The Blog

India's Domestic Threat

The Mumbai massacre was the latest in a long line of terrorist attacks.

8:45 AM, Dec 9, 2008 • By APOORVA SHAH and TIM SULLIVAN
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Despite calls for reform and enhanced coordination among its intelligence and counterterrorism agencies, the Indian government's response has been tepid thus far. In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance, the coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress Party repealed the 2001 Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), which had expanded the government's powers to fight terrorism and curb its funding--similar to the USA Patriot Act. According to Jaswant Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician and former Indian Minister of Defense, the Mumbai attacks were "not just an intelligence failure, but more importantly [a] failure of the state and central governments."

The religious tensions that characterize most disagreements between the Hindu nationalist opposition party, the BJP, and the "Muslim-friendly" Congress Party have only sharpened the counterterrorism debate, with accusations that any strong counterterrorism response is an excuse for racial and religious-profiling of Muslims. The government's fear of igniting one of the many short fuses among religious factions has led it to do practically nothing at all, leaving most of the burden of counterterrorism on local authorities. The Indian Mujahedin and the Mumbai terrorists have exploited this political infighting, while taking advantage of Hindu-Muslim tension as justification for their actions.

In addition to political disagreements at home, finger pointing at Pakistan also began quickly after the attacks in Mumbai unfolded. At a news conference, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that "elements with links to Pakistan are involved," and he appeared to have chided his Pakistani counterpart during a cell phone conversation that was famously broadcast on Indian news networks.

But India's new terrorist threat isn't simply a function of foreign influence or domestic unrest--it's a combination of the two. And while it may be easy to blame Pakistan, which will now face even more pressure to contain terrorists at home, the overwhelming failure of these latest attacks was domestic. This was exemplified by the resignation of Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who had been responsible for managing domestic security in India.

Ajai Sahni, an Indian terrorism expert with close ties to the country's police and intelligence community notes that "India is extremely vulnerable. And the fundamental reason for that is that this is a state that has neglected security for decades." He also points out that "[Indian] police are under-equipped and under-resourced across the board. There is no really hard counterterrorism core to policing in India, despite our decades of experience as a target of terrorism."

In an effort to predict the Indian government's next steps, analysts have observed India's record of absorbing such attacks--cleaning up the mess and moving on. But it has become clear that the people of India are losing their patience with such complacency. Outside of the Taj hotel last week, protesters decried the government's long inaction in the face of terrorism, some carrying signs reading "62 Hour of Trauma--how much more?"

Commentators here and in India have called the latest attacks in Mumbai, "India's 9/11." But unlike the United States, which suffered an attack unprecedented in form and magnitude, India has seen four similar acts of terrorism in its large cities in the last six months. In India's case, prevention and effective response are more a question of political will than an awareness of the threat. But if there are to be any parallels between 11/26 and 9/11, it will be because India, like the United States after 2001, decides it can no longer sit on its hands; and that it must take a proactive stand against all forms of terror--Islamic or Hindu, ethnic or separatist. It will be a tough balancing act, but if India is to remain a diverse and pluralistic society, growing in influence on the world stage, it will have little choice but to rise to the challenge.

Apoorva Shah and Tim Sullivan are research assistants at the American Enterprise Institute.