Terrorism has become one of the gravest threats to internal security in India. While international concern over terrorism in the present times is focused on global jihad, for India, terrorist threats range from Left Wing Extremism (LWE), ethnic separatism to religious militancy. In other words, the terrorist threats in India essentially emanate from its own territory. Further, there is the Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India, which has intensified since the 1990s. This trend is perhaps the most dangerous dimension in contemporary terrorism against India as through such sponsorship, Pakistan has aided and abetted secessionism in the Northeast, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.
Terrorism continues to pose a grave threat to India’s national security and its secular fabric. Over the years, India’s long struggle with various forms of politicised violence has created a “chronic crisis of national security”.
Terrorist organisations, through repeated attacks, aim to challenge the basic feature of the Indian state and through such action, highlight its inability to provide security and protection to its citizens. They aim to create an environment of fear and distrust between groups and communities that differ on ideological background. India’s approach to countering terrorism and insurgency since independence had been guided by conventional war biases because of its experience with Pakistan and China. Considered as one of the worst affected countries by terrorism, India’s external threat scenario has shaped its response to counter this scourge. Traditionally, threats to India’s territorial and internal security existed in the form of rebellion in Punjab, militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, insurgency in the Northeast of the country and left-wing extremism in its central part. Every case has “a distinct identity moulded by its geopolitical and socio-economic context.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs in India had called for structural and institutional changes in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks in 2008 (26/11) to effectively counter the scourge of terrorism. It constituted a National Investigation Agency (NIA) and proposals were made to bridge the gaps in the security apparatus by stationing the National Security Guard (NSG) in the major cities to be rushed in exigencies. The debate over the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) has been a result of the entire overhaul of the security apparatus,based on the idea of enhanced coordination of actions and exchange of intelligence to grapple with the problem of intelligence failure.
To secure India from terrorism, thrust is laid on a combination of military force, political initiatives and economic development. The military approach involves, apart from the employment of security forces, extensive use of legal provisions like counter-terrorism laws and emergency provisions to strengthen the security forces. The colonial strategy of “overawing the people” with the use of force continues to the present day. Currently, while the Indian Armed Forces (the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force) are equipped for conventional conflict, the Indian Army has found itself extensively committed to internal security operations in diverse environments that range from the dense jungles of the Northeast to the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, while the articulated doctrine of the Indian Army is primarily focused on external adversaries, the State has found it convenient to employ it internally whenever police and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) have been unable to control internal and armed expression of dissent by non-state actors, especially in hostile and underdeveloped terrain. Demands for secession or independence from the Indian Union have been addressed by wearing down the insurgents until the demand is dropped or modified. To tackle insurgency, India has engaged in talks with separatist groups and with its neighbours even though some of them support cross-border terrorism and insurgency. India has also been willing to create new states within the Union to accommodate ethno-nationalist aspirations, but not on the basis of religion.
One of the determining factors of India’s counterinsurgency strategy is the restrained use of indiscriminate force. Aerial bombardment, artillery and heavy infantry weapons are not used. Certain preventive measures too define the Indian approach to countering terrorism in Kashmir such as access denial to stop the movement of terrorist from training camps in Pakistan into the state. To plug the major infiltration routes, India has fenced the entire international border and most places along the Line of Control (LoC), along with deploying surveillance radars, ground sensors, thermal imaging devices and night vision devices. Further, early warning detectors are used to form a surveillance grid, which is superimposed on the counterinsurgency grid. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are deployed to monitor hostile movement and concentrations of terrorist activities. Further, retired army soldiers from the local villages are organised into Village Defence Committees to secure certain areas. They have been banded into a lightly armed force to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in the vulnerable villages in the hinterland. The motive is to force out the terrorists from the semi-urban areas into open terrain where they can be dealt with by the security forces.
Counter-terrorism strategy in Jammu and Kashmir and other affected areas also involves the road-opening parties. This requires deploying platoon-level units along major arterial roads and then combing them for mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), before the road is opened for normal traffic. Though labour intensive, tedious and time consuming, this tactics has proved beneficial in ensuring safe passage through major roadways, thereby denying insurgents control over key means of transportation and economic activity. Another tactic used in the Kashmir counterinsurgency campaign involves the “Covert Apprehension Technique” (CAT). This process is mainly used after cordon and search operations. When suspected militants or insurgency sympathisers were caught in cordon and search operations, former captured militants concealed behind facemasks were directed to pick out terrorist and their supporters.
India also continues to face major security challenges from insurgency in its Northeastern region. In responding to insurgents in the northeast, the state has displayed a high degree of political flexibility. India’s counterinsurgency strategy in Nagaland once revolved around blocking the exit-entry routes for the Pakistan and China-bound guerrilla columns, denial of base areas for those guerrilla squads active within the Naga Hills, negotiation with tribal leaders and chiefs to secure the surrender of the guerrillas by exploiting tribal division, strengthening of the electoral system and pumping in huge quantum of funds into Nagaland aimed at security the loyalty of the emerging Naga political class; and split the Naga National Council (NNC) by utilising the contacts established during the negotiations in the mid-1960s. Military operations against the insurgency movement in the Northeast have enabled the dialogue process which has brought some order to the region.
India has also applied hard power to tackle terrorism in the Northeast. ‘Operation Bajrang’, and ‘Operation Rhino’ were launched to put down the violent activities of ULFA between 1990 to 1992. In 2003, the Bhutan Army launched ‘Operation All Clear’ to clear the same group from Bhutan. More recently, in 2015, ‘Operation All Out’ was conducted against Bodo militant groups. The military response to insurgency in Northeast has followed a three phase strategy – firstly, “prevent,
protect and preserve” phase when the Army gets its bearing on the movement through a mix of “area domination”, static guarding of targets (human and material) and “cordon and search” operations intended to segregate the rebels form the people and deny them supplies; secondly, the “infiltration and isolation” phase that involves penetrating rebel groups to generate credible intelligence followed by select counter-action to keep the rebels on the run and a ‘winning hearts and mind’ (WHAM) campaign to deny the rebels local support; and thirdly, the “attack and finish” phase when rebel bases or mobile squads are attacked in large numbers and their organisation is split through engineered defections. In recent years, the army has also started direct deals with rebel groups to play them off against other such groups.
India, besides having perhaps the greatest number of home-grown terrorist groups operating within its borders, is also a victim of transnational terrorism to an unusually high degree. The recent rise of Indian Mujahideen (IM) as ‘the face of indigenous terror’ is considered symptomatic of a worrying trend of radicalisation within the country. At the conceptual level, India’s national security strategy emphasises the importance of creating and maintaining “a security environment which would enable the nation to provide opportunities to all individuals to develop to their fullest potential.” Thrust is also laid on socio-economic development to tackle the menace of terrorism. This, along with the application of hard power, has been beneficial in keeping the security environment under control.
Dr. Jaikhlong Basumatary is an Associate Fellow at CLAWS who writes extensively on subjects related to terrorism, counter-terrorism and subconventional conflicts. He has a doctorate degree from Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU.