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They strike when iron is cold

Terrorist action peaked as did a very brutal state response to it. Until it reached a point where militants were convinced that the state had the strength to fight & would ultimately prevail.

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One of the abiding memories of my reporting years belongs to the era of another, bloodier, war on terror. Rajiv Gandhi had just come to power following his mother’s assassination, massacres of Sikhs and Operation Bluestar. And he suddenly produced a remarkable peace accord with the then detained Sikh moderate leader, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. For those like us, tired and sickened by the death dance, this was a great relief, also an act of great statesmanship.

The very next day, as Longowal returned to Punjab for the first time after Operation Bluestar, and Arjun Singh, handpicked by Rajiv, took over as its governor, many of us regulars on the Punjab terror beat also followed in their wake, now hoping to chronicle the arrival of peace. It was some time that afternoon that I got a message that K.P.S. Gill, then heading the Punjab Armed Police, wanted to see me at the police mess at Bahadurgarh near Patiala.

I was hoping for a quiet celebration with a fellow-traveller to many killing fields, having exchanged notes with him routinely on death counts in Assam, and then Punjab. But I found him glum, almost mournful, and as it turned out it wasn’t just because there were merely a couple of inches of liquid left in his only bottle of Teachers that evening.

“You are celebrating, aren’t you? You think peace has now been ushered in. And you are wondering what’s wrong with me?” He had obviously read my face.

“Absolutely, ” I said. “Wouldn’t you be celebrating as well? Or have you got so used to bloodshed and action that you are missing it?”

“This is not the way you make peace, ” he said. “You can make peace when you wield the big stick, when the other side knows there is no option.” He went on to predict that the accord would fail, and then promised, ominously, that within 12 months he would be back fighting the bad guys, and I back covering a continuing war, and not celebrating the peace.

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Sure enough, exactly as he predicted, in the late summer of 1986, I called on him at the circuit house in Amritsar. Longowal had since been assassinated, the accord lay in tatters, terrorists were roaming the countryside. He was back to his killing fields, and I was back to a sickeningly familiar story too.

For two decades now, this has not merely been one of my favourite reporter’s stories, but also a lesson in how a state fights terrorism. It led to my theorising often that an insurgency or a militant movement in India followed a predictable cycle. Terrorist action peaked as did a very brutal state response to it. Until it reached a point where militants were convinced that the state had the strength to fight, and would ultimately prevail because of its vastly superior resources and will power, whatever the immediate score in terms of the number of bodies on the ground.

It was at this point that they accepted a compromise and it was here that even a state as hard as India would pull out the velvet glove, responding with not just the offer of local power, but also constitutional flexibility. Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Punjab, all followed the same pattern. Of course it took political scientist and Princeton professor Atul Kohli to expand this idea scientifically into a graph, where the inflexion point was the peaking of violence from both sides.

It is surprising how those manning the UPA government’s top security establishment have forgotten this lesson, considering that many of them had played crucial roles in those earlier battles. They should reflect on this while licking their wounds after Mumbai. True, terrorists can strike under the toughest of governments, but has this one allowed its politics to confuse the security agencies so much that they have lost the plot?

If the NDA politicised, or rather communalised terrorism, this one is guilty of doing just that to the fight against terror. The abolition of POTA had become an issue in minority politics and while it was one thing to make it the cornerstone of the new regime’s approach to terrorism, the rhetoric accompanying it was grievously damaging to the morale of the security forces, particularly as more evidence of the same politicised woolly-headedness followed.

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There was an immediate, disastrous and idiotic effort to reach out to the Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh and, while the governments were always open to talking with armed groups in the past, here for the first time ever they were allowed to roam around carrying arms publicly even as negotiations went on. Even in the negotiations leading up to the 1975 Nagaland Peace Accord, the insurgents were made to deposit their arms in neutral godowns run by Sarvodaya leaders. Overall, the overture to Naxalites was exactly the opposite of the state offering the olive branch when it wielded the big stick. Sure enough the result was loss of face and morale for the government and the police and a great boost for the Naxalites.

This was followed shortly by a most curious event. The police in Andhra Pradesh had the entire leadership of the Naxalites encircled in a forest, but were told to pull back, instructions to do so having gone from the Centre, at the highest levels. When I tried to ask some of the key people in the UPA’s security establishment why this was done, I was asked a counter-question: “If the police had killed the entire top leadership of the Naxalites, what would the reaction of the intellectual classes and civil society activists have been?”

If the bad guys had any doubts that they were now dealing with a rare soft phase in India’s history of fighting terrorism, these were set aside by the way we followed up on the Parliament attack case, the inability to punish any culprits in Ghatkopar blasts, the systematic emasculation of Mumbai Police’s encounter cell and so on. The blundering policy of cosying up to Naxalites was followed by a most shockingly cynical approach to negotiations that brought back to life a near–dead ULFA in Assam where, it seemed sometimes, the line between political and national interest had been washed away in a Brahmaputra flood.

Mumbai ‘ where, in 11 minutes, the number of deaths was half that of the 100-day war in Kargil ‘ has now left no more scope for wishful thinking and political game-playing. For the first time since the UPA took over, we have had the kind of public response, even rhetoric, that people must expect from their government in a nation so vulnerable to terror. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s hardtalk to Pakistan has set the course. While some bleeding heart analysing of the fundamental causes of terrorism still goes on, at least the key members of the establishment sound like they have heard the wake-up call.

They also seem to realise now it won’t help if they go on reminding people that worse had happened under NDA rule. At least, then, even as terrorists struck, people by and large had the sense that their government was fighting back. Those were, mind you, much more complicated times with an openly hostile relationship and two warlike phases with Pakistan, unlike today’s climate by and large of peace-making. The prime minister now talks of improving surveillance, pro-active counter-terrorism and no compromises. Those on the frontlines of these operations, the heads of his security forces and intelligence agencies, would need more convincing from the subsequent actions and commitment levels that he and his colleagues demonstrate.

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