Every terror strike in the country elicits some amount of shock. Indians have been inured to such atrocities. But what happened in Mumbai in the intervening night of 26 and 27 November defies imagination. In scope, scale and execution, the attacks mark a new low in our losing battle against terrorism. Our leaders should realize that the time for half-hearted measures is long past. If the damage to our national fabric has to be stopped, a muscular approach to terrorism should get priority over all tasks.
So far, at least 101 have died and some 300 injured in what was the most audacious terrorist strike in our history. Six locations came under attack simultaneously. The episodes in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and elsewhere are dwarfed by what has taken place in Mumbai. While it is too early to say anything about the identity and nature of the terrorists, involvement of persons outside India cannot be ruled out. The holding of Americans and Europeans as hostages in two hotels in the city, the sheer amount of arms and ammunition in the hands of terrorists and the night-long gun battles are pointers to the involvement of jihadi groups. Home-grown terrorists carry out blasts and move on and have, so far, not shown such organizational abilities.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Beyond the obvious requirements of maintaining law and order, there are changes that require bipartisan effort and agreement. For, unless these changes are brought about, the ability of the Indian state to deter terrorism will be impaired, if not become extinct.
It’s easy to blame intelligence failures as the cause of such events. They are, but the issue is what to do about them. The problem is twofold. First, our intelligence gathering strategy is reactive: There is frenzied activity after a terrorist attack, and a few months later, quiescence returns. This needs to end. Developing useful, real-time intelligence requires long-term planning. For, unless such plans are implemented, counterterrorism will remain a dead letter. Experience from Jammu and Kashmir in raising counterterror groups shows that it takes anywhere from five to seven years to infiltrate, penetrate and raise such groups from terrorist modules. Extrapolating that to counterintelligence operations, the need for a similar time frame is evident. The reason why such steps have not been taken, or have been ineffective, is that political direction for su-ch efforts is non-existent. But doing that is tough, for our politicians are not equipped, intellectually and otherwise, for such leadership.
On the legal front, this is a wake-up call for the necessity of having stringent anti-terror laws. Tightened detention provisions, such as no bail for 365 days for suspects, are a must. Terror suspects often get bail and are free to join their networks again. On the other hand, if a suspect is put away for a year, not only does it give more time to investigators but also deprives terror modules of a member. It saves precious lives, if not preventing future attacks. The only concern here being that civil liberties of ordinary citizens should not be circumscribed.
Finally, there are difficult foreign policy/geopolitical choices to be made. The question is, how can we aspire to great power status if terrorists roam freely in our backyard? Terrorist cross our borders with impunity. Tight border controls are the first line of our defence. In case it is known that terrorists have found sanctuary in neighbouring countries, a policy of hot pursuit and pinpoint destruction of training camps, facilities, etc. may be essential. American response to 9/11 was vigorous and, since then, there has been no major attack on US assets. That policy continues on the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border and is paying dividends. Our political parties must think along those lines.
In fact, almost all terrorist groups, ranging from the United Liberation Front of Asom, to various jihadi outfits, have bases in neighbouring countries. Intelligence agencies know that, the government knows that. Yet, the only response is effete remonstrations with the countries in question. This must end. The government of the day has to decide how and when. There are no ifs about it.
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