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Damned lies and statistics

On Aakar Patel’s attempts to convince us that terror has decreased under the UPA.

When I read Aakar Patel’s op-ed in Pakistan’s Express Tribune on the “successes” of the Manmohan Singh government in combating terrorism, I was reminded of a Sherlock Holmes quote about yielding to the “temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data.”  Except that in this case, the data wasn’t insufficient as much as it was either ignored or used out of context.

Mr. Patel writes:

Under Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, terrorism has decreased in India and Indians have become safer.

….It is correct to say that Indian citizens are as safe as the citizens of Europe and America against Islamist terrorism. You would think that a performance so demonstrably successful would earn Manmohan and his team applause. Instead, we have the inane commentaries that issue from a media that is convinced the Congress is doing something wrong here. [Express Tribune]

To support this very grand conclusion, Mr. Patel cites the South Asian Terrorism Portal’s (SATP’s) figures on the declining number of deaths from terrorism from 2005 (3,259) to 2012 (804).

This is great, except that it doesn’t prove that “terrorism in India has decreased.” If it proves anything, it is that fewer people have died from terrorism (but more on that and J&K later).  An examination of the actual number of instances of terror tell us another story altogether.  According to SATP data, the breakdown of the instances of terrorism outside of J&K and the Northeast is as follows:

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
1 3 4 5 0 3 3 5 7 1 5 4 2 1


Thus, available data indicates that the number of instances of terror in India have not varied significantly during either the tenures of the NDA or UPA governments between 2000 and 2013 (barring a few anomalies).  Terrorism, therefore, has not decreased.

Mr. Patel would have been right if he suggested that fewer people have died in terror strikes in mainland India since 2005, but even this cannot be presented devoid of context.  Mr. Patel failed to indicate that the nature of the terror threat was evolving.  India and Pakistan have made two attempts at rekindling a “peace process” during the statistical period (in 2002 and 2009).  During these periods, there was a concerted attempt by Pakistan to appear to “play nice” with India, which meant that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)’s involvement in terror in India needed to be obfuscated.

Local terror groups, proteges of the military-jihadi complex, were thus needed to maintain the pressure on India. Beginning in 2003, local terror groups began assuming operational control over some attacks in India.  But misguided individuals or groups in India neither had the financial nor technical resources needed to carry out the sort of attacks that the LeT or JeM were capable of.  While the LeT and JeM attacks were sophisticated, including the use of fidayeen (having been provided facilities and professional training financed by Pakistan) groups like SIMI and the Indian Mujahideen have been capable of far less.  Attacks against India by local terror groups have been confined to IEDs and low-yield remote-controlled bomb blasts.Thus, there was a qualitative shift in the nature of terror being inflicted upon India beginning in 2003.

This has been the dominant pattern since the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.  By their very nature, these attacks inflict fewer casualties than those orchestrated by Pakistan-based groups. Thus, fewer people dying from terrorist attacks isn’t a credit to the performance of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government;  it is merely a reflection of a qualitative change in the nature of terror India is currently battling.

A word on Jammu & Kashmir, since Mr. Patel apparently suggests  that there have been fewer instances of terror in J&K since the UPA took over.  This is true, but needs to be presented in the context of a larger theme.  The insurgency in J&K is dying a slow and inevitable death.  The Pakistanis recognize this as much as the Indians.  The number of casualties as a result of terror has been consistently decreasing since 2001. The 9/11 and 13/12 attacks, combined with U.S. pressure on terror financing channels have effectively ensured that the insurgency in J&K is on its last legs.  This trend would have held regardless of whether the UPA or the NDA was in power.

But Mr. Patel’s embarrassing lack of research is most evident when he suggests that “figures under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) excluded all Maoist violence because that wasn’t compiled under ‘terrorism’ till 2004, when Singh came to power.”

Since he doesn’t provide support for his statement, we can only assume that he arrived at such a conclusion based on a note in SATP’s website which says “Data Till 2004 does not include Fatalities in Left-wing Extremism.”  But this just means that SATP’s data on Maoist terror is incomplete, not the Government of India’s!  In fact, official data on left-wing terror casualties has existed since at least 2000, when the BJP-led coalition was in power.  A cursory review of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Annual Report 2003-2004 (pg. 41) would have indicated as much to Mr. Patel, but it should already be clear by now that Mr. Patel was not on a fact-finding mission.

Which brings us back to Mr. Patel’s point that terrorism has decreased and India is safer under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s terms in office.  Even if we are to accept that there were fewer instances of terrorism — which they weren’t, as shown in the table above — it is ludicrous to say that India is safer today (forget being as safe as the U.S. and Western Europe, as he suggests!)  The infrastructure for terror continues to exist in Pakistan.  We know from news reports that the intent to hurt India remains undiminished.  We also know that local infrastructure for terror — however nascent — is being developed to challenge the state.

India’s ability to address these threats is hindered by a crippled internal security apparatus.  State and Central internal security agencies are experiencing systemic institutional atrophy.  The NIA — the UPA’s solution to our woes after 26/11 — hasn’t solved a terror case since 2009. Communication and coordination between various Central and State intelligence and police forces is poor.  Even worse, Centre-State mistrust on issues of national security has increased during the tenure of the UPA, to the extent that critical progress on the NCTC and NATGRID has stalled.  None of these reflect too well on Mr. Patel’s theory of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s “demonstrably successful” performance in making India safer.

Ultimately, the question is this: given what we know about the state of India’s internal security infrastructure, can we afford to take comfort in the various data points being bandied around by Mr. Patel?  That he may prefer the UPA and Dr. Singh over the BJP and its allies is understandable insofar as it is one’s personal choice.  But cherry-picking data points and drawing broad and inaccurate conclusions on an issue as important as national security merely to better market his party of choice is both irresponsible and dangerous.

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4 Responses to Damned lies and statistics

  1. Rajagopal (@bcl400) March 3, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    he said that?. Lol. “MT @filter_c: My fisking of Aakar Patel’s assertions that… Indians are safer under the UPA. http://t.co/iXWWUW92oq”

  2. Rohan Joshi (@filter_c) March 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    Replugging my fisking of Aakar Patel’s assertion that terrorism has declined & India is safer under the UPA. http://t.co/BvpHfT7tAu

  3. varnam_blog (@varnam_blog) (@varnam_blog) March 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    Damned lies and statistics http://t.co/vergRb6kBy

  4. Vivek Vaidyanathan (@vaid) March 5, 2013 at 6:05 am #

    Aakar Patel’s Damned lies and statistics http://t.co/fw69hfVpq8

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