Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks

(Updated Below)
1. First of all, stop calling the attacks India's 9/11 - we have endured lots of attacks; Kashmir alone has seen somewhere around 50000 deaths in the last decade. "Terror" attacks or bomb blasts are common in India these days. No need to tie ourselves with unique American tragedies.
2. By the same token, stop calling locations as "Ground Zero" and so on. For a change let us come up with our own terminology.
Having yelled that at the media, I want to point out a couple of things:
1. Now that the attackers seem to be Pakistanis, all our focus seems to have shifted to Pakistan. Here is the thing - Pakistan is a profoundly troubled country (like our own). Its populace has radical elements (just as ours does). In fact, this is the age of radicalism (more about that later). Our public officials seem to be affecting tones of righteous indignation and submitting lists.
This last 10 years we have heard repeatedly that Pakistan is a "failed state". And that anyday it will collapse thus bringing peace to the subcontinet. Well, it IS collapsing and what we see is not peace reigning.
The truth is that there are no failed states - and we should never have wished failure on Pakistan and its people. There are many, many innocent citizens going about their business in that country and they are being harassed by increasingly radical movements. Peace in the subcontinent depends on Pakistan's success over radicals (and our own success over native radicalism).
Every time a terror attack happens, media stars pose the question "should we go after training camps in Pakistan?". Barack Obama said that India has the right to defend itself - and this seems like code to a cross-border raid. Our own hawks are itching for just such a raid. But the truth is that Pakistan cannot "close" its training camps that easily - it is not as if they get government approval for such activities. Terrorism is called as the single most important threat to the Pakistani state - by Pakistan's own leaders. Pakistan has nukes and a conventional war is out of the question. We have NO options of engaging Pakistan militarily and those advocating such action are irresponsible.
It is obvious that the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI is out of control. Our spy agencies seem clueless and have not prevented any of the attacks in the last three years. This is going to be a long drawn process - but we have to work with the Pakistani government and people. I think this is the right opportunity, because they are on the defensive. The more we cooperate the better.

2. Again, one of the frequent media questions is if we are "soft on terror". Our own government follows up with tougher and tougher laws. I am quoting Glenn Greenwald's sane words here:
Any decent, civilized person watching scenes in Mumbai of extremists shooting indiscriminate machine gun fire and launching grenades into civilian crowds -- deliberately slaughtering innocent people by the dozens -- is going to feel disgust, fury, and a desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, regardless of what precipitated it. The temptation is great even among the most rational to empower authority to do anything and everything -- without limits -- to punish those responsible and prevent repeat occurrences. That's a natural, even understandable, response. And it's the response that the attackers hope to provoke.

It's that temptation to which most Americans -- and our leading media institutions -- succumbed in the wake of 9/11, and it's exactly the reaction that's most self-destructive. As documented by this superb Washington Post Op-Ed today from Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India, the Indian Government -- in response to prior terrorist attacks -- has been employing tactics all-too-familiar to Americans: "terrorism suspects have been picked up at random and denied legal rights"; "allegations of torture by police are routine"; "suspects have been held for years as their court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between"; Muslims and Hindus are subjected to vastly disparate treatment; and much of the most consequential actions take place in secrecy, shielded from public view, debate or accountability.

As Padgaonkar details, many of these measures, particularly in the wake of new terrorist attacks, are emotionally satisfying, yet they do little other than exacerbate the problem, spawn further extremism and resentment, and massively increase the likelihood of further and more reckless attacks -- thereby fueling this cycle endlessly -- all while degrading the very institutions and values that are ostensibly being defended. The greater one's physical or emotional proximity to the attacks, the greater is the danger that one will seek excessively to empower and submit to government authority and cheer for destructive counter-measures which allow few, if any, limits.

I think competence in intelligence gathering is required; we need the support of local communities; we need capable anti-terrorist forces that are part of metropolitan police departments. We definitely do not need laws like POTA which have no effect on terrorism but do manage to take away basic rights.
Most experts suggest treating terrorism as a criminal act and thus use existing criminal laws to pursue terrorists.

