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Zero Tolerance Time

By Zafar Sobhan

28 November, 2008
The Daily Star, Bangladesh

What in God's name is going on in India? Pakistan and Sri Lanka have long been tinder-boxes, periodically erupting into welters of death and destruction, and recent years have added Nepal to the nations in the region beset by radical upheaval. Indeed, not long ago, it seemed as though even Bangladesh may have been heading in the direction of increasing violence and discord.

But, of late, it seems that India's tenure as the only long-standing and stable democracy in South Asia is coming to an end.

Of course, perhaps part of the problem is that we have simply not been paying sufficient attention as India has steadily descended into its present state of chaos and confusion over the past few years.

Perhaps we have not paid sufficient attention to the tensions in Kashmir, the north-east, and in vast swathes of the countryside along the country's central and eastern belt that are now under the de facto control of Maoist insurgents and their sympathisers.

Perhaps we have not paid sufficient attention to the implications of atrocities like the Gujarat carnage of 2002 and the recent pogroms against Christians in Orissa and surrounding areas.

Perhaps we have not paid sufficient attention to the steady increase of terrorist bombings over the past few years in locales as far ranging as Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, and Guwahati. In fact, since 2005, more than 520 people have been killed, and hundreds more injured, in 12 major bombings around the country.

Well, everyone is paying attention now.

The sheer scale, co-ordination, precision, and audacity of the Mumbai attacks is something unprecedented.

At time of writing, there were over 100 dead and hundreds more wounded. The attacks appear to have encompassed at least seven distinct locales, planned and co-ordinated with seemingly military precision. There is no report on how many terrorists were involved overall, but it cannot be fewer than 50.

It is hard to write insightfully with the shadow of carnage behind one's shoulder. The truth is that words are wholly inadequate to discuss and dissect the enormity of the tragedy that has transpired in Mumbai. At a time like this it is hard to break free of the clichés and the obvious, to do more than to express shock for the barbarity of the crime committed and sympathy for those affected.

When the dust settles, half of the talk will be about how this attack should serve as a wake-up call and demonstrates the need for India to redouble its anti-terror efforts.

Already the opposition BJP is suggesting that the ruling Congress-led government is soft on terror. In an already tough electoral climate, this atrocity and the apparently massive intelligence failure that allowed it to happen could be a devastating blow to the sitting government (though whether state or national government should bear the brunt of the blame remains an open question).

Others will argue that an atrocity of this scale means that India really needs to look at the root causes of terror and take affirmative steps to address the grievances of the disaffected and the marginalised.

It remains unclear at the time of writing whether the terrorists are a home-grown Indian outfit or whether they come from outside the country. Already fingers are being pointed at Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba (although responsibility has been claimed by a hitherto-unheard of outfit by the name of Deccan Mujahideen), but it is too soon to know with any certainty who is behind the attacks, where and by whom they have been trained, and what their motives are.

There is no happy answer to these questions. On the one hand, the negative repercussions in terms of regional stability if the attackers are found to have significant links outside India, are too great to even contemplate. On the other hand, if the attackers were home-grown in India, then this is hardly reason for anyone either inside the country or out to breathe a sigh of relief, and in fact raises a host of new and uncomfortable issues with respect to the radicalisation of Indian Muslims.

If there is a lesson to be learned for the region I think that it is this: we have a regional problem on our hands, and there is no way to address the threat of terrorism except on a regional basis.

It is unclear what, if any, links exist between terrorists in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (to say nothing of links between Maoist extremists across South Asia), but what is incontrovertible is that all three countries of the Indian sub-continent have active terrorist networks, and given the porosity of our borders and the ideological affinities of many of the groups, it would be unlikely if cross-border networks and support structures did not exist.

There is no question, for instance, that the terrorist groups in Bangladesh receive the bulk of their training, support, and financing from outside the country. There is thus no question that counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh need to be focused outside the country as well as inside.

We can take satisfaction in the fact that the last two years have seen a marked diminution of terrorist activity in Bangladesh, but we should not let ourselves get complacent. It seems to me that as long as terrorist activity remains high in the region then we continue to remain vulnerable.

The next lesson we need to put in place, both nationally as well as regionally, is that there must be zero tolerance for terrorism. I believe that the current mantra is "tough on terror; tough on the causes of terror." Now this may sound trite and sloganeering, but it does succeed in neatly encapsulating the dual approach that is our only hope of successfully countering terrorism. Indeed, the two approaches are inextricably linked.

Let us start with the root causes of terror. It is axiomatic that the fewer genuine grievances that the dispossessed and the marginalised have, the fewer terrorists will be engendered. This is not to in any manner justify, excuse, or rationalise the targeting of innocent civilians, which can never be condoned whatever the provocation, but merely to point out the obvious.

In addition, addressing issues of dispossession and marginalisation and genuine grievance also has immense operational benefit when it comes to counter-terrorism. The only successful method of actually countering a terrorist insurgency is through infiltration or building a network of informants. This, in turn, is only possible if there is good will towards the authorities on the part of the communities from which the terrorists spring and where they find shelter. I believe that this is known as "draining the swamp so there will be no mosquitoes."

Terror begets more terror. Pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat lead to the radicalisation of Indian Muslims and, indeed, Muslims all across the sub-continent. Targeting of Hindus in Bangladesh or Pakistan provides a tailor-made excuse for Hindu extremists in India to commit atrocities in return.

If moderates all across the region and from every community do not come together to address this issue then it is all over for us. The policy must be zero tolerance. But we need to join hands across national borders and across communities and understand that our enemy is not another country or another community, but those who would foment communal discord and perpetrate atrocities in order to sow hatred and to drive a permanent wedge between the different peoples of the region. They are the enemy, and they must be stopped.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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