The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the Eastern Bureau of Parliamentarian
THE new government at the Centre that will come in in the last week of May, be it the Narendra Modi-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) or a Rahul Gandhi-led Mahagathbandhan, has its tasks well cut out. However sweet may be the taste of victory for either of the camps, the challenges before the new dispensation aren’t too few to be ignored. Keeping aside the feeling of being in the seventh heaven (quite obvious after a hard-fought victory) the government would need to take stock of various urgent issues in key sectors India has been facing and hammer out immediate strategic and effective measures to redress them their root. Among the umpteen challenges that brook any delay, the question of the internal security of the country is of top-notch importance given the increasing incidents of terrorist strikes in India and in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka of late.
Easter Sunday’s serial bomb blasts in Colombo that left more than 250 dead and 500 injured in the penultimate week of April has once again exposed the fragile nature of peace in this region. The fact that 13 or more Indian nationals were among the victims has only lent credence to the belief that India must not ever let its guard down on the issue of internal security. It assumes critical significance in view of intelligence inputs from none but the Lanka police chief 10 days before the incident about an impending terror attack on leading churches as well as the Indian High Commission in Colombo. That the terrorists gave the High Commission a miss this time need not warm the cockles of Indian authorities as the strike during the Easter betrayed a high degree of planning and near flawless execution. Already, parallels are being drawn with the 26/11 Mumbai attack. With the Indian High Commission being in the list, it would be unwise to write off the hand of the plotters and operators of IS module based out of Pakistan.
The terrorists have struck at a politically turbulent time. India is busy with its seven-phase Lok Sabha polls; para-military forces have been deployed in huge numbers across the country to maintain law and order. Obviously, sealing and plugging the loopholes in the vast, vulnerable stretches of India besides the international border with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, is indeed, an uphill task. On top of this, the 2019 general election campaign began with such issues as how terror outfits had been succeeding in breaching the national security and why it is extremely important to build an effective security network to thwart the terrorists’ game plan to destabilise India and its roaring economy. No wonder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the run-up to the current Lok Sabha polls, has made this his major election plank despite Congress president Rahul Gandhi fiercely going hammer and tongs at Modi for blurring other burning issues like failure in creation of jobs and bringing the poor up from below the poverty level besides farm distress. In fact, the prime minister has sought to project the issue of national security in such a way that it would defang the remaining weapons in the opposition arsenal. He took great pains to impress upon the electorate that no other earlier government had handled cross-border terrorism as muscularly as the Modi government has so far done.
Interestingly, much though the Modi-Amit Shah duo raised their pitch on this issue, the issue of security and terrorism was found to be gradually fading away as the high octane seven-phase LS polls has got underway. And much to the chagrin and concern of the saffron block, such issues as development, unemployment and farmers’ plight etc., had suddenly started to hog the limelight. Because the BJP-bashers were aware that the record of the Modi government wasn’t that bright in these segments which is why attacking the incumbent BJP government on those fronts could yield dividends. This opposition-fuelled boat had been sailing harmlessly when it faced a sudden jolt midstream; the brutal serial terror attack by suspected radical Muslim fundamentalists (National Thowheed Jamath) in Sri Lanka mid-April seemed to have taken the wind out of the boat’s sail. And the issues of terror and terrorism, security and counter-insurgency measures are again back with a bang.
Obviously, the Easter tragedy is likely to play a big role in highlighting the serious threat the terror outfits pose to India, especially because the country has an open society which facilitates easy mixing of terrorists with the populace.
The lingering shadows of the February 2019 terror attack on a paramilitary convoy in Jammu & Kashmir’s Pulwama by a Jaish-e-Mohammed ‘fedayeen’ that left more than 45 jawans reduced to shreds of flesh and the subsequent air strike by the Indian Air Force quite deep inside Pakistan, are still fresh. Even though a war-like situation could be avoided with Pakistan, thanks to prompt release of the captured IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, the nationalist sentiments soared in the immediate aftermath. That the ruling BJP has been trying its best to use the sentiments to the hilt is passé. The tragedy in Sri Lanka is just a grim reminder of the urgent need for putting in place a tough and fool-proof security network to prevent a repeat of Pulwama or such other attacks.
