Posted by: Vikram | November 28, 2008

Lets not view terrorism in isolation

Whether it is commuters in a local train, farmers protesting against land grab, dalits trying to claim their rights, minority families during riots and now businessmen/women dining in an elite hotel, India is a country soaked in fear. What Mumbai faced on Wednesday, is nothing more than an extreme manifestation of a very broad failure of the Indian state to protect its citizens.

So in the long term, the solution to India’s security problems will not come from looking at the attacks in Mumbai in isolation, but from understanding and rectifying the deep problems in India’s security and law enforcement set up. So why does the Indian state fail to protect its constituents ?

Well, for starters one must realize that India faces vast and complex challenges when it comes to security. The principal challenge is that it is a vast, populated country with huge shifting populations and many, many different ethnic groups, quite a few of which dont get along very well. This challenge, though formidable, is certainly not insurmountable, and has been overcome in the past. But it requires a well organized, professional police force, an effective federal intelligence unit and a sophisticated communications network between federal, state and local security agencies. India’s security forces though, are mostly poorly equipped and in many cases not well trained, barring a few exceptions. This is nothing but the neglect and apathy of India’s political class, who have left many areas of the nation in a state of decay ranging from education to environmental protection. In those matters, however NGOs and other agencies try to fill the void, but NGOs cannot engage terrorists directly.

The second problem I can identify is that the justice system in India is in a state of disrepair. Again, the finger of blame lies points to India’s political leaders and their shameful bleeding of the courts, especially at the lower levels. This has created an atmosphere of impunity in the country, where perpetrators of atrocities of any nature know that the frequent delays and inefficiencies in the court system coupled with pressure from their political backers will render justice toothless. The truth is that many of our politicians rely on the support of thugs and goons at some level, and to let these people thrive they often deliberately bleed the police force and the judicial system.

Contrary to what many might believe I dont think the income inequality in India has much to do directly with India’s security problems. A lot of commentators, foreign and Indian have commented on how they feel safer in poor areas in Indian cities vis-a-vis similar areas in other countries. Obviously, India’s vast pool of semi/un employed youth (of all communities) are an enormous issue in the country, but I have yet to see much evidence directly linking them to the recruiting pool for the terrorist organizations. But yes, people who are unemployed + severely affected by riots (again, often instigated by politicians) are probably a major recruiting base for the Indian Mujahideen and their ilk. Which is why the rehabilitation of riot-affected communities is an important task, again this is neglected, due to political biases.

It is important to consider how important the specific issue of urban terrorism is to the vast majority of India’s populace. Remember, they live in villages, and as I pointed out earlier they face terror of a very different nature. This creates a very strange state of affairs, where the single most important issue for a large and influential set of voters perhaps does not directly connect with the mass of the voting populace. It is highly unlikely that AK-47/grenade kind of terrorist seen in Mumbai is high on the priority list of tribals in Madhya Pradesh, who face the terror of hunger everyday. This is a very tricky situation in India, not faced by other countries facing violent, organized terror. It is a result of the serious neglect of development of rural India, especially in the Hindi heartland, where most people might never even find out about the terror attacks.

One part of the solution to this particular problem lies in fiscal decentralization and letting states and major urban centres which generate more revenue (and suffer more organized violence) tax their citizens, and have the financial resources to develop capabilities to fight terror. This way, a commando force doesnt have to be sent from Delhi to fight terrorists in Mumbai, and can be stationed in Mumbai itself, sustained by the city’s people. The other part, actually involves appropriate centralization and intelligence co-ordination. India has rightly come under criticism from sections of the Indian and western media because of the intelligence failures that have become all too common. Obviously, local law-enforcement agencies will need localized, decentralized information networks for their ‘day-to-day’ work, but an effective central intelligence is needed to co-ordinate information collection and distribution and monitoring the overall work of security agencies.

The calamitous events in Mumbai have shaken and saddened me, especially as a Mumbaikar, me or my family member could have been among the victims. One can only pray that history does not repeat itself, but our political class has to take every step to make sure it doesnt.

Jai Hind.


  1. Vikram, congratulations on a very well thought out analysis of the situation in India.

    You are right about the apathy and neglect by the ruling class in all developmental matters and now evident in security matters also.

    The failures in our justice system are a result of this same apathy.

    The PM in his address yesterday went on and on about condemning the attacks and need to stay calm. It might have been more assuring if he had firmly stated the the terrorists would be caught and punished.

    You have suggested that a commando force should not have to be sent from Delhi to resolve a situation in Mumbai. I agree.

    There is a military camp at Kalina in Mumbai. Why cannot a commando team be stationed there? In any case, why were not army personnel from the Kalina military camp deployed in the present crisis until the Delhi team arrived?

