A Lack of Strategy India's Terrorism Dilemma

India has been rocked by a number of terror attacks in recent years. Still, the country has no over-arching strategy to confront the problem. The reasons are myriad.

By in Mumbai

The officer with the Indian Defense Ministry is searching for words. "What should we…? What should I…? It's…." His gaze turns away from the television where images from the attacks on Mumbai flicker across the screen -- distraught civilians, bloody scenes from around the city, politicians swearing revenge. Reports of new shootouts continue to pour in.

India has a security dilemma.
Getty Images

India has a security dilemma.

The officer says his superiors have forbidden him from speaking to the press. But, he adds, "this is a time when no human, no Indian, can keep quiet." He asks, however, that his name not be used.

Still, he stares at the screen -- which is now showing scenes from earlier terrorist attacks in India and photos of the Islamists behind them. "These goddamned…" He struggles for the right term. "Bhenchod." Motherf….

All of India is struggling, just like the officer, to maintain their composure in the face of the attacks. It is all the more unsettling that even the police, the military, the security personnel -- the people who are never at a loss -- don't know what to say and don't know what to do. It is an image that makes one feel sympathy: the officer in his olive green uniform, decorations pinned on his breast, stands there with his head sunk to his chest mumbling as he watches television.

The officer's apparent helplessness is symbolic for India's fight against terrorists and religious fanatics. After each attack, politicians -- like Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has this week -- promise that they will "do all in their power" to hunt down those responsible. And there will no doubt be a number of police raids in the days to come. Arrests will be made. There may even be some guilty verdicts.

But a far-reaching strategy to combat terrorism remains non-existent.

It certainly hasn't been for a lack of time. The first wave of terrorist violence erupted in 1984. That year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards because of her iron-fisted policy against the religious group. Soon thereafter, Hindus began attacking Sikh's across the country.

Almost a decade later, after Hindu nationalists destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, violence between Muslims and Hindus escalated in Bombay, as the city was then still known. Police in the metropolis, mostly Hindus, often looked the other way when Muslims were attacked and killed or when their shops were plundered and their homes destroyed. Before long, the Muslims responded with a series of bombs in the city.

In recent years, bombs have gone off in the tourist mecca Jaipur, in the computer capital of Bangalore, in Ahmedabad and in a number of other cities across the country. Just a few weeks ago, an explosion rocked a mosque in the city of Malegaon in the state of Maharashtra -- the same state in which Mumbai is located. The bomb was apparently planted by Hindu nationalists, and one of those arrested is an officer in the Indian army. Yet despite the decades of terror, there is no strategy to fight it.

"What are we supposed to do?" asks the officer plaintively. "Most of the attacks are planned somewhere in the countryside where there is hardly any police presence. And in cities like Mumbai, where there are 15, 16, maybe even 20 million residents, there's not much we can do," he says. "In a country as big as India, we can't be everywhere. And the military isn't responsible for combating domestic terror."

But the police and the paramilitary forces can do little against the terror problem. According to the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi, India has 1.2 million police and about one million paramilitary troops. It is the biggest security force in the world, but given that India's population hovers around 1.2 billion, it is still much too small.

When broken down, the situation appears even starker. In India, there are just 126 domestic security personnel for every 100,000 people. In most Western countries, that ratio is closer to 400-500 to 100,000. Furthermore, around a fifth of police jobs are currently unfilled in India due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Government representatives emphasize that using the military to combat terrorism is out of the question because the army already has its hands full in Kashmir. Furthermore, domestic use of the military would be sure to raise the ire of human rights groups in the country. "If we deploy the army, then we are monsters. But if we don't deploy the army, then we are letting the terrorists win," complained a senior official from the Home Affairs Ministry in August in a conversation with BusinessWeek.

The officer in New Delhi speaks of the same dilemma. "The evil comes from the interior of India, but there is too little being done in India's interior." One of the reasons, he says, could be the fact that each state in India is largely resonsible for its own security. "And there are large differences in ideas regarding what needs to be done," he says.

Most people in India are fond of blaming Islamist terror on the country's neighbors -- on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but especially on Pakistan. But the officer thinks that such claims "deflect attention from the real problems." Indian officials are convinced that the Wednesday attacks in Mumbai were coordinated by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. But the officer disagrees. "Usually it is misguided Indians who do such things," he says. "Most of them are Muslims, of course. But when you look at Mumbai, the nationalist Hindus have again and again played a sad role." Poverty and a lack of opportunity along with a growing gulf between the rich and the poor in India, he said, have played a significant role.

Still, a centrally-controlled plan steered by the government in New Delhi is likewise not the solution, he says. "We already have security checks in shopping centers, cinemas and public squares. There will surely be more in the future. But how far can one go?"


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