[I wrote this article in September 2008 – before Mumbai terror strike – as a background paper for a presentation at a seminar for NGOs titled “Violence and Insurgencies in India” organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra at Manali from September 7 to 10, 2008.]
Nature of insurgency and terrorism
There is a lot of confusion in understanding terrorism. It is often confused with acts of violence. The dynamics of global political and economic changes during the last two decades have churned up social order and traditional value systems in the country. The resulting social and economic contradictions have given rise to a number of political and social conflicts. At the same time, increasing empowerment of deprived sections of society has made their demand for their rights more strident.
Over the years, these sections have increased their influence in shaping state policies. Inevitably the mobility of marginalized sections often results in acts of political violence. The recent Gurjar agitation in Rajasthan is a good example of social discontent degenerating into mindless violence against the state. Such violence can be successfully defused through people friendly political and administrative mechanisms of the state. Though these conflicts are inevitable, they can be isolated if the state is sensitive and responsive to public grievances. Such acts of violence should not be confused with insurgency or terrorism.
Insurgency is aimed at capture of state power. Since independence India has been facing militancy and insurgency by sections of population fighting for a variety of causes. The causes generally relate to preservation of ethnic, linguistic, religious or territorial identity. They adopt militancy and insurgency as unconventional modes to fight for their goals against the well entrenched state machinery. Insensitive or repressive administration and cold war polemics provided the incentive for such struggles to spread. Ethnic insurgencies of the northeast come under this category.
However, the globalization of trade and the realignment of global power equation after the collapse of the Soviet Union towards the end of the millennium have nudged insurgency struggles to the sidelines. In this environment, many insurgent movements indulge in acts of terror as a coercive tool to achieve their ends. This has made the dividing line between insurgents and terrorists very thin.
Despite such use of terror as a tool by insurgents, terrorism has its own distinct sphere in the world of violence. Terrorism is aimed destabilizing social order through violent acts of terror, killings and intimidating the population rather than capturing state power. Early in this millennium, Islamic obscurantism emerged as a major practitioner of terrorism. It has found terrorism a cost effective way to wage a war against nations considered as “threats” to their concept of Islamic way of life. The Al Qaeda’s 9/11 strikes in the US and the series of Jihadi attacks in Pakistan and India are manifestations of this phenomenon.
The emergence of terrorism as a global threat to order and peace has become a major cause of international concern particularly after 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks in the US. International community has come together to coordinate their activities to root out terrorism. International protocols are coming into force to control maritime traffic, illegal arms purchases and traffic, and money laundering to eradicate the internationalisation of terrorism through front organisations and propaganda tools to spread their influence. The European Union and the US have introduced strong enactments to curb terrorism.
However, such international actions can be fully effective only if frontline countries of South Asia take equally strong action to control terrorism. Unfortunately, lack of national consensus in acting against terrorists due to overriding political considerations based upon playing up religious divide in countries like India has prevented collective action against terrorism.
Elements of success of terrorists and insurgents
Insurgents always try to make their struggle relevant to the common man as popular support is the lifeblood of insurgency. Invariably they espouse popular causes and provide rallying points for the social, economic and political grievances of aggrieved population. They use violent methods to destroy the existing state mechanisms and establish their control over society to achieve their ends. Insurgents thrive in areas where the administration is insensitive to the peoples’ actual or felt grievances.
Often, the majority-dominated democratic systems that deny adequate space for articulation for the sentiments of minority population breed such movements. In democratic societies, political parties tend to exploit the existing political, social and cultural divide among the people for their own advantage. Thus the explosive environment built up by poor governance, corruption, political opportunism and unbridled use of state machinery to curb fundamental rights make the job easier for the insurgent to win popular support. Absence of a conflict resolution mechanism in such a set up further alienates the population from the population. External powers exploit such situations to finance and arm insurgent groups to further their agenda.
Hence it is important the state introduces systemic improvements in all arms of administration, including the initiation of a dialogue process with the aggrieved population. Experience in our country has shown that systemic improvements alone cannot wean away the public support to insurgency movements if the state cannot ensure the physical security of the common man. To regain the trust of the alienated population the state has to show it is a reliable functional entity that can ensure security of the people. To do this the state has to physically curb the insurgents from interfering with the normal life of people even as the state introduces systemic improvements. Then only insurgency movements will lose their relevance to the people. This will lead to their neutralization. In the Indian context Mizoram is a good example of such success.
In our country the non-state actors have exploited the existing or potential conflict areas in society to further their influence. For instance, in the backward tribal regions of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa the Maoist insurgents have expanded their hold using the long standing and unattended grievances of tribal population and landless poor. They have emerged as the alternate to democratic and administrative instruments denied to the affected people. In these parts social security mechanism are absent and the Maoists have tried to exploit such gaps to increase their influence.
