Regional leaders have made a show of standing together on terrorism, but individually they use anti-terror laws to suppress dissent and minorities

In unleashing violence on sections of their own populations these countries only make it easier for groups like Islamic State to take hold

Led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the heads of several South Asian countries pledged to cooperate through last year on regional security, with counterterrorism efforts at the top of their agenda.

The move was made as the effects of three attacks in the region over the past decade continued to resonate: the 2014 attack on an army school in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban that killed 135 schoolchildren, the 2016 storming of an upscale bakery in Dhaka by a local militant group, and Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, also by local militants, that claimed 270 victims.

As expected, Islamic State (Isis), the militant Islamist organisation driven from its bastions in Iraq and Syria, rushed in to claim credit for the attacks, and countries in the region were spurred into drafting national counterterrorism policies and endorsing the need for greater regional cooperation.

In the past year, Nepal reiterated a proposal for a common definition of terrorism in the UN to enable greater cooperation, while India, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka signed bilateral security agreements.

But even as they renewed their bids for regional cooperation, the leaders of these countries were individually unveiling policies that are set to reverse the gains of collective efforts.

Take, for instance, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA). Set up after the 2008 assault on Mumbai by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba that killed 165 people, it has been in the news more for using anti-terrorism laws to arrest students, human rights activists and dissenters.

A case in point was the incarceration of an octogenarian Jesuit priest for his work among indigenous tribes and the poor. Such use of anti-terrorism laws to suppress political dissent and minority communities is endemic to the region, as is the vicious repression of independent media.

India’s story mirrors, to a large extent, the story of South Asia itself. It is a volatile period for democracy in the region and a deadly time to be Muslim. As a minority in Hindu India and Buddhist Sri Lanka, Muslims are under siege – despite 33 per cent of the global Muslim population living in South Asia.

Lynching, pogroms, ethnic cleansing and genocide – terms that should already be obsolete – are now familiar watchwords among a new generation that has witnessed the plight of the Rohingya, Kashmiris and Muslim cattle herders.

In its 2020 annual report, the Global Terrorism Index noted that for the second year in a row the South Asian region was the most affected by terrorism, although Pakistan recorded its steepest decline in terrorism, with the fewest terror-related deaths since 2006. Yet, two events marked a dramatic end to an otherwise solemn year: the release from custody of the American journalist Daniel Pearl’s killer and the conviction by another court of the 2008 Mumbai attack mastermind.

While the former prompted a sharp reaction from the US State Department, regional experts see the latter as yet another effort by Islamabad to look good ahead of the February 2021 deadline set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global watchdog tasked with combating terrorism financing and money laundering, for Pakistan to get off its grey list.

Placed on the grey list in June 2018, if Pakistan does not meet the FATF criteria it could fall to the blacklist, potentially impacting the country’s ability to attract foreign investors and borrow money from international lenders, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. This would be disastrous now with the economy in free fall since the pandemic began.

And then, despite important advances in peace talks, much could go wrong in neighbouring Afghanistan. The surge in violence and spate of assassinations as the Taliban takes control will inevitably lead to cross-border spillover, proxy warfare, and state sponsorship of armed groups, as well as reverse Pakistan’s counterterrorism gains in recent years.

The dire predictions of increased terrorist attacks in the year of Covid-19 turned out to be like exit polls in an Indian election – off course. But the ongoing surge of Islamophobia on the Indian subcontinent and the growing influence of Isis in search of a base in this volatile region does warrant higher vigilance.

Isis clearly sees enormous opportunities in populations made vulnerable to radicalisation by religious oppression. The fact that Isis makes a mark in autocratic countries riven by social unrest and corruption attests to its ability to exploit the disaffected. Having made successful inroads into Afghanistan’s Khorasan province, the terrorist group is expanding its reach across countries in the region, and its recent exhortations to its followers to stage attacks are a sign of what may come in the months ahead.

In addition, some of the long-running separatist insurgencies continue to defy resolution. The new alliance between Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups indicates that the Balochistan insurgency in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran will gather momentum. While some insurgencies on the subcontinent have been crushed, the legitimate causes that spawned them continue to be ignored. Over a decade after a brutal military defeat, the causes that spurred Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils to arms remain unaddressed.

Ethnocentric insurgencies in Kashmir, Balochistan and Nagaland fighting for equality, justice, peace and dignity may no longer be the stuff of media headlines even as indignities against their peoples mount, but their persistence will continue to impede effective governance. The Naxalites (Maoists), the poorest and most marginalised members of Indian society and dubbed left-wing terrorists, continue their struggle into the sixth decade. The fact that these insurgencies are stubbornly resilient is a result of the state’s brutal and bigoted responses more than merely the strategic superiority of the underdogs.

The current landscape and trends point to 2021 as another bleak year for the subcontinent. Authoritarian India, military-ruled Myanmar and militarised Sri Lanka in the forefront of persecuting a section of their own populations; interminably unstable Pakistan and ill-fated Afghanistan; fragile Maldives and Bangladesh, already coping with radicalised elements, over a million Rohingya refugees and the threat of returning fighters from former Isis strongholds – and a collective silence on the plight of the Uygurs, the greatest repression of Muslims in the 21st century by China.

The pandemic, when it recedes, is set to leave behind ruined economies and an environment ripe for bloody violence and heightened terrorist activity. A number of studies have underlined the correlation between dim prospects for young men and violence. The huge increase in youth populations in much of South Asia and the accompanying demands for education and employment, coupled with deepening social cleavages and rising inequalities, will be a prescription for the radicalisation of the region’s young.

Evolving threats of extremist violence test every country’s ability to bring together all elements of national power to combat the problem. As the region’s largest country, India could provide leadership against this transnational threat with a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, and even whole-of-region approach and foster stability in the region. Rather, its unleashing of violence against a section of its own people offers support and protective cover for countries similarly inclined.

Shyam Tekwani

Original Source: South China Morning Post