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Counterterrorism in India

Authors: Eben Kaplan, and Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: November 27, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The November 2008 deadly terrorist assault (ABC News) on Mumbai's hotel district and a spate of bomb attacks (BBC) across India's cities the same year have claimed hundreds of lives and once again raised questions about India's vulnerability to terrorism. According to the latest report on global terrorism by the U.S. government's National Counter-Terrorism Center, more than one thousand people died in India because of terrorist attacks in 2007, ranking India fourth behind only Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. India, a nation of a billion people, has been confronted with terrorism since its birth, and currently contends with a variety of regional groups mainly intent on separatism.s

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Why is India the target of so many terrorist attacks?

India is embroiled in a number of low-intensity conflicts throughout its territory. Many terrorist incidents are the products of these clashes. The regions most affected are:

  • Jammu and Kashmir. Located at the northern tip of India's territory, this state has been the focal point of a territorial dispute dating back to 1947—when British colonial rule ended—involving India, Pakistan, and China. India claims the entire region as its sovereign territory, though it controls only about half of it. A third of the land is controlled by Pakistan, and China controls the remainder. The quarrel between India and Pakistan has touched off a number of military showdowns. Since the late 1980s, the region has been home to a number of militant groups seeking independence for the region. Experts say these groups have extensive support networks in Pakistan, and some accuse Pakistan of using these insurgent groups to wage a proxy war in the region. Over the last decade, this conflict has been linked to some two-thirds of all fatalities from terrorist attacks in India.
  • Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh state along the Bay of Bengal coast has endured a number of attacks linked to a group known as Naxalites. Named for the town of Naxalbari where their movement began in 1967, Naxalites are revolutionary communists. Though not all are militant, Human Rights Watch estimates some 10,000 are members of armed militias, which continue to wage a low-intensity insurgency that claims hundreds of Indian lives every year. In areas under Naxalite control "people's courts" prosecute individuals deemed "class enemies" or "caste oppressors." The U.S. State Department reports Naxalite terrorism "is growing in sophistication and lethality and may pose a significant long-term challenge." Indian officials have reportedly organized vigilante groups to help oppose Naxalite influence, and human rights groups have criticized the government's methods. Over the years, the Naxalite influence has spread to thirteen of India's twenty-eight states. The swath passes through the woods and jungles of central India, where the group takes refuge and recruits from the region's impoverished population. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Orissa have witnessed high levels of Naxalite activity, but Chhattisgarh witnessed the most Maoist-related violence in 2006 with more than 360 deaths.
  • Northeastern states. Violence has plagued several states in northeast India ever since the country now known as Bangladesh was partitioned off in 1947. Fighting has been particularly bad in the states of Assam and Nagaland, which over the years have received a large influx of immigrants. Shifting demographics in an area already prone to tribal friction have helped touch off a number of religious and cultural conflicts. Poverty is endemic in the region, and many groups are demanding independence, citing neglect and discrimination on the part of the Indian government as grounds for separation. Militant groups like the United Liberation Front of Assam have targeted politicians and infrastructure in an attempt to force out government influence.
What groups are involved in terrorism in India?

There are scores of insurgent and terrorist groups operating in the country. Those recognized by the U.S. State Department as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) or other "groups of concern" are:

  • Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), whose name means "Army of the Pure," is a militant Islamist group operating in Pakistan as well as in Jammu and Kashmir. The group reportedly received funding from Pakistan's intelligence services until 2001, when the United States designated it an FTO and Pakistan froze its assets. LeT, which has ideological, but unconfirmed operational ties to al-Qaeda, aims to win sovereignty for Jammu and Kashmir and spread Islamic rule across India. The group is blamed for some of the most high-profile terrorist attacks in India, including the July 11, 2006 bombing of the Mumbai commuter rail.
  • Jaish-e-Muhammad, meaning "Army of Mohammed," is another Pakistan-based terrorist group operating in Jammu and Kashmir. Founded in 2000 by the former leader of the now-defunct group Harkat-ul-Ansar, Jaish-e-Muhammed seeks to drive India out of Jammu and Kashmir and transfer control of the region to Pakistan.
  • Harakat ul-Mujahadeen (HuM), or the "Islamic Freedom Fighters' Group," was founded in 1985 as an anti-Soviet group fighting in Afghanistan. When Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the Pakistan-based HuM shifted its focus to Jammu and Kashmir. HuM seeks to battle "anti-Islamic forces" and its members have helped carry out operations as far away as Myanmar, Tajikistan, and Bosnia.
  • The Communist Party of India (Maoist)* was formed by a merger of Naxalite groups in 2004 after talks between the Indian government and the leftist militants broke down. The group seeks to establish a "revolutionary zone" of control extending from the Nepalese border down to the southern part of Andhra Pradesh that would ultimately become a sovereign state.
  • Harakat ul-Jihad-I-Islami (HUJI) was founded in 1980 to fight Soviets in Afghanistan but has since concentrated its efforts in Jammu and Kashmir. HUJI, which is based in Pakistan and Kashmir, primarily attacks Indian military targets, but it is believed to be linked to the abduction and slaying of five Western tourists in Jammu and Kashmir in 1995.
  • Jamiat ul-Mujahadeen is a small group of pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatists operating in or near Pakistan. It is thought to be responsible for a pair of 2004 grenade attacks against political targets in India.
  • The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has sought to establish an independent socialist state in Assam since its founding in 1979. In the 1990s, ULFA's attacks on political leaders, security forces, and infrastructure provoked a harsh response from the Indian government, causing it to lose some support among the residents of Assam. The U.S. State Department reports a December 2003 attack on a ULFA base by Indian forces caused the group's numbers to drop from more than 3,000 to several hundred.
What agencies are responsible for fighting terrorism in India?

