A Frontline investigation explores the causes and contexts of Islamist terrorism in
India, a subject that has received extensive media coverage but remains little
IN the summer of 2003, Lal Krishan Advani declared victory in the war against terrorism.
Pakistan's proxy war, he told Bharatiya Janata Party officials, was "on the way to being
defeated". Espionage rings and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) modules across the
country had been smashed, he said; the situation in Jammu and Kashmir was "limping
back to normalcy and India had successfully mobilised world opinion against Pakistan-
sponsored cross-border terrorism".
Two years on, the former Union Home Minister's proclamation of victory seems
premature. Weeks after executing a series of bombings in New Delhi that claimed 63
lives, terrorists of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba shot at a scientific gathering at the
prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Covert Lashkar operatives have been
discovered, in recent days, in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai. Jammu and Kashmir, the
principal theatre of the jehad, has for its part seen a sharp escalation in high-profile
For all the acres of newsprint devoted to Islamist terrorism in recent weeks, we know
little about the groups spearheading the jehad against India - or the social and ideological
conditions that have enabled organisations like the Lashkar to recruit cadre.Fro n t lin e's
investigation of Islamist terrorism in India focusses on events outside Jammu and
Kashmir: the extension of the jehad to what organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba
believe to be their final objective - the destruction of India and the creation of an Islamic
dispensation. Two major groups have been examined in detail: the Lashkar, which wages
war from the west, and, to the east, the emerging threat of the Bangladesh-based Harkat
operated in recent years in an attempt to explore the social conditions and crises that have
enabled terrorist organisations to recruit cadre. Two themes appear as the leitmotif in all
these reports: frustration and anger among young people at the failure of the state, and
political parties, to deliver justice against perpetrators of communal violence, and anger
at the economic marginalisation of the minority community. Islamist terrorism in India,
these reports make clear, cannot be understood just as violent crime: it is profoundly
enmeshed with historical forces.
Outside of sections of the Urdu press, and with the notable exception of scholars such as
Yoginder Sikand, there has been little discussion of these issues. Two explanatory
discourses predominate. In the Hindu-chauvinist narrative, Muslims appear as five-wives
fanatics; the liberal reading, conversely, generally represents Muslims as victims. Both
versions objectify the community and obscure the vibrant political life and contestation
within it. Journalists have, for the most part, chosen to ignore the processes underpinning
the working of Islamists in India, representing the battle as a kind of wrestling match
between supremely skilled terrorists and idiotic, corrupt policemen.
POLICE and intelligence officials, for their part, complain that they are not given credit
for demonstrable successes against terrorist groups: the many occasions that bombings
and assassinations are prevented. There is some truth in the proposition. On January 6, for
example, the Mumbai Police's Anti-Terrorist Squad arrested three alleged Lashkar
operatives, Khurshid Ahmad Lala, Arshad Ghulam Hussain Badru and Mohammad
Ramzan Qazi, from the city's Nagpada area. Electronic timers and detonators were
recovered from the group, who investigators believe were ordered to set up base in
Mumbai, and wait for a consignment of explosives despatched from northern Kashmir.
Were it not for the intelligence scoop, Mumbai could have faced a series of horrific
bombings just days or weeks after the tragedy in Bangalore. Having said that, though, it
is also true that successive governments have failed in giving India the police apparatus
that modern counter-terrorism work requires. Unlike any other country of significance,
India still does not possess a national database on terror groups and suspects, accessible
to forces across the country. Most police stations in Jammu and Kashmir, to give another
example, simply do not have the facilities to collect fingerprints, order ballistics and
forensic tests, or even provide personnel on life-threatening counter-terrorism duties a hot
meal and safe housing.
All of these issues were addressed by a Group of Ministers after the Kargil War. If their
recommendations were acted upon, India would have had a new Police Act by 2003.
State police forces would have benefited from improved working conditions and support
The Intelligence Bureau would have been freed from the supervisory control of the
Ministry of Home Affairs bureaucrats. Its new Multi-Agency Centre would have had
newly raised technical staff and sophisticated computer systems similar to those used by
Western intelligence organisations. Bar some progress on fencing India's borders and
despite a change of government, the implementation scorecard is zero.
But does the problem, in fact, even warrant the little attention it gets? It is possible to
argue otherwise. According to data published by the Loss Prevention Association, 80,118
people died in road accidents through India in the year 2000. In the same year, 2,063
civilians, 837 security force personnel, and 2,655 terrorists were killed across the country
- a grand total of 5,555 people. Given that an overwhelming majority of these fatalities
took place in a single State, Jammu and Kashmir, it is tempting to dismiss terrorism as a
peripheral problem and to assert that it simply does not justify the enormous financial,
military, economic, intellectual and media resources now committed to the problem.
Yet, two powerful arguments exist against this attitude. First, the existence of multiple
problems does not justify ignoring one or other. The existence of a widespread problem
of car theft, for example, does not constitute a reason not to deal with the numerically
lower incidence of murder. Action to deal with India's dismal road-safety situation,
similarly, does not preclude vigorous state intervention to address the problem of Islamist
violence. Islamist terrorism, despite its small scale, holds out very real threats to India. It
has been ably used by Hindu fundamentalists, for example, both as a pretext for specific
incidents of communal violence and to legitimise their fascist agenda.
What is it that groups like the Lashkar actually want? In its own publications, the Lashkar
is remarkably clear: the destruction of a state it sees as a predatory Hindu-fundamentalist
entity, and the creation of a caliphate that would stretch from China to Spain. A paradox,
however, is notable. The Lashkar's total jehad is, by the standards of wars, remarkably
small-scale, at least outside of Jammu and Kashmir. Most victims of the recent Delhi
serial bombings, for example, died because of the accidental detonation of gas cylinders
in Sarojini Nagar market, not the small bombs themselves.
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