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India’s Record in Counter-Terrorism : Good, Bad or Mixed?

If one is required to evaluate India’s record in its counter-terrorism efforts in one word, the answer has to be “mixed”, but that would not do justice to the issue.

India is widely accepted to be the most affected country from “terrorism”(according to the current wide definition of the word), in terms of casualties, duration of the challenges, types of terrorism (and their causes) etc.; and its counter-terrorism responses have necessarily been varied. Each of these requires to be evaluated separately and I shall make a quick effort.


Amongst the various types of terrorism faced by India (not necessarily all at the same time) the following types could be easily identified for studying the causes, options for countering them and possible solutions:

Ethnic struggles for their rights, often leading to demands for secession, militant insurgency, terrorist acts against government targets and even innocent civilians.

Linguistic, caste-based agitations and other parochial movements.

Left wing (naxalite) extremism, originally stemming from extreme deprivation.

Cross-border terrorism mostly sponsored or tolerated by unfriendly or ineffective governments.

Jihadi terrorism, spawned by pan-Islamic fundamentalism.

Spill-over terrorism.

There is some confusion about the definition of terrorism and who is a terrorist that leads to a tendency to lump together terms like militants, insurgents, extremists, fundamentalists and (real) terrorists. While all kinds of people fighting for a cause may at times indulge in violent acts, a terrorist is one whose primary aim is to cause maximum destruction, often targeting totally unconnected persons, with the sole purpose of causing and promoting fear.

Ethnic Struggles

India has experienced many ethnic struggles and insurgencies, since independence. Most of these have had specific material objectives like independence or a separate state within India. Since the goal has been material and tangible, it has been possible in many cases to negotiate peaceful solutions, after containing the violence. The situation has been further complicated by the involvement of China in the insurgencies in the north-east in yester-years, and the continued involvement of the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Bangladesh in sponsoring and assisting ethnic and other forms of terrorism in India. With the exception of some intransigent elements like the ULFA, the Bodos and some NSCN factions, viable solutions have been evolved in most cases. The overall record in this area is evaluated as “good”.

Parochialism (Religious and Linguistic)

Some organizations like Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal etc. believe in violent means to achieve their immediate and often-limited objectives. It may not be proper to classify them as terrorists, though the effects of their actions resemble those of terrorist incidents. They need to be dealt with under the law, the same as one would deal with, say, militant trade unions (for example). There is an increasing tendency to indulge in parochial acts of violence and the record in handling such instances is “bad” – mainly because of political considerations.

Left Wing Extremism

Marxism inspired terrorism in India could be traced to the “acid bulb revolution” of the late 1940s in the Telugu-speaking districts of the erstwhile Hyderabad State. However, the birth of Naxalism is credited to the incident on 25 May 1967, when a farmer was attacked by goons sent by a landlord in a remote West Bengal hamlet known as Naxalbari. The event sparked off a violent uprising, led by Maoist leaders Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal. In the forty-one years since then, the left wing extremist movement has grown stronger, spread wider and has become arguably the most dangerous threat to national security. From Nepal to Andhra Pradesh, Maoists “rule” in large pockets where the governments fear to tread. In Chattisgarh, the Naxalites walked in thirty years back into a void created by an absence of governance in a difficult tribal terrain, and stayed on to gain in strength. In a recent report of the Union Home Ministry, it has been pointed out to the state governments that naxalites typically operate in the vacuum created by functional inadequacy of field level governance. They take advantage of dissatisfaction and feelings of perceived neglect and injustice among “under-privileged” segments – a classic euphemism for “oppressed” segments. MHA pointed out that “While it is necessary to conduct pro-active and sustained operations against extremists, … it is also necessary simultaneously to give focussed attention to the development and governance issues, particularly at the cutting edge level.” It is tragic that these lessons in effective governance are required to be emphasized more than sixty years after independence and fifty years after the vacuum in governance in border areas allowed the Chinese to build roads and make other encroachments into “Indian territory”. It cannot be a mere coincidence that ineffective land reforms (not really benefiting the landless), economic exploitation, caste-based discrimination etc. are widely prevalent in the districts worst affected by Maoism. I had read a perceptive remark about the Maoists having replaced the Christian missionaries, though with a modified set of objectives, in many unadministered tribal areas. The threat faced from the Naxalites is an ideological conflict through which the Maoists want to overthrow the entire system and replace it with one party rule as imposed by Stalin and Mao. It is not possible for a democratic State to negotiate its own destruction, but the State can act to remove or reduce the causes for disaffection and alienation.

