It would obviously be too far-fetched to read too much into the terror attack at Ayodhya and the serial blasts in London occurring almost simultaneously. But there is one common factor. In both cases, terrorists took advantage of a sense of relaxation, even complacency, that had crept into security organisations the world over after nearly two incident free years. Also, the other common thing was that these terrorists knew their politics and timed their attacks accordingly.
The Ayodhya attack came just when the build-up began for Manmohan Singh’s Washington visit, another round of contacts with Pakistan, and the mess in the BJP. Did somebody calculate that in this state of turmoil and confusion, hardliners would hijack the agenda and unleash reprisals, ruining one of the better phases in India’s history of economic development and public peace, along with the on-going engagement with Pakistan?
In spite of the predictable name-calling, BJP leaders have kept things under control with L.K. Advani still speaking of a solution to Ayodhya through the courts or through negotiation. But it would not have been so simple had the terrorists been able to reach the temple and desecrate the idols.
Similarly, the London blasts were timed for maximum impact, just when security should have been at its maximum with the G8 summit, and also on the day London was expected to celebrate its having won the 2012 Olympic bid. Surely, whoever carried out the attacks must have celebrated as stock indices around the world fell, denting a new global optimism that’s been defying troubles in Iraq and $60 per barrel oil.
Terrorism by itself may be an approach of total madness and irrationality. But terrorists are clever, calculating people. Also, they are human and read the mood, signals and the threat from the other side in pretty much the same way that the good guys do. In both these cases, it seems they waited long enough until they concluded the security establishment had become lazy and complacent enough for them to dare such major strikes after a long gap when the heat was on them.
We know very little yet about what happened in London. But in India, it is logical to see how and why terrorists may have felt emboldened lately.
It is nobody’s case ‘ certainly not mine, I have seen Congress governments deal resolutely if not brutally with internal security threats through my reporting years ‘ that this UPA government wants to be soft on terrorism. But the combination of several events and some of its own misplaced actions and utterances, has created an atmosphere which both terrorists and their masters can misread. Could it be that they have begun to believe that this is a namby-pamby, Third Front type government with no stomach for a fight?
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I still do not believe that to be the case. Yet several developments over the past year can persuade the terrorist to draw this conclusion, starting with the withdrawal of POTA. It has always been this paper’s view that while it is imperative that a tough law like this must not be misused, a threat like terrorism cannot be fought with normal laws. Terrorists scare witnesses, the judiciary and the prosecution and India’s record of successfully prosecuting terror suspects has been zilch.
The significance of POTA was more symbolic. It took away the comfort from the terrorist’s mind that if he was caught his discomforts would only last till a smart lawyer was able to get him bail. It gave heart to security forces and intelligence services who often complained ‘ with good reason ‘ that they were fighting against impossible odds, sometimes abandoned by the state and battling the inadequacies of the legal system along with new concerns on human rights ‘ a point that the British home secretary also made in passing after the serial blasts in London.
This is not so much an argument for or against POTA, as on the manner of its withdrawal. The UPA and the Left did not build a case for its withdrawal on moral or human rights grounds. They did it on the issue of secularism. It was seen as a BJP law, enacted to victimise Muslims. Politically, there was some truth in that, but it was only a part of the story. The fact is, politicisation and communalisation of the POTA debate by both sides has damaged the national interest.
In our two most populous states we have the most politicised police forces and, whatever their professional reservations, they are forced to look at the problem of terrorism in a communal way. The Uttar Pradesh government’s hurried burial of the bodies of the suspects killed in Ayodhya, for example, isn’t going to reassure anybody. Also, with police and intelligence forced to look at the terror threat in the state through a communal prism, in a manner you could describe as a mirror image of what may happen in Gujarat, there is no doubt that the largest number of Lashkar modules in now in Uttar Pradesh. If the government has any doubt, they can be set at rest by top officers in the Centre’s own intelligence agencies.
Whatever be the merits of withdrawing POTA, it was seen as an act of weakness and pandering by both sides, terrorists as well as security forces. This was, unfortunately, accompanied and followed by many other developments confirming the same “belief” of this government being a bleeding heart peace-seeker rather than continuing on in the tradition of a hard Indian state ‘ barring the short V.P. Singh and Gowda-Gujral interregnum.
It started with the way in which both the Centre and the Andhra government handled the Naxalites. The initial euphoria for negotiation was so exaggerated it almost suggested complicity. Now the chief minister complains of betrayal and that the Naxalites used the period to regroup, but the fact is somebody needs to be called to account for allowing them to walk around freely displaying their weapons, something no Indian government has ever allowed any insurgent to do while negotiating.
Even as far back as in the mid-’70s, the “Naga Federal Government”, hesitant to give up arms, was made to deposit them in neutral safe houses rather than be allowed to carry them. Even subsequent to that much lamented “betrayal”, when the Andhra police succeeded in cornering the top Naxalite leadership in a forest raid, they were allowed to go under Central directions. Surely high politics has its own reasons but those fighting terrorism have simple minds. To them it looks like a funny new situation where they would rather wait and watch. And to terrorists of all kinds ‘ given the ambiguity of the Maoist threat in Nepal ‘ this is seen as the arrival of a weak, confused state.
The waffling over the Maoist-Naxalite threat has also been accompanied by some really curious developments vis-a-vis the ULFA. It is beyond the comprehension of any reasonable mind how this government can carry on so desperately in seeking an engagement with a group that counts for so little but demands no less than sovereignty as a pre-condition for talks. Operations against the ULFA have more or less ceased and a feeling is growing that the local Congress government either does not have the stomach for a fight or is so desperate for ULFA help in next year’s elections that any compromise is considered worthwhile.
It may be hasty to join the dots yet, but one look and the picture looks disturbing. Naxalites, ULFA, Ayodhya and the sudden resurgence of discordant noises in Punjab, the cinema hall blasts in Delhi, the re-appearance of stories on the Babbar Khalsa in the media on a regular basis, just as Simranjit Singh Mann and Jagjit Singh Chohan make the front pages again, and you wonder if that marvellous period free of internal discord is going to be over soon. Maybe, or rather hopefully, not. But the time for complacency is over.