In these regions the exploitative social class like money lenders, exploitative land owners, in collusion with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats have alienated the poor from having a say in the grass root democratic bodies. Over the years such exploitative sections have been exercising their coercive power over the people. And the state machinery, particularly the law enforcing agencies, has gained the reputation as organs of exploitation rather than governance. With acts of terrorism the insurgents have managed to gain power and resources to spread their areas of control. The government does not have cohesive political and social strategies to regain the trust of people in the affected and give them a sense of security.
Unlike the insurgent, the terrorist tries to gain control over the population through acts of terror aimed at instilling fear among them. Creation of a supportive social ambience required for the growth of insurgency is not a perquisite for the success of terrorist movements. Terrorist acts are perpetrated by small number of highly motivated and indoctrinated people who feel totally alienated from the mainstream. Terrorism grows by its acts of daring and audacity giving it a larger than life image among the people. It creates a sense of awe and exposes the state as ineffective machinery to safeguard the security of the citizen.
Terrorist organizations like the Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba operate in extreme secrecy. Special intelligence effort must be made to unearth their network of supporters, sources of finance and arms, training methods, front organizations, and sleeper agents within other political and social organizations. Terrorists are increasingly using modern electronic and web-based communication and media systems to increase the impact their violent acts on the public.
Institutional mechanism to fight terrorism and insurgency
In order to fight them effectively, creation of a national authority to evolve dynamic counter insurgency and terrorism policies and execute them with vigour. Its overall aim should be to discourage, deter, detect, and defeat the use of violence and terror as a tool by non state actors against the state. It has to work in close coordination with national and state level intelligence and police agencies. Broadly it has to be composed of three elements – advisory, strategic planning assessment, and tactical operations. It should be able to have at its disposal forces specially trained for carrying out special operations with adequate mobility, technology and fire power support to respond to the needs of states affected by non state actors.
To be effective in a plural society the institutional mechanism should have autonomy of decision making to insulate it from political manipulation. This in practice would increase its accountability at the national and state levels. It would also make it responsive to real time dynamics of terrorism.
As each region has its own social issues affecting the fight against terrorism, the execution should be local police and administrative machinery along with the central institutions. This would result in evolving local conflict resolution mechanism so that the relevance of insurgent groups to the socially exploited people diminishes over a period. Participatory development, responsive administration, and removal of grievances would ultimately reinforce the success generated by physically eliminating the insurgents through the use of force.
Quick response to acts of terrorism can be effective if only the administration ensures unbiased follow up action and deterrent administration of justice, ensuring the rule of law. At the same time socio-political strategies to wean away the people should also be in place in tandem. Respect to human rights should be adhered to by the law enforcers so that they provide a more attractive security alternative to the people. Then only the state can improve the credibility of the administration among the people and discourage the appeal held by non state actors.
The state and local administration should be encouraged to adopt preventive strategies sufficiently early without undue emphasis on the exclusive use of force. However in areas where non state actors are active the aim should be to free the population from their influence through the use of security forces in tandem with measures to revamp a people-friendly administration measures to restore normal life and resume development activities in such areas.
Ideally the mechanism should respond from below upwards and take action above downwards, link laterally with diverse government departments to implement cohesive strategies. It should not be intrusive and allow full freedom for local communities to solve their communal, caste and tribal issues and intervene only when extremism enters the scene. This would imply the involvement of the people in having a say on the issues of governance and development.
To be meaningful local democratic institutions should be strengthened to freely operate and act as the mechanism for ventilating and redressing people’s grievances. This would reduce the relevance of insurgents to the people and sections of society. Panchayat raj institutions should be strengthened and be empowered to assume this responsibility as the areas are freed from the influence of non state actors.
Role of NGOs
NGOs are the conscience keepers of society. They form an important part of the civil society which acts as a non-formal bridge between the population and the administration. Thus NGOs have a role in both the active and passive phase of counter insurgency. In the conflict management phase, NGOs can provide succour to the affected population and provide an interface between them and the administration wherever needed. They can act as a forum for the public to ventilate their grievances and pass them on to the administration. In order to be able to function in insurgency and terrorism affected areas, the NGOs run the risk of antagonising both the administrative machinery and the extremists. So they will have to operate without bias and be seen as neutral agents in the conflict. This requires close monitoring and guidance of field workers activities in affected areas. Then NGOs can increase their usefulness to the people.
In the conflict resolution phase, NGOs can act as facilitators for evolving the modalities for putting in place a conflict resolution mechanism. The credibility of NGOs can only be improved if they act without fear or favour. Then only they will be able to operate in such areas and be useful in bringing succour to the people.