Being a region of complex geography, intertwined histories, multifaceted cultural systems, and a multitude of identities, this kaleidoscopic nature and features of South Asia exemplify pluralism and ideally should strengthen the potential of a shared future with regional harmony and consolidated peace with all of its people.
However, instead of strengthening inter-regional harmonization between nations, these facets exert a domineering presence on the regional questions of peace and stability. These facets acting as conflictual instead of functional and primary region-wide conflictual state is the matter of terrorism.
As a region, South Asia is not a stranger to the problem of terrorism. In historical terms, the region had known many of the world’s most violent eras of terrorism from actors and organizations belonging to rightist and leftists ideological leanings.
Regionally, among the most violence-prone manifestations, three of the most enduring form of terrorism stems from left-leaning Maoists, right-wing Islamists, and a number of ethnonationalism-leaning groups and movements proliferating the complicated South Asian landscape of security, stability, and violence.
To underline the history, motivations, tactics, and operations of each of the organizations involved in either of the three forms of terrorism is beyond the scope of this essay. To give a more nuanced understanding of regional terrorism, this essay is organized around the ascendance of all three forms of terrorism and how these relate to the strategic trends of increasing polarization between governing authorities and oppositional politics, international power competition and regional insecurities, and social inequality and authoritarian political systems.
The Violence of the Left
While the Maoists insurgency in Nepal officially came to an end with an agreement in 2006, the splinter groups from Maoists still retain the potential to wreak havoc upon the fledging democratic transition in Nepal. The government continues to strike new agreements with different factions to preserve the 2006 agreement yet the underlying causes of concentration of power, haphazard economic development, and checkered provision of goods and services to people continue to act as stimuli for various factions to make their voice heard through acts of violence. However, the agreement still holds in Nepal and there’s a tense state of peace between the Nepalese state and Maoists.
However, the evolution and mutation of Maoist insurgency in India follow a different path through the insurgency itself was born out of similar social and economic grievances which influenced Nepalese Maoists. Moreover, the elements of separatism, ethnonationalism, and indiscriminate violence including against civilians and multinational companies are added to the mix of Maoists (Naxalites) insurgency.
The violence perpetrated by Maoists was reduced between 2009 and 2021, however, in the same 2021 year, Maoists once again increased violence by killing 22 security forces personnel. Maoist insurgency in India is a continued, low-intensity conflict in the key strategic locations of the Indian geography.
They also play a broader role in the Indian-Chinese relationship as allegedly China coax them whenever tensions with India rise. The rise of Hindutva nationalism in Indian politics also leads to fears of overpowering indigenous lands and people with capitalist development and deprivation of basic rights and resources to local people thus increasing Maoists and indigenous political parties’ frustrations with Indian security institutions.
Besides left-leaning and ethno-nationalist Maoists insurgency, India is also confronted with the rising challenge of rightwing terrorism no less by people within the broad umbrella of Hindutva nationalism.
The fusion of separatist terrorism, state violence, and ethno-nationalist ambitions prefigures the violence perpetuated by Tamil Tigers and Islamists in Srilanka. The story of Tamil Tigers was a harrowing reminder of the most brutalizing aspects of terrorism. They were involved in the most audacious terrorist violence the region has ever seen and, by some accounts, termed the originators of suicide bombers in the region’s modern history.
While the Srilankan state crashed the Tamil insurgency and achieved a decisive victory in 2009, the militant undercurrents of political authoritarianism, imbalances in ethnic power sharing, and religious hatred carried on unabated. The rise of Islamist violence with the 2019 Easter bombing possessed some of these elements alongside the radicalization of Muslims and Buddhist violence against Muslims.
While no major terrorist attack has occurred since then, the strong sentiments of hate and polarization fraught Srilanka’s political landscape which resulted in the political protests recently. Also, the transnational angle cannot be ignored as suspected attackers in the 2009 bombing were believed to be ISIS-inspired. Given the window of opportunity, there remains a potential for various groups to use violence against a weakened state.
Identity, Authoritarianism, and Terrorism
The transnational angle as well as Islamist leaning is also evident in Bangladesh. While there has been a marked reduction in terrorist violence from the late 1990s to 2019, the threat of Islamist violence internally and with a transitional network remains potent.
The authoritarian politics of Hasina Wajid and the security-centric agenda of her government also plays a role in preventing terrorism. However, with every suspension of civil and political freedoms, the Bangladeshi state creates more opportunities with its repression of terrorist violence by groups within even if transnational connections were severed.
Transnational connectivity, identity concerns, political authoritarianism, and global power competitions all feature heavily in the twin cases of the intense upsurge in terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The history of these twin cases is well-known but the lightning attack and the capture of power by the Taliban in 2021 of the Afghan state continues to have a lingering impact on the dynamics of terrorism within the country, in Pakistan, and regionally.
Both countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with regional Central Asian states and Iran with international powers such as China, Russia, and the United States are all heavily involved in pressurizing the Taliban not to let terrorist groups within the country proliferate regionally.
This international and regional effort is increasingly becoming a failure as various groups including Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda is threatening the Taliban-led government, the Pakistani state, and other regional states. Amongst other countries in South Asia, it is in the twin cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only cases in which terrorism is exponentially rising with no immediate remedial solutions being offered by state actors and international powers.
In Pakistan, the rise of Islamist violence also connects with the long-running ethnic insurgencies in the peripheries, especially in Balochistan. But both Islamist and ethnic violence tend to stem from the same sources of political authoritarianism and underdevelopment or unequal development.
The convergence of authoritarian political administration, social and economic inequalities with the capitalist form of development, majoritarian subsuming of minority identities, and international and regional power struggles fuels the surge in terrorism most emphatically seen in the twin cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan with tense peace being held in Nepal and low-intensity insurgencies carried out in India.
The failure of the governing authority in Srilanka to administer the state and the high-handedness of government in Bangladesh are keeping terrorist violence in statis but the undercurrents are still there, waiting for the opportunity to strike against the adversarial state.
The arch of terrorism in South Asia has a checkered history and a more ambivalent present. Governing authorities are doing all they can to curb, contain, and combat terrorist threats without addressing the underlying challenges of unequal development, political marginalization, and ethnocentrism.
These challenges in the first place are what influenced the insurgencies in many different places in South Asia. The pluralism which exemplifies South Asian kaleidoscopic expressions in history, culture, identity, and geography should exemplify the approaches South Asian states adopt in the challenge of terrorism.