Friday, 10 September 2021

A reading list for the defence minister

The defence minister, Rajnath Singh, speaking at a meeting of the state Bharatiya Janata Party in the shadow of the gigantic statue of the original Iron Man of India, said that ‘terrorists were afraid of the Narendra Modi government at the Center and there had been no major terrorist attack in the country since Mr Modi assumed office in 2014.’ The defence minister went on to say that by conducing surgical strikes (wrongly dated to 2018 in the news report, unless the defence minister faulted on the date), India had sent a message to terrorists that they were insecure even in their safe havens, in Pakistan.

Since the defence minister is the senior member of the cabinet and sits on the cabinet committee on security (CCS) and the national security council (NSC), what he says matters. This is even more so since we know his fellow members on any of the three forums are not particularly consequential. Therefore, Rajnath Singh’s utterances have some import.

In the same breath saying there have been no terror attacks, the minister also referred to surgical strikes. This appears a self-contradiction since the surgical strikes were presumably in response to terror attacks, at Uri and at Pulwama respectively. But then – as this columnist has earlier argued here and elsewhere – these were not incidents meriting the escalatory response of surgical strikes.

At Uri, in the skirmish with the intruding terrorists a tent in which our soldiers were sleeping burnt down, accidentally increasing the casualties. This is brought out in the then corps commander’s memoirs, thus: “During the firefight, a cookhouse also caught fire, which increased the death toll (Satish Dua, India’s Bravehearts) (emphasis added).” 

As for Pulwama, it is unthinkable that the perpetrator was in and out of police stations, after having been apprehended earlier in a firefight in which two of his fellow militants died, for some six times thereafter and did not catch anyone’s eye as a potential suicide bomber. Besides, the infamous Davinder
Singh – allegedly but credibly associated with the parliament attack - was posted in Pulwama till a couple of months prior to the attack. Today, Davinder Singh is being spared investigation on both counts in the name of national security, since to do so would see plenty skeletons spill out of the cupboard.

The upshot is that the minister is indeed right – there have been no terror attacks since the prime minister took office. But is the reason he gives accurate: that this owes to a policy of ‘zero tolerance towards terrorism’?  

Counter-intuitively, let’s begin with Kashmir. The police there required the media reporting on violent incidents to use the term ‘terrorism’ rather than their preferred term, ‘militancy’. This does not necessarily make the violence there terrorism. This author has argued that the term insurgency should instead be used since this is a phenomenon amenable to political resolution, whereas using the term terrorism makes political compromises intrinsic in negotiated settlement problematic. This advocacy is in keeping with the ground situation in which over 90 per cent of those killed these days are Kashmiri youth. The weapons recovered are at best a couple of pistols with an odd Kalashnikov thrown in. Not to forget, some of the terror attacks are liable to be black operations, such as possibly the one that won Davinder Singh a gallantry medal. The dividend is to help a safe landing by Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force grey list.

That brings one to the terror attacks elsewhere that according to the minister stopped because terrorists - and Pakistan - went chicken. Terrorism is no child’s play. Perpetrators have pathological features and are hardened by ideologies of violent extremism. They often put their lives on line. Some are mercenaries whose families are amply materially compensated. Therefore, the minister’s reasoning is self-serving.

As for the anti-terrorism strategy itself, let’s revert to Kashmir. The recent burial of the political stalwart, SAS Geelani, was done under a considerable security blanket, testifying to the government knowing well that the place is poised on a brink. Kicking the can down road is never a good strategy. The belief that the political solution – invalidating of Article 370 – constituted a political solution shall face its severest test yet. Commentary on fallout from Afghanistan has it that Kashmir will likely be singed. A ‘wait and watch’ policy, arguably valid for Afghanistan, is hardly apt from a prevention point of view in Kashmir. 

As for the counter terrorism strategy of zero tolerance, elevating alleged terror participants - against whom the case is in court - to parliament on a ruling party ticket is not good strategy either. Assuming Muslim perpetrators were behind terror prior to 2014, it challenges reason that such radicalized individual have been rather inactive over the last seven years. During the period, the right wing has gone out of its way to not only lynch innocent Muslims victims periodically but upload the visuals from these beatings on to social media. The idea has been to provoke a Muslim backlash for polarization purposes. Such strategic patience on part of the Muslim terrorists begs the question why are they keeping their powder dry.

Mr. Rajnath Singh may like to have his speech writer peruse recent works on terrorism. Josy Joseph in his The Silent Coup shows how narco tests were abused to depict Muslims subjected to them as terrorists. Abdul Wahid Shaikh brings out voluminous testimony in his Innocent Prisoners on the torture he faced and his fellow Muslim prisoners to force false confessions for participation in terror acts out of them. He substantiates allegations former senior police man, Mushrif, makes in his Brahminists Bombed, Muslims Hanged. Even the flagship counter terrorism innovation of the regime, it’s cutting off of terror funding, has other impetus behind it – yet another instrument to throttle non-governmental organizations and whittle the civil society space.

Elias Davidsson in his Revisiting the 26/11 Evidence pokes holes in the Mumbai terror attack evidence. While the terror attack was Pakistan conceived and originated, it appears India profited by exploiting the terror attack to its purposes. Irrespective of supercop Rakesh Maria’s version to the contrary, in the drawing room Muslim narrative, saffronite extremists took advantage of the chaos to eliminate policemen investigating them for prior bomb blasts elsewhere. India’s inept security response – perhaps kept deliberately so to corner Pakistan - led to heightening the toll. The showing of the National Security Guard (NSG) was intriguing in this, with the NSG taking 48 hours to clean out the hotel near Gateway of India, especially when the naval Marcos and an infantry battalion’s ghatak platoon were on hand but denied a shot on the very first night itself.

The clinching evidence is from the courageous RB Shreekumar. A senior cop, Shreekumar in his Gujarat: Behind the Curtain depicts how the cover up was deployed post Godhra. The Gujarat model in which fake encounters were used to build up the image of a political worthy as Hindu Hriday Samrat thereafter went national in the false narrative of Muslim terrorism. A case to point is of the bombs being fortuitously found and defused in Surat after the serial blasts in Ahmedabad in 2008 when the current Delhi Police commissioner was in charge there.

This is no doubt a counter narrative, but deserves to be mainstreamed. Else the narrative sought to be propagated in courses on terrorism as in the new course introduced in Jawaharlal Nehru University, that terrorism is exclusively jihadi perpetrated will gain validity. While no doubt there was a Muslim backlash to events as Babri masjid demolition, Mumbai carnage and Gujarat pogrom, this pales in comparison in its temporality and impact to the terrorism attributed to Muslims by appropriation of the backlash by the right wing by covert means and its media hyperinflation. No wonder the defence lawyer of Umar Khalid described the police charge sheet as spill over from right wing trolls’ script. Revisionism as here will help strategic thinkers and the attentive public to evaluate the actual state of security and how a questionable security narrative is being employed to further political party goals at the cost of national security.