The opposition also accused the BJP of focusing the electoral discourse solely on national security and conveniently excluding other equally important issues. A quick appraisal of the incidents the BJP leaders have been referring to in their campaign speeches will reveal and establish the fact that India is yet to create a proper protective shield around the vulnerable areas of the country, quite vast the territory might though be. The September 2016 commando raid across the Line of Control (LoC), the first by the Indian forces into Pakistan, the announcement of the test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon system dubbed as ‘Mission Shakti’, the 73-day stand-off with China at Doklam in 2017 (often advertised as the “biggest geostrategic victory”), the 1998 nuclear tests and the 1999 Kargil conflict among others are being cited by the BJP as examples of strong assertions towards counter-insurgency measures. Some of these incidents, however, at the same time, have exposed India’s vulnerability, and point to the need for further modernisation and equipping of the intelligence agencies with the required teeth to nip any threat to national security in the bud. Failure of NIA (National Investigation Agency) in solving some terror cases also bears out this need.
In view of this, it has almost become the sine qua non for political parties to desist from holding a partisan view on such a core issue as national security. Instead, the leading political parties, particularly the government at the centre that is expected to take over the reins in the last week of May 2019, must deliberate on the national security situation, the strategic environment and the state of institutions which are likely to contribute to framing an effective strategy and raising a guard on internal and external security situation of the country.
As intelligence experts meet and deliberate on ways and means to buttress the measures, it would be worthwhile to keep in mind that India’s security environment has its own peculiarity. First, India is still a developing country with a substantial number of people living below the poverty line; secondly, India’s geo-strategic location, historical hangovers, socio-cultural milieu, political and economic systems, and not the least, its external policies and world view offer a diversity of perspectives. Yet, India’s progress over the years has often suffered serious hiccups in the wake of various forms of politicised violence, triggering what the experts described as “a chronic crisis of national security.”
Internationally, the internal security situation is often perceived as the barometer of progress of a nation and India is no exception either. National security has thus become an integral component of India’s development process. The economic strides that India has so far made, it is often claimed, could have been much better had not India needed to up its spending on security measures on such a huge scale. There is no denying the fact that very few countries in the world face such a full spectrum of threats to their national security as India does. Leaving aside the external security threats that routinely emerge from neighbourhood far and near, four major internal security threats have seriously undermined the country’s efforts to become an economic superpower, at least in Asia; they are: militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, insurgency in the North-East of India, Left-wing extremism (Naxalites or Maoists) that bedevil some key states in the country, and of course the jihadist terrorism that may erupt any part of the country any time. At the same time, there are other threats that often tend to overlap with the already stated ones, namely drug-trafficking, counterfeit currencies, illegal migration, small arms proliferation, and the last but not the least, cyber warfare.
Interestingly, the threats have bared themselves in their own individual way in the affected states. Let us discuss the nature of such a threat or threats in West Bengal that would distinctly bear out how the nature of how it varies from other states. One security risk in Bengal that has kept entire India’s security apparatus on tenterhooks is that of fake currency which had once flooded the Indian market, raising a grave risk to the economy. Some villages in the twin districts of Malda and Murshidabad in North Bengal, close to the international border with Bangladesh, have already attained notoriety for harbouring the infamous currency smugglers.
The fake currency notes that originate in Pakistan, used to be smuggled to India through the porous Indo-Bangla border points. The 2016 demonetisation measure, though much criticised, has to some extent, been able to stem the trade for the time being. But what is still an area of awe and concern for both the security and media persons is huge tracts of fields in some select villages close to the international border in these districts where illegal cultivation of ganja or opium is rampant and where the rule of law is just a far cry. The situation is nearly akin to the mafia raj prevailing in the coal belts of Raniganj, Asansol and parts of Jharkhand. In Central India, the number of districts affected by Maoist extremism has been claimed to have decreased by around fifty per cent, down to around 90 from over 200 districts a few years back. But a deadly Maoist strike just before the first phase of the Lok Sabha poll that left two jawans dead again revealed chinks in the security network.
The security situation in the North-East region of India has improved significantly over the years, with fewer insurgent attacks now. Yet, chances of surprise ambushes on Indian security forces by the outlawed ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) and NSCN (Muivah faction) are not ruled out. The 73-day stand-off with China at Doklam in Sikkim has been a grim reminder to top security mandarins about the threat of aggression that persists from across the border. The same adversary had once humiliated India in 1962, leading to the secession of unchartered territory in Arunachal Pradesh to China. Surprisingly, none of the parties has made any mention of cyber threats despite the fact that India is identified as the third most vulnerable country, after the US and China, to cyber-attacks. The hackers made the best use of BJP’s own website, throwing it out of gear for several days in March.
Given the volatile situation in Jammu and Kashmir and other attendant threats, it would be highly improper to politicise the national security score card. Whoever comes to power at the centre, the new government must set in motion wide-ranging reforms in all key sectors by articulating a national security policy; it also must work together with all the political parties to forestall a serious security challenge without letting one’s guard down on the issue of national security and extremism.