College students in Mumbai rally against terrorism in September 2016. Photo: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
College students in Mumbai rally against terrorism in September 2016. Photo: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

The March 22 terror attack near the British Parliament has reminded  authorities in South Asia, especially Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, of the need for vigilance against increasing terrorist attacks by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

On December 13, 2001, an attack on the Indian Parliament was carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

On September 18, 2016, India witnessed a suicide attack on the Uri military base in Jammu & Kashmir. Four terrorists penetrated the base and killed 18 army personnel before being shot dead. India had not learned lessons from the past.

On September 29 last year, India crossed the border into Pakistan and attacked terrorist training camps, though the identity and the place of origin of the Uri attackers were not known.

Pakistan denied the Indian “surgical strikes” and said only ceasefire violations had taken place. One Indian was captured. A wider military conflict was averted.

Terrorism as a global phenomenon has been ably analyzed by Pankaj Mishra in his recent book Age of Anger: History of the Present. The world is at a loss to devise appropriate counterterrorism measures.

Major Western powers such as the UK, the US, Germany and France have faced terror attacks just as major South Asian powers have.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation will need to do more to deal with terrorism and evolve a regional strategy.

Although India has been describing Pakistan as the terror hub of South Asia, the Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal ( has published data showing that Pakistan has suffered more from terrorist attacks than India.

We may now analyze India’s terror scenario in some detail.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, Volume VIII (2008) found that the definition used in the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (TADA) Act of 1985 had been widely misused. It examined the definitions used in Western countries, the shorter legal definition proposed by the United Nations Crime Branch (1992) as well as the UN’s longer “academic consensus” definition that the act of terrorism is the peacetime equivalent of war crime.

After tracing the history of terrorism in India, the commission outlined the types of existing terrorism: ethno-nationalist terrorism, religious terrorism, ideological terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism and narco-terrorism.

The Indian Penal Code of 1860, though frequently amended, does not mention “terrorism” as a legal offense. The first special law that attempted a definition was the revised Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1987. This was followed by the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2002 (POTA), which was replaced by the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) of 2004, which is still in force.

The conventional means of terrorist attacks on persons or property are identified as weapons, bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), grenades, landmines, hostage-taking, hijacking, and forcible takeover of buildings, especially government and public buildings.

Other means include suicide attacks and kidnapping, use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical or biological), cyberterrorism and environmental terrorism.

Cases of suicide terrorism include the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 21, 1991, the attack on the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly in October 2001, the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, the storming of the Akshardham Temple in Gujarat in 2002, and an abortive attempt on the Ayodhya Temple in July 2005.

LTTE-led suicide attacks in India ceased after the decimation of its cadres and leadership by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009.

While differences of opinion persist over what constitutes terrorism, there can be no disagreement over what constitutes a terrorist act (B Raman, Terrorism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 2008). Such acts as the hijacking of an aircraft or other means of public transport to  achieve a political objective through intimidation; blowing up a civilian aircraft midair; the use of IEDs against civilians; throwing hand grenades or firing mortars into a civilian crowd or establishment; and so on constitute “acts of terrorism”. Organizations indulging in such activities, irrespective of motives, are to be regarded as terrorist.

Louise Richardson (What Terrorists Want, 2006) in a scholarly discussion defines terrorism simply as the deliberate and violent targeting of civilians for political purposes. She identifies its seven crucial characteristics, including its political inspiration; its use of violence; its aim of sending a message; its symbolic significance; and its sub-state character. The most important characteristic of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians. Terrorists are different from guerrillas and freedom fighters.

Two key features of terrorist groups are the nature of the goals they seek and their relationship to the community they claim to represent. A cocktail of a disaffected individual, an enabling group and a legitimizing ideology is required.

Many different groups in different countries use terrorism to pursue different objectives. Its causes may be individual, organizational, or state-specific.

At the level of society, socio-economic factors may be the cause. At the transnational level, the causes may be religious. Leaders tend to be different from followers. Some leaders, such as Osama bin Laden of al-Qaeda and Velupillai Prabhakaran of the LTTE, enjoyed godlike status.

The US has advanced the idea of state sponsorship of terrorism. Perceived as an instrument of foreign policy, it provides many advantages to governments. Relatively weak states often support terrorists to strike against their more powerful enemies. The Mumbai terrorist attack by Pakistan-based terrorists in November 2008 was a classic example.

There has been significant growth in the number of terrorist groups with religious orientation over the past few decades. In 2004, of the 77 terrorist groups listed by the US State Department, 40 appeared to have mixed religious and political motives.

Often, religious and political motives are inseparably linked. For many, religion plays a role similar to a political ideology. This is true of some South Asian countries.

India in the recent period has witnessed various types of terrorism, including religious and state terrorism. Three main regions are affected: Jammu & Kashmir, the Northeast, and the Central Tribal Belt.

