The clamour for a war-like approach to fighting terrorism is based on wrong assumptions, which are incompatible with constitutional-legal rights

Praful Bidwai
(Fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament)

Copyright: (Frontline, 13 June 2008)

THE government’s response to the Jaipur bomb blasts follows what has become an established and predictable pattern: invoke “the foreign hand” by naming the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), or their “collaborators” in the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), make contradictory statements about the explosives and detonation methods used, speculate on local “sleepe r cells”, and detain Muslims – without diligently following forensic leads, while allowing priceless evidence to be destroyed or wasted.

The only difference this time around is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Rajasthan has specifically targeted “Bangladeshis” (read, Bengali-speakers), detaining more than a 100 of them. According to the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), which has produced an excellent, well-documented report, most of them are Indian citizens from West Bengal, in particular northern Bengal. Many of them settled long ago in Jaipur not least because Rajmata Gayatri Devi is from Cooch Behar.

Most of those arrested are rickshaw-pullers, construction workers, domestic servants and head-loaders. Their brutalising detention under appalling conditions, without enough food and water, violates their fundamental rights, including the right to legal representation.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia has accused the Centre of encouraging her to create a “Guantanamo Bay” for detaining illegal migrants in Rajasthan. Yet, she has blithely done exactly that. But, the Centre is not free of blame.

This is only one instance of the BJP’s doublespeak. For four years, it said terrorists could strike at will in Congress-ruled Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, but not in BJP-ruled States. In particular, there was no terrorism in Gujarat after Akshardham (2002), it claimed, because terrorists were deterred by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s “tough administration”. But it cannot explain why they struck in BJP-ruled Rajasthan – except that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) is not in force there.

A harsh anti-terror law such as POTA can at best punish, not prevent, terrorism. It is unlikely to deter suicide-bombers or other desperados bent on committing mass murder to advance their political goals.

The BJP wants to deflect criticism of the ineptitude of the Rajasthan police by disingenuously turning the tables on the Centre and the Congress, which it accuses of being “soft” on terrorism. BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley has issued an intemperate statement saying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “bona fides in the war against terror are suspect. He has used his softness on terror for vote bank politics rather than for security considerations.”

The BJP has launched a hysterical campaign for the revival of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985 (TADA), or its successor, POTA, which, though aborted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the national level, still exists in some BJP-ruled States.

Many retired police and intelligence officials have joined the campaign for close citizen surveillance, and a “special” anti-terrorism law, which allows for preventive detention, inverts the burden of proof (by putting the onus of proving innocence upon the accused), and admits confessions made to the police as legal evidence.

Their argument, articulated in countless television debates and newspaper articles, is based on three premises. One, terrorism – especially terrorism inspired by militant jehadi Islam – has not only grown uncontrollably in recent years, but has acquired a particularly malign character; this calls for all-out no-holds-barred war; conventional police methods cannot work.

Two, the West offers the best model of combating terrorism. The West, in particular the United States, has a clear understanding of contemporary terrorism and a coherent strategy to fight it. These enjoy consensual support and thus permit a united, purposive and focussed response to terrorism – unlike in India, where policymakers and politicians merely “bicker” over the issue. (One commentator has gone as far as to say that “the happenings in the two Houses of our Parliament on quite a few days in almost all sessions fall within the definition of terrorism” as the “unlawful use of threatened use of force or violence” to coerce or intimidate governments or societies.)

Finally, the use of draconian methods to put down terrorism, associated with a “hard state”, including intrusive surveillance, is acceptable and desirable even if it violates civil liberties in the short run. After all, “we are fighting a bloody war out there”.

All three premises are flawed, if not downright specious. To start with, contrary to the widely held belief that Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups have grown rapidly in recent years, a well-researched analysis by the Human Security Report Project at Canada’s Simon Fraser University (SFU), released on May 21, holds that such terrorism is on the decline throughout the Muslim world, and “Al Qaeda has faced a dramatic collapse in support”.

It finds that “fatalities from terrorism have dropped by 40 per cent” since 2001. Apart from successful counter-terrorism operations in a number of countries, and infighting among extremist groups, the main reason for this is “the extraordinary drop in support for Islamist terror organisations in the Muslim world over the past five years”.

This is also confirmed by other surveys (for instance, a BBC/ABC poll) which say that support for jehadi militants in Afghanistan plummeted in 2007 to just 1 per cent, and in Pakistan from 70 per cent in August 2007 to 4 per cent this January. Similarly, a study last year by the independent U.S.-based IntelCentre says that significant attacks by Al Qaeda have decreased by 65 per cent since 2004, and fatalities from such attacks by 90 per cent.

This analysis shows that agencies such as the U.S. government-sponsored or -funded National Counterterrorism Centre and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terror overestimate the incidence of terror, claiming a recent rise of 40 per cent or more, because they include civilian casualties in the war in Iraq and from conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Logically, these should be excluded from the calculation. But even if the Iraq casualties are included, the second half of 2007 witnessed a major decline in the global incidence of terrorism.

