Tuesday, September 4, 2007

India and terrorism

Something like US Patriot Act will save India

From The Statesman

An Indian minister was quoted in rediff.com, as saying: “Do you want us to keep vigil on all the chaat-eating people? How many chaatwallahs can we guard?” What a contemptuous disregard for the hoi polloi! How shameful!

Terrorism is a local and national scourge and it must be fought at every level with imagination, intelligence and persistence, with all the available resources, as the United States has been fighting. Americans are convinced that terrorism can and must be prevented whatever the cost. The Indian minister would not have survived a day in the United States. Nor should he in India.

Whenever an attack occurs anywhere in the world, the US Homeland Security authorities redouble their vigilance, and update their plans to meet any contingency. It could happen here, they acknowledge the reality, but it must not; and that’s the steely determination writ large on their faces.

Days before the Mumbai train attacks last year, for example, the authorities had discovered a plot to blow up the underground tunnel system that connects New Jersey with New York City. The discovery of the plot was not a serendipitous occurrence. The Homeland Security is always on the lookout for terrorists in order to pre-empt any kind of attack. Apart from the Federal government, every state has a list of potential terrorist targets for which there are contingency plans. The Federal government and state governments work hand-in-glove to fight crime and terrorism.

Islamic terrorists in India whether they belong to Harkat-ul Jihad Islami, Students’ Islamic Movement of India, Lashkar-e-Taiyaba or some other terrorist group know that nothing serious would happen to them even if they were apprehended. Politically and financially they must be well provided for; otherwise they would not have been in business so long. Uncover their local supporters, most of who will be politicians, and eliminate them. In the United States and increasingly in Europe, there has been a paradigm shift. The policy has been not only to nip the evil in the bud but also to eliminate the evil at the prenatal stage by establishing an early awareness system. An early awareness system is different from am early warning system.

Unless India adopts and ruthlessly executes a policy of total elimination of terrorists and their local supporters, which means using all the available means to hunt them under the law, poor Indians will be wondering where the next target will be. India needs to re-balance its priorities, human rights and domestic security.

The idea that what’s anticipated can be prevented especially applies to terrorism of which the Hyderabad bombings were the latest manifestation. Pre-emption is preventing acts at the inspiration, aspiration, thinking stage before they become a concrete reality. Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorists have not given up on the United States. They keep trying. Last year the US Congress renewed the Draconian anti-terrorism law, The US Patriot Act. The Department of Homeland Security’s constantly changing alert system has made life somewhat uncomfortable. Personal liberties have been affected, especially in big cities, though most of the United States is as free as ever. Airline travel security checks take longer. But on the whole there is no fear mentality in the United States. You wouldn’t feel afraid of walking in the streets of New York or elsewhere. Living in the United States is safer than anywhere else in the world.

The US Homeland Security doctrine is very coherent, pragmatic and highly ethical; and it is simple: choose the lesser evil. It is better to put a few thousand people in jail than let terrorists strike, which might put thousands and thousands of people into a state of constant fear. By protecting a chaatwallah, you protect everybody. Think of a chaatwallah as a canary in the mine.

The Patriot Act, which allows intelligence and law enforcement authorities to go into places of worship, the working of charities, telecommunications of suspected militants, and libraries is not what a free society should do; but it is a lesser evil than letting Islamic terrorists take advantage of constitutional freedoms to commit mass murders.

Fighting terrorism is not a saintly act, as President George Bush knows. Superb intelligence gathering, pre-emptive and preventive measures and anticipatory disaster plans could go a long way in minimising the damage, if India wants to take terrorism as seriously as the United States does, and politicians are prepared to pay the price. President Bush’s popularity is down the gutters but he keeps fighting terrorism. He wants to protect everyone.

Although its origin lies in religious fanaticism and a blind hatred of non-believers, at an organisational level terrorism must be considered as an enterprise that manufactures dread, customised for each city and town. Hit and disrupt the terrorists’ supply chain anywhere, if it is a decentralised operation.

In the United States, law enforcement authorities have been given expanded powers of surveillance including wire-tapping and e-mail scrutiny. Most Americans approve President Bush’s domestic surveillance practices to fight terrorism, though his overall approval rating has sunk very low.

Open societies need not be handcuffed by their enlightened doctrines when law enforcement authorities try to locate and destroy terrorist cells functioning openly or clandestinely in their own backyards.

The struggle against terrorism is going to be a long drawn-out relentless campaign from which India cannot escape. India has no choice but to keep fighting, but it must fight both with political will and intelligence. Unless India vows to protect every chaatwallah, India will never be safe.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, is working on a new book, Dr Apu Comes to America)

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