[Overwhelmed with queries from a variety of quarters (as far as Delhi, Dhaka and Washington DC) Northeast Now Editor-in-Chief Anirban Roy had to perforce engage counter-terrorism specialist Jaideep Saikia once again in order to clarify, elucidate and even magnify some of the nuances that Saikia had expounded on the need for India’s anti-terror doctrine in Northeast Now on March 17, 2021]
AR: A plethora of queries have come to the fore after you gave an interview in the Northeast Now on March 17, 2021. You the first person to have not only contemplated, spoken, written and argued for the need for a clear, nuanced, articulated anti-terror doctrine, but one who has even provided a blueprint of sorts for such a doctrine. Most readers of your earlier interview are curious about this pioneering endeavour of yours? I mean 73 years have passed since independence and (as you have yourself stated, “India is one of the most terror afflicted countries”) yet India does not have a clear policy on anti-terror. What is the reason for this?
JS: You are correct. Indeed, as a student of security I, too, am perplexed. Incidentally, it is not I that am stating that “India is one of the most terror afflicted countries”, but statistics will bear out such a description. In our lifetime we have witnessed one particularly horrific al-Qaeda action by way of 9/11 in the United States. There has not been a second one. Oh, there were sundry other attacks prior to 9/11 such as attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in 1998 and a suicide bomb attack against the U.S. warship Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000, but nothing spectacular was engineered in terms of sheer terror as was witnessed on 9/11. In comparison, India has endured much more.
If 26/11 (Mumbai) keeps returning to memory, the attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, the hijacking of the Indian airline plane IC 814 on December 24, 1999, the serial bombings in Mumbai (March 19, 1993), Varanasi (March 7, 2006), Jaipur (May 13, 2008), Assam (October 30, 2008), Delhi (December 13, 2008) and Hyderabad (February 21, 2013) and Dantewada (April 9, 2019) not to mention the not so distant attacks on Indian army convoys and installations in the North East and Kashmir pale before 9/11. How did the United States react after the aggression? Not only did they declare a “War on Terror”, but followed up such a war cry with enactment of laws such as the Patriot Act.
The USA Patriot Act — Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism—primarily decrees about the need to enhance domestic security against terrorism, enhance surveillance procedures, anti-money-laundering action to prevent terrorism, enhance Border security, remove obstacles to investigating terrorism, increase information sharing for critical infrastructure protection enact terrorism criminal law and drastically improve intelligence. I recall the time when the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 was enacted in the Indian parliament and the opposition it faced which finally led to its repeal on September 21, 2004 after the UPA government criticised it as unnecessary and draconian. Why don’t you compare and contrast?
AR: Do you think the POTA, 2003 was necessary?
JS: There were many who felt that the law was being abused. The most important case in point centred around the arrest of Vaiyapuri Gopalswamy, better known as Vaiko. He was apprehended for his alleged support to the LTTE. The POTA, almost in lines with the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, commonly known as TADA provided that a suspect could be detained for up to 180 days without a charge sheet being filed in court. But unlike the TADA, the POTA had no provision to permit preventive detention. Another important aspect pertained to the matter regarding confessions made to the police by the accused. The broad manner of law as is in force in India does not recognise confessions made to police as evidence that is admissible in court. Indeed, it permits a person to deny such confessions in court. However, under the POTA, confessions made to the police were admissible as evidence in a court of law. POTA also authorised law enforcement agencies to withhold the identity of witnesses. But notwithstanding some of the severity, the POTA did have some safeguards.
Any decision on bail petitions or the verdict of the special courts constituted under the Act could be appealed against, and the appeal would be heard by a division bench of the appropriate High Court. Therefore, if you were to ask me to pass a value judgment about its necessity in the present context, I would compare it with the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AF (SP) A) that is in force in different parts of the country, particularly in Kashmir and the North East. There have been arguments for and against AF (SP) A and the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission has recommended its repeal. It said “the Act is a symbol of hate, oppression and instrument of high handedness”. But has it been repealed? And, why not? Someone could even turn around and say that it is because the AF (SP) A is in force only in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland. Although it was applicable to Punjab between 1983 and 1997, a naysayer might suggest that the Act does not “touch” heartland India as it is understood.
The POTA, on the other hand, was applicable throughout the country and there was apprehension that the Act would be used against the political opposition. I have already told you about Vaiko. Another case pertained to Raghuraj Pratap Singh, an MLA from Kunda in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh District. He was arrested under the POTA in 2002 on the orders of the then chief minister, Mayawati on the grounds that Singh was involved in an alleged kidnapping and had threatened a dissident BJP MLA, Puran Singh Bundela with dire consequences. My point is quite simple.
