Primary Threat to India Remains Home-Grown Left- and Right-Wing Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 3

While the fedayeen-style terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 drew attention to the recurring role of Pakistan-based militant groups in fuelling instability in India, home-grown left- and right-wing extremists continue to present a growing and potentially more significant threat to India’s security. In the case of left-wing terrorism, the Naxalite (communist) insurgency represents a long-standing, well-entrenched, and widespread threat to India’s security and governance structures. [1] Meanwhile, right-wing terrorism, represented in a string of attacks attributed to home-grown Islamic and Hindu extremist groups, although in its infancy, presents a new and unfamiliar threat that has caught India’s security establishment unprepared. The Mumbai terrorist attacks have revived the debate on upgrading India’s anti-terrorism infrastructure. Whether these initiatives lead to a substantive improvement in the country’s security environment or are mere token gestures to appease the electorate ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections by May 2009 remains to be seen.

A Growing Red Corridor

Despite the world’s focus on the disputed territory of Kashmir as the focal point of a two-decade insurgency and potential nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the four-decade Naxalite insurgency as the greatest threat to India’s internal security (The Hindu, March 6, 2007). Since the merger of the People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Center (MCC) into the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004, the Naxalite insurgency has grown to now affect some 170 districts across 13 states in central and eastern India (Business Standard [India], June 30 2007). The insurgency, which emerged in the town of Naxalburi in West Bengal in 1967, claimed more than 800 lives in over 1,500 incidents in 2007 according to India’s Home Affairs Ministry, with the greatest concentration of attacks in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh (South Asia Terrorism Portal).  Naxalite attacks have grown in both intensity and frequency, fuelled by a number of grievances, including:

·    A growing income gap across the urban-rural divide
·    The discrimination and marginalization of tribal groups (adivasis) and low-caste Hindus (dalits or "untouchables")
·    Allegations that the government has strayed from its anti-poverty agenda
·    Land disputes, notably opposition to the transfer of agricultural land for industrial use for the development of Special Economic Zones.

Insurgents have employed a combination of strategies including human wave and hit-and-run tactics to overwhelm towns and security force compounds (which are subsequently raided of weapons), assassinating government officials, and attacking infrastructure being developed by foreign multinationals.   
The territorial gains of the Naxalite insurgency have undermined the authority of state and central governments through the creation of parallel “people’s governments” within Compact Revolutionary Zones where the rebels practice land redistribution, operate people’s courts, and raise funds through extortion and taxes. The insurgency has also threatened India’s growth and development by undermining the stability of strategically important regions that are rich in mineral and energy resources, including coal, iron ore, manganese, and bauxite. Notably, India depends on coal for 75 percent of its electricity consumption while 85 percent of India’s coal reserves are concentrated in five states plagued by the Naxalite insurgency (Asia Times, August 6, 2006). The threat posed by the insurgency to India’s foreign investment was highlighted as Naxalites fuelled protests in Orissa against a US$12 billion steel project by the South Korean Pohang Iron and Steel Company (Posco), which is the largest single foreign investment in India since the country launched its market reforms in 1991 (Financial Express [Mumbai], May 23, 2007).  

The threat posed by the Naxalite insurgency is exacerbated by its reported links with other insurgent groups in South Asia, including separatist groups in India’s northeast and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M). The CPN-M is of particular significance to the Naxalite insurgency, given that they are ideological brethren and the CPN-M has achieved the transition from an insurgent group to a legitimate party in Nepal’s politics while maintaining its armed cadres and radical ideology. On a tactical level, concerns also remain over Naxalite insurgents and Nepali Maoists obtaining arms, training, and sanctuaries in each others’ territories.  

The government’s approach toward the Naxalite insurgency has so far recorded limited success, with each affected state developing its own security response. Some, such as the Greyhound paramilitary force in Andhra Pradesh, are more successful than others. Notably, the development of a civilian militia in Chhattisgarh state, the Salwa Judum, has fuelled concerns over Naxalite attacks on civilians and human rights violations by both sides (, November 25, 2006). The central government has reacted to the insurgency with the deployment of 33 Central Paramilitary Reserve Force (CPRF) divisions to the affected regions and the development of 26 India Reserve battalions in 2006 (Express India, February 28, 2007).