In his latest book, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, journalist Sudeep Chakravarti argues that India could implode in a war fuelled by the anger of the poor and the dispossessed. The dispossessed and the dead are not mere numbers; they are and were people. While it may not be correct to say that Maoists control nearly one-third of India, about 170 districts in 14 states, they do control vast forest areas like the Dandakaranya region (spread over Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa), and other forest areas in Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. They also operate with some impunity in other areas that are not effectively administered by the government. This “suggests abdication of governance by the state, lack of a justice system, extreme poverty, social discrimination and the state utterly taking its own people for granted”. The Maoists are gradually spreading their influence in non-forested areas of Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra, industrial hotspots in Orissa, the plains of West Bengal, plantation areas in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and even in the agricultural hotspots in Punjab and Haryana. They have started allying with numerous other groups such as those protesting the displacement on account of large development projects and those protesting against ill treatment on account of their caste. The wise ought to see the writing on the wall and ensure socio-economic, administrative and judicial delivery so that Mao and his principles need not have to show the way in India. True and inclusive development and good governance should be the greatest weapons against anger and resentment. The state governments should know that they have to ensure that development funds actually reach the intended; and have to ensure efficient administration, policing and justice. They seem to lack the will to do what they know they should do.

There can be no doubt that the overall evaluation relating to effective governance (particularly in difficult terrain) and countering leftwing extremism has to be “bad”.

Cross-Border Terrorism

It is an undisputed fact of contemporary history that Pakistan has been exporting terrorism to India as a part of its national strategy of `thousand year war’. Sponsorship, support and safe havens provided in Pakistan and Bangla Desh have kept cross-border terrorism alive in Kashmir, north-east and elsewhere. A recent report of the Intelligence Bureau notes that the ISI has been stoking increased militancy in Punjab and the north-eastern states. The first stage involves low-level insurgency through operatives placed in key locations across the country, with a view to subverting the police force, communication networks, and financial institutions. Phase two, which is said to be under way, involves the stepping up of terrorist activities in the border areas and elsewhere, using former Afghan mujahideen and Bangla militants. India has done quite well in its police and military responses to cross-border terrorism, but has made little progress in eliminating the scourge.

Government level diplomatic and back-channel approaches have not been very fruitful. There are many covert (pro-active and somewhat aggressive) measures that could and need to be taken, within the country and outside. Though it may not be in the interest of national security discuss them in an open forum, I would state that India has to re-establish and activate a retaliatory capability and convince others of our will and determination to use such capability (when established and stabilized), if pushed into doing so.

Jihadi Terrorism

The adjectives “Jihadi” or “Islamist” are often used in relation to certain terrorist incidents mainly because no other terror group invokes religious sanction or quotes religious texts to justify its terrorist acts. Further, such groups do not shy away from admitting the religious nature of their ultimate goal, i.e. the Islamisation of society. Literature found with activists of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) talks of this goal seriously. As jihadi terrorists cloak themselves in religious idiom, they can easily draw support from innocent Muslims. Jihadi terrorists are very active in India, not because India is the number one enemy of Islam, but because it is considered to be a soft target. If the State fails to curb minority terrorism, there is the risk of the majority being tempted to have its own terrorist units.

