October 25, 2020
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A Prime Minister Speaks

Finally, a clear voice on terror -- in a radical departure from feckless tradition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has now articulated what can be a sound and secure basis for a national counter-terrorism strategy and internal security policy.

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A Prime Minister Speaks
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A Prime Minister Speaks

There can be no political compromise with terror. No inch conceded. No compassion shown… There are no good terrorists and bad terrorists. There is no cause, root or branch, that can ever justify the killing of innocent people. No democratic government can tolerate the use of violence against innocent people and against the functionaries of a duly established democratic government.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

For far too long, now, the political discourse on terrorism has been clouded by a wide range of misconceptions, a great deal of muddle-headedness and at least some self-serving pretensions, and these have persistently stood in the way of evolving a coherent national policy against this scourge, even as they have obstructed India's Security Forces (SFs) time and again from taking necessary action. 

In numberless cases, where the SFs have, at great costs and with untold sacrifices, imposed a measure of order in areas of widespread violence, the advantage has quickly been wasted by political adventurism and unprincipled deals with extremist leaderships that have restored the sway of violent anti-state groups in wide areas of the country. 

Political leaders at the highest levels have repeatedly propounded the false sociologies of 'root causes' and the fiction that terrorists and other extremists, who have taken hundreds of innocent lives, are best treated as 'our children' who may have 'lost their way'. At the same time, many political parties have entered into deceitful pre-election alliances to secure extremist support during the polls, against promises of a 'soft-line' in the post-poll order.

Even where political leaders have, in the past, condemned terrorism, they have found it expedient to qualify their remarks with platitudes about 'wayward children', 'legitimate grievances' and the need for undefined and inchoate 'political solutions'.

In a radical departure from this feckless tradition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has now articulated what can be a sound and secure basis for a national counter-terrorism strategy and internal security policy. At the Chief Minister's Conference on April 15, 2005, the Prime Minister's statement was crystalline in its clarity, sweeping aside the accumulated debris of discredited political rhetoric - much of it emanating from his own party and cabinet colleagues - to establish and impose the beginnings of a consensus on a fractious and opportunistic political community, as he emphasized the dangers of "terrorist groups, organized crime syndicates, drug trafficking and external forces interested in destabilizing our polity", and "urged leaders of all political parties to ensure that such forces and groups are kept away from our political processes. We need to have zero-tolerance for criminalisation of politics in our country."

It is unsurprising that such a statement should come, eventually, from an economist Prime Minister, as he confronts the challenge of integrating India's economy with the emerging global order, and securing for the country its rightful place among the 'great powers' of the future. For decades, expenditure on policing and internal security has been casually dismissed by planners as 'non-developmental expenditure' and, consequently, in some sense, 'wasteful'.  

Instead, it has frequently been argued, massive investment in areas of strife would address the 'legitimate grievances and aspirations' of the people, and magically wipe out violence. Billions of rupees have, consequently, been poured into a bottomless pit, with no visible impact on the intended beneficiaries, even as a corrupt politicians-bureaucrat-contractor nexus has profited hugely, and substantial volumes of these funds have also flowed into the hands of insurgent and terrorist groups.

At the same time, ill-equipped state police forces, increasingly supplemented by central paramilitaries and the army, are thrown into unequal and unending wars against elements that are complicit with their own state political leaderships, and that, at least on occasion, have had supporters in the national political leadership as well.

Prime Minister Singh, however, clearly recognizes the "huge societal costs" of the multiple anti-state movements across the country, and notes:

Investments are unlikely to fructify, employment is not likely to grow and educational facilities may be impaired… Delivery systems are often the first casualty. Schools do not run, dispensaries do not open and PDS (public distribution system) shops remain closed. Public service providers can now ascribe all their inefficiencies to "extremism".

Recognizing that "the challenge of internal security is our biggest national security challenge today," Singh has called for urgent police reforms, efficient policing, special attention to intelligence gathering and the modernization of intelligence services and Security Forces.