India’s Talibanization

On the other extreme of the ideological spectrum, India is faced with the growth of religious extremism. India prides itself on the fact that due to the country’s democratic and secular credentials its 150 million Muslims have escaped the radicalization that other countries have experienced. However, this illusion has been broken by a string of multiple-bomb attacks on India’s heartland in recent years, all attributed to new home-grown Islamic extremist groups operating under such names as the Deccan Mujahadeen, Indian Mujahedeen, the Islamic Security Force-Indian Mujahdeen, Lashkar-e-Qahar, Tehriq-e-Qasas, and Inquilabi Mahaz. In 2008 alone there was a series of high-profile attacks, including those in Mumbai (November), Assam (October), New Delhi (September), Ahmadabad (July), Bangalore (July), and Jaipur (May).

To be sure, the growth of home-grown Islamic extremism in India under the banner of such groups as the Indian Mujahedeen and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) has been fuelled by foreign terrorist groups such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, and the Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI). These foreign militant groups have shifted their strategy from attacking India’s periphery in the northeast or in Indian-administered Kashmir to targeting symbolic and strategic targets in India’s heartland in order fuel sectarian tensions and undermine confidence in India’s burgeoning economy. A related goal has been to fuel tensions between India and Pakistan in order to undermine the Composite Dialogue peace process that has been underway since 2004. The Mumbai attacks also fuelled speculation of an attempt by militants to divert military and intelligence resources to Pakistan’s eastern border with India and away from its western border with Afghanistan, which has emerged as a sanctuary for Islamic extremist groups.  

However, the economic marginalization of India’s Muslim population and the growing influence of Hindu extremist groups under the banner of the Sangh Parivar (which include the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and Abhinav Bharat) have also acted as a catalyst for the growth of indigenous Islamic extremism in India.  Hindu extremism has usually taken the form of communal (religious) riots, such as those against the minority Christian community in Orissa and Karnataka states in 2008, in Gujarat in 2002, and in Mumbai in 1992-3. However, this has been supplemented by sporadic incidents of what could be termed Hindu terrorism, as demonstrated in September 2008 when bomb blasts struck the Muslim-majority towns of Malegaon in Maharashtra state and Modasa in Gujarat. Contrary to the traditional view that Islamic fundamentalism is a foreign import to South Asia from the Wahhabi strand of Hanbali Sunni Islam in the Middle East, the region has its own well-established brand of indigenous Islamic extremism in the form of Deobandism. Originating in the Indian town of Deoband in the 19th century as a branch of Hanafi Sunni Islam, the movement has inspired radical groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s Jamiat-Ulema-Islami (JUI).

National Security Response  

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, the Indian government introduced several measures to upgrade the country’s national security and intelligence infrastructure. The country’s new Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, has unveiled the National Investigating Agency Bill and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act Amendment Bill, which have established a National Investigation Agency to oversee intelligence analysis and tighten existing anti-terrorism legislation through the establishment of fast-track courts, tightening bail provisions, and increasing the number of days of detention without charge from 90 to 180 days (Asia Times, December 17, 2008). Coordination and dissemination of information will also be enhanced through the establishment of subsidiaries of the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) in all state capitals (Times of India, January 2, 2009). The country’s elite National Security Guards (NSG) will also be upgraded through the deployment of the Black Cat commando force to several regional hubs and the provision of better equipment. The government is establishing 20 counterterrorism training schools to train commandos from state police forces (Asia Times, December 17, 2008).   
The government has also pledged to upgrade security along the 7,500-km Indian coastline following revelations that the militants that struck Mumbai in November came via sea. Plans include the development of a new coastal command to oversee the Coastal Security Scheme unveiled by the Home Ministry in 2005, as well as improvements to coastal surveillance through the adoption of over 100 advance patrol vessels over the next five years. Radar coverage will be upgraded and nine additional coastguard stations will be created to supplement the existing 13 (Daily Times [Lahore], December 21, 2008).

