Northeast Now Editor-in-Chief Anirban Roy recently interviewed Jaideep Saikia, a well-known counter-terrorism expert on the need for India’s anti-terror doctrine.
AR: You the first person to have contemplated, spoken and written about the need for an anti-terror doctrine for India. Could you inform our readers about this pioneering endeavour of yours?
JS: Despite the fact that India has suffered considerably from terrorist action, it has neither acted against the perpetrators in the manner that it should have, nor has it addressed the need for a counter-terror policy that would be holistic, binding and comprehensive. There have, of course, been sundry military actions in recent times by way of what the press terms as surgical strikes, especially after Ajit K. Doval took over as the National Security Adviser of India, but these to me have been only stimulus responses ambiguously groping on the boundaries of non-comprehension. We seem to tom-tom our relative successes by immediately publicising such acts by even erecting films, documentaries and books. Such puerile exhibition of “half-baked accomplishments” neither augur well for a mature state such as India whose sights are on superpower status nor does it reap long term political dividends for the dispensation that enjoined its armed forces to embark upon such courses of action. I am quite clear that privileged knowledge is the prerogative of the few. It is unfortunate that the powers that be should abdicate that imperative for narrow electoral gains. To that end, I have always argued the need for a clear, nuanced, articulated anti-terror doctrine. Whether it is the situation in Kashmir and the North East, or the activities of left-wing organisations in India and external groups (with active India linkage) such as LTTE, Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh or the ethnic militias in Myanmar I am of the opinion that non-existence of a clearly defined anti-terrorist policy has not only straitjacketed India’s response to conventional terror, but prevented it from anvilling full-bodied settlements with ethnic militant groups.
AR: But, how does an anti-terror doctrine evolve?
JS: If the concept of doctrine—in the discourse of state action—were to lend itself to holistic appraisal, then it would not emerge merely as a belief system that is established on the basis of authority. A state sponsored doctrine comes to the fore when there is a correct understanding of the universe of discourse in which an individual state stations itself (or seeks to station itself), its perception of threat to the discourse, which propels it to continued nationhood, and a clearly defined manner in which it seeks to both fortify itself and respond to threat. Indeed, the search for a doctrine essentially begins with a correct understanding of the paradigm in which a state or a system seeks to situate itself in. Such an understanding could stem from the examination of a number of aspects, including a state-system’s distinctive spirit, ethical values, the relationship between the governance and the governed and how it perceives renegade conduct, anti-state action and external aggression. If a doctrine is normally accepted as authoritative, and as principle that may not be questioned, then the reason behind such a consideration would be that the doctrine was arrived at after great deliberation. Even age-old Indian commandments have evolved over the ages on the shoulders of a philosophy that has been held to be uncreated and eternal, at times even assuming canonical status. But a closer look at even such imperatives would show that contemplation and analysis had spawned that eternal authority: even as ancient Indian seers delved deep into the Brhadaranyaka in search of the uncreated word, it was essentially cerebration and dialectics that had characterised the result.
JS: Brhadaranyaka literally translated, means the “great forest.” The Upanishads—profound philosophical statements—were result of great contemplation, and one such, the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is ascribed to the sage Yajnavalkya. The doctrine of “Neti, Neti” (“not this, not this”) is found in this Upanishad which can be interpreted as the negation of all conceptions of self, which is akin to the Anatta doctrine of Buddhism. In any event, if the combat doctrine of the Indian army, for instance—in its broadest contour—is based on holding formations and strike formations, then it exhibits a philosophy based on tactical consideration that has been arrived at after considerable amount of thought and experimentation. India has been to war on five occasions, and although each time witnessed a different nature of warfare, the fact of the matter is that the Indian army (as must be the case with the other two arms of the Indian armed forces) had the opportunity to test and develop its doctrine. A doctrine can, therefore, mature, while adhering to a broad set of beliefs. In other words, although the tactical considerations of a doctrine may receive newer insights, and consequently undergo calibration, the broad parameters would not change unless a paradigm shift occurs. Paradigm shift (by way of illustration) in an extra-Indian geo-political context would include the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 and the Soviet Union in 1991. The losing of the eastern wing, would have necessitated the establishment of a new security doctrine for Pakistan (if indeed, it sought such an articulation), as would be the case with Russia after the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States from among the states of the former Soviet Union.