Andrew Mack, the director of the SFU project, says that “historically, most terrorist campaigns have failed and the Islamists’ slumping popular support in the Muslim world is a now huge liability for the Al Qaeda network… [The] strategic implications [of this] are critically important, because historical evidence suggests that terrorist campaigns that lose public support will sooner or later be abandoned or defeated.”

The main trend this analysis establishes should put paid to the “waging-war-against-terrorism” proposition. In any case, the disastrous results the U.S. “Global War on Terror” (GWoT) has produced in Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond are there for all to see.

This, with several other facts, also casts serious doubt over the argument that the West, especially the U.S., has a cogent understanding of terrorism, or a focussed strategy to combat it. There are sharp differences within Western societies over how to characterise and fight terrorism.

These were most dramatically highlighted in Spain after the train bombings of 2004, which produced a change of government from the Conservatives to the Social Democrats. In most Western countries, liberals and civil liberties defenders differ with official approaches.

Again, much is made of the “resolute” U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. Former Indian intelligence official B. Raman, recently extolled that response by saying that “the U.S. and its people never excuse an adversary who dares attack them on their territory. During the Second World War, even though both Germany and Japan were adversaries of the U.S., it used the atomic bombs only against Japan… it wanted to teach Japan a lesson for daring to attack it by stealth on its territory... Similarly, [they] are determined to teach Al Qaeda and Muslims who support it a lesson.”

This is a crude and disgusting rationalisation of history’s two greatest instances of terrorism – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which also misrepresents the course of the War. Germany had fallen well before August 1945.

As historians like Gar Alperovitz have shown, the reason why the U.S. dropped nuclear weapons on Japan had less to do with avenging Pearl Harbour, or with a military rationale, than with Washington’s motive in establishing itself as the world’s unquestioned superpower and scoring a decisive strategic lead over the Soviet Union.

Besides, this narrative sees nothing wrong with “teaching” certain Muslims “a lesson” by assuming that the U.S. can accurately – and miraculously – target precisely those Muslims who support Al Qaeda, and that GWoT will not cause indiscriminate destruction. The opposite has turned out to be true.

GWoT has entailed enormous human rights violations, with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the harassment of thousands of U.S. citizens as well as visitors to the country. In the last four years, U.S. immigration and customs authorities have detained over one million people, including 311,312 last year alone, creating an “American Gulag” (see Adam Shatz in The London Review of Books, May 22).

Finally, consider the illogic of the “hard state” argument. A law that routinely allows preventive detention violates the fundamental principle that nobody should be deprived of their liberty unless held guilty by a court of law. The idea of detaining suspects for months should be repugnant to a civilised legal system. Such laws have created great popular discontent in Kashmir and north-eastern India. They must be repealed, not replicated.

Similarly, inverting the burden of proof violates a basic tenet of our legal system: namely, an accused must be considered innocent until proved guilty. The demand that confessions to the police must be admitted as evidence is equally misguided. Such confessions can be, and usually are, extracted under duress, sometimes torture. They cannot have evidentiary value in a just, credible legal system. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which India is a signatory, prohibits such obnoxious practices.

India already has a panoply of surveillance measures in place, including roadblocks, metal detectors and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at airports, train/bus stations, offices and cinema halls, besides identity documents that contain a huge amount of personal information and violate privacy. These measures cause inconvenience to citizens, especially when used excessively, but it is doubtful if they have helped much in tracking terrorists.

India also practises unacceptably intrusive electronic surveillance. All Internet service-providers and cellphone operators must maintain full transaction records for three years. The government can tap e-mail conversations at will. None of this has produced useful clues to terrorist activities. But malice, mistaken identities or colossal incompetence has resulted in innocent people being jailed for months – witness Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Geelani and IT professional Lakshmana Kailash.

Electronic surveillance has severe limitations. Britain, with 0.2 per cent of the globe’s inhabitable space, has nearly 5 million CCTV cameras, one-fifth of the world total. London alone has over half a million. The average citizen is daily tracked by some 300 cameras as she/he goes about his/her daily business. Yet, these yielded no warning of or clues to the July 2005 bombings. Cameras have helped solve less than 3 per cent of United Kingdom’s street robberies.

Finally, consider tough laws such as TADA. Some 67,000 people were arrested under TADA, but only 8,000 were put on trial, and a mere 725 convicted. Official Review Committees found its application untenable in all but 5,000 cases. Religious minorities were selectively targeted under TADA. In Rajasthan, of the 115 detainees, 112 were Muslims and three Sikhs. (Gujarat had an even worse pattern under POTA, when all but one of the 200-plus detainees were Muslims, the remaining one was a Sikh.)

Regrettably, hardline military approaches to terrorism and illegal immigration have percolated to the very top of the policy apparatus. At meetings of the Nodal Authority on Bangladeshi immigrants in January and April last year, the Union Home Ministry asked the States to set up detention centres for them pending deportation. It said that the “primary objective” of deportation is to deter illegal immigrants “by instilling a sense of fear and insecurity” in them.

Such language is unbecoming of a civilised government which respects its own Constitution and its international obligations. Militarist approaches to terrorism, with excesses written into them, will create further injustices and discontent and aggravate the prob


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