As the most audacious terrorist attack in Indian history wound down, David Lepeska, Foreign Correspondent, met with Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think tank that studies regional terrorism and insurgency. Mr Sahni is also the executive editor of Faultlines, an Indian quarterly, and writes frequently about South Asian conflict and Indian security dilemmas. In his offices not far from the seat of Indian power, Mr Sahni spoke about the implications of the Mumbai assault, the suspected involvement of Pakistan and the outlook for counter-terrorism in India.
Q: Many are calling this India’s September 11. Your thoughts?
A: The entire approach to terrorism in India is sensationalist and tragically transient. Somebody called Mumbai the “soul of India”. Then I would like to say that the soul of India has been attacked again and again and again. What’s the big deal? We did nothing last time. The attacks in 1993 and 2006 both had greater numbers killed. Why does this become September 11? I don’t see that.
This was a meticulously planned operation involving dozens of operatives and lengthy planning – and it came two months after a known terrorist group warned authorities of an attack on Mumbai. Yet Indian intelligence found no clues, no warning signs?
This is not at all surprising. We have no intelligence capacity. Everybody believes the Intelligence Bureau is some million-armed octopus with a presence everywhere in this country. The reality of IB is that it has 3,500 intelligence gatherers across the country. The force dedicated to counter-terrorism is about 200 personnel – this in a country of 1.2 billion. Considering that, I am amazed we are not blown up more often.
Rate the security response to this attack.
I see exemplary courage, exemplary leadership and exemplary dedication to duty, in everybody who responded from the security forces. I see people who are given virtually nothing to fight with and putting everything they have into the fight, with many losing their lives.
And yet finally seven hours after the beginning of the incident the so-called elite counter-terrorism force arrives. That is an absolute structural failure. A terrorism operation can only be contained, in terms of its potential, in the first few minutes, which means the first respondents have to be equipped, trained and capable of if not neutralising than at least containing the terrorists. If the first batch of police had come and immediately engaged with the terrorist they probably would have been able in both of these hotels to isolate the terrorists in small corners of the hotel and minimise the damage.
Many are blaming the police for the extent of the damage and the protraction of the assault.
Look, we are among the most under-policed countries in the world. We have a primitive police force, an early 20th century force trying to tackle a 21st century scourge. They’re just not trained, they’re not equipped. I could be lugging a weapon of whatever efficacy, for 10 years, without having the opportunity to use it. And then suddenly I am confronted with terrorists, well-trained, well-equipped, capable of blowing the crap out of me – and I barely know how to hold my gun straight. That is the state of Indian policing.
The reality is that nobody in India, no political party, wants a professional police force.
What do you mean by that?
During the ongoing investigations into the Malegaon blasts [in which Hindu nationalists have been arrested and charged], all the parties related to the Hindu right have been consistently attacking the very people who have laid down their lives in this Mumbai encounter. They have vilified them, they have denigrated them, they have abused them, they have accused them of torture, with the fabrication of case.
Why? Because they are trying to protect certain accused.
Every political party in this country wants to make sure the police investigates only what it wants them to investigate. They do not want an efficient, independent, professional police force. They want to use the police as their partisan thugs. Just a tool, and not a tool for the management of law and order, its declared purpose, but a tool for my political party.
So what will it take to change the mindset?
We have a problem in this country. We have an electorate that is more or less illiterate and ignorant. We have fed the world nonsense about the natural and instinctive wisdom of the people, but the people have no wisdom. They are a rabble and they are more easily led by caste or communal mobilisation than on issues. Unless we are able through public action and the media to generate so much pressure on politicians that they begin to address these issues, the politician himself has shorter routes to power, he will take those.
Early signs point to Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba, do you agree?
Absolutely. And if there is an Indian role it will be the Students Islamic Movement of India, in a secondary role. I do not see Simi having achieved the capacities to execute an operation of this nature independently.
What is their intent, their goal with this audacious attack?
It’s an attack on everything. It’s an attack to weaken India where you can. And if we can’t weaken India, never mind, just kill as many people as you can. It’s part of a larger campaign that is pan-Islamist. And the second, underlying motivation is Pakistan’s strategic interests. And these have been married into an ideological mobilisation that instrumentalises Islamism.
Is the targeting of foreigners in India a new twist?
As long as local Indian cadres with comparatively local objectives were involved, they were hitting local targets. As they become part, more and more, of the pan-Islamist movement, and their exposure to al Qa’eda ideology becomes deeper and deeper – they start looking for the wider target.
So if it is traced back to Lashkar, how will this affect Indo-Pak relations?
Not at all.
Same old, same old?
Same old, same old. What’s new?
Lashkar’s 2001 attack on the Indian parliament certainly changed Indo-Pak relations [India and Pakistan went to the brink of war].
No country has ever argued that a strong and stable enemy is in its interests. India has now argued that. The entire leadership – the military leadership of this country – is convinced that a strong and stable Pakistan is in our interests, even if Pakistan remains hostile. I have never come across greater and more entrenched stupidity.
You believe the leadership of Pakistan is at the very least aware of these attacks?
Absolutely, without question.
President (Asif Ali) Zardari, Prime Minister (Yusaf Raza) Gilani?
As far as I’m concerned there is only one leadership in Pakistan, that’s the military leadership. I don’t care who’s in government. Democracy makes no difference, elections make no difference, the people in charge are the people with the guns.
Might those people start attacking this problem?
I don’t see the necessary ideological or strategic shift. Everyone in the Pakistan army still believes that India is its principle enemy. And the only instrument they have for India’s containment is terrorism. And the only instrument they have for terrorist mobilisation against India is extremist Islam. So the sheer logic of their belief systems and their strategic calculations means they cannot abandon terrorism, either against India or against Afghanistan.
What about input from foreign sources – Scotland Yard, for instance, the FBI?
No one can come and fight India’s wars. I’m not saying we have nothing to learn, but I have found the ignorance of western experts to be terrifying. They come here and say: ‘Why don’t you do this?’ I say: ‘Have you seen our police stations in India?’ I know that I cannot have a Scotland Yard or Federal Bureau of Investigation here. I would have a parody of the FBI here.
We need to learn from western experience, but western expertise cannot solve our problems.
So India must deal with terrorist attacks for some time to come?
Even if the leadership changes tomorrow, in its intent and orientation, if we begin to fight this within the existing apparatus of government it will take decades. If we have a leadership that starts to fight this on a war footing it will still take years. You don’t understand how complex it is, we see it from the inside and it frightens us.
-- ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 1.