360° Analysis

India: A Bumbling Giant


August 16, 2013 06:44 EDT

India is jammed with internal dissensions that threaten to derail its economy.

Every August 15 evokes fond memories of flag hoisting ceremonies, cultural programmes and parades in schools, colleges, and commercial and government establishments. On the eve of Independence Day, the Indian president addresses the nation. On Independence Day, the prime minister addresses the nation from ramparts of Red Fort. The speeches give the government an opportunity to announce new plans, launch new programmes, and pay homage to people who laid down their life serving the nation.

However, with yesterday's 66th anniversary of India's independence, challenges awaiting the nation have grown tremendously from the time New Delhi regained freedom from the British. Immediately after independence, India was full of opportunity and promise. Enemies on the horizon were mostly external, although the scenario has turned piquant in last few decades, and today, internal security has come to occupy a center stage as never before.

So how does a democratic country, unencumbered by military rule, face the prospect of “internal enemies” of the state?

India is a highly disparate country with swathes of extreme poverty, juxtaposed with islands of affluence. It is symptomatic of a culture where you had rajas lording over the teeming masses who were toiling for their daily bread amid hunger and pestilence snipping at their heels. Post-independence, the fruits of development were not equitably distributed among the populace. On one hand, India clocks second highest (22.2 percent) in growth of high net worth individuals (HNWI) in the Asia-Pacific region — one of the fastest growing HNWI markets in the world, according to the 2013 World Wealth Report. On the other hand, 29.8 percent of India’s population is in poverty  (2009-10), and 53.7 percent of the population is multidimensional poor (2005), as per United Nations Development Programme. This lop-sided development gap is unbridgeable in the near future and is the underlying cause for divisive tendencies within Indian society. Contributing factors like development imbalances and marginalized sections of society, play a complimentary role in fanning flames of animosity. This cocktail of a poor population, exposed to obscene wealth has the capacity to implode India’s economy.    

Dance of Democracy  

India continues to face external threats from Pakistan, as well as an increasingly bellicose China, flexing its military might to burnish its credentials as a global super power. However, India’s internal threats are likely to have a more insidious effect than a full blown war, as economic might trumps military might in the new world order. Internal situations need to be analyzed and addressed so that they do not mar India’s resurgence. The two main threats confronting India today are religious and left wing extremism. 

Religious Extremism

Pew Research Center’s forum on Religion and Public Life showed that India is home to the second largest Muslim population in world, constituting 14.4 percent of India’s population. The remnant Muslim population’s grievances post-partition of India never found proper articulation, as most of the educated elite opted for immigration to Pakistan. Those remaining in India were bewildered and an easy prey for minoritist-pandering politicians who view Muslims as a captive vote bank.

Perceived grievances and inadequate representation contributed to the rise of fringe elements; a siege mentality gripped the community. Politicians across the political spectrum felt no compunction in hobnobbing with Muslim fundamentalists for their personal pelf. Fundamentalists were encouraged while moderate voices in the Muslim community were subdued; extremist views became mainstream while moderate ones withered.

To add to this cauldron of simmering discontent, Pakistan, since Kashmir’s partition, functioned as a rallying cry for injustice to Muslims in India. Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has periodically grappled with religious extremism. Pakistan-based terror groups have contrived to create a pure Wahhabi version of Islam against the historically prevalent harmonious Sufi strain. Hounding of minorities, such as the Hindu Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs, skyrocketed, with incessant killings forcing minorities to flee.

The ploy was to set up an Islamic state in India, with connivance of the unsatisfied local population. As is wont in media, it would be a fallacy to bracket this as Islamist terrorism, since there is nothing Islamic about terror acts being perpetrated by these extremist organizations. It is only by using the fig leaf of Islam that these extremists seek to gain respectability and acceptance in society to achieve their geopolitical ends.