In J&K, the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir question started with India’s independence in 1947. Major insurgency in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley started in 1989, after the controversial elections held in 1987. There was an increase in cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into Kashmir and the deployment of Indian security forces in the state. Terrorist violence shot up and has continued.

It is often difficulty to separate the terrorists from the civilians. A large number of women and children have been affected by the death or disappearance of their husbands or fathers.

The rise of al-Qaeda, ISIS or Daesh and Islamic fundamentalism has aggravated the terrorist situation in Kashmir. The threat to India until  recently has not been directly from al-Qaeda and the Taliban but from Laskar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and JeM focused on Kashmir.

LeT, based in Pakistan, is known to have developed cells in about 18 other countries including India, the US, the UK, France, Singapore and Australia. JeM, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, has been responsible for terrorist attacks in Kashmir.

Masood Azhar of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, who was handed over by India to Pakistani authorities in exchange for the release of the hostages of a hijacked plane, formed JeM with the objective of uniting Kashmir with Pakistan. JeM cadres are suspected to have been involved in several suicide attacks in J&K including the attack on the State Assembly in October 2001 and the Indian Parliament in December that year, besides a few other terrorist attacks later.

The nature of the terrorist attacks in J&K has changed over the years. Suicide terrorism has made its presence felt.

Since 2006, soft targets such as minority groups, tourists and migrant laborers, all innocent civilians, have been attacked by terrorists in Kashmir. Grenade attacks went up by 49% from 2006 to 2008. An aggravating factor has been the formation of the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of 14 militant groups led by Hizbul Mujaheddin, which along with LeT and JeM is equipped with the most modern weaponry and enjoys the support of international terrorist groups.

The Indian governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) preferred diplomacy to solve terrorism. The present government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to prefer a military solution.

The increasingly large numbers of unemployed youth in India are restless and resorting to violence. The separatist Hurriyat Conference has been sidelined by youths who are dictating terms to the politicians.

The government of India blames Pakistan for inciting the upheaval in Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed.

Both the US and China together with Pakistan are busy finding a peaceful solution to the persisting terror and violence in Afghanistan and are not supportive of India’s attempt to isolate Pakistan diplomatically.

In the seven states of northeast India, ethno-nationalism of a serious kind has been a prominent feature of terrorism. Assam is the biggest state in the region (population: 31 million).

Strong ethno-nationalist sentiment led to state terrorism in the Naga Hills in the 1950s and after. An incipient insurgency, which could have been handled wisely, was aggravated by the induction of the Indian Army. A sense of cultural aggression by an advanced culture over a less advanced Naga culture led to resistance against state terror by India.

Insurgency and terrorism in the other states were fueled by a perception of injustice toward the local people by the government of India.

Conflicts in the Northeast range from terrorist attacks to insurgency demanding autonomy, sponsored terrorism, ethnic clashes and conflicts generated from a continuous inflow of migrants from across the Bangladeshi border as well as intra-state migration within the region.

Moreover, criminal enterprises aimed at expanding and consolidating control over critical economic resources have of late acquired the characteristics of a distinct species of conflict and terrorism in the region.

Violence in the region is also caused by the failure of the government to provide human security. This has led to the emergence of alternative forces of ethnic militia to provide security to the people.

In an ethnically polarized situation, the government fails to provide security, and the actions of the army are seen as partisan.

Conflicts in the region are generally state-specific. Mainly the states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura have been seriously affected by terrorism and ethnic conflict.

A powerful terrorist organization, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), has been neutralized recently. The conflict in Nagaland, dating from 1955, has led to several terrorist actions but the situation seems increasingly calmer. The situation in Manipur is marked by continuing terrorist attacks on government forces by ethnic militias from across the border demanding independence. However, Tripura has witnessed increasing stability with a democratic development process in place.

The unresolved border dispute between India and China in Arunachal Pradesh could take an ugly turn and lead to terrorist incidents if the conflict situation deteriorates. The state has witnessed huge military deployment along the border with China.

The Central Tribal Belt, which spans many states, has witnessed Maoist violence and terrorism as well as counterterrorism by the state. This is a site of strategic maneuvers, resistance and appropriation by the Indian state and violent groups. Many of these contestations are still to be addressed.

Lack of calm consideration and resolution of the underlying causes of violence have led to recrudescence of violence after its initial suppression by brute force (Paul Wallace, A Grassroots Approach to Healing Terrorism, 2007).

The Maoist movement is officially said to have spread to more than 460 police stations in 160 districts in 14 states including several in the Central Tribal Belt. The federal and state police budgets are said to have increased a thousand-fold from 1967 to 2007. But the use of police power alone is not sufficient to contain Maoist terrorism. Other methods are needed, as noted in the Expert Group Report (Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas, Planning Commission, 2008).

Louise Richardson (2006) has spelled out six rules for counteracting terrorism, including a defensible and achievable goal; sticking to principles; knowing the enemy; separating terrorists from civil society; engaging others to counter the terrorists; and a patient approach.

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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