Other formulations of doctrine could include ones that are a priori, as opposed to a posteriori ones like the aforesaid Indian army doctrine. An instance of an a priori doctrine would be the Indian nuclear doctrine. Despite the fact that it has never used its nuclear arsenal in war, India possesses an operational nuclear doctrine. The doctrine stems from India’s understanding of the discourse in which its nuclear capability, and that of others, rest. Therefore, if the most important coordinates of India’s nuclear doctrine rest on (i) Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent (ii) a posture of “No first Use”: nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere (iv) Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority and the last point (viii) Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament, the aspects which filter through showcase India’s worldview by way of (among other aspects) its faith in democracy and civilian authority, non-aggressive posture and an understanding of the principle of deterrence.
The formulation of a full-bodied doctrine, therefore, is characterised by a state system’s Weltanschauung, and need not necessarily be egged on by experience. However, a doctrine is needed to not only govern response of a state-system, but also to act in the manner of a design that would guide the response. In India, anti-terror perception has waxed and waned in the most curious of ways: different dispensations have different ways of relating and responding to the same problem. At times, political one-upmanship goads a replacing regime to hold dialogue and negotiate with terrorist/separatist organisations, which the replaced regime had eschewed. While debate continues whether benefit spew from such indistinctness, the fact of the matter is that a mature democracy like India cannot afford to continue with such indistinctness. Indeed, the need for a doctrine becomes even more imperative when a malaise is continually afflicting a state-system, the experience of which should actually hasten the process of formulation. The absence of a well-thought out anti-terror doctrine for India, especially as it is one of the most terror-distressed nation, is an obvious shortcoming, one that has led to a great deal of uncertainty. It must be understood fully that while anti-terror is a philosophical anti-thesis that emerges from a painstaking examination of the concept of terrorism as well as an attempt to understand and articulate what constitutes terrorism, counter-terrorism refers to the practices, tactics, and strategies that governments, militaries and other groups adopt in order to combat terrorism.
AR: What in your perception has India chosen to remain ambivalent to such an important aspect?
JS: Indeed, that is the million dollar question. But if you ask me, I think it is because India continues to grope around for a comprehensive definition of what constitutes terror? Or, perhaps it because its unique belief system deliberately wants a flexible anti-terrorism policy. Or, it is possible that in the face of the inability to formulate a flexible policy, it has kept clear of any doctrine formulation whatsoever! The dilemma that India is faced with also stems from the fact that there exists a non-articulated perception in policymaking circles that there is an inherent distinction between ethnic militancy such as NSCN and ULFA on the one hand and Islamist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba on the other. Indeed, this is so despite the fact that (at times) the activities of ULFA approximate that of a group like Lashkar-e-Toiba. If such features of Indian officialdom are any indication, then policy planners of the country do not seem to be suffering from a crisis of definition. It is quite clear in its understanding of the meaning of terrorism. Indeed, in my opinion, it is in fact such an understanding that has led not only to the ambivalence that characterises India’s response to terror, but the non-articulated perception of what constitutes terrorism. However, the dilemma at home has not prevented India from being in the forefront of criticism when talk of ambiguity of definition has characterised anti-terror action in the international arena.
AR: What do you mean by non-articulated perception of what constitutes terrorism?
JS: If terrorism is defined by the act as I said earlier than even the carnage at Dhemaji in Assam on 15 August 2004, when ULFA reportedly triggered off an explosion killing 13 people including innocent women and children, should have been enough to deal with ULFA in the manner of a terrorist organisation. But New Delhi did not only not do so, but are in dialogue with ULFA (Pro Talk).
AR: But the ULFA (Pro Talk) cadres with whom Delhi is in Dialogue with did not perpetrate the Dhemaji action?
