New Delhi: Politics in India, as in neighbouring Pakistan and in the US, is increasingly singed by terrorism.
Grim reality: A man cries as he sits next to the burning pyre of his grandson, who died in the 13 September bomb blasts in New Delhi. The serial blasts in the city killed 24 people and wounded nearly 100. Adnan Abidi / Reuters
India is reeling from a spate of bomb attacks in four states in as many months, the latest being in the heart of the Capital on 13 September. How to deal with that threat has moved front and centre in the campaign for the national election early next year.
The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has called the administration “soft” on radical Islamist organizations and unable to protect citizens from wanton strikes.
“Save India” will be the party’s campaign theme, Arun Jaitley, one of the party’s top strategists, said in an interview last week, as BJP leaders rallied near the site of one of the most recent bombings. “How do you save India from this kind of terrorism?” Jaitley asked. “The core issue will be terrorism.”
The government is scrambling to defend its record, even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledges “vast gaps” in intelligence gathering on terrorist networks operating in this large, fractious country.
The latest attacks have drawn attention to a larger and more dangerous problem: a feeble criminal justice system that offers no protection for witnesses, has a paucity of police officers, and in which suspects in terrorism and other crimes are regularly killed in skirmishes with law-enforcement authorities, rather than tried in courts of law.
India’s fight against terrorism is complicated by a political landscape in which parties vie for Hindu and Muslim voters’ loyalty. In addition to the radical Islamist groups blamed for the bombings, there are radical Hindu organizations that have been accused most recently of attacks on Christians in several states.
Still, the blasts that shook the Capital on 13 September have placed the greatest pressure on Singh’s administration, if only because they struck popular shopping and entertainment districts.
Five bombs exploded in three corners of the city, killing 24. The police responded by stepping up security in markets, combing Muslim-majority areas, and last Friday, engaging in a shootout with a young man they described as the mastermind of the three most recent blasts.
The New Delhi bomb blasts were the latest in a string of attacks. In late July, Ahmedabad was struck by back-to-back blasts. In all, 52 people died.
The day before, a series of similar low-intensity blasts went off in Bangalore, killing a woman. And in May, synchronized bombs were detonated in the ancient warrens of Jaipur, a popular tourist attraction, killing 67.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal, a research group based in New Delhi, has tallied 15 terrorist attacks that it attributed to radical Islamists alone in the past three years.
Of most concern, perhaps, is that Indian officials say they believe the attacks have been carried out by home-grown jihadis, trained or aided by organizations based in Pakistan.
A group calling itself Indian Mujahedeen has claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, sending chilling email warnings to Indian news media minutes before the attacks. Written in English, the messages combine the language of global radical Islam with distinctly Indian grievances, including attacks on Muslims in Ahmedabad in 2002.
The police have said the group is probably tied to a banned radical organization called the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI. Congress party-led coalition has repeatedly hesitated on banning SIMI. A source of embarrassment to the government, the man arrested in the shootout on Friday, according to local news reports, is the son of a local leader with the Samajwadi Party, a coalition partner in Singh’s government.
Meanwhile, the BJP has been reluctant to ban a Hindu right-wing group, the Bajrang Dal, which the police accuse of leading the anti-Christian violence.
Election must take place before May, when Singh’s five-year term ends. Whether the BJP’s anti-terrorism plank will work in largely poor and agrarian society is unclear.
Terrorism resonates mostly with urban Indians, said Yogendra Yadav, a researcher with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies who studies voting patterns. His 2005 public opinion survey on sources of insecurity nationwide found that terrorism ranked far lower than common crimes and communal riots on the list of Indian concerns.
The Opposition is calling for a resurrection of a tougher anti-terrorism law that was in place during its rule. It was repealed in 2004 by Singh’s administration.
A government-appointed panel has recommended new anti-terrorism provisions that resemble the old law; the government has not announced its decision.
Kapil Sibal, a member of the cabinet, argued that India’s current laws, which allow citizens to be held for as many as 90 days without being charged, are stricter than even the Patriot Act in the US, and said the government was already strengthening its intelligence and law enforcement systems to respond to terrorism.
A veteran politician, Sibal rattled off the numerous terrorist attacks during the BJP’s tenure. They included the infamous hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999, in which the BJP government released Ahmed Omar Sheikh, a terrorism suspect, in exchange for the civilian hostages. Two years later, Sheikh, the leader of a Pakistan-based group called Jaish-e-Muhammad, played a key part in the kidnapping and beheading of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
An important indicator of how India may vote will come in November, when four important state elections are held.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES