India is lackadaisical on terror
To score political points, New Delhi politicians openly sympathize with suspected terrorists.


Nov, 29, 2008: Photographers run past burning Taj Mahal Hotel during a gun battle in Mumbai. At least 80 people were killed in a series of attacks aimed at tourists in India's financial capital Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008, and more than 250 were wounded.

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  • To score political points, New Delhi politicians openly sympathize with suspected terrorists.

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  • As Islamists gather strength from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, #India seems woefully underprepared.

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  • Indian politicians need to find a way to place national security above petty politics: @dhume

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As India approaches the fifth anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, its government may be tempted to pat itself on the back for a job well done. By Mumbai's grisly benchmark—166 people killed by 10 Pakistani gunmen—the past five years have been marked by relative calm.

India has not witnessed another attack on a remotely comparable scale, and on the whole terrorist violence has decreased. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Islamist terrorists killed upward of 370 Indians in 2008, compared with about 40 people so far this year.

Take a closer look at the region, however, and India has little to be sanguine about. The U.S. exit from Afghanistan next year — with the Taliban still unvanquished — will boost radical Islamist morale across South Asia and beyond. Stepped up attacks by militants on the Indian army in Kashmir, as well as border skirmishes between India and Pakistan, have ended a decade-long lull in violence in the disputed territory. Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has disappointed early hopes that he would use his mandate to check terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh—the world's third most populous Muslim-majority country—Sheikh Hasina Wajed's secular government faces defeat in elections that must be held by early next year. The likely victor: the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Begum Khaleda Zia, whose affinity for the thuggish Jamaat-e-Islami and assorted radicals turned the country into a terrorist sanctuary the last time she was in power (2001-06). Next door, Buddhist attacks on Muslims in Myanmar have provoked violent protests on the streets of Mumbai and the bombing of a Buddhist holy site in the northern state of Bihar.

Neither its domestic politics nor its foreign policy equip India to deal with this malign constellation of circumstances. Unlike most of their counterparts in the West, India's squabbling politicians have failed to reach a minimal national consensus that squarely blames terrorists for their acts instead of making excuses for them to score petty political points.

At the same time, New Delhi's foreign-policy mandarins have attached no special urgency to deepening ties with Israel, the U.S. and other Western democracies. These countries face the similar challenge of battling radical Islam while maintaining an open society that respects minority rights and individual liberties. India has failed to bring to justice the Iranians who seriously injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat last year, and high-level contacts with Israel have been stalled since Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi 10 years ago.

Instead, Indian pundits have attempted to revive the discredited doctrine of nonalignment. The government has also devoted some of its scarce resources to propping up the illogical BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping dominated by China. India's friends in this group either don't face a comparable threat from Islamist terrorists, or lack the concern for human rights that makes fighting radical Islam that much harder.

To be sure, many of the problems India faces aren't of its own making. The Obama administration's half-hearted approach to the conflict in Afghanistan, and to fighting radical Islam more broadly, can't be blamed on New Delhi. Nor can Pakistan's continued descent into fundamentalist chaos. Several leaders in Islamabad are publicly mourning the death of Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief who, until a U.S. drone targeted him Sunday, was ostensibly Pakistan's public enemy No. 1.

Nonetheless, not having complete control of your environment is no excuse for failing to take common-sense measures to safeguard security. In no other major democracy do mainstream politicians sympathize as openly with suspected terrorists. After bombs killed six people at an opposition Bharatiya Janata Party rally last week in the Hindi heartland state of Bihar, a leader of the state's ruling party blamed BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi for being "a bad omen," instead of focusing on the suspected terrorist group Indian Mujahideen.

In a recent speech, ruling Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi implied that Islamist terrorism is not rooted in ideology but arises spontaneously in response to Muslim grievances over maltreatment by India's Hindu majority. Someone needs to remind him that the Students Islamic Movement of India, precursor to the Indian Mujahideen, was formed in 1977, long before Hindu nationalism took center stage in Indian politics.

Thus even as security in India's immediate neighborhood deteriorates, the country's politicians and foreign-policy mandarins remain unprepared to face the challenge. Unless they can find a way to place national security above petty politics, and orient foreign policy toward concrete cooperation with natural allies, India may well discover the high price of complacency.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume.

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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

    Follow Sadanand Dhume on Twitter.

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