Can India Tame the Terror Beast?
The sun has set on a year that exposed the utter unpreparedness of the security establishment to tackle the wave of terror bombings. And, as 2009 dawns with three powerful blasts rocking Guwahati and killing six people on New Year's Day, those responsible for securing the country have their task clearly cut out.
The year stretches ahead with plenty on the government's to-do list.
This includes improving the police- people ratio, filling up police vacancies in many states, including in some where they have not been filled since 1980, shoring up both coastal and hinterland security, setting up counter-insurgency schools and improving manpower in the Intelligence Bureau as only a fifth of its total strength is being used to gather hard intelligence.
For starters, the government has set up a National Investigation Agency on the lines of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to tackle terror exclusively and strengthen provisions in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act making it tougher for terror suspects to obtain bail. But that alone may not be adequate as the real necessity is to improve core policing.
In addition, the security conclave scheduled early next week will be the first major brainstorming session among the top police brass to ensure that many of these ideas are translated into action.
As with virtually every major terrorist incident in India when the attacks got deadlier, ferocious and had a surprise element, a strong message that has gone out is that new age terror had come to stay.
The 60-hour siege in Mumbai beginning Nov 26 demonstrated just that. The sheer scale and daring of the assault was staggering. The armed terrorists operating in typical military style alighted in dinghies on the city's sea front, seized control of territory at characteristically important locations along with hostages. The terrorists were clearly prepared to kill and be killed. Mumbai, the engine of India's economic growth, was deliberately chosen as the target.
Even in a city that has been witness to horrific terror attacks in the past and a country with a dismal record of struggling to contain terrorist violence these were extraordinary scenes. In the past, terror groups either placed explosive-packed devices in crowded places with the aim of killing large numbers at random or launched suicide attacks on specific targets.
Ironically, the security establishment, which actually was aware of the possibility of such an attack, was even more dumbfounded by the meticulous planning that went into the most daring non-military attack seen in the country so far.
Mumbai not just gripped the country's consciousness but also drew global attention. Security analysts and intelligence spooks kept referring to the 26/11 attacks as India's 9/11, but in reality the country's long tryst with terror far preceded this date.
The other major theatres of terrorism and the sheer spread of such incidents indicated 2008 had been one of the worst in recent history. Rampur, Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Malegaon, Agartala, Imphal, Guwahati and the Indian embassy in Kabul were the year's terror spots.
The bloody spree left over 500 dead and this did not include those who had died of left-wing extremism across vast swathes of the country or separatist violence in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states.
The crackdown launched by investigators on the shadowy Indian Mujahideen (IM) - blamed for the terror attacks in Ahmedabad, Delhi, and Jaipur - may have seriously dented the widespread network but the police need to take their probe to its logical conclusion.
According to the police, this loosely knit collation of self-made jehadis bound together by ideological affiliation and also personal ties, was behind almost every terror attack in the country since 2005. Some 35 reported members have been arrested across the country.
Equally important is getting to the bottom of the frightening dimensions of the radical Hindu terror plot unraveled by slain Anti-Terrorist Squad officer Hemant Karkare.
Initial investigations have so far revealed that the case had the makings of a larger conspiracy and planning of reprisal killings of Muslims for serial bombings in a number of Indian cities.
Ten people, including a self-proclaimed Hindu seer and a serving lieutenant colonel, have been arrested for the Sep 29 bombing in a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in the small Maharashtra town of Malegaon that killed five people. The surprise arrests indicated a change of course for police, who have blamed Muslim activists for the wave of bombings.
Before 26/11, the probe was examining if a Hindu terror conspiracy was involved in several other blasts - like the Samjhauta Express train to Pakistan in 2007, the April 2006 twin blasts at New Delhi's Jama Masjid and at the shrine of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer in Rajasthan last October - that have till date remained unsolved.
The last year could well go down as a moment when the tide turned against India in its long and demanding battle to stamp out terror. Despite the many strikes, the government and its security agencies have simply not learnt all these years. They are unable to establish even the most basic protocols, strategies and tactics for an appropriate response.
As Amir Taheri, an Iranian terrorism expert and the author of "Holy Terror: Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism", chillingly points out, "Terrorism is a beast with an extraordinary ability to mutate. As soon as its victims have learnt to cope with its methods, it develops new ones."
The security establishment needs to metamorphose and that too quickly to ensure that another Mumbai or worse does not recur.
(Murali Krishnan can be contacted at email@example.com)
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