Terrorist attacks have often been launched during campaign time, and opposition leaders are more vulnerable.
On a late January evening in 2008, two policemen were routinely checking vehicles in a remote corner of Davanagere district in Karnataka. They stopped a two-wheeler and searched its sidebox. To their surprise, the policemen found a pile of vehicle number plates stashed therein. Suspecting the two youngsters on the two-wheeler to be vehicle thieves, the policemen handed them over to the Honnali police station.
It would have been treated as an ordinary arrest and dealt with accordingly, but for the fact that the district’s young superintendent of police thought of consulting the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau in Bangalore, who lost no time in establishing the identity of one of the arrested persons as Raziuddin Naser, who had just returned after a sojourn in Pakistan.
Sustained interrogation of Naser revealed that the banned Students Islamic Movement of India had revived itself under Safdar Nagori and was planning to carry out vehicle-bombing operations in Goa and elsewhere and that he and his partner were engaged in stealing vehicles to that end. That was the first indication of the emergence of the organisation which, a few months earlier, had decided to call itself Indian Mujahideen (IM).
Discreet and coordinated operations by Central intelligence and the police in various states led, within a couple of months, to the tracking down of Safdar Nagori and several of his associates belonging to different modules from various parts of the country. It was then believed that a great threat to national security had been averted thanks to the arrest and revelations of Raziudin Naser. That belief proved wrong. Starting with Jaipur in May 2008, a series of blasts, referred to by some as the BAD (Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi) blasts, rocked the nation.
Names like Riyas, Iqbal and Yasin Bhatkal became familiar to everyone. The past few years have seen intense and widespread operations by the intelligence agencies and security forces to nab the absconding IM leaders. Out of the 50 most wanted persons figuring on the National Investigation Agency’s website, about 10 are from the IM. Over the last six months or so, our intelligence agencies and police have succeeded in netting several of them, including Bhatkal, Asadulla Akhtar, Tehseen Akhtar alias Monu, Waqas, etc — the last two in the last week alone. But they cannot rest on their laurels, despite declarations by the media that the back of the IM has been broken. A quick scan of the situation on the ground gives rise to misgivings, such as: one, the IM is capable of mutating, as we have seen in the past. Two, several IM leaders are still in hiding, either within the country or abroad, from where they are capable of guiding destructive operations.
Among them are heavyweights like Riyas Bhatkal, Iqbal Bhatkal, Amir Reza Khan and Abdul Subhan Qureshi, besides shadowy figures like Dr Shahnawaz, Bada Sajid, Mirza Shadab Beig, Masood Sheikh, Raheel Sheikh, etc. Three, new recruits, well-educated and technologically capable, seem to be joining the IM. Look at the two youngsters arrested along with Waqas. Both are studying for engineering degrees in reputed institutes.
Four, reports indicate that at least two LeT cadres, who infiltrated into India to be suicide bombers, have been intercepted in UP, presumably as the result of the revelations of Monu and Waqas. There may be more. Five, very recently, the leftwing extremist groups have once again demonstrated their capability to hit security forces. Six, it’s general election time, and security norms are usually lax during these times because of candidates’ compulsion to reach out to people whose votes they need.
The last of the reasons merits very close attention by the powers that be. In South Asia, we have a sad history of assassinations during elections. When one looks back, memories of three young, dynamic political leaders come flooding in. One harrowing assassination that we in India are unable to forget is that of Rajiv Gandhi, who was seeking re-election after a term out of power when he became the victim of an LTTE human bomb at an election rally in Sriperumbudur. Gamini Dissanayake, who was just 52 and was campaigning to be president of Sri Lanka, was killed by the LTTE in 1994 while addressing a public meeting in Thotalanga.
In December 2007, Benazir Bhutto, hoping to make a comeback in Pakistan, succumbed to an assassin’s attack at a political rally in Liaquat National Bagh in Rawalpindi, which was meant to mark the beginning of her campaign. The significant fact to note is that all the three were out of power when they were killed. There seems to be an inherent problem in providing requisite security to opposition candidates in the South Asian context.
I am not suggesting that this is intentional, but there is a mind-set amongst security and intelligence professionals, which refuses to accept that the threat level to an opposition leader could be higher than that of the incumbent prime minister or president. The dominant view, based on traditional wisdom, in the security and intelligence community is that there is an in-built threat which any person who holds a constitutional post faces and, therefore, the levels of protection to such leaders need to be higher than those for anyone else.
We cannot, however, afford to lose any one of our leaders, whether from the ruling party or the opposition, in the run-up to the elections (or at any other time). The recent arrests show that our intelligence and security officials are maintaining a high state of alert, but they must continue to be cautious and remain alive to the flipside of success, which is the tendency to lower one’s guard.
The writer is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing.