Tackling terrorism

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

COMMUTERS WAIT FOR their trains after observing two minutes' silence in remembrance of the victims of the explosions, at the Churchgate station in Mumbai on July 18. The numbers that are accommodated on each train are huge, making basic security measures almost impossible. - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

COMMUTERS WAIT FOR their trains after observing two minutes' silence in remembrance of the victims of the explosions, at the Churchgate station in Mumbai on July 18. The numbers that are accommodated on each train are huge, making basic security measures almost impossible. - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

Nothing effective can be done to tackle terrorism unless people rise as one man to help law enforcement.

Terrorism has become such a hackneyed subject that one feels uncomfortable writing about it. With the many experts, some self-proclaimed, already in the field, I am overwhelmed. I believe anything I say in these columns would hardly sound new to the average reader. Yet, one cannot ignore an incident that claimed over two hundred lives for no purpose. When news of the Mumbai blasts was trickling in, many of us responded not just with fury. There was also a feeling of indescribable helplessness in the face of the increasing might of evil, which displays utter disregard for what religion has taught us. There was, at the same time, a feeling of guilt that we had been spared individually, while many fellow beings had been taken away for no fault of theirs.

The horror of it all is that violence is perpetrated blatantly and speciously in the name of religion. Outrage demands and generates spontaneously some strong and direct language of condemnation, which would leave no one in doubt of what the civilised world wants. We would also like to continue to point that no scripture sanctions the taking of the life of another person.

Here are some thoughts, for the record. Do not expect any quarter or mercy from those who demand that only one religion should prevail. In their view, other faiths are inconsequential; furthermore, they need to be eliminated. Persuasion to abjure violence, therefore, may not bring in the desired outcome. This deplorable situation has come to stay for long. Many of us may not live to see any change of heart in those who believe that they can only live by the sword. The prospect of their perishing by the same sword appears to them, distant and possibly not very likely. Prudence, therefore, demands that we gird up our loins. We have to be eternally vigilant. We just cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into complacence by an occasional ceasefire that is observed more for tactical reasons than any humane purpose.

Terrorism has exposed the fragility of nationalism. Those who are determined to inflict violence believe that nationalism is archaic. There is a more alluring time-tested power that flows out of unquestioned obeisance to a religion, actually to its distorted version. There is ample proof, that under the banner of one religion, lumpen elements, actuated by malice, can dismiss territorial loyalties and the pull of belonging to a specific country but use their combined might to cause havoc among those who worship God in another form. This is why cohesion flowing from subscribing to one particular religion is more powerful than any coalition of nations, which are secular and seek to fight violence that is driven by religious fanaticism. It seems that the 21st Century is not merely the next phase of globalisation of economy that was forged in the previous century. It is also a period of globalisation of terror. This means the terrorist is an international personality who is better organised and more motivated than all those who speak the language of peace. We, therefore, have an awesome foe to defeat and this requires an extraordinary meeting of minds and an unprecedented shedding of egos. Unfortunately, the anti-terror coalition suffers from ego clashes and a perennial mutual suspicion that whittles down its combined might. Straying from their major preoccupation of extirpating the terrorist from every nook and corner of the globe, some of the coalition partners on occasions spy on one another, inviting derision and ridicule. This is at a time when what the world wants is only determined pursuit of those dedicated to causing disorder and misery. It is this lack of discipline and single-mindedness among those who are opposed to terrorism that hampers their success. In essence, the need of the hour is more statesmen and fewer politicians. Distressingly, the latter seem to outnumber the former!

To me it appears India will undoubtedly be a theatre where the terrorist will stage his actions with alarming frequency. There are many reasons why this should be the case. First, we are the envy of many around us, and to an extent, even those geographically distant from us. India's growth rate of 7 to 8 per cent, the pride of place it has in the global Information Technology industry are not matters of comfort to many. Notwithstanding the annoyingly high levels of corruption and violent crime, it stands out as an open society rooted in a democratic polity. Not many others can boast of this. Perhaps the factor that is most disconcerting to those who believe that governments will necessarily have to be theocratic and the grant of freedom to citizens to practise a religion of their choice is dangerous, is that India is truly secular and is the supreme example of a multi-religious society that lives in reasonable harmony. Terrorism will be the vehicle through which rabid fundamentalists will ceaselessly assault our secular and economic foundations. We should, therefore, expect no let-up in the kind of offensive that we saw in Mumbai on March 12, 1993, and again on July 11, 2006. All our planning - building international opinion and beefing up our internal security mechanism - will have to proceed on this basis.

Experts opine that `copycat terrorism' is now very much a reality. There is an international pool of expertise from which the average terrorist can draw liberally. To boot this, a powerful medium in the form of the Internet is now available for the sharing of skills and experience. Every incident of some magnitude in a remote part of the world provides the inspiration for action in another corner. This is why we expect 9/11 to be repeated elsewhere when we are sucked by moments of complacence. This is again why it is easy to speculate that Madrid of March 11, 2004, is probably the model that was successfully implemented in the recent attacks on Mumbai suburban trains.

