It is election season, so it is not surprising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suddenly rediscovered the virtues of fighting what he calls “terrorism”. The point of departure, he says, was the new neeti (policy) and reeti (tradition) of tackling terrorism first outlined in what the government terms as the “surgical strikes” of September 2016.
First questions, first. What did the government do when militants struck just two months later in November at Nagrota killing two officers and five jawans? Nothing.
This was a far more important target than Uri, whose attack had triggered the so-called surgical strikes. It is the headquarters of the Indian Army’s 16 Corps. In 2017 and 2018, there were several high-profile cross-border attacks, including the February 2018 strike on the Sunjuwan camp outside Jammu city, leading to the killing of 11 jawans. Yet we have not seen any “traditional” surgical strike.
Policies that don’t work
So just what is this “neeti” and “reeti” that Modi is boasting about?
Essentially, it is a hodge-podge of failed policies, bombast and false claims. The Modi government has, after all, had nearly five years in authority, not just in New Delhi, but in Srinagar as well. So, if “terrorism” continues to plague the state, surely some of the blame must be acknowledged by him and his party. But that is not the Modi “reeti”.
The so-called “new” policy began in the wake of the Pathankot attack. This in turn was an outcome of Modi’s naïveté in believing that by embracing then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he could push Islamabad to abandon its support for the Kashmir militancy.
Obviously, his high-powered security team led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was not able to convince him that Sharif counted for little when it came to Pakistan’s support for terrorism and militancy in India; these operations are run by the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. By his possibly premature move aimed at boosting Sharif’s stature to checkmate the Pakistan Army, Modi actually triggered a blow-back that led to the eventual eclipse of Sharif and any possibility of an India-Pakistan détente.
But instead of sitting back to reflect on what he had wrought, the prime minister began to move on a new tack, the one in which he sought to have Pakistan identified as a state sponsor of terrorism (never mind that he would not commit India to do so), and call for the passage of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT).
A definitional problem
The problem begins from the very definition of terrorism. The most commonly acknowledged description would categorise it as an attack on civilians for political effect. There are other categories of violence targeting states and their instruments which fall in the broad category of “militancy”. Included among these are militants in Jammu and Kashmir and the Maoists.
The key difference is, of course, one of perception. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist or militant, but by and large, states do get into negotiated settlements with “militants”, but rarely with “terrorists”.
The difference is important because the Modi government has, in its wisdom, declared that virtually everyone who opposes its policies in Jammu and Kashmir is a terrorist. Which makes it somewhat difficult to find a way out of the Kashmir miasma.
If there is no one to negotiate with, the only option is the use of military force – and that is what has been happening in the state, leading to a steady rise of violence in the last five years. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the number of civilians killed has tripled since 2014, and the number of security forces and militants killed has more or less doubled.
Indeed, what the Modi government’s handling of the situation has done is to give a second life to the homegrown Kashmiri militancy. For nearly two decades after the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and the Hizbul Mujahideen were put out of business after the security forces cracked down on them, we are witnessing a resurgence of local recruitment.
These young men are nowhere as capable as the Pakistanis who have kept the militancy afloat, neither do they possess the kind of weapons they have. They do not last too long in their militant avatar, but their very emergence is a rebuke to New Delhi’s policies.
As for terrorism, in its basic definition as an attack on civilians for political purposes, India has actually witnessed a steadfast decline. Indeed, there have been no significant incidents since the three bomb explosions in various parts of Mumbai in July 2011, that took the lives of 21 persons and injured 141 others. That was the year that New Delhi also saw blasts at the Delhi high court complex, killing 11 people and injuring 75. There have been isolated blasts and attacks across the country, some of them clearly with a criminal rather than terrorist intent.
No resolution in sight
By conflating terrorism and militancy, the Modi government has only complicated its own ability to deal with both issues. The problem is not ignorance, but a desire to use the issue of terrorism for political purposes. The result is that strategies that minimised violence in Kashmir between 2004 and 2014 have been given short shrift.
As for real terrorism, there is nothing to indicate that the state has developed any special capacity to counter it. Fortunately, after they were caught out in the Mumbai attack of 2008, the Pakistanis, who were responsible for most acts of terrorism in the country, have changed their tactics. Their jihadis largely confine their attacks to army and police targets, and that too in J&K so that they can claim that they are struggling for Kashmir’s freedom.
The periodic arrests the authorities make of alleged Islamic State militants seem more designed to win headlines than to tackle any putative problem. The raising of the Islamic State bogey in recent months is similar to the use of the Al Qaeda in past years and the Students Islamic Movement of India.
The Al Qaeda didn’t quite show up, and the IS seems to be a bunch of confused and misled radicals who have not quite lived up to the ferocious reputation of their namesakes. Many get convicted for relatively minor crimes by lower courts, and let off when the evidence is examined with some rigour in the higher ones.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.