New Delhi: With 12 cities targeted in the past seven months, India may have become the new global hot spot for terror attacks—a conclusion that, coincidentally, was arrived at by the country’s top police officers in a 22 November meeting also attended by former home minister Shivraj Patil.
The numbers point to an accelerating trend. According to data from the New Delhi-based think tank, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (Idsa), since 2006, India has witnessed at least 73 incidents of terrorist attacks resulting in 668 deaths. The frequency of these strikes has accelerated rapidly in the past two years: there were 12 attacks in 2006, 13 in 2007 and there have been 48 to date in the current year.
If data on attacks by insurgents and separatists is included, India is already among the countries most affected by terrorist and insurgent activities. “The conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, attacks by extreme Leftist Naxalites and Maoists in eastern and central India, assaults by ethno-linguistic nationalists in the north-eastern states, and terrorist strikes nationwide by Islamic extremists took more than 2,300 lives this year,” a US state department report released in May said, referring to statistics for 2007.
Rallying against terror: People at a peace march near the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on Wednesday. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Also See: In the line of fire (Graphic)
Complicating matters for India is the fact that it is surrounded by terror hotbeds. While the western parts of Pakistan have been infiltrated by the Taliban, several Islamic terror groups operate out of Bangladesh and Nepal, and Sri Lanka has been engaged in a long-running battle with Tamil militants.
“In terms of frequency, India is (a) prime (target) simply because people (terrorists) feel that they can get away with it. You render yourself an easy target,” said Bharat Karnad, a member of the advisory board of the National Security Council and a professor at New Delhi-based think tank, the Center for Policy Research.
“One of the main measures is to ramp internal monitoring of the Muslim community. England does it, the US does it, but for some reason we are shy of doing it. There is definitely a host element to these attacks,” Karnad said.
A section of politicians as well as experts admit that New Delhi’s growing proximity with the US is motivating Islamic terrorists, who have also successfully forged links with local operatives in India.
“It is true that our signing the nuclear agreement with the US and the perception that our foreign policy is lenient towards Washington have made us more vulnerable target,” admitted a senior minister in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government who did not want to be identified.
Brajesh Mishra, former national security adviser under the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, government which governed India between 1999 and 2004, said: “I have no doubt in mind that some of this is related to the fact that Pakistan wants us out of Afghanistan. We have a presence in Afghanistan not just militarily but also in terms of infrastructure. We are also close not just to the US, but to the Germans and the French. Today, the attack is directed against India’s economic importance.”
However, C. Uday Bhaskar, defence expert and former director of Idsa, said there appeared to be a larger game plan to the attacks. “The larger reasons are a combination of local, regional and global (ones). The local derives its expertise from regional groups who, in turn, try to advance a global agenda. Further, there has been a larger global Islamic kind of movement which has become more virulent after 9/11.”
Bhaskar said India’s heightened vulnerability is also a function of its high population density, which enhances the magnitude of these attacks in terms of collateral damage; the lack of political will to provide public security; and the deteriorating relationships between Hindus and Muslims.
“In India, too, the intensity has increased and we cannot shy away from the fact that there has been local turbulence like the Babri Masjid’s demolition, the post-Godhra riots, and greater polarization, which have all played a role in this,” he said.
In 1992, a Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya that they believe to be the birthplace of Hindu god Ram. In 2002, after some Hindu pilgrims were burnt to death in a train in Godhra, Gujarat, riots broke out in the state, resulting in the death of around 2,000 muslims.
“All democracies in the world are prime target because of their very nature. India has always been a target, the only difference was the methods (used by the attackers),” said Manvendra Singh, a member of Parliament who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“I do not think that India is a target more than any other place. We are going through this also because we share border with troubled states,” said Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan.
According to a risk analyst, who did not want to be named, though recent terrorist strikes have been devastating, they are yet to assume the scale witnessed in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and would, therefore, not result in foreign investors deferring their investment plans for India. This is because India is also physically much bigger. “It is too early, but I would watch if terrorist attacks lead to severe regional tensions (with Pakistan) whereby people would defer investment plans,” added this person.
Chemical, biological, airborne attacks
India is also waking up to the threat of terrorist attacks from the air, and attacks that use chemical and biological weapons.
At the November meeting attended by police officers, Shivraj Patil warned that the terror attacks would worsen and could be carried out using “nuclear, biological and chemical” devices.
According to a government official who worked closely with Patil and didn’t want to be identified, the former home minister had received intelligence warnings, which were ignored by state governments, prompting him to include them in his speech at the meeting. “He wanted to put it out there so that people would take this up as an imminent threat.”
On Wednesday, in a meeting with the heads of the army, navy and air force, India’s defence minister warned of possible terror attacks from the air similar to the 9/11 attacks in the US.
Rahul Chandran and Ruhi Tewari also contributed to this story.