Terror, says our Supreme Court, is not just a heinous crime. It is crime with the intent of destabilising the Union of India and striking terror in the hearts and minds of Indians.
We are not new to terror. But the digital age has made it easier for terrorists to instil fear and suspicion where faith and trust once reposed and project an impression of terror’s limitless reach. No one does this better than the Islamic State, a digitally savvy, West Asian terror group, says Kabir Taneja, a New Delhi-based security analyst.
By the standards of international terrorism, the November 26-28, 2008 Mumbai attacks were a mere blip. Neither did it match the scale of public outrage in October 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated as revenge for the desecration, four months earlier, of the Golden Temple, Amritsar, by the Indian Army whilst purging the holy complex of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his militant Khalistani gunmen.
Nor did 26/11 match the scale of social disruption — the permanent estrangement of Indian Muslims — emanating from the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu kar sevaks in December 1992, while both the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government watched mutely. Add to that, the subsequent tragedy — a decade later in 2002 — of kar sevaks fatally charred in a train carriage at Godhra, followed by extreme reprisals against Muslims in Gujarat. That wasn’t the first time either. “Communal violence” was the anodyne term used in the 1970s and 1980s to describe targeted slaughter based on religious discord. Three decades later, violence, deliberately stoked for electoral gain by exploiting caste divides, has added to the unsavoury repertoire of savvy electoral tacticians.
But 26/11 remains significant because it was the first, high-impact, success of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the dirty tricks agency of the Pakistani military, in masterminding an attack on the economic stability of India by hitting where it hurts the most — the rich international and domestic business elite, in storied hotels like the Taj, the Oberoi and the Trident at Apollo Bunder, next to the iconic Gateway of India, and the Leopold Café in Colaba — a happening space for young expatriates. There were subsequent terror incidents also — the February 2010 bomb blast at the Pune German Bakery; the July 2011 triple bomb blasts at Mumbai’s Opera House, Zaveri Bazar and Dadar; the September 2011 briefcase bomb blast outside the Delhi high court and the August 2012 Pune blast.
But 26/11 became special because it was the Indian media’s “Gulf War (1990-1991) moment”. We watched the never-seen-before, live, CNN style, television reports from Mumbai. So apparently did ISI controllers, who used them to guide their terror teams holed up inside the two hotels. This “successful” covert operation by a handful of jihadists brought the commercial capital of India to a standstill. It also ignited the latent fear, lying dormant deep within since the 1947 Partition days, of militant Islam’s designs on India.
Also visible was public frustration at the ineptness of the Indian State. The casual manner in which the terror squad came ashore and went about their brutal business illustrated the failure of our intelligence agencies. Once the attack started, there was little evidence of a functional emergency management plan. Our specialised agency for counter-terror operations — the National Security Guard — reached almost a day late from Delhi. Once in unfamiliar Mumbai, they failed to fill the gaps proactively. Taking the perpetrators down took a full two days, leaving more than 160 dead and nearly 400 injured. Working out of silos, the civil authorities did not use the available Army “special forces” which could have hit the ground running. Legend has it that these operationally-hardened commandos literally eat glass to qualify for the honour of joining up.
The 2008 terrorist attack came during a sustained period of high economic growth in India. It shattered India’s projected and self-image of an emerging regional power, as both the Union and the state government floundered while dealing with the “invasion by stealth”. It foregrounded terror as a key national threat and led to supportive legislative changes to deal with the scourge.
The Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act 1985 (Tada), enacted in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, was used to deal with the ensuing Punjab insurgency and it lapsed in 1995. Six years later, Parliament was attacked by jihadists in 2001. In response, the National Democratic Alliance under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee enacted the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (Pota). Terrorism was redefined to include even political dissent against the government in power (as opposed to rebellion against the Union of India); the period for detention under trial was extended and the presumption of guilt was put on the accused. It was repealed in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress came to power. But many of the “draconian” provisions of the Tada and Pota were incorporated post 2008 into the Unlawful Association (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA) which continues to exist (Vidhi Terrorism Report, 2015).
With legislative changes came capacity enhancement. Between 2008 and 2016, the Union government’s specialised police cadres increased by 25 per cent against an overall increase of just 3.5 per cent in its civilian employees (excluding the armed forces). State governments have their own police establishments. These grew by 51 per cent between 2006 and 2016 (Bureau of Police Research and Development data, 2017). The increase was concentrated in terror-affected (jihadist) Kashmir; militancy (tribal) affected Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and insurgency (Maoist) affected Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Have new, tougher laws; more boots on the ground; better mobility and communications and enhanced firepower insured us from another 26/11? Very unlikely. Even in Europe, despite well-developed and endowed intelligence and policing systems, terror seeps through like an insidious miasma of hate.
The only tangible defence against terror is to weaken the manic desire, the evil intent and physical capacity to wreak havoc. Adroit diplomacy, political sagacity and an aware and organised civil society are additional necessary bulwarks against terror. Truth and reconciliation, a technique that is hugely underutilised in India, can show the way.