As it enters the first phase of the general election on Thursday, India is plagued by not just an economic slump, but perhaps the gravest security threat in decades. The challenges such a large and diverse country faces are unique in the world, but it could draw a lesson or two from another large country that last week successfully went to the polls: Indonesia.
The world’s third largest democracy and largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia has had a different history since its own independence, but parallels with India abound. It’s a multi-ethnic country that’s been racked by insurgency and threats of secession. More recently, its tolerant society has borne the brunt of repeated Islamist terrorist attacks. The Al Qaeda-associated Jemaah Islamiyah killed 202 people in Bali in 2002, particularly targeting foreign nationals. From that angle, it almost seems like a precursor to Mumbai’s 26/11.
Indonesia’s response to the Bali attacks was simple: It had to root out terror cells targeting the country. It did so by boosting its internal security measures, forming a crack federal unit called Special Detachment 88 with the help of Australia and the US. Such measures have led to the arrests of radical Islamists, and even prevented major Bali-style attacks.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak meets Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. AFP
That’s not something India can claim. If the government hasn’t learnt since the July 2006 train bombings in Mumbai that claimed around 200 lives, what’s to say that it will after 26/11?
Resources for intelligence and security agencies in India are still short. Where Indonesia’s leaders devoted sufficient energy into their counterterror response, even India’s latest measure, the National Investigation Agency, is characterized by usual bureaucratic lethargy. If anything, India’s responsiveness may have worsened: The government has now taken to dispersing the National Security Guard instead of creating a more potent fighting force such as Detachment 88. Like Indonesia, India needs to focus on police reform and anti-corruption.
Indonesia’s past record with military rule (it was ruled by a dictator until 1998) may orient its approach to security matters differently. But that doesn’t mean India cannot learn from particular initiatives recently taken by Indonesia’s elected leaders.
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