Pakistan was, and is, the main patron of religious terrorism in India, aided by “non-state actors.” These non-state actors are not shadowy groups in the hills of Karakoram, but are prominent organizations operating with impunity in Pakistani cities. Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, has been on-record admitting that terrorist groups were created to achieve Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives and that they then turned rogue. The question remains: To whom do these non-state actors report?

Pakistan’s conundrum of being a state within a state is the main reason the country is a top terror exporter. The continuous supply of motives, men, and money for carrying out terror attacks in India has been the avowed stated policy of all these supposedly Islamic organizations. Prominent among these terrorist groups are Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI), and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). These groups are responsible for carrying out atrocities like the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the 2005 serial blasts in Delhi, the 2006 train blasts in Mumbai, the 2008 Jaipur bombings, and the 2008 Mumbai massacre. This earned India the distinction of being the fourth most affected in the world by terrorism, according to Global Terrorism Index.

With a view to provide legitimacy to their claim that terrorism is an indigenous phenomenon, Pakistan propped up the now banned, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). In its latest deadly avatar, it has morphed into a Jihadi-sounding Indian mujahideen. This outfit has been responsible for recent attacks like the 2011 Mumbai serial blasts and the latest 2013 bombings in Bodh Gaya, where Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. However, all logistics for terrorism are provided by Pakistan for which the Balkanization of India remains the ultimate aphrodisiac, avenging their vivisection in 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh.

Left Wing Extremism

As somebody aptly quipped “Gandhians with Guns,” the Naxalites, or left wing insurgents, evoke a romantic notion of idealism against an unjust society for greater good of the “have nots.” This facile description denotes the goodwill these merchants of death enjoy among the liberal gentry. It is ironic that these idealists are progenitors of mayhem that affects 182 districts in 20 Indian states, out of a total of 640 districts in 28 states. It is no wonder that India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called Naxalites the biggest challenge to the country's national security. They originally began as a struggle for the rights of landless laborers, marginal peasants, tribal groups, and depressed classes. But it transformed into a mindless armed insurrection against the state.

In a macabre twist, the worst affected by this cycle of violence were the same people who the idealists ostensibly sought to empower. It bloomed as a revolutionary movement in 1967, inspired by the people’s war of Mao Zedong in Naxalbari in West Bengal, and has now degenerated into a violent uprising against the state and its machinery. Intimidation and threats were primary weapons for recruitment, adding to the aggrieved people joining to avenge social and personal injustices. By targeting local government, police, institutions, schools, and health centers in their areas of influence, the leftist extremists aim to create a governance vacuum so that the local population comes under their sway. As a result, they have prevented the fruits of development from reaching these vulnerable pockets.

As mentioned earlier, the India inherited from the British had large pockets of land where there were no administrative footprints. Industrialization demanded land, minerals, and forests. The lower sections of society, peasants, tribes, and farm laborers, came under increasing pressure. This was the fertile ground in which Maoists or Naxalites fertilized their harvest of “people’s soldiers.” Their roll-call of killings is equally chilling, with almost 1,500 dead in the last eight years, along with rampant destruction of government property and infrastructure. To be fair, even though Maoists had their areas of influence, they were never able to create a mass base with their incessant killings. They further alienated the general population. It is surprising that, while carrying out attacks on civilians and security forces, the targeted sought refuge under the pretext of human rights violations. Maoists will never be able to overthrow the Indian government, but their propensity to strike at will is a huge deterrent to India’s economic progress. It is imperative that they are effectively contained at the earliest. 

Besides the two main threats above, there are various ethnic insurgents that operate in northeast India. Geographical isolation led to the belief of a step-mother's treatment, and people developed angst against the Indian state. These groups either fought amongst themselves for dominance or waged war against the government. However, being restricted to only their area of influence, the threat perception has not reached a national level.   

