Sino-Indian relations need confidence-building measures but they also need to be carefully thought through before being negotiated. One such measure is the joint anti-terror exercises begun in December 2007 in China’s Yunnan province, and followed up by similar exercises held in Belgaum, Karnataka in December last year. That New Delhi made a mistake using ‘anti-terrorism’ as a plank to base CBMs on has been brought home by the fairly tepid response of Beijing to the 26/11 mayhem wrecked in Mumbai just before the Belgaum anti-terror exercises. Seeking to downplay the fact that the terrorists were of Pakistani origin and reluctant to acknowledge that elements of the Pakistani state were involved, China has stuck to calling for restraint on both sides and de-escalation of tensions rather than apply any pressure on Pakistan, which is a close ally.
Even this pressure, it could be argued, arises from two considerations – one, elements among Uyghur separatists in China’s Xinjiang province have been radicalized by Pakistani influence over the last several years; and two, Chinese citizens have increasingly become victims of terror in Pakistan. The Sino-Indian joint exercises might have been intended to familiarize the two armies with each, but their low level – involving a few hundred soldiers on each side – implies that the objective is mainly political. Consequently, the least that could be expected is for the two countries to be on the same page when it comes to defining ‘terrorism.’
While a clear definition is lacking, terrorism has moved from being seen as politically-directed violence, indiscriminate or otherwise, to something that is seen simply as indiscriminately-aimed violence against innocent civilians and without just cause. Within this understanding of terrorism, a fundamental difference is evident in the way India and China have looked upon terrorism. For India, the expression, as used in both state and popular discourse, has primarily referred to externally-sponsored violence against the state, its agencies and innocent civilians, whereas, for China, the label of terrorism has become convenient post-9/11 to describe the essentially secessionist problem in Xinjiang, caused by Muslim Uyghurs.
By this yardstick, all the separatist insurgencies of Northeast India should be classified as terrorism, despite the larger and more serious militant groups pursuing a clear policy of not attacking civilians but only targeting state agents and infrastructure, based on the understanding that they cannot afford to alienate popular support in their struggle. The same can be said of Naxal groups in the country. While there are groups in both the Northeast and Naxal-affected states that are nothing but criminal gangs acting under the garb of ideology, local authorities in these areas are usually well-aware of the distinction between an insurgency and a law-and-order problem.
However, the recently-created National Investigation Agency (NIA) is tasked with investigating and prosecuting “offences affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity of India.” The very wide interpretation that this allows coupled with the NIA’s origin in the wake of the Mumbai attacks suggest that both separatist insurgencies and left-wing extremism will now be more easily accepted in the mainstream imagination and legally interpreted as constituting terrorism. Of course, this is not to say that the Indian state’s application of force to counter either separatist insurgency or left-wing extremism, in many instances, has hitherto been any less lethal than its use against terrorists. In any case, in parts of Northeast India where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is in operation, there is no essential difference between China and India in their views of terrorism.
It thus appears that Indian democracy does not seem to be any more capable than Chinese authoritarianism of finding a better way of dealing with disgruntled elements among its own citizens. Indeed, India seems to be just as opportunistic as China and in the process, movements that require a political response are dealt with militarily, further exacerbating the problem.
Pakistan-sponsored terror by stealth, as it were, or by having more joint exercises on anti-terrorism. That is an insult to the Indian men in uniform who have sworn an oath to serve a very different Republic than the People’s Republic. India ought to ask China to agree to some basic principles on terrorism before it conducts any more bilateral anti-terror exercises.
For long, India has complained about the rest of the world not understanding its concerns about and sufferings due to terrorism. Today, the international community certainly pays greater attention to terrorism but India should resist the temptation that China has fallen prey to, of an opportunistic branding exercise that classifies home-grown movements with a substantial degree of popular support, as terrorism.