India’s ‘Soft’ Counter-Terrorism: Lessons from Singapore

02 Aug, 2016    ·   5091

Husanjot Chahal discusses how India can combat terror better by following Singapore's soft strategy approach

Husanjot Chahal
Husanjot Chahal
In May 2016, the Delhi Police released four youth reportedly indoctrinated with Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) ideology after organising a set of counselling sessions, including weekly visits to a psychologist and a Muslim scholar. It was one of the rare occasions when positive reinforcement was apparently used as a tactic to de-radicalise terror suspects. India’s counter-terror strategy has recently seen use of soft approaches such as no-first arrest, guidance, countering radical narratives, etc to supplement hard tactics. The Delhi Police’s decision appears to be in conformity with this trend.

Soft approaches to counter terror have been used in many countries, such as Singapore, whose unique model provides an interesting case study, and elements of that approach may be relevant to the Indian system.

Singapore follows a bi-layered counter-terrorism strategy. A thicker layer involving numerous soft measures is backed by a second layer comprising hard security measures and stringent laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA). The soft approach has two main components – a) involving the community to counter radical ideologies, and b) building social resilience. There are four major lessons that can be learnt from Singapore’s experience.

Community Briefings

In its counter-ideological initiatives, the Singapore government involved its Muslim community very conscientiously ever since the first indigenous terror network of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was exposed in the city-state in 2001. Its Home Ministry briefs the community members on every arrest, before media disclosures. Such briefings often involve clarifications that it does not view the terror outfit’s ideology as representative of “true Islam” and are aimed to reassure the minority community that the state does not see it as a source of potential trouble.

This small, yet significant step can prove to be very useful in the Indian context where the minority’s views of government actions are shaped by biased media reportage and also by the fact that some terrorists’ arrests and counter-terror operations have proved to be fabricated cases for acquiring promotions and rewards.

Facilitating Vs Employing

Globally, community leaders play a significant role in counter-terrorism by providing a counter narrative to the misconceived notions of radicalised individuals. In Singapore, the same is done by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), an all-volunteer group of Islamic scholars and teachers involved in the rehabilitation of detained operatives (through counselling) and countering radical ideologies (through publications and seminars). It was formed by two prominent community leaders in Singapore who were concerned about the dangerous ideology being sketched by radicalised detainees. Working alongside the RRG, the Singapore government has ensured that its part in such an act is that of a facilitator only. This gives the procedure more credence within the community.

In India, the government has attempted to co-opt clerics to prevent youth radicalisation. While dealing with detainees, community members are used more as tools to serve a purpose. In the JeM arrests, for instance, a Delhi Police official noted how Muslim cleric counsellors would be paid a “fee for their services”. Such an approach, evidently, comes with a short shelf-life and is visibly ill-founded. It has, not surprisingly, divided the community between supporters (the so-called sarkari mullahs) and non-supporters of the government.

Steering Clear of Polarisation

While facilitating voices, it is important to avoid pitching one religious orientation against the other. The Indian Prime Minister has been showcasing the Sufi order as a counter to radical Islam. Not only does it induce divisions in the community, but it also limits the appeal of the message by being exclusive in character. 

The Singapore government faced a similar situation in the initial phases of the RRG. Individuals at the forefront of its counter-ideological work were well known Sufi leaders who inadvertently shaped its content and ideas. This was not well received among certain segments of the Muslim community, especially among the Salafis. The situation aggravated when one Sufi practitioner’s statement was seen as anti-Salafi - he equated Salafism to extremism. The issue was soon rectified as the RRG started fielding non-Sufi asatizah (religious teachers) in its public forums and expanded its content.

It is suggested that a community-based initiative with an inclusive approach that draws a line between those who are pro-violence and terrorism and those who are against it, is more likely to succeed.

More Effective Inter-Faith Dialogues

Given Singapore’s multi-cultural set-up (not unlike India’s), its leaders have always stressed that social harmony and a strong psychological defence against ideologies that induce divides must be stressed. This has been primarily done through well-organised inter-faith platforms such as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC) and its Community Engagement Programme (CEP). These dialogues aim to build bridges between communities during peace-time, so that they can act as a safety net during times of conflict.

Unlike India, the platforms in Singapore are not for mere display where participants subsequently return to their sectarian rhetoric. Instead, they are seen as problem solving mechanisms and not talk-shop conferences. India needs to make these dialogues much more organised and effective to have practical implications on the society in countering the xenophobic views within it.

Out of a whole range of other lessons that can be learnt from Singapore, these four are perhaps most practicable, requiring the social conditioning of security agencies and shaping a nuanced official policy that is more likely to deliver results in these challenging times.