Siddharth Varadarajan


In recent years many governments including India and Pakistan trained terrorists as instruments of their hidden plans but they eventually paid the price themselves. Here is how it has worked, explains noted journalist Varadarajan.


There is a story senior journalist A.S. Panneerselvan tells of the experience of the first group of Tamil Tigers who were brought to a remote camp in Uttar Pradesh for arms training by the Indian government in the early 1980s. Every evening, the camp’s Tibetan cook would look at the group of Sri Lankan Tamils and start laughing. 


Eventually, one of the Tamils learnt enough Hindi to ask the cook  what was so funny. “Thirty years ago,” the old man said, “I was  in this camp with other Tibetans getting trained and there was  somebody else to cook for us. Now you are here and I am cooking for  you!” “That may be so,” the LTTE man said, “but I still  don’t see what’s so funny.” Prompt came the reply: “You see,  I’m wondering who you will be cooking for 20 years from now ? I  think it may be the Chakmas!”


Unfortunately for the Indian establishment, the LTTE story did not  end so tamely, over cooking pots and a camp fire. Well before the terrorist group eventually met its end in the Vanni earlier this  year, the Tigers assassinated a former Prime Minister of India and  were responsible for the death of countless Indian soldiers.


I am recalling this story in an article about India and Pakistan  because it reminds us of three processes that are an essential part  of modern South Asian statecraft and which help define the contours  of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship. First, that  every state in the region has, at one time or another, patronized  extremist groups or tolerated their violent activities in order to  advance its domestic political or regional strategic interests. 


Second, the activities of these groups invariably “overshoot”  their target and begin to undermine the core interests of their  original patrons. Third, there comes a time in the life of all such  groups when the nature and extent of their violence reach a “tipping  point” as far as the same state is concerned.


A mature, well-developed state is one which is able to read the early  warning signs and effect a course correction in official policy well  before that tipping point is reached. In the absence of this  maturity, states respond in one of two ways. States with a tendency  to stability are at least able to recognize when a tipping point has  been reached and act accordingly. But states which are unable to  recognize either the early warning signs or the tipping point itself  and which continue to pretend that the non-state actors they have  patronized can be subordinated to an official command structure  despite evidence to the contrary run the risk of destabilizing 



The Congress party leader in Bombay, S.K. Patil, encouraged the rise  of the Shiv Sena in the 1960s in order to undermine the city’s  communist-led trade union movement. The Sena overshot its target and  eventually became a political rival to the Congress. By the time the  Sena revealed its true self in the communal violence it helped orchestrate in Bombay in 1992, it was too late for anyone to act  against it. The Sena had already become a part of the establishment,  its violence normalized, its leaders insulated from police action and  proper judicial sanction.


A second example of the same phenomenon, but with a different ending,  emerged in Punjab in the 1980s. Indira Gandhi welcomed the rise of  Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his extremist politics because she saw  in him an effective counter to the Akali Dal in Punjab. The  Khalistani ideologue’s violence was tolerated for some time; the  tipping point for the establishment should arguably have come when a  senior police officer, A.S. Atwal, was gunned down by Bhindranwale’s  men in April 1983. But New Delhi waited and waited, acting against the ‘Sant’ only in June 1984.


The trouble with acting against extremist groups after the tipping  point is reached is that the process can be long drawn out and  costly, especially in terms of human life. Successive governments at  the Centre pacified Punjab but not before nearly 20,000 people lost  their lives in Operation Bluestar, the November 1984 massacres, and the brutal police campaigns in the Punjab.


In Pakistan, the military-cum-intelligence establishment has had a  long-term policy of creating, cultivating and using extremist groups  both as a lever against mainstream political parties within the  country and as a tool of foreign and military policy against India  and Afghanistan. Some of these groups very rapidly ‘overshot’ their initial targets, especially domestically. The state responded  by targeting particularly wayward terrorist leaders but did not  abandon the overall structures of official permissiveness. External  pressure following 9/11 led to the temporary course correction of  abandoning the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Lal Masjid situation in Islamabad was another potential tipping point but its lessons were  ignored, leading to the growth of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. 


Then came Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but the nexus between  extremism and a military establishment keen to subvert the return of  democracy muddied the waters. Sufi Mohammad’s folly in openly  defying the Pakistani state soon after the Nizam-e-Adl fiasco in Swat  brought about a more decisive point of inflection, which is today  still being played out in the Malakand division.


But even if the Pakistani army has joined the battle against  terrorism in the frontier regions bordering Afghanistan in earnest,  there is no question of the military establishment recognizing the  danger that anti-India terrorist groups have started to pose to  Pakistan itself. A section of the Pakistani political leadership saw in the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 the grave threat  that groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba pose to the stability of the  region. Nudged along by the United States and by a non-confrontationist Indian approach, an unprecedented criminal  investigation was launched against a section of LeT operatives. Since the LeT has never launched a terrorist attack inside Pakistan,  however, it is easy for sceptics there to argue that the group does  not pose a threat. That is why the establishment there is reluctant  to act against Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed. But wise statecraft is  about recognising the early warning signs, not waiting for the  tipping point. Imtiaz Gul’s book, The Al-Qaeda Connection, provides  plenty of evidence on the deep links which exist between the LeT, the  Jaish-e-Mohammed and even the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, on the one hand,  and the TTP in Pakistan’s tribal areas, on the other.


Given these political realities, what can India do to encourage  Pakistan to recognize that the terrorist groups operating on its soil are an undifferentiated syndicate and pose a common threat to both countries? Of all the forms of encouragement, refusing to talk is the least effective. It is not a coincidence that those sections of the Pakistani establishment which continue to see the jihadi terror groups as future assets are the very sections least anxious to see the resumption of the bilateral dialogue. Exchanging rhetoric and  putting pressure via public statements are also not likely to pay  dividends. Nor is there any point in messing up the strong case India has in Mumbai with overkill. Pakistani officials have pointed out, for example, that the salutation “Major General sahab” — one of the co-conspirators allegedly identified by Ajmal ‘Kasab’ and seen by the Indians as proof of Islamabad’s official complicity in 26/11 — is never used in the subcontinent; the preferred greeting is ‘General sahab’.


At a recent Track-II meeting of Indian and Pakistani analysts, former ambassadors, military officers and intelligence chiefs organized by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Bangkok, there was consensus on the grave threat terrorism poses to Pakistan and to India. Specifically, the need for India and Pakistan to open a back  channel on counter-terrorism was recognized, with the participation  of intelligence agencies from the two countries. This would supplement the back channel on Jammu and Kashmir which worked  effectively till 2006 and which, the Track-II meeting felt, needs to  be revived at an early date. The Composite Dialogue process, too, was  seen as having served a useful purpose in the past.


With last month’s meeting in New York between the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan yielding little in terms of forward movement by either side, there is a danger of the bilateral relationship getting stuck into one of those ruts that finally require the mediation of extra hands in order to be rescued. Rather than wait for that, the  first available improvement in optics — the start of the Mumbai  trial in Pakistan, for example — should be seized upon to move ahead on the back channel, with the front channel being revived in a calibrated manner as confidence increases. Indefinitely postponing talks will not help protect India from future terrorist attacks. And talking will not make it more vulnerable. India should stop confusing  hard line diplomatic strategy for effective counter-terrorism.


If terrorism will not compel India to settle outstanding disputes with Pakistan, keeping the dialogue process suspended indefinitely is not going to force Islamabad to be more mindful of New Delhi’s concerns either. Both strategies have failed; it is time the two countries moved beyond them.


(The Hindu, October 4, 2009)

Top - Home