Fighting terror

Print edition : October 10, 2008

Members of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front demonstrating on September 14 at Jantar Mantar against the bomb blasts in Delhi.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

This is the time for a national government that will sink all political differences and handle the issue of terrorism in a tough and professional manner.

THE worlds financial sector is in the grip of a crisis. The Lehman Brothers fiasco is expected to be seismic in its impact and could well reshape banking, insurance and allied services. Senator John McCain blames Wall Street greed for the disaster, while Barack Obama attributes the quake to the mindless hands-off approach of the George W. Bush administration.

Obviously, politics has been injected fully into what should have been a dispassionate, professional analysis of a grave situation. I cannot help but draw a parallel to the debate on terrorism in India. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are engaged in a blame game that will not take us anywhere near a solution, if at all a solution to the growing menace is possible.

The Delhi blasts of September 13 came, ironically, two days after the seventh anniversary of 9/11. I am surprised the miscreants responsible did not act two days earlier and gain greater mileage internationally. Possibly, they did not want Al Qaeda to take credit for the (mis)adventure. This squares with expert assessment that Indian terrorism has come of age and requires no external assistance. It does not for a moment mean that the self-styled Indian Mujahideen and its suspected mentor, the Students Islamic Movement of India, do not draw their inspiration from Osama bin Laden. The spark comes from the latter and it ignites the minds of scores of misguided Muslim youth in the country.

The Mumbai blasts of 1993 and the Coimbatore explosions of 1998 highlighted the ferment within the Muslim community, for some right and more wrong reasons. Future historians could point to the Ayodhya issue as the watershed in Hindu-Muslim relations. But that would be too simplistic an analysis to explain these two gruesome happenings. Greater justification for terrorist strikes comes perhaps in the form of our holding on to Kashmir, our support to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the nuclear deal with the United States.

The terrorist will look for more reasons each day to instigate the Muslim youth in the country and mislead them into believing that under the present set-up they have no future. If bombs planted in crowded public places incidentally kill many innocent Muslims, this does not matter so long as the action is in the cause of the jehad. I do not see a let-up in the violence for some time to come. This is why every rupee spent on protecting the public from savage strikes is worth it.

There are several aspects of the debate that could annoy the average citizen, especially one who has suffered directly at the hands of terrorists. It is preposterous to blame either the United Progressive Alliance or the National Democratic Alliance for the current mess. Both are equally culpable for having failed to produce a national consensus. Both have given strong grounds to believe that they carry, besides a genuine resolve to defeat terrorism, a desire to make political gains. This is what has reduced their credibility when they talk of tackling terrorism with an iron hand.

When we watch the Obama-McCain debate in the U.S., there may be some comfort that the Indian politician is not alone in the game of politicising even crucial issues impinging on national security. But this is cheap comfort. We must resolve to make our leaders understand that our patience is wearing thin, and we expect them to abandon all narrow pursuits.

Is this not the time for us to call for a national government that would sink all political differences and address squarely the issue of terrorism to ensure that it is handled in a tough and professional manner? If next years elections are put off, say by a year, while a non-partisan government engages in the task of combating terrorism, it would do all of us a world of good. This is a major move, which can only come about under great public pressure.

It is a strategy that may or may not work. It is nevertheless worth a try. I can assure you that the average citizen is fed up with the current mess. The peoples interest lies in protecting their own lives and property, and a general election is not what the country needs at this crucial juncture when the very basis of constitutional government is under question by some within the country who receive active support from across the border.

The Delhi blasts prove yet again that the way our law enforcement agencies are organised does not answer the need of the hour. I was one of those strongly opposed to the creation of an agency outside the Central Bureau of Investigation for investigating terrorism. Since taking that stand years ago, the magnitude of the problem has enlarged beyond belief. We cannot lose any more time in setting up a federal agency call it by any name that would have the authority to take cognisance of any terrorist incident in any part of the country.

The States will have to accede to this. No Chief Minister who opposes such a move has the moral right to criticise the Centre for being soft on terrorism. The mere fear that such an agency will become politicised in the course of time is no grounds for opposing its creation. After all, there is a strong judiciary, which would come down heavily on blatant political use of the new outfit. Let us not dither on creating the new organisation.

Then, there is the row over a new terror law. This subject has invited acrimony in the past. The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), 1987, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002, invite derision instead of fear and respect. Neither law was bad in itself. The way each of them was perceived by the politician or implemented by a government of the time hardly enhanced its acceptability. Let us forget the past. Let us devise a new law in quick time the Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Veerappa Moily has endorsed this and place it on the statute books. Let us not quibble and say that the existing law is adequate because it has drawn liberally from both TADA and POTA.

This, again, calls for unprecedented political consensus. If we do not forge such unity now when we have nearly lost the war against terrorism, we can never do so. A stringent law may have negative human rights implications. This is again no grounds for postponing action. An intelligent country devises ways and means to check abuses rather than not act at all to produce a much needed piece of legislation. Saying, as some in the government now do, that the existing law is strong enough is to adopt the attitude of an ostrich. The U.S. and the United Kingdom have benefited from new laws. Neither has suffered a major attack since 9/11 and 7/7 respectively. Is this not enough to goad us into acting?

Coming down to brass tacks, how are we going to protect public places that attract huge crowds, such as markets (the principal targets in both the 2005 and 2008 attacks in Delhi), railway stations, places of worship and cinema houses? Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal spoke sometime ago about experiments relating to sensors that could help detect explosives. What is the progress? Inexpensive devices capable of being produced on a large scale are the need of the hour. They should be part of the drill to ensure public safety.

Introducing closed circuit television (CCTV) in large numbers at places where crowds gather every day can act as a deterrent. Here again, economically manufactured devices can play a major role. Many Western cities, especially London, have a positive experience. Why can we not adopt a similar tactic? Going by the ease with which we have implemented the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, the country can afford the expenditure.

It would be a fatal mistake to dismiss suggestions for widespread use of sensors and cameras in public places as wasteful or impractical. Banking solely on the resilience of our citizens, who come back to normal after every attack, is unethical. You ask the surviving victims or the families of those killed in recent incidents, you will get an entirely different picture.

The communitys role in organising the nation against terrorism remains diffused. Except for the odd debate on television, that too only for a few days after an incident, I do not see any strong evidence of a resolve to assist law enforcement by way of information on suspicious goings-on in certain urban centres. Without such inputs, no intelligence agency will ever prove effective. As I have said earlier, fighting terrorism should become a national obsession. It is for the media to help keep the focus.

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