Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The control of lynch mobs and the deterrence of terrorism

When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won," we wake to find a world not very different from the one we left before the hullabaloo over the central elections began. The Anantnag terror attack highlights the continuing threat of terrorism in Kashmir. Does game theory have something to say about deterring a network of terrorist organizations?

The game theoretic literature on strategic deterrence divides possible measures into two types: Deterrence by denial and deterrence by the threat of punishment. Deterrence by denial refers to actions such as eliminating key operatives within enemy ranks or cutting off funding sources to pre-empt attacks or neutralize their effectiveness. Deterrence by threat of punishment refers to the creation of a credible threat perception that is strong enough to make the aggressor desist. This consists of two parts: First, developing the capability to counter-attack effectively; and second, communicating the willingness to do so. An important aspect of deterrence by threat of punishment is that the process of building counter-attack capability may create a fear in the mind of the adversary that a pre-emptive attack is being planned. This may trigger the very action that is sought to be deterred. Thus, deterrence by threat must always be conditional. It should be very clearly linked to the initiation of the undesired action by the adversary. Further, it must always be accompanied by an assurance, a promise of rewards in case the adversary desists from the undesired action.

There is a view that classical deterrence theory does not apply to terrorism as terrorists have a value system that is immune to deterrence. Hence, deterrence by threat of punishment will not work. Further, it is virtually impossible to secure all possible targets against a person willing to blow himself or herself up, making deterrence by denial difficult. Finally, with the value systems of governments and terrorists being so divergent, neither party seems to be interested in deterrence but in the elimination of the other. However, for decades, governments the world over have been cutting off the access of terrorists to funding channels as a way to check their activities. This is a financial form of deterrence by denial.

In addition, while core groups of terrorists may be immune to deterrence, a terror network is not a single entity but rather a system with many components—top leaders, lieutenants, foot soldiers, logistics providers, financiers, religious supporters and allies in the local population. Many aspects of this system are amenable to a change of heart. Using ancillary components of a terror network to cut off the core’s air supply may be called deterrence by influence. Indeed, this method is being successfully used in Kashmir, where many anti-terror operations reflect the co-option of the local population as informers and allies.

Violence in Kashmir is driven not just by decentralised terror networks, but also involves a sovereign state, Pakistan. Paradoxically, this involvement affords a window of opportunity as a state would be relatively more amenable to pressure than a terror group. However, in our context, the possibilities of deterrence by threat of physical punishment continue to be limited. Given the nuclear status of both India and Pakistan, India will never be able to escalate conventional methods of war to a point where its conventional superiority would begin to take effect. After Operation Balakot and the capture of an Indian pilot by Pakistan, global powers intervened rapidly to prevent things from going out of hand, as they could in the future as well.

Hence, the threat of punishment has a limited role to play and the methods that would work best against insurgent activities in Kashmir would be deterrence by denial, deterrence by assurance, and deterrence by influence.

The recent directive issued by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a Paris based inter-governmental agency, to Pakistan to meet its commitments to curb terror financing by October reflects a globally coordinated deterrence by denial. On its part, to operationalize deterrence by assurance and deterrence by influence, India must assure the people of Kashmir Valley that the threat of terrorism is not being used as a pretext to overturn the special status of the state. It is true that there are large swathes of the population of Jammu & Kashmir that would have different perspectives on Article 370 than residents of the Valley. However, the abrogation of Article 370 is not just a matter of public opinion, but also a thorny constitutional riddle. At this stage, our top priority in Kashmir should be to restore normalcy and the debate on Article 370 should be shelved till conditions improve. The expeditious conduct of free and fair elections and the acceleration of development activities will go a long way in bringing peace to the Valley.

Finally, alienation of the people of Kashmir Valley cannot be separated from the increasing insecurity felt by Muslims in the rest of India. Especially abhorrent are continuing cases of mob lynching and gau raksha, which according to reports by investigative journalists are politically- supported extortion businesses. The government’s attempts at deterrence by assurance and influence will not succeed unless the daily humiliations and depredations, big and small, being experienced by many Muslims in some parts of the country cease forthwith.

The mandate of the Modi government must be interpreted as a call for reconciliation, not a decree for muscular jingoism. A failure to read the tea leaves can only be divisive and, ultimately, disastrous.

Rohit Prasad is author of the recently released book ‘Game Sutra: Rescuing Game Theory from the Game Theorists’

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