years, thereby making it possible for the government to formulate and implement major counterterrorism measures without constantly having to be pulled in different directions by its alliance partners, as was the case with the previous governments. Second, a stronger government could be a deterrent to terrorists and their sponsors and supporters, as there would be a perception that the reaction to acts of terrorism could be more focused and decisive than before.

While Narendra Modi is reputed for turning the state of Gujarat into an economic powerhouse during his tenure as Chief Minister and has extensive support among India’s middle classes and business community, the communal baggage which he unfortunately carries and the ideological orientation of the BJP, could lead to a hardening of minority sentiments, especially those of the Muslims.

The possibility of terrorist attacks with a view to discredit the government, stoke communal sentiments in the country and create tensions with Pakistan cannot be ruled out. Therefore, much depends on how the new government positions itself with both policies and practical implementation of the same, in respect of the complex terrorist threat in the country.

Between December 2013 and January 2014, the Pew Research Centre conducted a survey in India to assess the population’s views and concerns about its neighbourhood, attempting to understand how people felt about the way foreign policy had been handled as well as what they expected from the new government (2,464 adults were randomly selected for the survey from states and territories that constitute about 91% of the Indian population). The findings from the survey suggested that nine out of every ten Indians believed that terrorism was one of the biggest challenges to India’s security. Two out of every three Indians surveyed felt that Islamist extremist groups were a major threat to India. Overall, only 19% of Indians expressed a positive view of Pakistan. When asked which of the following posed the greatest threat to India – Pakistan, China, the Lashkar-e-Taiba or Naxalite insurgents – 47% selected Pakistan. Additionally, 64% of the people hoped that the new government would be able to strengthen relations with Pakistan.

Responding to a Complex Threat

During the election campaigns, the BJP raised the issue of terrorism in India and included policies in its manifesto to counter this challenge. The BJP leaders accused the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh for lack of clear policies and for systematically dismantling the anti-terror mechanism in the country during its ten-year rule.

After the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the UPA government enacted the National Investigation Agency Act (NIAA) and made amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 (UAPA). The former government also reinstated several of the provisions of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Despite this, the general perception was that the UPA had neglected to take adequate retaliatory steps and that it appeared to be ‘soft’ on Pakistan.

Islamist terrorism however is not the only security challenge for India. India has been dealing with the ‘Naxalite’ issue for decades. Naxalism refers to a movement in the district of Naxalbari in West Bengal where peasants staged an uprising in 1967. Today, ‘Naxalism’ or left-wing extremism has new manifestations and affects many of India’s territories, forming what is known as a ‘red corridor’ from the border with Nepal in the north to Karnataka in the south which covers more than a quarter of India’s total land mass. Although the UPA government took a number of measures to counter the Naxalite threat, the government’s focus was largely on law enforcement measures and not in addressing the causes that led to the consolidation of the movement. Moreover, the UPA government’s initiatives were undermined due to the lack of coordination among the concerned provincial governments. The funds allotted for the development of Naxalite areas were misused due to the endemic corruption in the country.

Coalition Politics and Counterterrorism under the UPA

When the UPA government took the decision to set up the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) after the 2008 Mumbai attacks (in which several intelligence and operational failures revealed the need for an overarching national agency for counterterrorism), there was opposition from a number of provincial governments. The NCTC was to coordinate the anti-terrorism efforts of the Centre and the Provinces. Its main functions were to be the analysis of intelligence related to terrorism and associated criminal activities and the maintaining of relevant data bases, developing appropriate responses and producing threat assessments. The NCTC was to have an Operations Division whose officers would have the authority to carry out arrests and conduct search operations anywhere in the country, and when required, requisition the NSG or other special forces like Navy’s Marcos, Army’s Para-Commandos and ‘Garud’ (special force of the Indian Air Force trained in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations). The main opposition to the NCTC was that its authority would infringe upon the rights of the provincial governments. According to the Indian constitution, the provinces are responsible for ‘law and order’, under which counterterrorism operations have primarily been dealt with thus far. Although this was more of a jurisdiction issue, it was fought under the shadow of power politics. While the BJP blamed the UPA for not being able to set up the NCTC, and that this posed serious challenges to national security, both internal and external, the UPA hit back saying that it was the chief ministers in the non UPA-ruled states like Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, among others, that opposed the move.

Statistically, however, the UPA government could claim credit for a reduction of terrorism related incidents in the country. During its tenure, terrorist attacks in Kashmir - which were 3,401 in the year 2003 - fell to 170 in 2013. Additionally, in the Naxalite-affected areas, terrorist incidents reduced to 1,136 in 2013 from 1,597 in 2003. Terrorist attacks in the hinterland have roughly been in the range of 0 to 6 in the period 2003 to 2013. According to a report by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), incidents of terrorism and insurgency in India as a whole fell from 5,839 in 2001 to 885 in 2013.

Expectations from the New Government

The new government came to power riding on the hopes and expectations of the people for a stronger India, which includes the fortification of its security platform and greater economic development. While it is premature to discuss the specific policies related to security that the Modi government will adopt, some ideas can be formed according to statements made by BJP leaders during the election campaign, including Narendra Modi’s statement that India must have a zero-tolerance policy against terrorism.