JS: Anirban, are you telling me that you as Editor-in-Chief of your organisation can wash-off-your-hands if one of your staffers were to publish a howler that creates a furore? As head of an organisation (a banned one at that!) Arabinda Rajkhowa, Raju Baruah and the entire central committee are responsible. I have followed the ULFA almost since its inception and I know for a fact that every single act, from extortion, to kidnapping, to meting out threats are ordained from the highest of quarters in the organisation. Just because an apology is tendered the offence cannot disappear. Justice would have ended there. Incidentally, the meekness of our people is so accentuated they can forget the deaths of their children in the hands of heartless terrorists. Incidentally, you must also realise that some members of the ULFA central committee who are now inside Assam did not return to the state on their own accord. They were apprehended in Bangladesh (perhaps as a result of tip-off from the R&AW!) and handed over to the Assam Police. All was forgiven after they spent a year in incarceration, awaiting their turn to become the new leaders of Assam!
AR: Why this ambivalence?
JS: I think New Delhi considered the Dhemaji incident as uncharacteristic ULFA behaviour, an act that occurred without premeditation, or an accident for which the organisation has been privately repentant. Or, perhaps there were other considerations for which a political engagement with ULFA made sense!
AR: Dhemaji, 15 August 2004 is a faraway episode, sad but true, but most people still do not seem to know what happened. You are an expert understands such matters even better than that of our state agencies. What really happened?
JS: Dhemaji is not as straightforward as it is made out to be. Although doubts no longer persist about ULFA’s involvement in the incident, it is analysed that it is a possibility that the planners of the ULFA—including Paresh Baruah—had not reckoned on the deaths of the innocent children the explosion would cause. The blast, in all probability (I have seen the live video coverage of the blast in the then Head of the Special Branch, Khagen Sarma’s office chamber) was meant to assassinate the deputy commissioner of Dhemaji and such other senior officials. The ULFA’s character—despite everything that has been said about its linkages with ISI-DGFI and Islamists—does not normally include the targeting of women and children. Moreover, the mistake could have happened because of inept handling of the programmable time delay device (PTDD), which reportedly caused the explosion. The PTDD is a sensitive “cut-and-forget” device, and handlers have to be extremely careful about “cutting the wire” in order to set the date of explosion in a correct manner. You might recall that an explosion took place in Guwahati on 27 August 2005, on a day that has no significance for ULFA. Later analysis showed that the ULFA handlers of the PTDD had cut the wrong wire, and the explosion took place exactly a month later, when the blast should have taken place on 27 July on ULFA’s Martyr’s Day.
AR: I am afraid; I still don’t quite comprehend as to what you mean by the Indian state’s non-articulated perception of what constitutes terrorism?
JS: You see, the non-articulated distinction, which Indian policymakers might be making between ethnic militancy like ULFA and Islamist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, could well have been egged on by the fact that the Indian experience about ethnic militancy has not been altogether negative. Ethnic militant groups such as Mizo National Front (MNF) have returned to the Indian constitutional process, and groups such as NSCN and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) are engaged in a dialogue process with New Delhi. The ULFA’s show of interest in a negotiated settlement appeals to New Delhi’s present bout of magnanimity, and although belligerents such as Paresh Baruah continues to hold onto the core issue of “sovereignty,” the fact of the matter is that the Indian state is a very patient bird. It expects that even he (as age catches on and he gets disillusioned with his Chinese masters) would mellow down and send missives to the effect “I am merely asking for a discussion on sovereignty. It does not mean granting the same.” If this is the strategy that New Delhi is adopting vis-à-vis ULFA (Anti-Talk), then it is one, which has not been husbanded by a predetermined philosophy or doctrine, but by expedience.
AR: What according you should be the salient points for an anti-terror doctrine?
JS: They should include the following:
- A clearly defined policy
- Centric (New Delhi) guidance and execution of such policies: It has been seen that most state governments work at variance with the policies of the Centre. This works to the detrimental of the country’s over-arching national security. A full-bodied, clear-cut policy that is guided by the Centre is the need of the hour. Indeed, despite the fact that law and order is a state subject, terrorism must be addressed directly by New Delhi.