Jihadi terrorism that we see today was initially sponsored jointly by USA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in late 1970s, to meet their strategic interests in Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan exported these “unemployed” jihadis to India under the sponsorship of the ISI. Many of them were and are used for mounting cross-border terrorist strikes in Kashmir. Some are used to help in the proxy war of terrorism by activating the sleeper cells.

Jihadi terrorism has maligned and defamed the Muslim community as a whole and it would behove its leaders to take the lead in fighting this global menace. It is for the Islamic religious leadership to prove that Islam is in fact a religion of peace. The ultimate battle against jihadi terrorism has to be fought in the minds of Muslims themselves. Recent declarations against terrorism by their religious leadership may help in this fight. As B.Raman has said, “We in India do not believe that a Muslim is born to be violent. We do not believe that the Muslims of the world constitute a monolithic community. We do not believe that if you know one Muslim, you know all Muslims. We do not believe that all Muslims behave alike. At the same time, we are worried by the emerging trend of some Muslim youth belonging to organizations such as the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) taking to terrorism in the name of jihad and projecting their so-called jihad as part of a global jihad.”

While laying a major part of the blame for cross-border terrorism and jihadi terrorism on Pakistan and Bangla Desh, one has to admit that a significant part of jihadi terrorism in India is indigenous. Angry individual Muslims, many of them well educated, not belonging to any organisation, have been active. Dr.Sageman, a retired officer of the CIA, calls them leaderless jihadis and Raman calls them citizen jihadis. They are terrorists born out of the anger of the moment, give vent to their anger through tactical strikes, but they have no strategic objective. As Raman says, they lack the capability to carry out terrorist strikes of a “strategic nature, which could cause mass casualties, mass economic damage, mass disruption and mass panic.”

Vote bank politics and minorityism are among the factors that inhibit significant action against jihadi terrorists. There is already a creeping feeling that the majority is treated as “second class” citizens and this could blow up as a major reaction, unless the government improves its performance in countering jihadi terrorists.

Spillover Terrorism

Terrorist culture and activities have in the past spilled over from the activities of Tamil militants in Sri Lanka. It is true that such activities were “tolerated” or “supported in Tamil Nadu for some time, but central and state governments have had considerable success in curbing the threat in recent years.


Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system, from investigation through prosecution and sentencing, has a very poor record of delivery. While this may be so in all criminal cases, it is especially evident in cases relating to terrorism. There is no real fear of punishment and there is no deterrence. A serious national debate is needed on reforming the criminal justice system, to make it more efficient and responsive.

UK had introduced a special system for protecting the identities of certain witnesses in special cases, by letting them tender evidence in anonymity. The Law Lords recently declared this provision illegal. Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said that there is a real need for some witnesses to have their identities protected in certain cases (due to fear of retaliation) and that the government planned to introduce legislation, on a priority basis, to enshrine the use of anonymous witnesses where intimidation is a risk. India could usefully consider a similar amendment to the Evidence Act.

The police establishment should be enabled to conduct investigations (particularly in terrorist related cases) without political interference and without any distinction between minority and majority community and without relevance to political affiliation. The Model Police Act, drafted by the Soli Sorabjee Committee (as a sequel to the 1981 recommendations of the National Police Commission and commended by the Supreme Court of India in its 2006 directives to the central and state governments), provided for such freedom of professional action. However, many state governments, who have to follow up with suitable legislation, have been dragging their feet.

The record in the matter of reforming the criminal justice system has been “bad”.

Special Legislation

Repeated demands are made for the reintroduction of special laws to deal with terrorism. One has only to look at the record of enforcement of all previous special legislations like Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), etc. to realize the futility of such an exercise. Except for preventive detention (of some terrorist related persons and more political opponents), there were very few convictions that could not have been imposed under other existing laws. Of an estimated 77,000 individuals arrested under TADA, more than 72,000 were released without charge. Of those prosecuted, less than two per cent was eventually convicted. POTA did little better. It might be more useful to recognize that terrorism is no longer a passing phenomenon and make necessary amendments to the three major Acts of Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act, to handle terrorism-related activities. The amendments could provide for preventive detention in a limited number of extraordinary cases, quick investigations with full coordination between central and state level agencies, speedy trials and deterrent sentences to those found guilty. This procedure will have the additional advantage of showing that India is not reacting in panic, but would follow the rule of law. By politicizing the issue of creating a viable criminal justice frame work for countering terrorism, the performance in this area should also be graded as “bad”.

