As uncertainty becomes progressively certain, India could be looking at the old scourge of terrorism with a new set of policies and priorities.
In July this year, a United Nations (UN) report said proscribed terrorist organisations and their affiliates could be seeing an opportunity in the Covid-19 outbreak, despite recent leadership losses and restricted cross-border movement.
The 26th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning Daesh, Al Qaeda and associated individuals and entities said the groups, in some regions, were trying to take advantage of perceptions that the attention of security forces was “diverted elsewhere”.
In India, the report hit headlines for its findings, based on inputs from a member-state, that there were “significant numbers” of Daesh operatives in the southern Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka.
The UN report estimates Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to have between 150 and 200 members from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. The number of members in Hind Wilayah, the Indian affiliate of the Daesh, is estimated at between 180 and 200.
On September 19, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) stated that simultaneous raids conducted in Ernakulam in Kerala and Murshidabad in West Bengal had led to the arrests of nine men allegedly associated with the Pakistan-sponsored module of Al Qaeda. The agency said the arrested operatives – six in West Bengal and three in Kerala, also hailing from West Bengal – were part of an inter-state module that was preparing for attacks on multiple locations including in the National Capital Region.
Some of the media reports from Ernakulam that followed the arrests were pegged to familiar narratives and constructs – seizure of firearms and jihadi literature, baffled co-workers and neighbours, recent terror trails that led to Kerala, rising migrant presence in the state and the inevitable political slugfest over the arrests. By evening, television channels had Covid and the daily case numbers back as top headlines.
It’s interesting to imagine these arrests as being reported in a pre-Covid space; their repositioned relevance in terms of media coverage is in line with what the UN report said about terror in these times – that the pandemic had “eclipsed” terrorism from the news.
The arrests and their perceived import are pointers to how terrorism and state responses are likely to play out in a country that faces a raging pandemic, bewildered and yet, with a sense of fatalism. As Covid cases rise, as jobs are lost and businesses shut, as uncertainty becomes progressively certain, India could be looking at the old scourge of terrorism with a new set of policies and priorities.
India has reported over 5.6 million Covid cases and stands second globally in the number of cases, after the US. In August, India at the UN stressed on the need to look at peacebuilding in the context of the pandemic. At the high level open debate of the UN Security Council on Pandemics and the Challenges of Sustaining Peace, it said “some conflict actors” were exploiting the climate of uncertainty by spreading misinformation and sponsoring “opportunistic terrorist attacks”.
Slapped with the reality of a massive GDP contraction and a socio-economic infrastructure left battered by the pandemic, India will have its task cut out as it reshapes strategy to combat the unknowns of terrorism. There, however, is one known that the country could do well to discard – its increasing tendency to join camps to politicise all things, celebrity lifestyles and home-grown terror included.
The NIA has stated that operatives of the busted module in Kerala and West Bengal were actively raising funds for the planned attacks. Following the arrests, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has targeted state governments in Kerala and West Bengal – led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Trinamool Congress, respectively – for having failed to check the rise of radical elements. The BJP says jihadi forces are gaining a foothold in West Bengal because of the ruling party’s “vote bank politics”. Kerala and West Bengal are set to face elections in 2021.
That issues pertaining to national security are reduced to punch-lines in the theatre of podium politics is a global reality. In India, these debates, often lacking in nuance and intent, have also fed social discontent. Successive governments in Kerala led by the CPI (M) and the Congress party have faced criticism for going soft on religious fundamentalism. Some of their compulsions could even be traced to a political resistance that has stalled the rise of the BJP as an electoral force in the state.
In an ideological context, it’s important to acknowledge politics of the time as integral to these issues but attempts to use them to further electoral prospects could prove a different proposition in post-COVID India.
Pro-Daesh activities reported from Kerala over the past few years have consistently doubled as planks for national narratives on terrorism. The migration of over 20 people from the northern districts of Kasaragod and Palakkad, in 2016, to join the Daesh remains a key point of reference in political debates on the subject. Its significance has also been asserted in recurring reports on men recruited from the state getting killed while fighting in Afghanistan.
The arrests on Saturday appear to have taken forward the “terror haven” theme, with right-leaning narratives accusing Kerala’s ruling Left of appeasement politics which they argue had facilitated the modules. These narratives, however, are limited in scope because political spaces in India, acrimonious and heavily polarised since the BJP’s 2014 ascension under Narendra Modi, cannot facilitate a resolution or effective response to something as complex, and systemic, as terrorism.
– R Krishnakumar is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, India
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