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'Terrorism falls back by a step or two' in South Asia

Jan 07, 2009

Former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar sees a silver lining in the recent elections in Indian-administered Kashmir, Bangladesh’s return to democracy and capturing of an LTTE stronghold by the Sri Lankan army.

Indians would have remembered John Milton's lines as they stepped into the New Year, ‘Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud/ Turn forth her silver lining on the night?’ A hopeful, comforting prospect suddenly appeared from nowhere in the midst of the darkening South Asian security scenario.

Within the space of a week, it appeared - on three templates, unconnected, yet of a kind. The elections to the provincial assembly in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh and the Sri Lankan government forces' capture of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stronghold of Killinochi each in its own way will impact on South Asian security.

All three taken together, terrorism, which took giant leaps forward in South Asia last year, has fallen back by a step or two.

The successful conduct of the elections in J&K itself has come as a great relief to New Delhi. The president of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, spoke for the national feeling when she said it really did not matter which political party won the election, but the important thing was that the democratic process gained traction in J&K.

Indeed, over 60% of the electorate took part in the election, ignoring the separatists' call for boycott.

Kashmiris choose the ballot box

The high voter turnout underlines that politics has become competitive - and participatory. The profound significance of this cannot be underestimated. The camp of diehard secessionists has been marginalised almost as a residual force.

There are incipient signs that some among the religious extremist and separatist elements might have probed party politics for the first time in a significant way. In any bitterly fought bloody insurgency, the endgame comes when the irreconcilable elements show signs of willingness to try out the discourse of politics. No doubt, the signs have appeared in the Kashmir Valley.

Another distinguishing feature was that the Kashmir Valley, which is Muslim-majority, handed in a "secular" mandate by electing two regional parties - the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party - which are capable of a broad secular outlook, having been participants in coalition politics at the federal level at one time or another. Clearly, good and responsive governance has become the leitmotif of J&K politics.

On the whole, therefore, the J&K election augurs well for India. In a free and fair election, a representative government is assuming power in the insurgency-ridden state, which enjoys legitimacy. How did this happen?

It is obvious that there is a sense of fatigue among the people of J&K after such bloody violence through almost a quarter century. Thus, the militants are becoming marginalised.

The common people prioritise their day-to-day concerns to be development and the rule of law, and an end to the brutalisation of life at the hands of the militants and the security forces. Finally, there is a groundswell of scepticism among the people - for a variety of factors - in counting on Pakistan to win azadi (freedom) from Indian rule.

Having said that, the Pakistan factor which is not easily fathomable or spoken about still remains crucial. Indeed, it may hold the key to what lies ahead. When the dust settles, these new stirrings might get reinforced in India-Pakistan political and diplomatic exchanges. But any substantial shift in dynamics will have to wait until a new government takes over in New Delhi as national elections are due this year.

All this may seem as if history has ended in the Kashmir Valley. But the faultlines remain very much there. The question is to what extent New Delhi will remain supportive of Omar Abdullah, the state’s new chief minister.

There are vested interests in both India and Pakistan who may create hiccups. The imponderables in India-Pakistan relations may play into their hands. Which is why, the denouement of the present crisis in India's bilateral relations with Pakistan is of utmost importance. But even an audacious soothsayer will hesitate to predict at this point.

Bangladesh averts 'Talibanisation'

In sheer drama, however, the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, which put an end to two-year army-backed rule, must take the cake. While the J&K election did not hold major surprises as such, the results of the Bangladesh elections have come as a political tsunami.

Political space in Bangladesh was supposed to have been neatly carved into two halves, which gave the military a handle to manipulate from behind the scenes.

The mandate is widely regarded as signifying the people's desire for democratic governance and a clean, corruption-free government.

But there are strong undercurrents that hold enormous significance for South Asian security. The results have shown that the people have given a near-fatal blow to the Islamic political parties.

Plainly put, this is an overwhelming mandate against religious fundamentalism. The people have strongly reacted to the perception of a creeping ‘Talibanization’ in Bangladesh. This assertion of the secular temper will come as a great relief to New Delhi.

India's has a troubled relationship with Bangladesh. It has been at its best during the last stint of the Awami League in power during 1996-2001. The list of pending bilateral issues between the countries is long, involving issues of trade, transit, sharing of waters, disputed border, etc. But from New Delhi's perspective, the imperatives of security are currently the number one priority.

Several separatist groups waging armed insurgency in India's volatile north-eastern region use Bangladeshi territory as sanctuaries. More important, Indian security agencies allege that Bangladesh has become a staging post for terrorists trained in Pakistan. There is strong suspicion that elements in Bangladesh are often active participants in the terrorist attacks within India.

New Delhi's main expectation at the present juncture will be that Hasina's government denies "strategic depth" to the terrorists and insurgent groups.

Lankan lurch towards peace

Unlike in J&K and in Bangladesh, it has been nature in its tooth and claw in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, but the end result is nonetheless a boon for South Asian security. The capture of Killinochi by the Sri Lankan forces last Friday is indeed a turning point in the fortunes of the LTTE.

The organisation has suffered similar reverses in the past and has staged comebacks against seemingly formidable odds, but this time there is a qualitative difference. It most certainly marks the end of the LTTE as a conventional military power, though some may interpret that the organisation has made a tactical retreat from its headquarters of Kilinochi after inflicting heavy damage on the advancing Sri Lankan army.

The fact is the LTTE has lost its cadre strength; it is unable to access financial resources or indulge in fund-raising activities due to the international ban on it as a terrorist organization; its stockpiles of arms and ammunition have been vastly depleted.

There is undeniably a yearning for peace among the Tamil groups and civilians after the bloody strife lasting a quarter century.

To cap it all, Colombo is fully conscious that international opinion is also extremely favourable to the military campaign against the LTTE. There has been hardly any criticism of the massive human-rights violations by the Sri Lankan military. Colombo's excellent media management techniques cannot quite account for the acquiescence of the international community with the rout of the LTTE.

But the decisive factor has always been New Delhi's stance, which Colombo has optimally exploited. Over the years, India has shed its heavily nuanced approach towards the Tamil insurgency. Several factors have come into play. The Sri Lankan Tamil problem is no more the emotive issue that it used to be in the politically sensitive southern state of Tamil Nadu. Mainstream Indian opinion has abhorred the LTTE ever since the assassination by a Tamil of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Government-to-government ties between New Delhi and Colombo have steadily improved. Despite (or because of) the strong undercurrent of suspicion regarding Indian intentions, successive governments in Colombo have assiduously cultivated the Indian elite (Read more).

The author has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.

Source : Asia Times
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