Despite the newfound sense of urgency in upgrading the country’s national security and intelligence apparatus, these initiatives face significant political, bureaucratic, and operational barriers. Notably, state governments have voiced concern over losing their law enforcement powers with the establishment of a National Investigation Agency. Concerns also remain that these measures are merely a cosmetic attempt to improve the government’s re-election prospects ahead of general elections expected in May 2009. The measures also combat allegations that the government has been “soft on security” since it rescinded the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in 2004. However, these measures make only limited progress in attempting to improve state and local police, who are usually the first responders to terrorist attacks. Furthermore, the continued reliance of the NSG on the military for its personnel rather than state and local police has resulted in tactics more akin to those used in conventional military operations rather than urban counterterrorism operations. Finally, the government faces an uphill battle in overcoming well-entrenched inter-agency rivalry and understaffing in the country’s key intelligence organisations, such as the Research Analysis Wing (RAW) which is responsible for external intelligence; the Intelligence Bureau, which monitors internal security; the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which oversees military intelligence; the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) (see Terrorism Monitor, March 24, 2008).

Opposing Sides of the Same Coin

Even before the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the U.S. State Department’s 2008 annual report on terrorism identified India as one of the countries most vulnerable to terrorism, second only to Iraq in terms of the number of fatalities from terrorist attacks. The report also noted that the Indian government’s counterterrorism efforts had been undermined by the country’s inefficient law enforcement and legal systems, stating, “The Indian court system was slow, laborious, and prone to corruption. Terrorism trials can take years to complete. Many of India’s local police forces were poorly staffed, lacked training, and were ill-equipped to combat terrorism effectively" (Economic Times [New Delhi], May 2, 2008).

While Naxalites and religious extremists are ideological opposites, they share certain traits. Both are fuelled by the alienation felt by politically and economically marginalized communities: low-caste Hindus and tribal groups in the case of the Naxalites, or Muslims in the case of Islamic extremist groups. Unlike the insurgencies in Kashmir and India’s northeast, the Naxalite and home-grown religious extremist groups in India are not looking to fuel secession or redraw the borders of the state but rather to alter the identity of the state. While both are indigenous movements, they are also fuelled by external sources, whether Nepali Maoists in the case of the Naxalites, or militant groups and members of the intelligence services in Pakistan and Bangladesh in the case of Indian Islamic militancy. Finally, the lack of coordination between national, state, and local security services has prevented a containment of the Naxalite and religious extremist threat.  
The solutions to these insurgencies overlap. In the case of the Naxalite insurgency, a long-term solution is necessary that ensures India’s rapid economic growth remains inclusive and sustainable for its largely rural population. The fact that 60 percent of India’s population continues to depend on agriculture for its livelihood while the agricultural sector accounts for only a fifth of India’s GDP suggests the need for a second “Green Revolution” that revitalizes and modernizes India’s agricultural sector and addresses issues of land reform and redistribution. It is not a coincidence that tribal and low-caste communities have fuelled the Naxalite insurgency, given that India’s tribal population accounts for as much as 40 percent of the country’s internally displaced population while 40 percent of India’s scheduled caste population owns less than an acre of land. The Indian government’s attempt to solve these inequalities through affirmative action policies or quotas for employment and university placements and a separate legal code for Muslims have only reinforced divisions and rivalries between caste, religious, and tribal groups. Instead, there is a need to target outdated social practices that fuel caste, tribal, and religious discrimination, and upgrade education, healthcare, and general infrastructure at the village level. On the security front there is a need to upgrade national security and intelligence infrastructure and inter-linkages while seeking local solutions to local instabilities.

On the international front, there is a need to weaken the external catalysts that have fuelled these home-grown insurgencies through an improvement in counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing. There is also a need to clamp down on terrorist financing, safe-havens, and arms trafficking networks. Notably, India has established a Counter Terrorism Joint Working Group (CTJWG) with 16 countries, including the United States, which has met nine times since its formation in 2000. However, these initiatives are unlikely to have a significant impact until counterterrorism cooperation is strengthened within South Asia, notably between India and Pakistan. The establishment of the Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism (JATM) between India and Pakistan in 2006 is significant in this respect. Furthermore, Pakistan’s reversion to democratic rule in March 2008 and the civilian government’s recognition of the threat posed by Islamic extremism (manifested in the Pakistani military’s operations against militant sanctuaries in the northwest frontier region) are positive signs that both countries are facing a common enemy. However, the continued support for Islamic extremists operating in Afghanistan and India by elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, coupled with the long-standing distrust between India and its numerous neighbors, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, continue to remain a barrier for any substantive anti-terrorism cooperation in the region.