Don’t Talk Up the Terror Threat to Fuel Jingoistic Nationalism

Groups that have a vested interest in communal polarisation – including separatists, Hindutva formations, and regional parties – see an advantage in amplifying the threat (or strength, in the opposite perception) of Pak-backed Islamist terror

A building where terrorists were holed up in Pampore burns as soldiers watch. Credit: PTI

A building where terrorists were holed up in Pampore burns as soldiers watch. Credit: PTI

There is much that is deeply troubling about the Pampore terrorist attack that commenced on February 20, and dragged on for two days, with sloganeering, demonstrations and stone pelting sympathetic to the terrorists harassing the security forces throughout the operation (and continuing for days thereafter).

The death of five security force (SF) personnel, including three from the army’s special forces – of whom two were young officers – has also raised crucial questions regarding the pattern of response, and the army has already declared that the operation will be studied closely to determine whether precious lives could have been saved and operational responses improved. There have, however, been several untenable inferences drawn from the incident – particularly with regard to the ‘escalating terrorism’ in Jammu and Kashmir, the emergence of a ‘new paradigm’ of terrorism, and ‘rising popular support’ for terrorists in the state.

There are serious problems in attempting to make security and strategic assessments on the basis of a single incident or cluster of incidents, but this appears to be the overwhelming trend not only in the popular media, but also among a significant section of experts, many of whom display poor historical memory and unfamiliarity with broader trends. Such problems are infinitely compounded by partisan political perspectives and efforts to harness such incidents to a particular opportunistic narrative – in the present case, to jingoistic nationalism projected through the spectacle of “honouring martyrs”.

The truth is that disturbing as the events of Pampore were, there is little that was new here. No new pattern or paradigm is visible, and supportive protests, including stone pelting against soldiers by locals sympathetic to the terrorists, have been seen in numerous incidents over the years – though why it is abruptly being projected so sensationally by the media requires some examination. However, along with the general trend of terrorism in the state, these incidents have also declined in frequency and are largely confined to very small pockets where processes of Islamist radicalisation and extremist mobilisation continue, substantially unchecked.

The terror graph is sharply down

The most astonishing ‘popular’ perception is, however, the ‘rising trend’ of terrorism in J&K. The reality is, on all visible parameters, terrorism has declined in the state – spectacularly over the past decade and a half, and noticeably even over the past few years.

Thus, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, terrorism-linked fatalities in J&K fell from 193 in 2014 to 174 in 2015, though these had seen an escalation in the preceding years, from a low of 117 in 2012 to 181 in 2013. Significantly, in 2015, fatalities included 20 civilians and 41 SF personnel, as against 113 terrorists; while 2014 saw 32 civilians, 51 SF personnel and 120 terrorists killed.

These figures are a tiny fraction of what J&K experienced at the peak of terrorism. The worst year for the state was 2001, when 4,507 persons were killed; but the crisis was severe for over a decade and a half, with fatalities ranging above the ‘high intensity conflict’ yardstick of over a thousand deaths per annum between 1990 and 2006 and, indeed, over 2,000 per year between 1993 and 2003.

FTV3There has even been a short term improvement in the incidence of cease fire agreement (CFA) violations from across the border – incidents of firing by Pakistan Army units, often in support of infiltrating terrorists.

According to data released by the Ministry of Defence, CFA violations by Pakistan had registered an increase from 347 in 2013, to 583 in 2014, but declined to 400 in 2015 (till November 30, the last data published). The ministry also indicated that infiltration attempts from the Pakistani side declined from 221 in 2014, to 92 in 2015. Of these, at least 65 militants were successful in their infiltration bid in 2014, 52 were killed, and 104 forced to flee back across the border. In 2015, just 17 infiltrators were successful in getting across and disappearing into the interior of the state, while 37 were killed and 38 fled back (data till September 30). The SATP database recorded another five infiltration attempts in the remaining three months of 2015, in which at least four terrorists were killed. A range of other indicators, including the frequency, effectiveness and lethality of various patterns of attack, have also been favourable to the state.

What, then, can explain the strident, at least occasionally hysterical, tones of various assessments of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Several factors, some innocent, others intentionally mischievous, underpin the exaggerated threat assessments of the recent past.

Part of the problem is the global panic over the Islamic State or Daesh, and though the numbers of those inspired by this organisation’s ghoulish activities and projections has been minuscule, a handful of aspiring jihadis who have joined or sought to join Daesh from India, and occasional incidents of opportunistic flag waving, have allowed the more fevered imaginations to conjure a great and imminent threat to J&K and across India at large.

Vested interest in communal polarisation

There is, moreover, a conflation of issues here – the fact of continuing alienation, the proliferation of Salafist institutions, with liberal aid from abroad, across the state, and the consequent and deepening processes of Islamist radicalisation, are muddled up with periodic acts of terrorism, to provoke an inchoate sense of enveloping uncertainty and apprehension. There are real and grave dangers here. Unfortunately, while everyone runs around creating hysteria about the imminent advent of Daesh, almost nothing is being done about these latent and rising dangers.

In the category of intentional mischief, various groups that have a vested interest in the polarisation of communities in the state – including pro-Pak elements, separatists, Hindutva formations, and a number of regional parties that find some utility in pushing soft-separatism from time to time – see an advantage in amplifying the threat (or strength, in the opposite perception) of Pak-backed Islamist terrorism.

The political uncertainty in the state since the death of incumbent chief minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed has also created opportunities that ambitious elements seek to exploit, and the narrative of terrorist strength or danger lends itself to such manipulation. Such projections are not, however, threat or security assessments in any meaningful sense of these terms, and have little basis in the situation on the ground – though they seek to influence and distort it.

Ajai Sahni is is Founding Member & Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management. The Institute focuses on research, documentation and consultancies on issues relating to internal security, primarily in South Asia