December 5, 2008Foreign AffairsSecurity

Retaliation, punishment, deterrence

The external and internal dimensions of India’s strategic response

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Unless India responds purposefully, forcefully and successfully to the war that has been imposed on it—and that war began long before the last week of November 2008—the grand project of improving the lives, well-being and happiness of over a billion Indians, and many more besides, will be seriously jeopardised. For that reason India must not only seek to deliver exemplary punishment on the terrorist organisations and their Pakistani sponsors, but also make it prohibitively expensive for anyone to use terrorism as a political strategy.

Taking the war to the enemy

There is a case for India’s geopolitical response to be deliberately irrational: India must expect concrete support, not international sympathy. It must not let the actions that it deems necessary to be circumscribed by the usual calls for restraint”—read inaction—that the international community routinely delivers. The Indian government must only be guided by what it must do to ensure that the perpetrators are punished and deterred from attempting such attacks in future.

Yet, it would be unwise to reflexively get into a direct military conflict with Pakistan. That would play right into the hands of the Pakistani military establishment, which for its part, is certain to use the smallest opportunity to wind down its reluctant operations against the Taliban militants on its western borders. Some Pakistani strategists are counting on the artificial, US-enforced antagonism between their army and the Taliban to dissolve into a recharged insurgency that would, ultimately, defeat yet another superpower. How can recreating the old jihadi breeding ground be in India’s interests? And this is regardless of the outcome of a military confrontation along the India-Pakistan border, and even the very merits of it during an unprecedented global economic downturn.

As Sushant K Singh argues in an article in the December 2008 issue of Pragati, India’s strategic response must be to engage the jihadi adversary in Afghanistan. A significant military presence there would boost the strength of the Afghan and US forces fighting elements that are inimical to India’s interests, and are aligned, if not associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba that is suspected to be the organisation that carried out the Mumbai attacks. The Indian government must urgently engage in a diplomatic initiative that brings the United States and Iran together to address the security challenges in Afghanistan. The election of Barack Obama—who wants to win the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and is amenable to engaging Iran—opens up the opportunity, but only if the United States can also grasp that this is the only way to win that war. 

India, the United States and Afghanistan share a common interest in restructuring Pakistan’s military establishment. This is the single most important factor determining peace and stability in the region. It cannot come about unless the Taliban insurgency is defeated.

 The home front

The fact that a small number of terrorists could bring one of India’s biggest cities to a standstill for three days will not be lost on potential terrorists in the country, and indeed around the world. It is to India’s credit that all the terrorists save one were eliminated, something that will discourage all but the most committed. But that still won’t suffice. The Indian state must reassert its monopoly over violence and severely punish those who use violence as a political tool.

Obviously, this means evolving a national counter-terrorism policy (and, in the following article, Ajit Kumar Doval explains the difficulties of getting there). However, it also means lowering the threshold of tolerance to various kinds of political violence, that have especially mushroomed over the last few years. From the spread of Naxalism, to the battles in Nandigram, to the Gujjar agitation, to homegrown jihadi attacks and finally down to extremist Hindutva terrorism, political violence is on the ascendent.

B R Ambedkar had rejected even non-violent satyagraha as the grammar of anarchy” in an independent democratic India. It is hard to hold citizens to constitutionalism when they observe that violence is more rewarding. Even as the Indian government contemplates setting up a new federal agency to combat terrorism, it is by vigourously enforcing the rule of law across the board that it can contain it more effectively. The existence of bad laws, however, prevents the enforcement of good ones. Should the police be used to prevent terrorism or to enforce a Victorian morality on citizens? The answer should be clear after November 26th, 2008. Using public funds for moral policing not only wastes limited resources, it also sustains organised crime syndicates, some of which are intimately connected to jihadi terrorism. 

After the last bullet was fired in Mumbai, bringing one nightmare to an end, a section of  the angry population took to the streets to protest against a political leadership that had wholly mismanaged internal security. But a government that could not protect citizens from monsoon rains—a relatively predictable phenomenon—can hardly be expected to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. Unless Indian citizens channel their anger and outrage into improving the overall quality of governance, and demanding more from their political representatives and holding them accountable for quotidian public services, it is almost certain that the state will be increasingly less effective in providing basic security. For the fundamental problem is that India’s governance capability has so fallen short of its economic, geopolitical and internal security circumstances that the impact of even minor events, leave alone massive terrorist attacks, will be increasingly destabilising.

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