Clarifying another element of frequent political double-speak, the Prime Minister dismissed efforts by many to underplay the growing dangers of Left Wing extremism (Naxalism), emphasizing the "inter-state and external dimension to Naxalism today. This requires greater coordination between state governments and between the centre and states. We have to take a comprehensive approach in dealing with Naxalism given the emerging linkages between groups within and outside the country…"

Singh reiterated that, "while talks and negotiations should always be welcomed", these can only be with groups that abjure violence:

…the basic issues regarding violence and the state's obligation to curb it should be clarified at the outset, so that there are no misunderstandings or a feeling of being let down at later stages. In our country, symbols and gestures matter. Nothing should be done which detracts from the authority of the Indian state and its primary role as an upholder of public order. The state should not even remotely be seen to back away in the face of threats of armed violence.

Few in India have recognized or even understood the enormous effort and sacrifice that has gone into the preservation of the 'symbols and gestures' of Constitutional Democracy. It is useful, in this context, to recall a small example of a 'routine' operation during the recent Assembly elections in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar - areas widely afflicted by Naxalite violence. 

A contingent of the Punjab Police (PP) was deployed in Chhattisgarh for 22 days on polling duties, with a large proportion of these in the Bastar area, including four of the areas worst affected by Naxalite violence: Jagdalpur, Kanker, Bijapur and Dantewada. One party of 50 PP personnel, accompanied by one local policeman, started from Bijapur to go through forests to reach a place called Sundra, to prepare a helipad so that electoral officials and materials could be brought in. This short journey was to be completed in two stages, with an overnight stop at Sagmeta. 

They moved from Bijapur at 07:00, and by 10:00, they were in the thick of the forest. They were greeted by as many as 19 landmine blasts, coupled with heavy firing. The commandos retaliated and used area weapons - 2-inch mortars, GF rifles (grenade launchers), Light Machine Guns and ALRs. They found that all the existing forest trails were mined, so they marched cross country, cutting a path through the forest and reached Sagmeta, just 15 kilometres from Bijapur, at 17:00, completing the journey in over 10 hours. 

At Sagmeta, from 23:00 to 05:00 the next morning, there was a pitched battle between the police party and the Naxalites who were surrounding them from all sides. They then received information that the route to Sundra was heavily mined. The party consequently stayed on at Sagmeta for another day. Firing on the party started again at 2200 and continued till 0500 the next morning. 

A helicopter was eventually pressed into service, and lifted one party - about half a platoon - who secured the ground at Sundra. The remaining policemen were then airlifted to create and secure the helipad. They came under heavy fire from the Naxalites through the night at Sundra as well. 

For those who have not faced fire, it is difficult to understand the enormous courage and character that it would have taken this small contingent, as they confronted a faceless enemy, although unused to the terrain, being in the area for the first time. It is a tribute to their ruggedness, their training and their experience in fighting terrorism in Punjab that, despite the fact that they took casualties, they managed to set up the polling station, and polling did take place. 

What they saw was often horrifying, as people with mutilated limbs lined up to cast their votes. These were the victims of Naxalite 'justice', their limbs cut off - often by their own relatives on Naxalite orders - on the mere suspicion of being 'informers'. 

After polling was over, the party returned, once again under heavy fire throughout the night. While details of this expedition are available to me, it was far from unique, and other parties in Kanker and other districts were also subject to organised attacks - though this was the most vicious. All Forces deployed for election duties in the area suffered casualties, and 32 SF personnel lost their lives during the elections in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

Prime Minister Singh has now made it clear that "there is no place for violence and extremism of any kind in a democratic, rule based society", but translating his newly articulated vision into policy will require political will and perseverance. I have, for nearly a decade now advocated the need for a national policy that would recognize the existing and future threat-potential of terrorism and low intensity wars, and create the basis for a radical reformation of internal security forces and strategies, to create the skills, knowledge, attitudes and infrastructure necessary to confront these dangers. It is now necessary to initiate immediate processes to reform the institutional structures that impinge upon internal security management - the SFs, the justice system, intelligence agencies, the bureaucracy, and most importantly the deeply compromised political structures of this country.

Unless the Prime Minister can secure these ends, his exceptional statement on terrorism and internal security would, regrettably, be just that: an exceptional statement.

K.P.S. Gill is Publisher, SAIR; President, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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