A number of intelligence, military, and police organizations within the Indian government contribute to counterterrorism efforts. These include state-run police forces, special security forces to guard airports and other high-profile targets, and paramilitary forces that patrol the borders and assist the police when necessary. These paramilitary groups, such as the 165,000-strong Central Reserve Police Force, have been accused of committing human rights violations, especially in Kashmir, where they are particularly active. The army usually participates in counterterrorism operations as a last resort, though in Jammu and Kashmir they play a more consistent role. India's closest structural equivalent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees national police, paramilitaries, and domestic intelligence gathering.

India has several intelligence agencies that monitor terrorist activities. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is the external intelligence agency and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), a division of the Home Affairs Ministry, collects intelligence inside India. A Joint Intelligence Committee analyzes intelligence data from RAW and IB as well as from a handful of military intelligence agencies, which usually provide tactical information gathered while carrying out counterterrorist operations.

The IB oversees an interagency counterterrorism center similar to the CIA. The Ministry of External Affairs oversees its own counterterrorism body, much like the U.S. State Department, which oversees diplomatic counterterrorism functions such as briefing other nations on suspected Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism in India.

How does the government react to terrorist attacks?

Experts say the government's response to terrorist attacks have been episodic; soon after an attack the government appears to take short-term measures. "India lacks a coherent strategic response to terrorism; there is no doctrine (BusinessWeek), and most of our responses are kneejerk," says retired Major General Sheru Thapliyal, who works at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.

Indian security officials usually focus their investigations on the country's Muslim minority following such attacks. India is home to 150 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world. But a large percentage of them feel disadvantaged and discriminated against by the government and the security forces.

How have India’s counterterrorism agencies performed?

Some Indian journalists called the July 11 Mumbai bombings a failure of the country's intelligence community. Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that within the ongoing debate over the effectiveness of India's counterterrorism apparatus, "there's general agreement that the old institutions can't cope with the new pressures." Wilson John, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, writes in the Terrorism Monitor the problem is an intelligence structure which has yet to emerge from its "debilitating colonial legacy and a complementary stranglehold of bureaucracy." John argues the state police and intelligence units are mostly structured as agencies to protect law and order and spy on rivals rather than act as investigative and intelligence units. He says there is reluctance, and even refusal, to share information among the intelligence and security agencies.

Others counter that the intelligence agencies are performing well, but politicians too often shy away from making tough security decisions for fear of angering their constituents. Jeevan Deol, a lecturer in South Asian studies at the University of London, says, "There may well be occasions where elected politicians may not see it in their interest to isolate insurgent groups." He says their actions are nothing "too unusual for an elected democracy."

India's counterterrorism measures have often been the subject of appeals by human rights organizations. Deol says Indian officials have a higher tolerance for collateral damage than counterterrorism authorities in many other nations. In an example of such tactics, he says, "Agencies and arms of the state have been accused of turning a blind eye in order to run rival gangs that would be tasked with killing other insurgents, but would also kill innocent people." Such tactics have been effective in the past, says Cohen, but only when coupled with political accommodation.

Does India have antiterrorism legislation similar to the U.S. Patriot Act?

Not anymore. In 2002 India passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), expanding the government's powers in combating terrorism. Some measures, such as the ability to keep terror suspects in custody without bringing them to trial, met with objections, and the law was repealed in 2004 after allegations that officials were abusing their powers. However, after the recent spate of bombings, some Indian politicians are calling for the law to be restored.

Some Indian states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra have other laws, Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA) and the Karnataka Control of Organized Crime Act, that are used to try suspected terrorists. The MCOCA was also extended to Delhi in 2002. Some lawyers have alleged that MCOCA is even more draconian than POTA and has often been misused by the investigative agencies. Other states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are also seeking similar anti-terror laws.

*Editor's Note: A previous version of this Backgrounder referred incorrectly to the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

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