The legislature of India with correct supervision from the judiciary may enact any number of anti-terror laws. However, what I am referring to is the need for an anti-terror doctrine by which I mean that there should be a permanent stated principle of state policy. In my earlier interview I lamented the absence of any such policy in India which according to me, and I repeat, is one of the most terror afflicted of countries in the world.
AR: You referred to the surgical strikes that India carried out in recent times. Aren’t such actions important?
JS: Indeed they are! You will recall the manner in which Israel reportedly sabotages Iran’s nuclear programme with actions ranging from cyber attacks to assassinations of its nuclear scientists. But it neither confirms nor denies such actions. Also, they undertake such actions in a pre-emptive fashion unlike reactionary ones. On April 11, 2021 (last Sunday to be precise!) Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site experienced a mysterious “blackout” within hours of Iran proudly announcing the launch of its latest centrifuges. Unofficial sources have attributed the damage to a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent and heavily protected internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium. It was reportedly an operation carried out by Israel. But the world can only speculate or await another Victor Ostrovsky and exposé such as By Way of Deception and
The Other Side of Deception. But Indian “achievements”, to my mind, and as I informed you in my earlier interview, have only been one of stimulus responses, ambiguously groping on the boundaries of non-comprehension. What was the rationale behind making the movie Uri? I am not even certain who sponsored it. As I said the last time around when you asked me the question about Indian surgical strikes, I responded by stating that we are past masters at tom-tomming our “temporary moments of triumph”. I once again stress on the fact that privileged knowledge is the prerogative of the few. A clearly defined anti-terrorist policy is a must.
AR: In your earlier interview you said that an anti-terror doctrine has to evolve? Kindly explain.
JS: I spoke about the evolution of a state-sponsored doctrine because a doctrine does not suddenly appear like a Deus ex machina. There has to be an acute comprehension of a set of ideas by which aspects such as terrorism places itself. For instance, when Mahatma Gandhi said that Terrorism must be held to be wrong in every case, he did so after much forethought about what is right and wrong! I am certain it took him years for him to make such a statement. Therefore, when I say a doctrine has to evolve, I am saying that cerebration has to precede the coming to the fore of a full-fledged doctrine. Indeed, it is normally a collective affair with specialists spending years studying terrorism and ways and means to counter it. At this juncture, I must criticise the manner in which India understands such matters.
Much of the crucial aspects of policymaking are left to a most ineffectual group of people, which includes the avatar services that make up the bureaucracy and the traditional law-enforcement agencies that are peopled with a class of people who do not know the difference between counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation or even who Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi is! They sit in Operation Rooms and decree on the strength of one or two years of what in the University of Delhi we used to call an undemanding “tour-de-force” called “mugging” (read: perspire till you get to be summoned to the interview board). On the other hand the people who are selected into the Indian armed forces are far more fertile.
After clearing the UPSC examination, the candidates have to clear a full three-four days of what is known as the Services Selection Board (SSB) as opposed to an hour of interview for positions reserved for the choicest of assignments in the civil and police administration in India. I personally know of very senior bureaucrats in the Indian government who attempted the SSB, but never cleared its lofty standards. Yet—years later—they sit on judgment over Indian armed forces officers. Did you know that in medieval China (approximately 700 AD), Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty introduced “poetry composition” as a compulsory subject in the imperial civil service examinations?
Countering terrorism or even non-traditional security for that matter are very serious aspects and it has very little or nothing with one’s ability to wield an AK-47, writing a case diary or even specialising in aspects such as interrogation, etc. Unfortunately, a policeman does not come to the world wearing an analyst’s hat. I can fathom that you are sensing arrogance in that statement, but the fact of the matter is that the entire process of recruitment of policemen, especially into branches such as intelligence, is incorrect. Training does play a very vital role, but in the business of national security — especially if you are a country such as India which is “strategically encircled” by neighbours that are out to “bleed you with a thousand cuts”—then I am afraid mere training (after having cleared an examination) would not do. You have to pick the finest of flower from a garden that is already in full bloom.
That is exactly what advanced agencies around the world do. Even in the Indian armed forces which is certainly cut above the rest of its counterparts or even superiors in governance there is an extremely dedicated system of constantly learning, unlearning and re-learning. I have not witnessed anything comparable in the civil street such as the tests that every Indian army officer has to appear for and clear to get promoted to the next higher rank. Therefore, there are no Part-B or Part-D examinations as is the case in the Indian army. Nor are there courses such as Staff College, Junior Command, Senior Command, Higher Command or a National Defence College course for which there is a particularly tough selection process. In the Indian army if you cannot clear say Part-D you are asked to go home! Let me give you an example from the United States.