A frequently heard argument is that countries like the US, UK, Indonesia and Pakistan have special anti-terrorism laws; and that there has been no terrorist incident in USA since 9/11. This ignores the facts that there was no real terrorist incident in US homeland before 9/11 and that the achievements directly attributable to the special anti-terrorism laws in USA and UK are not many. President George Bush had claimed June 2005 that “federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects. … more than half of those charged have been convicted.” Washington Post journalists Dan Eggen and Julie Tate, however, used a Justice Department list of terrorism prosecutions to show that just 39 people had been convicted of charges related to terrorism or national security in the three years after the tragic events of 9/11. Most of the other 200 convictions were for relatively minor crimes like immigration law violations. During that period, the Justice Department conducted 361 terrorism investigations, excluding suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison or in secret jails across the world. It turned out that a large number of those suspects seemed to have ended up on the list as a result of malice or pure bad luck. More Americans have died at the hands of terrorists in different countries since special legal and operational measures were brought into play after 9/11 than earlier. The post-9/11 special measures have not protected US nationals outside the US homeland, who have become more vulnerable to terrorist attacks today than they were before 9/11.

United Kingdom Home Office figures released in March, 2007 showed that 1,126 suspects were arrested under the Terrorism Act of 2000 and that a further 40 individuals were arrested under other legislation. Of this, 652 suspects were released without ever having to face trial. Of the rest, 117 were charged with terrorism-related crimes alone, while another 104 faced other criminal charges also. A third category of 186 people were charged only with criminal offences like murder, inflicting grievous bodily harm and handling explosives. Another 74 suspects were handed over to immigration authorities, 12 received formal cautions, 10 were dealt with using mental health legislation, and two subjected to extradition proceedings. Less than 40 were eventually convicted under the special legislation.

Police / Military Action

A major requirement is that the central and state governments should not descend into brutalizing the society and respond to terror with terror. We have to avoid repeated human rights violations committed in the name of security. Fake encounters, disappearances, mass graves, torture, cruel / inhuman / degrading treatment, arbitrary and long detention, unfair trials, suppression of political dissent, minority persecution etc. are all efforts to hide the neglect or evasion of identifying the root causes of terrorism (in each series of incidents) and tackling them effectively. The much-maligned three-year-old “experiment” of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh is a case in point. The tactics that may have had some success in Gill’s Punjab is not necessarily a good example to follow.

Inadequate policing is a major constraint in tackling terrorism. It has been known for long that India’s law enforcement machinery is severely under-staffed. The country’s police-population ratio, already very low compared to many other countries, is getting worse. Data released by the Union Home Ministry shows that the figure declined from 143 police per 100,000 citizens at the end of 2005, to 126 at the end of 2006.

The US, as is widely known, is determined to teach Al Qaeda and Muslims (who support it) a lesson for daring to attack it by stealth in its own homeland. It seems to be prepared to fight against Al Qaeda and the organisations allied with it for as long as it takes to destroy them, and thereby prevent another 9/11 on its homeland. While many political leaders in the US criticise US involvement in Iraq, one does not find similar criticism of the involvement in Afghanistan. The US has been using elements of all wings of its armed forces and covert action groups against Al Qaeda, the neo-Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. The US actions have resulted in large civilian casualties. There has been an increase in the anti-US feelings in many countries of the Islamic world, leading to more support for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and more terrorism. Highly militarised counter-terrorism, as practised by the US in Afghanistan, has itself become a root cause of aggravated “jihadi” terrorism. India has to guard against a similar development here. The US has been waging its “war” against terrorism against foreign nationals in foreign territory, but similar “total war” on terrorism is an option denied to governments in India as they have to take counter-terrorist actions against our own nationals in our own territory. India has also to be concerned about the likely impact of its counter-terrorism policies and actions on its Muslim citizens.