    Most of the problems before us today, including rising terrorism, are a direct result of the vote bank politics, today’s political leaders engage in. In a democratic country where elections are all-important it will be very difficult to eliminate vote-bank politics. But we must try to do so if we want justice and prosperity to become available to all sections of our society.

  2. Vikram,

    Thanks for your feedback. The billions comment was obviously a typo. The accurate phrase would have been millions or hundreds of millions… it has been changed.

    I agree that severe inequality is often mistaken to be the root cause of terrorism. I’m aware that many of the terrorists who perpetrate the most sophisticated and important attacks are rather well educated (ie. the 9/11 attackers). But poverty, especially when viewed as injustice, does swell the number of those willing to do smaller attacks and suicide missions, and perhaps more importantly, it provides additional justification and ammunition to the ideologies that drive terrorism and to the radicalization process.

  3. i just thought of something else. lack of community integration is often a symptom of poverty. perhaps this does not cause terrorism or feed it, but a more integrated, less impoverished community is more likely to report suspicious activity than one which is not. thus terrorism, as you have stated in your last post, has a much better breeding grounds and base of operations in places that are more impoverished, less integrated, where the people feel a great deal of disenfranchisement.

  4. @ Vikram : You have put it well and I guess your distance from this makes you more objective than I can be at this time. Let me just say I have lost even an iota of confidence in the government right now and it will take me time to get it back.

  5. Vikram, brilliantly analyzed!

    “… huge shifting populations and many, many different ethnic groups, quite a few of which don’t get along very well.” True but this won’t become a major issue if the politicians do not interfere, by encouraging and even protecting some of them!
    For example, there have been no major Hindu Muslim riots in Uttar Pradesh, ever since it has ‘suited’ the politicians.

  6. Just to find out more about where you come from, I’ve read this post of yours and have to conclude that on many points we actually agree with each other.

    Perhaps the manner and wordings in which I express my own views is the reason you reject them, and not the grounds I based them on 🙂

  7. other than regions that are far too backward almost everybody in India would know about the Taj attacks.

    People in Chattisgarh and MP regularly face terror and not just of the hunger kind. Some tribals are terrorized from both ends – to join Salwa Judum by the state and if they do – they are caught and killed by the Maoists.

    Imagine leaving your ancient villages and living n tents where the state treats you like cattle and where you are still exposed to raids of the Maoists.

    One thing that nobody discusses is the ROLE OF RELIGION. Let us honestly see the role that it plays and not push it to the backburner.

    It probably doesn’t come into play when the terrorist is not poor, is educated and is not a victim. But it can be used by the smart, educated, urban terrorist to indoctrinate the poor brother from an impoverished ghetto whose family could have been a victim of state apathy.

    If it is the time to reform some aspects of our education that brainwashes people of a particular bent, then so be it.

    All of them tout ‘all paths lead to the same god’ Well, then ‘all laws equally applied should lead to equality’ – let us as a nation strive to it and jettison identities based on religion, caste and region.

    All the liberals of India are scared of discussing the horrendous affects of religion. It is time we sanitized the opiate of the masses also.

  8. Like astralwicks says…i got to point out that Kashmir faces such attacks almost every month but there’s not much said…

    agreed mumbai is the financial capital of india, but equal of focus needs to be given to other states too.

  9. @ Astralwicks, I am afraid the notion of ‘jettison identities’ based on caste, religion and region is too simplistic.

    In fact, I think that one needs to be a Bihari, Tamil or Assamese, Muslim/Hindu/Sikh before he/she can be Indian. Only that we shouldnt put other identities down. You might want to read Nita’s comment on another post of mine.

    And in any case, the trend is towards the exact opposite in India and I dont see it changing. I think we are seeing a phase where these identities become the basis for political mobilizations and various sections of our society lay their legitimate claim on national resources.

    I dont think the frictions in our society come from people asserting their regional identity, I think they come from conflicts over national resources that are given a communal/regional angle by small minded politicians.

    Raj Thackeray may be a bad Maratha, but that doesnt mean its bad to be a Maratha.

    @Gaythri: You are absolutely right, Kashmir faced such fidayeen style attacks all through the 90’s and there was a hostage situation even this August I think.

  10. @Vikram
    Well analyzed, Vikram. Your viewpoint is very sane and I wholeheartedly agree that the way ahead is not isolating terrorism but stepping up on a whole.

  11. Maratha implies certain qualities and traits and carries a historical baggage…which both uncle and nephew have appropriated at different times…Is Maratha different from a Maharashtrian? If so where and how do they differ. We know how, don’t we?

    Nobody has an issue with being a bihari or a whatever…and I am not suggesting that regional identities be subsumed to the state, but do we in the process also forget that above and beyond our gully, regional and national identities that we are so adamant and proud not to lose, we also have a responsibility as a simple human to each other.

    or is that too difficult?

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