An analysis of terrorism in South Asia indicates that the occurrence of such incidents in the region are perhaps one of the highest in the world, next perhaps only to Syria and Iraq. That is a cause of worry. Incidents of terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India show a trend which is highly disconcerting and disturbing. Bangladesh too is sitting on a powder keg, though incidents of terrorism in that country are oft underplayed. South Asia thus is hugely impacted by terrorism and I would like to flag four issues.
The first of these is the issue of states not being a responsible player. In an ideal situation, the states must be responsible players, who would not allow cross border terrorism, and would not give shelter to individuals and organisations who sponsor terrorism within the country and across borders. Unfortunately, we have a situation where one state in South Asia has not been a very responsible state in that sense and therefore we see a lot of terrorism routinely emanating from this country as part of its geopolitics in international relations. In the Twentieth Century, it was war that was seen as a continuation of politics by other means and now we have a situation in South Asia where some state players see terrorism as an instrument of state policy. This remains a worry which need to be taken into account.
The second point is that in this war, there are no winners. There has been no winner ever, whether you look at terrorism that started in France in the sixties of the last century, or in later years, it is apparent that no terrorist group has ever achieved its political aim. What they have achieved is a loser at both ends, with the recipient suffering serious consequences in terms of economic and emotional costs, with the very fabric of society being affected. There is a heightened sense of insecurity among citizens, but more tragically, over a period of time, the public gets inured to such acts and treats incidents of terror as the new normal. This leads to citizens being less sensitive to such incidents, which then do not get the level of condemnation they should. The public only gets concerned if the incident is huge, such as the attack on Mumbai in November 2008, or the killing of school children in Peshawar in Pakistan in 2014. To combat terror, each and every incident of terrorism must attract opprobrium from the public.
An obvious counter terrorism strategy is that the world must unite and cooperate in fighting this scourge by disrupting the financing of terror. Encouragingly, a lot of steps have been taken in this regard, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions, with the objectives to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system. Whether such efforts are sufficient, it is difficult to say, but obviously such efforts over time will hopefully disrupt terror financing to quite some extent.
The next issue is minimising the effect of any radicalisation on religious grounds. This is a more difficult battle to fight because it is a battle of ‘minds and hearts,’ but that is something which we also need to be concerned with as countries, as states and as societies; how we are going to stop and interfere with radicalisation of our young who are being misled by a selective propaganda, the consequences of which they perhaps do not fully understand. This is a challenge which we are not, as yet, coping with very well and we will have to evolve capacities to meet this challenge also.
The fourth point I would like to highlight is about state capacity. Obviously, the state capacity to meet the challenge has to increase and has to be of a high order. Terrorists would like to carry out high profile attacks in the developed countries like the US and the West to draw maximum attention, but the reason that such incidents in these countries is less, is because they have better state capacities to prevent such attacks. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, state capacity is still not to the extent that the developed countries have achieved, whether it is terms of the nimbleness of our intelligence agencies, or the coordination capacities amongst various institutions, various organisations that need to look at these problems, whether it is technology or whether it is even commitment. As I stated earlier, we tend to be a tad insensitive to the kind of horror that terror is bringing, and therefore perhaps, even the commitment of the people involved in fighting this menace, is not as much. We have a system that is largely a 19th century construct which we inherited from the British, and that system more or less persists. I too, am a symbol of that system and now, naturally, as one sees the world changing and new threats emerging, we need to look into methods of changing such systems to improve our state capacity. State capacity does not only mean the government. It also means how good our criminal justice system is, which sometimes appears to be more antiquated than our administrative systems. If someone were to study it, one would see that changes in the criminal justice system have been very slow, to the point of being almost negligible. That is a cause of worry and contributes to encouraging acts of terror.
My next point pertains to the damage done by terrorism to the lives that we try to choose for ourselves, which essentially in political terms means the democratic way of life. Terror attacks actually endanger the very values that we want to adopt and live by. For example, we perhaps have greater tolerance for non-judicial settlement of some of these issues. That is not a good sign for us. We have to ensure that we live by the values which democracy has bestowed. Unfortunately, as state capacity weakens and we are unable to deal with incidents in terms of administrative capacities or effectiveness of the criminal justice system, we become more tolerant of extra constitutional means of settling some of these issues, which degrades the very foundation of democracy. The Mumbai attacks are a prime example of the failure of state capacity and the damage that accrued from the same. A lot has been written on the subject but amongst the insightful articles which point out where and how the failures took place are the articles written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express and Robert Kagan’s article in the Washington Post. Kagan’s article speaks of the strategic motivations for the Mumbai attacks and what it implied in terms of India and Pakistan, how it almost brought about a situation, where it left dilemmas not only for India and Pakistan but also for the US. Another insightful article on the failure of state capacities was Edward Luttwak’s, ‘The Fatal Delay’. All these highlight the way we look at issues of governance, and the need to have a relook at the same. Ajay Shah’s article, ‘Look Deeper’, again highlights the same point. These articles and many others on the subject highlight the fact that while terrorism has no winners, it creates dangers for our democratic polity which we have to be very aware of. The articles also highlight the need to review our systems and enhance our state capacities, if terrorism is to be effectively tackled. Protection against terrorism begins at the level of the beat constable and we saw in Mumbai that the beat constable and the local police were completely helpless in even cordoning off the sites of attack.
AN OBVIOUS COUNTER TERRORISM STRATEGY IS THAT THE WORLD MUST UNITE AND COOPERATE IN FIGHTING THIS SCOURGE BY DISRUPTING THE FINANCING OF TERROR. ENCOURAGINGLY, A LOT OF STEPS HAVE BEEN TAKEN IN THIS REGARD, SUCH AS THE FINANCIAL ACTION TASK FORCE (FATF), AN INTER-GOVERNMENTAL BODY ESTABLISHED IN 1989 BY THE MINISTERS OF ITS MEMBER JURISDICTIONS, WITH THE OBJECTIVES TO SET STANDARDS AND PROMOTE EFFECTIVE IMPLEMENTATION OF LEGAL, REGULATORY AND OPERATIONAL MEASURES FOR COMBATING MONEY LAUNDERING, TERRORIST FINANCING AND OTHER RELATED THREATS TO THE INTEGRITY OF THE INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM.
Another aspect of the lack of capacity, and I refer to India now, is that we have lost focus on some of the major issues of governance. Two issues which come to mind are education and health, where the Indian State has not delivered the kind of services that were needed to be delivered to its people. Even more important is the issue of law and order. If we cannot provide security to our citizens, and a congenial atmosphere for economic activity, we are failing. Unfortunately, over the last half a century or so, governance has shifted from its core duties of health, education and law and order, to focusing on populist schemes, ostensibly in the name of the poor. Ironically, these schemes hurt the poor the most as what they really need is education, health and an environment in which they can work.
To conclude, it is my opinion that for India to confront its myriad problems, a sustained period of double digit growth is required. This is essential on the one hand to improve our state capacities to take on these challenges and on the other hand to reduce the frustration of unemployment and lack of economic opportunity for the youth, thus reducing the pool of people, which terrorist organisations depend upon for recruitment to their cadre and for radicalisation.
This article is an extract of a talk given by Shri Rajiv Mehrishi, the then Union Home Secretary, at the Counter Terrorism Conference organised by India Foundation in 2017 in New Delhi.