Scramble For Northeast!
People of the India’s Northeast, in the eyes of we hinterland Indians, share a common identity. With our limited knowledge about those seven States, we address them as Naga, Mizo or Manipuri. Last week this perception changed suddenly—almost all Northeast people working in the cities of Southern India felt that they would be taken as an Assamese and attacked by marauding mobs if they did not leave their places of work by August 20.
The effect, in this age of communication, was infectious; everyone left his/her job in haste; packed baggage and headed straight for the distant Northeast. By the time inept administrative machinery, both at the States and Centre could fathom the gravity of the situation about 10,000 people had left Bengaluru, Pune and Chennai in the first wave of exodus for Guwahati—the nearest railway station for the India’s Northeast. This frenzy left four dead and 10 injured, when a train carrying fleeing north-easterners was attacked in West Bengal.
It was a very effective form of psychological warfare. With basic available means of communication, the plotters frightened the north-easterners so much that even assurances from state chief ministers, home ministers and police chiefs could not stem the exodus.
Piecing together the events, contours of a larger plot have emerged. Consequent to Bodo-Muslim clashes in Assam’s Kokrajhar district in mid-July, a protest rally by some Muslim organisations was held at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on August 11. It turned violent leaving two dead and about 45 injured. Weapons from policemen on duty were snatched; they were beaten up and molested and many vehicles were torched. The state government tried to play down the incident; and it was only after protests from other political parties, some arrests were made. Sudden violence, audacity of the rioters and meekness of the administration, got tagged in the psyche of the north-easterners and acted as a precursor of things to come.
Around same time, there was another sub-plot unfolding on the Internet. ‘Hate Material’ on various community groups of social networking sites was uploaded with a stern warning for the Northeast people to leave before August 20 or face dire consequences.
Concurrently, threatening SMSs and MMSs also started doing rounds. The Northeast community, which prefers to stay in clusters, huddled up to chalk out a strategy. Sporadic incidents of assault and intimidation by local goons on north-easterners in the campuses and place of work precipitated the situation. They did seek protection from the police and their landlords, but unable to elicit any positive response, they decided on the ominous recourse—to migrate en mass.
A parallel sub-plot was unfolding across the Siliguri Corridor. Anxious parents, relatives and well-wishers started receiving similar SMSs and threatening calls. Worried about the safety of their near and dear ones they fervently asked them to get back. In less than four days a fear psychosis was whipped up in a most subtle and effective manner, resulting into exodus of about 35-40,000 people.
The exodus came as a complete surprise to the governments and police. It started as a trickle and soon became a torrent. People left their jobs without notice and payment and headed home straight. It created a void in the restaurants and security business in Bengaluru, where a majority of migrants from Northeast were employed. Efforts by the government—meetings at railway station by home minister, senior police officers and civil organisations—could not check the herd mentality. Even the Central Armed Police Force columns staged flag marches in Bengaluru city. Many people admitted that their parents were urging them to return. It is rather surprising that mainly labour class chose to leave, while educated class stayed back.
During the Arab Spring, social media was extensively used to galvanise support against the oppressive regimes of North Africa and the Middle East. India, which is plagued by agitation politics, regional and communal tensions on regular basis, should have learnt its lessons from that event. Leadership and bureaucrats are expected to be visionary and not dabble in set-piece environs.
Despite being a leading player in information technology, India still lags behind in the realm of cyber security. In 2009-10 the Prime Minister’s Office and National Security Advisory Board computers were targeted. In 2012, as per Sachin Pilot, the Minister of State for Communication and Information & Technology, 133 government websites were hacked in the first quarter alone. These cyber attacks were mostly mounted from China or its proxy, Pakistan.
PAKISTAN UNLEASHES CYBER WAR ON INDIA
The next generation of warfare, the cyber war not only can disrupt data-links, electronic devices and networks, but can also create panic by use of the social media as we witnessed in the mass exodus of people of the northeast from Bangaluru, Hyderbad and Pune recently.
The Pakistani military establishment, including ISI, is frustrated with its inability to create problems in Kashmir and the lowering of intensity of insurgencies in the northeast. They feel that in spite of their best efforts, these areas are slipping out of their hands permanently. The Pakistan military lost major wars with India. To offset such losses, it started proxy war through covert means with the help of export of terrorism. Despite every effort, the proxy war also appears to be failing, as India moves on. Now with the help of their irregular forces consisting of the jihadi groups, it has decided to create havoc with the help of internet and the social media.
First, their websites curled out photographs of violence and disasters from different countries and morphed and uploaded to show violence against Muslims in Myanmar and Assam. Second, they used SMS messages through their sleeper cells in India to circulate threat to all the northeast people working in major cities like Bangaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi etc. The result was that there was mass exodus from these cities due to the threat posed in these messages.