The office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) in the United States, as it is in India, is a very important position. Do you know the background of most of the NSAs of the United States? Robert Cutler, the first NSA of the United States who served the US president Dwight Eisenhower between 1953 and 1955 and then again between 1957 and 1958 was a poet, novelist and a lawyer. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Condoleezza Rice, all well known NSAs of the United States, were from academia. To that end, I cannot comprehend as to why a state like India cannot embark upon lateral recruitment at least for manning the domain of intelligence.
AR: You wrote a book titled Terrorism: Patterns of Internationalisation in 2009. Tell us something about the book.
JS: Firstly, the book is an edited collection and the “Czarina of Terrorism” (I like to call her that) Ekaterina Stepanova of Russia and I co-edited it. I did not write in a stand-alone manner. Ekaterina and I met in Bruges when we were part of a United Nations group examining the concept of “Peace Process and Spoiling Objectives”.
I represented Asia and examined the peace process in Kashmir. The report was later published as a collection of essays by the United Nations University in 2006. There were 14 chapters and I wrote the one titled Spoilers and devious objectives in Kashmir. So as I was saying, Ekaterina and I, a few years later, in 2009, collaborated on the book Terrorism: Patterns of Internationalisation that you referred to. It is an edited collection of chapters on terrorist groups from across the globe. So even as Amos N. Guiora wrote about the Internationalisation of Terrorism and its limits in the Middle East, Rogelio Alonso analysed the IRA and the ETA and Adam Dolnik wrote about Transnational Terrorism: Unlimited Means? There were 11 chapters in all and Sage Publications did the honours. Ekaterina and I wrote the joint introduction for the book.
AR: I recall reading the book and coming across a particularly interesting sentence in the introduction which stated that “if there is no political motivation behind an attack or threat of force, it can be stated that there is no terrorism involved”. How did you arrive at such a preamble?
JS: One must understand that terrorism is rather diverse in its manifestation and is spread across different political and regional dimensions and at different levels — from local to global. The notion of “international terrorism” is particularly blurred and misleading. Such confusion comes to the fore primarily because of a lack of clarity about the definition of terrorism and understanding of how it is different from other forms of violence. I think this would perhaps be a sound way to begin a quest for a definition. However, unlike most sceptics who argue that terrorism as a term is so politically contested that is almost impossible to come up with a definition I have a different point of view. Even Ekaterina agreed with me on this issue.
Terrorism is, first and foremost, a tactic that involves the threat and use of violence in order to achieve a political objective. Such an objective may be formulated in ideological or religious terms, but it has to have a political element. However, while the political motivation of terrorism can by no means justify the violence it perpetrates, it does help to distinguish it from plain crime which may be motivated solely or primarily by material gain.
AR: So, terrorism is a political interest group?
JS: No, it is neither a philosophy nor a movement by which I think you are trying to ascribe the phrase “political interest group” to it. While there has to be a political objective, terrorism is basically a method. Let me paraphrase Paul Wilkinson from one of his seminal works “Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response”. Wilkinson states that despite the fact that terrorism is a method, “the rapid growth in the incidence of modern terrorism, this method has been remarkably unsuccessful in gaining strategic objectives.” He quotes the “expulsion of British and French colonial rule from Palestine, Cyprus, Aden and Algeria as the only clear cases where strategic objectives were achieved. Therefore, the quest for a definition of terrorism must begin with a study of its political objectives.
AR: Where do you see terrorism or for the matter insurgency going from here on in India and the neighbourhood?
JS: I delivered a lecture on “North East & The Strategic Encirclement” in the IIT, Guwahati on 8 April 2021. I was questioned similarly and I confess that all I could say that I have really no idea, especially as New Delhi seems rather ambivalent about its policies for countries such as Myanmar which witnessed a military take-over on 1 February 2021. I, however, referred to what I felt was the “peace dividend” paying off in most insurgency-affected of states in the North East including Nagaland. I cannot fathom a situation where the new generation of insurgents who are inside Nagaland going back to the jungle. They are quite happy with the lives they are leading with their families alongside aspects such as easy money by way of extortion and “tax collection”.
Therefore, even though there is a ceasefire in place between say the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India since 1997 which is now onto its 24th year, the fact of the matter I don’t think either New Delhi or the NSCN (IM) is in a hurry to cobble out a comprehensive resolution. I am as confounded as the next person. The IIT, Guwahati put on another lecture on April 12, 2021 by Dr. Alex Waterman from the University f Leeds. Elegantly tailored, Alex spoke of Naga insurgency in the context of Order. Towards the end, he had a very sophisticated slide which stated the Taliban having once “informed” the coalition forces that “you have the watches, we have the time”. I think that beautifully and well timed slide says everything about the future of insurgency and terrorism not only in the Northeast or India, but globally.