US Intel Chiefs: A Communal Campaign by BJP Could Fuel Islamist Terror Groups

The US intel chiefs asserted that “BJP policies during Modi’s first term have deepened communal tensions in some BJP-governed states”.

New Delhi: The US intelligence community has assessed that if the Bharatiya Janata Party plays the communal card during its campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections, it could lead to more disaffection among Indian Muslims and provide space to Islamist terror groups to expand their influence in India.

This was one of the conclusions submitted by the US Senate select committee on intelligence as part of its report on “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community”. The annual exercise, which began in 2006, provides an unclassified assessment from the US Intelligence Community, which comprises 17 organisations ranging from FBI, CIA to the Office of Naval Intelligence.

The risk of communal violence in the run-up to the Indian general elections was cited among three threats – along with Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s lack of action against terror groups – that could be a menace to peace and stability in the sub-continent, as per the report.

Also read: ‘Splintered Justice’ in the Aftermath of Communal Violence

“Parliamentary elections in India increase the possibility of communal violence if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stresses Hindu nationalist themes,” said the 42-page report which was put on the table at the open hearing of the Senate panel on Tuesday by US National Intelligence Director Dan Coats.

The US intel chiefs asserted that “BJP policies during Modi’s first term have deepened communal tensions in some BJP-governed states”. The report added that “Hindu nationalist state leaders might view a Hindu-nationalist campaign as a signal to incite low-level violence to animate their supporters”.

Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence before testifying on Worldwide Threats during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 29, 2019. Credit: Reuters

Any uptick in communal violence could lead to providing a space for terror groups. “Increasing communal clashes could alienate Indian Muslims and allow Islamist terrorist groups in India to expand their influence,” warned the American intelligence community.

Last year, BJP’s minster for minority affairs Mukthar Abbas Naqvi had claimed that there had been no major communal incidents in India in four years of NDA-II government.

As per the government’s own data presented to parliament, there had been 2,920 “communal incidents” in four years ending 2017, with 389 people killed and 8,890 injured.

In December 2018, minister of state for home affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir told Lok Sabha that in comparison with 2014, the number of incidents of communal violence was 32% higher in 2017. Forty-four people died in such incidents. In comparison, 22 people died in incidents of communal violence in 2015.

This year, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath tweeted that there had been no incidents of communal violence in his term.

Also read: Fact Check: Yogi Adityanath’s Claim That There Were No Riots During His Tenure

Government data, however, shows that 44 people died in 195 incidents of communal violence in Uttar Pradesh in 2017.

India-Pakistan ties

US intel chiefs have also said that Indian general elections would keep the pot-boiling on India-Pakistan relations.

“We judge that cross-border terrorism, firing across the Line of Control (LoC), divisive national elections in India, and Islamabad’s perception of its position with the United States relative to India will contribute to strained India-Pakistan relations at least through May 2019, the deadline for the Indian election, and probably beyond,” said the report.

It added that both countries have “hardened” their position and “reduced their political will to seek rapprochement”.

“Political manoeuvring resulting from the Indian national elections probably will further constrain near-term opportunities for improving ties,” said the report.

That any possibility for outreach would need to wait for the post-election scenario has been conventional wisdom in India and Pakistan.

This was even publicly stated by Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan in November 2018 after the launch of the construction of the Kartarpur corridor. “Antagonism to Pakistan is often a vote-catcher… We are waiting for elections in April and then we will take it forward,” he told Indian media in Islamabad.

US intelligence opined, once again, that militant groups would “continue to take advantage of their safe haven in Pakistan to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan, including US interests”.

“Islamabad’s narrow approach to counterterrorism cooperation – using some groups as policy tools and confronting only the militant groups that directly threaten Pakistan – almost certainly will frustrate US counterterrorism efforts against the Taliban,” it added.

Exactly the same conclusion – with nearly identical language – was also published in both 2018 and 2017 reports.

In August 2017, US president Donald Trump unveiled the new South Asia strategy which purported to ‘punish’ Pakistan for giving safe havens for terror groups. But, over a year and a half later, that strategy seems to have become diluted with Washington more keen to get Islamabad’s cooperation in finding an exit strategy from Afghanistan by accelerating talks with Taliban.

Meanwhile, this year’s report also expressed concern about Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons system and India’s deployment of nuclear submarine Arihant. “The continued growth and development of Pakistan and India’s nuclear weapons programs increase the risk of a nuclear security incident in South Asia, and the new types of nuclear weapons will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the region”.

A gloomy appraisal

A perusal of previous annual reports of the American intelligence community shows India has largely been mentioned in the section related to global economic outlook or in terms of relations with Pakistan and China.

On India-China relations, the 2019 report predicts that that relations will remain “tense”. The argument put forward was that the Informal summit in 2018 had not addressed the core disagreement over border.

The Indian press note on the Wuhan summit said that both leaders had directed their militaries to “earnestly” implement confidence building measures.

However, American intelligence community is not convinced that there will be peace and tranquillity on the border. “Misperceptions of military movements or construction might result in tensions escalating into armed conflict,” said the 2019 report.

The 2018 report, which was released in February last year, had also given a gloomy appraisal. “We expect relations between India and China to remain tense and possibly to deteriorate further, despite the negotiated settlement to their three-month border standoff in August (2017), elevating the risk of unintentional escalation”. However, both Asian giants have had adopted a more accommodating stance on major issues and border incidents not finding much play in media reports.