Intelligence and Coordination

Conventional wisdom categorizes intelligence as strategic and tactical. In the context of terrorism, I would like to categorize it as data bank intelligence and actionable intelligence. India’s record on the collection of data bank intelligence has been reasonably good, but that does not lead to timely warnings of impending terrorist strikes. A lot of progress has been made in the collection of actionable intelligence, but the record in the crucial area of penetrating active and sleeper terrorist cells has not been good.

After every major terrorist “incident”, even before the commencement of serious rescue/relief efforts and investigation, police and security agencies at the local, state and central levels indulge in finger-pointing blame games. While briefing the union cabinet in the aftermath of the Jaipur blasts, the National Security Adviser was reported to have attributed the poor performance of our intelligence agencies to lack of coordination between the Centre and the states; patchy information on foreign sources of terror; fuzzy, imprecise and non-actionable inputs; and dearth of dedicated intelligence professionals. While all these factors are genuine and are not entirely new, they may only be symptoms of deeper malaise. The finger-pointing blame game is worthwhile mainly because there is a total lack of democratic accountability and legislative oversight (or even awareness) of our security services. I have been advocating (for more than twenty years) some kind of parliamentary involvement. During the last three decades, the USA, the UK and a host of other democracies have brought their secret services under some legislative control and scrutiny. Their experiences show that accountability to the legislature does not necessarily undermine the security of sources and methods of the intelligence agencies. It is, however, a moot point as to whether any multi-party parliamentary involvement would improve the coordination amongst the security agencies, particularly when the political parties themselves fail even to attempt to reach a national consensus on targeting terrorism. The preliminary infrastructure for coordination has been in place for some years, but has remained ineffective due to the different agencies not coming to terms to the need for sharing intelligence in a timely and effective manner. The record in coordination is admittedly and demonstrably “bad”.

A necessary step towards targeting terrorism is to form a citizens’ network of information by co-opting civil society organizations like village panchayats, area committees, Residents Welfare Associations or housing societies, private security agencies etc. These organisations have, in the course of their normal activities, access to information that will help in monitoring suspicious activities; and this wealth of information is normally wasted as they lack a viable method of sharing the information with law enforcement and security agencies. The Model Police Act has a salutary provision for the establishment of community liaison cells at different levels of police functioning, which would help in preventing this loss of valuable and actionable intelligence inputs. It is unfortunate that many States that have drafted or enacted new Police Acts in pursuance of the 2006 directives of the Supreme Court have chosen to ignore this provision.

New Central Agency

There has been a lot of discussion about setting up a central anti-terrorism agency. The rationale for such an agency is the inability of the central government to take any “police” action (including investigation) in cases of terrorism, primarily because Law & Order is listed in our Constitution as a State Subject. We already have a central investigative agency in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which derives most of its investigative authority from the near-obsolete Delhi Special Police Establishment Act. Setting up a new agency would have a significant gestation period to enact the required legislation, set up the infrastructure and finding the required specialist staff. Instead, it may be easier to add a special counter-terrorism wing to the CBI. Irrespective of whether a new agency is set up or an existing agency is expanded, the present legal position that the central agency has to await an invitation or consent from the state government will continue severely to limit the capability to achieve the counter-terrorist objectives. The basic requirement is to empower the central government to have jurisdiction (concurrently with the states or exclusively) in specified cases like inter-state terrorist activities. Some important lessons can be learnt from the manner in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) functions in the USA. It is for legal experts to examine whether this can be achieved through an executive order or by parliamentary legislation or would require a constitutional amendment. The rating in the area of creating the proper machinery is “bad”.