Countering “People’s War”

Challenges to Indian unity are many and varied. But they are not insurmountable. One recent example is the insurgency in Punjab state, which reached its zenith in the 1980s and was rooted out by a resolute administration with an iron fist. This was balanced with the recognition of valid aspirations of the Sikh community: hurt feelings caused by military action, were necessitated by extremists taking refuge in the Golden temple. Terrorist fire power was matched by the security forces that were given a free hand by the Indian government. The situation is largely peaceful today; democratic processes are thriving with the demand jettisoning for an independent Sikh nation of “Khalistan.” The Mizoram Peace Accord of 1986 paved way for a peaceful resolution of the secessionist movement in the Mizo areas of Assam. The movement was born in the aftermath of a severe famine in 1959 to protest government inaction resulting in many deaths. After decades of militancy, the insurgents realized that an armed struggle was futile, and the Indian government rose to the occasion and the Mizo Accord was signed. Formation of a separate state of Mizoram enabled the local population to participate in the administrative process of their community, which was becoming subsumed into the Greater Assam state. Key steps for effectively countering the threat from extremists, whether home grown or foreign, are as follows.

Political Will

Politics of appeasement resulting in tokenism rather than socioeconomic advancement, need to be discarded. Efforts should be made to realize genuine aspirations of neglected communities. The Justice Rajinder Sachar report, highlighting developmental backlog in the Muslim community, is a good example. Rather than pandering to Muslim fundamentalists and indulging in "iftar diplomacy," which contributes zilch to the Muslim cause, effective implementation of this report will go long way in ameliorating stagnation. Instead of vociferously championing flippant issues that arouse atavist passions, political parties should focus on implementing the Sachar committee recommendations.

Kashmir, the bugbear of India, was effectively given to religious extremists in a weak response by the Indian government in fear of offending the Muslim vote bank. The actual minorities there are Hindus and Sikhs, who were exposed to extremist machinations. Their aim was to establish an Islamic state and eventually detach it from the Indian Union. Even today, Article 370, while awarding special privileges, bars Kashmir from becoming part of India’s growth story. Rule of law should not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. In Assam, the recent spat between Hindu tribes and Muslim settlers was triggered by illegal immigration from Bangladesh that changed the demographic of the region. In Tripura, insurgency took birth from migration of Bengali speakers making native people a minority. Strong political will to take decisive action is a prerequisite so that the issue does not conflagrate.

Augmenting Security and the Intelligence Network

Counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations are key to tackling extremists who disregard human life. However, India's security forces suffer from weak infrastructure and a lack of professional training. Moreover, a resource crunch has prevented further recruiting. According to India Spend, a nonprofit journal analyzing open data to foster better governance, there is a shortage of 500,000 policemen. In spite of this dire situation, there are 47,000 policemen exclusively deployed to protect VIPs. The 2006 police reforms as directed by the Supreme Court of India are still lying unimplemented by the political establishment. The government does not want to dilute its stranglehold on the police forces and make them independent and professional. All these factors definitely affect the morale of the police force, resulting in improper tackling of situations that require quick and adequate responses.

Timely and accurate intelligence is imperative to any successful operation, irrespective of its theatre. Whether tackling Naxalites in jungles or terrorists in cities, advanced intelligence can be the difference between success and failure. It is not far-fetched to say that Indian intelligence is wanting, resulting in recurring attacks on cities and key institutions. After the 2008 attack on Mumbai, the government belatedly woke up to requirements of counterterrorism. The recent Sukma attack in the Naxalite-infested Chattisgarh state brought home the realization that Naxalites have developed an intelligence network to carry out strikes. Better coordination among intelligence agencies with their state counterparts, as well as timely sharing of intelligence inputs with field forces, will go a long way in remedying the situation. On the basis of timely intelligence data, Indian forces will regain the upper hand in the fight against extremists.

Advantage India           

Being a democratic country, India has legitimate forums for grievance redress, and therefore, taking up arms is not the solution. All-around development is the touchstone which will go a long way in eliminating disquiet in the minds of unsatisfied communities. If Indian citizens have reasonable opportunities to increase their standard of living, then the contrarian thought process will be curtailed. Internal threats can be effectively countered, but time has come for India to evaluate its options about the external elements bent upon raking up imaginary bogeys.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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