Reports suggest that Prime Minister Modi would like to separate the issue of internal security from the Ministry of Home Affairs and bring it under the ambit of the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure better coordination and action. In the meantime, the Home Ministry has put together several items for the Modi government to address which includes tackling home-grown terrorist outfits like the Indian Mujahideen and the Naxalites, revamping the intelligence agencies and reforming the criminal justice system. The Home Ministry has also asked for permission to station its choice of district magistrates (DMs) and superintendents of police (SPs) in the 20 worst Naxalite-affected districts, along with an inspector general (IG) of operations of its preference at the zonal level who would be directly under the authority of the Union Home Ministry. Additionally, the Home Ministry has requested for 25 combat- ready battalions (25,000 personnel) from the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) in addition to the more than 70 battalions which already exist. The Naxalite issue, however, only finds a rhetorical mention in the BJP manifesto, and it is likely that this government will follow the same ‘carrot and stick’ approach to the issue as the former.

The BJP party has made a promise to strengthen the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the functioning of which was recently heavily criticized by the BJP. The party also hopes to make the National Security Council (NSC) the hub of all sector-related assessments, which will be accountable for real-time intelligence dissemination.

The new government is also looking to reinforce anti-terrorism laws in a way that make confessions before a senior police officer legally admissible, ensure the presumption of guilt on part of the accused and make bail for the terror accused difficult. The new law would also encompass newer forms of security threats such as cyber attacks, narco-terrorism and terrorist financing. Modi has been categorical in emphasizing that India will not be able to effectively fight terrorism, including left-wing extremism, without powerful anti-terror laws.

Co-opting the Neighbours

In an attempt to signal to the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that India now has a neighbourhood-friendly government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the heads of these countries to be present during his swearing-in ceremony. The invitation to the Pakistani Prime Minister is being seen as a very positive gesture in terms of normalizing bilateral relations, which were tainted mostly by terrorism-related issues. Modi is not against dialogue with Pakistan. In fact, he has pledged to improve relations with its neighbour on the condition that Pakistan reins in terrorists acting against India in its territory.

Terrorists on the Move?

Despite the public euphoria in India, terrorist elements have made their intentions clear towards the Modi government. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai accepted the invitation to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, the Indian consulate in the Herat province of Afghanistan was attacked. Within India, the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a banned organization, issued an open threat to Modi at a Bhopal court chanting slogans such as “Ab kibaar Modika number” (“This time it is Modi’s turn”) and “Taliban zindabad” (“Long live the Taliban”). Another militant group calling itself the Ansar-ut-Tawheed fi Bilaad Hind (“Brotherhood for Monotheism in the land of Hind”) released a video calling for militant organizations across the Middle East and South Asia to attack India and Indian interests abroad.

‘Toilets first, temples later’

BJP with its right-wing orientation will have a challenge dealing with the Muslim minority in India in its battle against Islamic extremism. Muslims constitute a little over 13 percent of the Indian population and this allows the Muslim community the opportunity to determine the fate of candidates in several constituencies. In the recent election, a remarkable trend was the voting pattern of the Muslim voter. Traditionally, Muslim voters have been loyal largely to the Indian National Congress (INC) and to parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) or regional Muslim parties. Prior to this election, the BJP never managed to secure a sizeable chunk of the Muslim vote.

A post-poll survey conducted by the Lokniti Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that 9 percent of the Muslim population voted for the BJP in the recent election, comparing to 4 percent in 2009. The BJP won nearly all of the Muslim majority seats in north-west Uttar Pradesh (UP), despite not fielding a single Muslim candidate from that state. This could make Prime Minister Modi more responsive to the minority community, as even a small error in judgement could cause a major backlash especially due to the communal baggage that he carries.

Underdevelopment, poverty and previously unfulfilled electoral promises have probably outweighed Narendra Modi’s alleged communal credentials for the Muslim voters in this election.The BJP manifesto has a section dedicated to the welfare of the Muslim community. The BJP has promised to start a ‘National Madrasa (Islamic School) Modernisation Programme’ and empower the Waqf boards that manage Muslim affairs. The establishment of a permanent intercommunity consultative mechanism to promote harmony amongst various communities is also being planned. The successful implementation of these initiatives would lead to the continuing and increased support of the Muslims to BJP.

Two issues that could however stir Muslim sentiments are reconstruction plans of the Ram Mandir (Temple) in Ayodhya, which has been in the limelight since the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fanatics in 1992. Hindus allege that the Babri Mosque was built by the Moghul Emperor Babur at an originally Hindu place of worship for the God Ram. The second is the BJP’s proposal to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution which gives a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. While much has been said about the reconstruction of the temple, BJP’s stance has mellowed down over the years as is evident from the transformation in language used in its manifestos: from a more aggressive proclamation of its commitment for the construction of Ram Temple in the 2009 manifesto, BJP now seems open to explore all possibilities within the framework of the constitution with regard to the construction of the temple. The controversial Allahabad High Court verdict directing that the land at the disputed site be divided into three parts, paved way for the possibility of the reconstruction of the temple on the portion of land allotted to the Hindus. This verdict was however challenged in the Supreme Court of India and the apex court stayed the order and decreed that status quo shall continue with regard to the dispute. It is likely that the issue of the temple will see little progress in the immediate future owing to difficulties in establishing and proving historical data by respective parties. Thus, by making ‘constitutionality’ a prerequisite, the BJP has played it safe. On his own, Narendra Modi has also said that his priority would be development rather than construction of the temple (to “build toilets first, and temples later”).

What the Modi government does for the welfare and security of the people of India is yet to be seen. While the perception among the people is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a strong personality and will very likely be decisive in his policies and actions, his path will not be an easy one. Thus, although Narendra Modi has the mandate to orchestrate effective policies for the development and security of India, the new government must demonstrate that it can deliver what was promised to the people of the country.

[Declaration: The article was published as a paper in the Journal of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.]

Source: RSIS

[Antara Desai is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Development Studies, India. She holds a Master’s Degree in Geopolitics and International Relations and has a special interest in international relations, counterterrorism and Indian national politics.]

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