The year 2007 saw 2,465 fatalities (957 civilians, 383 security personnel and 1,125 terrorists, all data for 2007 till Dec 11) as a result of terrorist violence in an unrelenting succession of incidents across India, well beyond the boundaries of the established theatres of terrorism.
Some of the worst incidents included the bombing of the Delhi-Attari Samjhauta Express train in which 68 people were killed Feb 18; the killing of 55 police personnel in a swarming attack by Maoists at Rani Bodli in Chhattisgarh March 15 (one of several such attacks by Maoists which inflicted double digit fatalities); serial blasts in Hyderabad May 18 and Aug 25 in which 11 and 44 people respectively were killed; and the coordinated explosion in court premises in Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow Nov 23.
Despite a steady stream of terrorist incidents virtually across the country, 2007 reflected some relief in virtually several major theatres of terrorism in India. Total fatalities were down marginally from the 2006 figure of 2,765, with dramatic improvements in Jammu and Kashmir, where terrorism related killings - at 768 - fell below the 'high intensity conflict' mark of a thousand deaths for the first time since 1990 (when they stood at 1,177). At their peak in 2001, fatalities had risen to 4,507.
Clearly, 2007 is a watershed year for the beleaguered state, bringing tremendous relief to its people. The situation in the northeast, however, worsened considerably, with total fatalities more than doubling, from 427 in 2006 to 947 in 2007, principally because of a dramatic escalation in terrorist activities in Assam (up at 408, from 174) and Manipur (372 from 280). There was a marginal decline in fatalities in Maoist violence, from 742 in 2006 to 613 in 2007.
The sheer spread of terrorist incidents - particularly the widening sphere of Islamist terrorist attacks and Maoist depredations - give particular cause for concern. This concern was infinitely compounded by the spectacle of chaotic responses in the aftermath of each incident, the inability, in many cases, of the police and paramilitary forces even to protect themselves against attacks, the failure of investigators to secure breakthroughs in most of the major cases of Islamist attacks, and the utter inanity of political declarations in the wake of each major incident.
If one were to ask, at the end of this year - indeed, at the end of decades of relentless terrorism - whether 'India' has learned how to respond to extremist violence, the answer would be an unqualified negative. There is no coherence in the 'national response' to terrorism, no evidence of consistent strategy or policy perspective, no institutional memory or visible learning process within the various institutions of governance to derive the lessons of past campaigns and counter-terrorism experience in various theatres and to device protocols, strategies and tactics of appropriate response.
It is the rare success, within this context, that underlines the magnitude of this failure.
In Andhra Pradesh, a counter-terrorism campaign based on a coherent understanding of Maoist strategy and tactics and on lessons derived from the successes of other theatres, particularly Punjab, has virtually wiped out the Naxalite threat from a state that was, till 2005, the worst afflicted in the country (accounting for 320 of a total of 717 Naxalism-related fatalities in that year).
In under three years of unremitting intelligence-led operations, and after a continuous augmentation of the state's policing and intelligence capabilities, virtually the entire state has been cleared, leaving just four districts along the Andhra-Orissa border as a residual problem to be resolved.
There is today much loose talk about other Naxalite-affected states following the 'Andhra model', but little evidence of any of the other states even beginning the journey in this direction. In the interim, there is overwhelming evidence that the limited 'gains' in terms of declining Maoist violence outside Andhra Pradesh are the result not of any significant initiatives on the part of the state's agencies, but rather of a Maoist decision to focus on political and mass mobilization in order to "intensify the people's war throughout the country".
The impact of this decision is already visible in the rampaging footprint of Maoist 'partial struggles', the activities of extremist front organizations far outside the earlier confines of the 'Red corridor', the establishment of five 'regional bureaus', 13 'State Committees', two 'Special Area Committees' and three 'Special Zonal Committees' and the framing of an 'urban strategy', which cumulatively cover virtually the length and breadth of India.
Far from confronting this subversive onslaught, the incompetence of governments - most dramatically the West Bengal government and its actions in Nandigram, but less visibly in several other states - has presented the Maoists with proliferating opportunities to deepen subversive mobilization and recruitment.
In Jammu and Kashmir, again, the trajectory of declining violence has little correlation with specific changes in operational strategies or tactics, or with the range of 'peace initiatives' the government has undertaken domestically and with Pakistan. This is demonstrated by the fact that the downward trend in violence has been consistently sustained since 2001, irrespective of the transient character of relationships between India and Pakistan, or any escalation or decline of operations within Jammu and Kashmir, and has been maintained even through periods of escalating tension and provocative political rhetoric.
This trend commenced immediately after the 9/11 attacks in the US and the subsequent threat by the US for Pakistan to "be prepared to be bombed back into the Stone Age". It was this threat, a steady build-up of international pressure, and intense international media focus on Pakistan's role in the sponsorship of terrorism that combined to force Pakistan to execute a U-turn in its policy on Afghanistan, and dilute visible support to terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
Thereafter, the unrelenting succession of crises in Pakistan has undermined the country's capabilities to sustain past levels of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir - particularly since a large proportion of troops had to be pulled back from the Line of Control and the international border for deployment in increasingly violent theatres in Balochistan, NWFP and the FATA areas. Pakistan's creeping implosion has undermined the establishment's capabilities to sustain the 'proxy war' against India at earlier levels.
Regrettably, if Western attention is diverted from the region, or if the Islamists in Pakistan are able to carve out autonomous capacities and regions, free of their dependence on the state's covert agencies, or if there is a radical escalation in the 'global jihad' in the wake of the proposed US withdrawal from Iraq in the foreseeable future, the developments in Kashmir could once again find the state unprepared as the situation spirals out of control.
The unfortunate reality of India's counter-terrorism response and postures is that there is utter incoherence, an absence of consensus even on basic strategy, chronic and endemic capacity deficits in policing and intelligence gathering, a further inefficiency in utilization of available capacities, poor understanding of terrorist objectives, strategies and tactics, and fitful and ad hoc counter-terrorism initiatives with no sustained operational thrust.
The principal responsibility for these complex failures lies in the political executive of the states and in New Delhi where confusion abounds and a lack of will undermines the mandate and obstructs necessary capability building in the security apparatus.
(Ajay Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)