Terrorism in South Asia : Impact on Development and Democratic Process
Kanchan Lakshman ·       

One of the few positive aspects of the 9/11 tragedy is the exponential growth in the scholarship on terrorism. Terrorism in South Asia: Impact on Development and Democratic Process, edited by Sridhar K. Khatri and Gert W. Kueck, is one such effort as far as South Asia, theatre of many violent conflicts, is concerned.

The post 9/11 phase has opened the floodgates to a whole new paradigm shift in the perceptions of national and international security. With renewed interest of the world players in the sub-continent and not immune to global transformations, South Asia, consequently, stands at the threshold of critical changes vis-à-vis its strategic environment, accepted wisdom and policy orientation.

Significantly, 9/11 is widely believed to have radically changed the way people view an armed struggle - especially where patterns of terrorist violence are involved. Very few among the international community are now willing to extend support to the use of terrorist violence as an instrument of state policy. In other words, a clear process of deligitimisation of terrorist violence as means to achieve political goals is underway across the globe, and there is a growing conviction that such deligitimisation is a necessary political condition for success against terrorism.

South Asia and its margins has, for long, been the hub of Islamist extremism. While the world at large continues to view South Asia as a region of a plausible nuclear flash point, there is much at stake for critical and focused scholarship on the persistent pursuit of various forms of terrorism and its impact within the constituent states of the region. It is in this context that this book, largely the outcome of a conference, has its relevance.

The essence of this edited volume, presented in seven sections, is to be located in the large canvas that it seeks to cover, an inarguably difficult task given the complexity associated with studying terrorism.

While the first two sections explain the economic and political costs of terrorism from the global and South Asian perspectives, the subsequent two chapters are devoted to the impact of terrorism on democracy and the travails in Sri Lanka. Further, the book dwells on the nuances of terrorism and interstate relations as also a delineation of the co-operative framework towards combating terrorism. Towards the end, it proposes conclusions in the direction of policy prescriptions.

Are there, Caleb Carr ponders, "ways in which terrorism is actually a progressive form of warfare?" The war on global terror seemingly continues in its outward form, but the inner clarity and coherence of the fight against perpetrators and state sponsors of terror have been mired in a range of factors and events propelled by competing foreign policies and 'interests of state' in South Asia.

The authors featured in this book are unanimous in their opinion that mal-governance and corruption plagues South Asia. Together with weak enforcement regimes and a multiplicity of crises of political legitimacy, of unequal development, and of recurrent and escalating conflict in all the member-states, South Asia is increasingly referred to as 'the most volatile area of the world'.

While presenting a country specific insight and a discernment of the regional security in a relatively erudite manner, one of the significant flaws of the book is the failure to delineate the agenda of various terrorist groups, insurgencies and sub-state actors. This is crucial, considering that the authors are in agreement with the dictum that each country follows a particular response mechanism that is unique. Regional co-operation towards combating terrorist violence in South Asia has been a non-starter largely because the agendas of subversion by terrorist groups have, regretfully, not been deconstructed. While the idea that radical Islam lends itself, with sufficient ease, to terrorist violence has been recognised by many in South Asia, it is also true that large swathes of territory in the sub-continent are currently under the influence of non-Islamist actors, who wage a rather violent battle against the state and civil society. Within this context, it is useful to note that at least 77 districts within 12 States in India are affected by left-wing extremism while the Maoist insurgents operate to varying degrees in approximately 68 of the 75 districts that comprise Nepal.

Can terrorism be neutralised or contained by addressing its root cause? Muchkund Dubey makes a forceful point in writing that it is not necessary to wait for a commonly agreed definition of terrorism, or until its root causes are eliminated. At another end, while interpreting the nuances of violence in Bangladesh, Matiur Rahman notes that terrorism, as perceived in other South Asian countries, is "hardly applicable to Bangladesh." Since this volume was published, Bangladesh has come under intense global scrutiny for the lengthening shadow of Islamist terror. Rahman's Dhaka-based newspaper, Prothom Alo, is also currently facing the wrath of the Islamist extremists in that country for a five-part article on Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami, a designated terrorist outfit in the United States, running camps in different parts of Bangladesh imparting training to terrorist groups from India and Myanmar. Two Islamist organisations, including the Islami Oikyo Jote, a member of the ruling coalition, staged rallies near the Chittagong office of the Daily on August 18, 2004, protesting against what they claimed were defamatory reports (under the headline 'Militant Activities in Greater Chittagong') against unregistered seminaries.

Any effective counter-terrorism strategy must be premised on global efforts that supplement national and bilateral strategies. Regrettably, within the South Asian ensemble, this is far from true given Pakistan's continuing duplicity. While the book recognizes terrorism to be a global phenomenon, a co-ordinated response strategy in South Asia is still in the realm of impossible. Consensus, usually founders against narrow perceptions of 'interests of state' and a refusal to adopt coordinated responses, thereby negating Kumar Rupesinghe's formulations on early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

Despite an avowed worldwide interest against the scourge of international terrorism, the sources of terrorism's power and impact have, increasingly, spread to uncharted geographical areas and targets. Although it is imperative to prevent the scenario of an expanding terrorist violence, developments three years after 9/11 have not strengthened the resolve to do so. Such a skeptical view and doubtfulness are rested on inchoate and fitful response mechanisms in South Asia and elsewhere. The most effective and strategically defensible strategy would be one focused clearly on bringing the terrorists to justice and utilizing the rule of law and international forces. The war against terror, should therefore, redirect its campaign towards cutting off the financial assets of the terrorist internationale, heightening and co-ordinating domestic security, and using international law to convict, isolate and discredit the terrorists. Building up such a strategy is challenging and is bound to be a long haul. But the discipline and perseverance to cripple the networks, assets and capabilities of terrorists are more likely to produce lasting results than are momentary and competing foreign policy agendas.

Even as the governments in South Asia labour to secure and protect their subjects to an extent not anticipated in the past, academia in the sub-continent have an enormously vital role in providing an independent and objective analysis. Efforts of the nature presented in Terrorism in South Asia: Impact on Development and Democratic Process are well poised to contribute on an active basis.