The Attack of Incense

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Two important books offer sobering insights into what makes contemporary terrorism tick, says Srinath Raghavan

 A man writes a message for the 26/11 victims
Reaching out: A man writes a message for the 26/11 victims
Photo: Reuters

AS THE most spectacular form of large-scale violence, terrorism is tailor-made for the age of 24×7 news channels and the new electronic media. Over the past two decades, urban, especially metropolitan, India has been the site of many major acts of terrorism. Such terrorism grabs headlines and hogs airtime with far greater ease than violence in the geographic and mental ‘periphery’ of our country. For all its capacity to incite collective ire and anguish, our intellectual understanding of the threat of terrorism remains rudimentary. We have barely a handful of experts who have seriously studied the various terrorist outfits operating against the Indian State and people. In public discussions, names and acronyms of organisations and individuals fly thick and fast, but there is little analytical purchase on the problem.

Storming the World stage: The story of Lashkar-e-taiba
Storming the World stage: The story of Lashkar-e-taiba
Stephen tankel Hachette india
385; Rs 550

Indian mujahideen: The enemy within
Indian mujahideen: The enemy within
Shishir gupta Hachette india
324 pp; Rs 550

In the alphabet soup of contemporary terrorism, two names are easily the most popular: LeT or Lashkar-e-Taiba and IM or Indian Mujahideen. By a neat coincidence, we have two important books published simultaneously on these organisations. Both the books are packed with useful information and analysis, and are as accessible to the lay reader as to the specialist.

Stephen Tankel, a research scholar at King’s College London, has spent several years studying the LeT. Storming the World Stage is a sober, critical and thoroughly researched account of one of the most sophisticated terrorist organisations in existence. Tankel has a thorough grasp of the historical and ideological context that gave rise to the Lashkar, of the organisational and strategic debates within the Lashkar and of its current and future potential as a major terrorist outfit. The Lashkar’s evolution, he argues, is marked by “two defining dualities”. The first is its dual identity as a militant and a missionary organisation. The second is its dual objectives and function as a proxy for the Pakistani state to further its interests against India and as a pan-Islamist group committed to waging jihad against all enemies of Islam, especially the United States and its key Western allies.

The Lashkar’s ability to reconcile and build on these dualities explains its strength and durability at a time when many terrorist organisations are on the back foot. The notion of a jihad against India to ‘liberate’ Muslims from Hindu occupation chimed with Pakistan’s strategic goal of bleeding India by ‘a thousand cuts’. This made Lashkar Pakistan’s most dependable and effective proxy. After 2001, when Pakistan came under increasing international pressure to curb the range of terrorist outfits operating out of its territory, the Lashkar was classified as a ‘good’ jihadi organisation and allowed to carry on with minimum (and cosmetic) disruption. In turn, the Lashkar had to keep its wider pan- Islamist, anti-American agenda under control. After all, Pakistan was a major ally in the US-led War on Terror. The Lashkar’s proximity to the Pakistani state ensured that it received considerable support for its missionary and associated welfare activities. This increased the popular support for the Lashkar, especially in Punjab. This not only helped in widening its recruitment, but also made it difficult for the Pakistani state to contemplate any serious crackdown on the organisation.

TANKEL DOES a fine job of tracing the Lashkar’s evolution from the 1980s, starting with its beginnings in the small Pakistani Ahl-e-Hadith groups that fought against the Red Army in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. The Markaz al- Dawa wal-Irshad was officially formed in 1986 and its military wing, the Lashkare- Taiba, in 1990. The rise of the Lashkar dovetailed with the onset of the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. By the mid-1990s, Lashkar had emerged as the potent insurgent group in Kashmir. Its profile and efficacy were raised by its resorting to suicidal ‘fidayeen’ attacks and its readiness to target civilians. Once the War on Terror was underway, the Lashkar was in something of a bind. On one hand, its pan- Islamist orientation could not be openly pursued. The group had to remain content by functioning as a logistics, training and gateway organisation for groups like the al Qaeda. On the other hand, its ability to operate against India was also being crimped. This was owing to pressure on Pakistan from the US and to the increasing operational ascendancy of the Indian Army in Kashmir. The Mumbai attacks of 2008 provided an opportunity to overcome both sets of problems and reassert its position as a major jihadi group.

By 2008, the Lashkar had cultivated substantial links with Islamist groupings within India. Shishir Gupta, a senior strategic affairs journalist, provides a serviceable account of the rise of violent jihadi organisations within India. The story of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is known in its outlines. But Gupta narrates the evolution of SIMI and the morphing of its more radical component into the Indian Mujahideen in unprecedented detail. This is the book’s weakness as well as its strength. As detail upon dense detail is piled up over some hundred pages, there is a danger of missing the wood for the trees. A more analytical structure and focus (as in Tankel’s book) would’ve been more useful.

Stephen Tankel Shishir Gupta
Decoding terror Stephen Tankel (left)
and Shishir GuptaPhoto: Tashi Tobgyal

GUPTA’S CENTRAL argument is clear enough. The widespread and systematic discrimination against Muslims created an underlying sense of grievance. The rise of the Hindu Right from the late 1980s and the escalating and murderous violence against Muslims radicalised a rather small section of Islamist groups. The rise of the Indian Mujahideen, Gupta argues, “has little to do with religion and is better interpreted as an act of revenge against perceived threats and biases towards the minority community”. The Hindu Right, for its part, has spawned its own terrorist groups. The resulting competitive terrorism, Gupta suggests, constitutes a real and present danger.

Many of Gupta’s suggestions for coping with terrorism are sensible. The real question is whether the political leadership has the requisite attention span to address the problems strategically. They could do worse than beginning by reading these two books.

Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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