Funding of Terrorism

The Intelligence Bureau alleges that most of the funds raised by terrorist organizations in India come through NGOs and charity organisations; and that there are at least 200 entities in Pakistan raising funds for terrorist operations. The money ends with sleeper cells after passing through several levels of laundering. It is also reported that the nexus between Indian gangsters and Pakistan’s the ISI is getting stronger. India shares a poor record with many other countries in effectively controlling and curbing the flow of funds to terrorist groups.

Post-Incident Reactions

After every major terrorist incident, there is a familiar sequence of reactions. Political leaders talk of cowardly action by the terrorists, they vow to punish the guilty and promise zero tolerance to terrorism, announce compensation to victims’ families etc. Soon everything is forgotten, till the next terrorist attack.

B.Raman has repeatedly written and spoken about the calm reactions of the Indian public to terrorist incidents. The March1993 serial explosions in Mumbai “did not bother Mumbai’s street children. They were playing cricket unconcerned near the scenes of the explosions. There was no sign of any panic.” The 13 December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament was the first terrorist strike on the ground that took place in front of live TV news cameras. The visuals showed people curiously running towards the scene and many climbed on to tree branches to watch the exchange of fire between the Police and the terrorists. After the Bali explosion in Indonesia in October2002, while practically all western tourists made large-scale cancellations of air and hotel bookings, Indian tourists did not run away and not a single Indian group cancelled its travel plans. On the contrary, many more Indian groups visited Thailand by taking advantage of the huge discounts offered by the airlines and hotels. Raman recalls these facts to underline that no terrorist group – jihadi or non-jihadi – generally succeeds in scaring or intimidating the Indian people. As one of the objectives of the terrorists is to scare and intimidate the people, the terrorists fail to achieve that objective if the people refuse to be scared or intimidated. Raman concludes that as long as this spirit is alive and strong, no terrorist group will strategically succeed in India. To a large extent, I share Raman’s optimism and his faith in the ability of the Indian people to cope with terrorism and carry on with their lives. I reject the cynical view that the Indian public’s stoicism in the face of terrorist attacks is because of their fatalistic belief in “karma” and /or because the value of human life in India is very low. However, leaving the people to have to learn to live with the threat and ill-effects of terrorist attacks a significant failure of the governments’ counter terrorism efforts.


Any remedial measures to solve the problem of terrorism will be a futile exercise without strong political will and a readiness to place national security interests above party interests. Vote bank politics, if unavoidable, should be indulged in without adversely affecting the needs of national security.

It is only the whole nation, not just the government, which can effectively fight terrorism. Long term measures should include an overhaul of our educational system so that separatists and extremists do not breed more terrorists, taking advantage of constitutional guarantees. We need a minimally uniform mandatory curriculum that would teach the students the essence of all the religions and instil religious tolerance. At the very crucial stage of a child’s upbringing, we have to inculcate pluralism through understanding.

India has the collective ability effectively to target all forms of terrorism that threaten the nation’s security and integrity. However, the will and preparedness to give the highest priority to national security are yet to manifest themselves in practice. Terrorism has not succeeded in severely disrupting communal harmony or political stability or economic growth. There is gratifying confidence still displayed by the international community, including the business class, in India’s ability to deal with the problem of terrorism and to protect them. Despite the frequent incidents of terrorism, India has not been doing too badly overall. Very few other governments could have done much better, in the given circumstances.

[This paper was prepared by R.Swaminathan, IPS (Retd), former Special Secretary, DG (Security), Government of India and currently Vice-President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, as the basis for his Inaugural Address at the one-day seminar on “Targeting Terrorism” organized by the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 23 June 2008. The author has made wide use of ideas and words, mostly already in the public domain, of many experts. He is grateful to all of them and regrets not being able to name or individually thank all of them. The author can be contacted at]

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