3. This is the age of radicalism - apparently terrorists who committed these acts are motivated by riots in India. Those riots are in turn motivated by other acts of violence. The truth is that many segments of Pakistani and Indian populations have become more and more radicalized; they demand and justify violence for any purpose. We saw that Raj Thackeray could attain notoriety and a following within a period of two months. The Sangh Parivar's own radicalism is well-known. Meanwhile Muslim and Christian populations around the world also suffer from the radicals amongst them - the entire American neo-conservative movement and its intellectual defenders such as Norman Podhoretz are radical. The global economy is getting worse and it will result in more extremism.
I think we should look at preventive measures for this trend - it does not involve stricter laws - radicals consider themselves martyrs. It does not involve blaming particular communities - every community has its set of whackos.
What we need in the long haul is to promote a kind of self-awareness through education; to promote more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. To promote the rule of law so that disputes can be resolved within the civil framework. Sadly this is going to be very hard in India(and in Pakistan). Our governments lack the will and resources to push through changes in social structure.
It is hard to see the connection between global inequality and terrorism, if the argument is emotional - but terrorism does have political and economic reasons for thriving.

So, what do I suggest? I suggest we sit with Pakistan and work out a way to treat the attacks as criminal acts (and not as acts of warfare). I suggest we improve efficiency in intelligence without passing knee-jerk detention laws. And I suggest we try to have a debate about radicalism in our societies.

Update I
As I expected some people have been talking about a "war on terrorism". This is the dumbest little term. Terrorism is a tactic and you cannot wage war on a tactic. It has become fashionable to repeat the exact same terms that people have heard in the United States press. These terms have no relevance in the situation in our sub-continent. We are neither a "world power" (whatever that means) and our neighbor is not a push over.
Several commentators in the United States have themselves criticised this war on terror terminology - please note that since the "war on terror" was declared every National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in the USA have said the threat of world terrorism has gone up, not down. We now live in a more dangerous world than before that "war on terror" was declared.
Our leaders (as I expected) have already put the blame on Pakistan and are pretending that the onus is on that country to prevent further attacks - meanwhile, it is obvious that our intelligence agencies failed; our own citizens were acting in collusion with the terrorists; and that the government simply lacks the ideas for any prevention program. Let us not be in a hurry to declare imaginary war on a verb.


Sridhar said...

>I suggest we sit with Pakistan and work out a way to treat the attacks as criminal acts (and not as acts of warfare).
As if Pakistan is willing to cooperate!

>I suggest we improve efficiency in intelligence without passing knee-jerk detention laws.
Is it ok to tap phones; bribe or threaten to extract information from potential informers? Or would liberty, fairness and human rights come in the way?

>And I suggest we try to have a debate about radicalism in our societies.
Aren't we debating enough in those TV channels with experts and strategists and others throughout the year?

For hundreds of years, India has been facing aggression from the west - now that it comes from non-state actors. I do not think we have learnt anything from history to protect or defend ourselves. We easily get into wealth creation mode without paying enough importance to defense.

Ramiah Ariya said...

1. Well, let us get used to diplomacy. There is the art of negotiation and employing pressure without deploying a military. That is how things are supposed to work. There is no viable military option.

2. It has always been ok to tap phones of citizens if you can get a warrant. It need not get tougher than that - particularly in a country where the police serve to do the bidding of the ruling party. There is a well thought-out legal framework that is in place.

3.I am talking about a debate that goes to civil society - by involving students and civic forums. How could a person like Raj Thackeray subvert an entire state within such a short period? How has Bal Thackeray managed to win elections? How could a person like Narendra Modi still continue to be elected?

For hundreds of years India has not itself existed as a state - ours is a modern nation.

The following arguments are made every time we come under attack:
- the situation we face is unique and cannot be solved by existing laws
- the situation we face cannot involve diplomacy because the opposite side is irrational

Both of these arguments are wrong - the situation we face is faced by several countries around the world. If we want to come up with a solution, let us try some best practices. I mentioned one - metropolitan police departments SHOULD be able to handle terrorist threats. Terrorist activity is criminal in nature and cane be faced down by law enforcement.