- The defined policies that should guide the doctrine may include:
a) No negotiation with terrorism
b) Dialogue with insurgency movements only within defined guidelines
c) Pro-active measures, including (if necessary) pre-emptive strikes on anti-India terrorist camps and bases outside India
d) Sovereignty non-negotiable.Indeed, even a discussion of the question of sovereignty would greatly dilute the concept, and should therefore not be permitted. In case of stalemate arising out of such a policy, it should fall on the various agencies of the government to circuit the issue. The ability to convince the NSCN (IM) to steer clear of the phrase “sovereign Nagalim” in the Naga talks was a way out, albeit one that has run into rough waters because of the inept handling of some important state functionaries. The long and short of it is that India must not even be seen to be discussing sovereignty
e)Strengthening of existing anti-terror laws
f)Punitive action against sympathisers, beneficiaries of terrorism and funding sources
g)Strengthening of mechanisms such as psychological warfare in order to combat terror. Such mechanisms must be decidedly pro-active
h)Creation of and the joining in anti-terror cooperative groups in the region
i)Spearhead a global denouncement and alienation of states sponsoring or not acting against terror which India is doing, albeit primarily against Pakistan
j)Non-distinction of terror perpetrated by religious groups. It is extremely important to address the threat of terror in an objective manner, without colouring ones anti terror spectacles with religious bias. Therefore, if Islamist terror groups are to be targeted then the war should be proclaimed as one against terrorism and not religion. Similarly extremism perpetrated by other religious groups must be dealt with the equal severity.
AR: How do you rate your one time superior, Ajit K. Doval as India’s national security adviser? There has been some criticism, especially about the manner in which the western front was handled?
JS: Yes, I agree with you. Pathankot, Uri and the beheading of our soldiers by Pakistan’s “Border Action Team” have not been our finest hours! Nor have been the cross-border attacks that UNLFWSEA had launched against Indian security forces in the North East. Never before — in my long career as a student of security — have I witnessed cross-border attacks on Indian security forces with such impunity.
As for Ajit K. Doval, I have met him only a couple of times after he took over as India’s national security adviser and although we speak over the telephone once in a while, such conversations, too, are few and far between. He is an extremely busy man and I know him to be a workaholic. He is an out and out disciplinarian and—in my honest opinion—combines the best in intelligence and operational acumen. Besides, he possesses the astuteness of a diplomat in his innards despite the fact that he is an Indian Police Officer and had been the country’s Intelligence Bureau chief. I am not attempting to defend him, but all I can say is that he has fared far better than most of his predecessors. You must also bear in mind that India’s security architecture is still evolving. The country’s problems range from a hostile near-abroad to Naxalism to fundamentalism that is being imported from distant lands. Besides, if security analysis is still a feature in me, I can state with some measure of prescience that the times that we are passing through have presented themselves as one of the most challenging periods. I don’t wish to make a value-judgment, but the atmospherics around the world have become one of edginess. The sense of insecurity, which is being felt worldwide, is engendering violence, and the domino effect of say, the establishment of a neo-Caliphate (or even the fear — real or superficial — of “racial profiling” among the minorities in India with the advent of Modi) is manifesting itself in the episodes that we are witnessing in India. In history there have been times of war and times of peace. The intermittence is akin to night and day. I think we are in one of the twilight phases when passageways do not illuminate themselves well for observers to make a correct pronouncement. But I think one would certainly witness a turn-around given the fullness of time. I am confident that with Ajit K. Doval in the helm of security the prospects of India’s emergence as a power to reckon with are very bright. Yes, I have worked with Ajit K. Doval and, therefore, I not only know his style of functioning but the full-bodied dynamism with which he approaches a problem. Unfortunately, we live in an open society and are consequently heir to all the afflictions and the imperfections that Plato had referred to in his “Republic”. The politicians, press and public have a right to criticise, but they conveniently forget their duty as citizens. Also, I might add that Ajit K. Doval is not a drum-beater and would never tom-tom his successes. I have never witnessed him doing so; in other words, it would only be our adversaries who would be experiencing what he has been doing unto them in return for what they had done unto us!
AR: Lastly, did not a former chief secretary of Assam, H.N. Das write a blurb for your next book. What was it?
JS: Oh, it was nothing! Probably egged on by his affection for me rather than anything else!
AR: Still, our readers would be interested!
JS: He said, Jaideep Saikia’s analytical skills, insights and powerful sense of the “to be” are matchless. If Assam is to be saved from the termination that it is hurtling towards, Jaideep should be immediately appointed the Head of Intelligence of Assam.