This brings me to the depressing subject of protecting the rail system from terrorist machinations. If there is one group of travellers who is most disparate, it is those who travel by our trains. They come from different economic strata and travel for a variety of purposes, carrying a mind-boggling assortment of baggage. Compared to them, air travellers are slightly more homogeneous. The numbers that are accommodated in each train are huge, lending basic security measures such as physical checks and baggage scrutiny almost impossible, except on special occasions when there is specific information of a possible attack. Random examination of baggage and frisking of select passengers and installation of closed-circuit television(CCTV) cameras at sensitive points can be of limited psychological deterrent. Modest investment on such infrastructure is just prudent and nothing more. One cannot exaggerate their utility. This is why more energy and resources are better spent on passenger sensitisation to basic precautions, a strategy that will yield fruit in course of time.

Larger police forces in our major cities are definitely one effective way of dealing with terrorism. This is because it is spectacular action at these centres that gives the terrorist the greatest mileage in terms of media publicity and the widespread fear it generates. Visible presence of young policemen in uniform at railway stations in big cities on a permanent basis and solely to keep an eye on happenings there will have some impact. Imaginative posting of physically imposing and mentally alert constables at stations under a dedicated supervisor, can make a difference. The caveat is these men would not be used for any other chores. I have seen this myself in London, and this is one way to explain that since the July 7, 2005, attack there has been no incident in the frightening labyrinth that the underground is. One cannot, however, be optimistic because of the basic vulnerability of rail networks the world over.

While accretions to the uniformed segment of the police are welcome, I would place the greatest stress on strengthening the intelligence machinery. This is one much abused part of policing that does not inspire confidence in critics. This is in spite of some notable achievements by the Intelligence Bureau (I.B) as well as some State intelligence units. To the small-time politician, `intelligence' is synonymous with picking up blackmail material against the Opposition parties, and sometimes the adversary in his own party. This is the state of affairs that will have to be transformed if we have to get the better of the terrorist. This will not happen overnight. It takes years to build a professional organisation. Fortunately, our I.B has set high standards for those in the States to follow. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is a mixed bag of achievements, although a lot has been done in the past year or two to bring it back on rails. There is no substitute for accurate and timely intelligence. More resources for the two organisations and carefully selected quality leadership should bring rewards. Morale of grassroots personnel in both of them leaves a lot to be desired because of slow promotions and modest working and living conditions. The hope is that substantial improvement in these two areas can bring about sharper performance of intelligence operatives.

I would place emphasis on a less inhibited exchange of intelligence with counterparts in the West and in South-East Asia. Withholding of terrorist intelligence from other countries on questionable national security considerations is hardly justified in the backdrop of Mumbai and other incidents that have devastated the nation in the past five years. We need to show a certain dynamism and openness that would have caused eyebrows to rise in the pre-9/11 world but not any longer. This is an unconventional approach. But orthodoxies in government of the Marxist variety may prevent this from happening. This is a matter for regret.

From all my reading of terrorist literature and discussion with those in the trade in India and elsewhere, I am convinced that it is a stepped-up monitoring of telecommunication networks, which will bring the kind of information that will prevent disasters like the Mumbai blasts. The U.S. has been unabashed about this, and the fact that in the five years since 9/11 there has been no incident in that country is proof that eavesdropping possibly produces the best results. The National Security Agency (NSA) in that country has done remarkable work in this area, and despite the howl of protest generated within the country, it has gone about its tasks with ruthless efficiency. I know that my approach to the whole subject can produce consternation among those who swear by privacy. My stand is that whatever the I.B or the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) or any other law enforcement agency does on this front of monitoring should be based on a law that is the product of political consensus and which is liable to court endorsement.

Any action that is outside such law alone should be punishable. The Internet is a potent medium that has undeniably led to gross abuse by those who trade on flesh and national loyalties. An intelligence agency that cannot keep track of Internet traffic is a soldier without arms. The latest information that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a much-abused medium to transmit prohibited information across borders after evading intelligence agencies is significant here.

Nothing effective can happen unless the community rises as one to help law enforcement. I concede the Mumbaikar has an indomitable spirit, which is the envy of those in other cities in India and elsewhere. The response to the recent tragedy was admirable. But, what was done before the tragedy in spite of the city's known vulnerabilities? How will the Mumbaikar keep track of, and bring to book, those who are continually in the business of wanton violence in the name of religion?

These are relevant questions that cannot be shunned. The need of the hour is a proactive community effort to disarm terrorists before they strike. Will this happen at all? Will the Mumbaikar show the way to others in the country and the rest of the world?

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