In other words, Pakistan successfully used the next generation warfare, i.e. ‘cyber war’ and managed in creating a false perception of insecurity amongst the people from the northeast, as well as spread of disaffection.
Unfortunately, the Indian intelligence agencies, the local police and the government at large were fairly clueless. The result was almost half a million people in panic left for their hometown in Assam. The government response was pathetic, it lodged a protest with Pakistan. Rehman Malik, as usual, rejected the Indian protest and asked for proofs for investigations—the usual Pakistani ploy!
Was any Indian except those in the government, expected any other response from Pakistan? In the past sixty-five years, Pakistan has never accepted our legitimate concerns, yet New Delhi to gain time and avoid criticism ‘passed the buck’ once again.
In peacetime, if an adversary can with ease manipulate perceptions with the help of cyber space, just imagine the danger that India faces in times of war. The fly-by-wire fighter aircraft can be neutralised. Missiles instead of firing on the enemy can be redirected to destruct within. The electricity grids can be disrupted that will create mayhem from hospitals to airports. Fake orders can be passed to military units as also nuclear strategic command. The television transponders can be imposed with false news to create panic in the country. The subverted networks will bring to halt the bank transactions. The jamming of telephone lines can leave the civil government and the military blind, and the people gasping. The result will be rumors, panic, and chaos.
The only successful defence in any war is offence, whether it is conventional, overt or covert or cyber war. The enemy will always use the next generation warfare, i.e. cyber war as the first instrument to neutralise us before he launches its military forces. The cyber war will be used to soften the target, just like artillery is used by the Army.
Government’s policy therefore should be based on twin principles, namely that India’s cyber army should be able to defend networks, data links and electronic devices, and at the same time launch counter attack on the enemy.
India fortunately boasts of a young demographic profile, which is IT savvy. Therefore, New Delhi can raise one of the best cyber armies in the world. The answer does not lie in shutting down the social media as demanded by many ignorant, but in wielding the weapons of the 21st century in a far superior fashion that can outwit the adversary.
By Bharat Verma
It would be worthwhile to investigate as to how the miscreants managed the mobile numbers of the north-easterners for sending them threatening SMSs and calls. How this regional/ racial profiling of numbers was carried out? Were service providers involved or aware? It proves that innocuous looking ‘Bulk SMS’ or ‘Bulk e-mail’ business has a security threat dimension too. It can be used to target a particular group or community. While service providers bemoan over loss of business due to government’s ban on sending bulk SMSs for next 15 days, no one talks about a joint initiative by telecom service providers to curb the misuse of mobile communication technology.
We are now searching the Internet for the leads. It is very difficult to trace the origin of a cyber crime as Internet Protocol address can be camouflaged by various means. What is more worrisome is that despite such vulnerability, we continue to champion the cause of freedom of expression at the cost of national security.
Future wars, insurgencies, agitations and disinformation campaigns will be waged over the Internet. Imagine had this happened during a natural calamity, political turmoil, economic instability or war; the consequences would have been grave for national unity. This incident has demonstrated that how gullible a person or a group can be in difficult situations. It has also exposed ‘chinks in our cyber armour’. Plainly speaking, India, an information technology superpower has been humbled by a handful of ‘cyber criminals’ using basic tools of communication.
The efforts to check the exodus were disjointed and failed to instil confidence amongst the north-easterners. There was a lack of perception and coordination among various agencies. Some were working at cross-purpose. Otherwise how one does explains Railway Minister Mukul Roy’s decision to provide special trains and additional coaches for Guwahati, when authorities were trying to dissuade people from leaving? Even Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam has blamed these special trains for accelerating the exodus.
Post-exodus some 300 web sites containing provocative content have been identified and blocked by National Technical Research Organisation and Computer Emergency Response Team. About 40 per cent of these sites either originated or were uploaded from Pakistan. The question is why these sites are being identified and blocked now? Why a prophylactic surveillance is not maintained over the Internet and such sites and posts are removed regularly? In India, a discourse on Internet control is always carried by those who place freedom of expression above national security. The graffiti on the Internet should be ‘weeded out’ either by the Government or ‘Internet Samaritans’. Communal and regional tensions are a threat to national unity. We are lucky that similar exodus did not start from the Northeast, which must have been the end state of this plan.
Inter-regional tensions are a staple diet for Indian politics. Every year thousands of migrant workers face insults, intimidation and even violence in different parts of the country. While the fundamental right of an Indian citizen to move and work anywhere in the country is respected, it is sad to see people from some states still flocking same old cities in search of jobs as their ancestors did a century ago.
The north-easterners have started returning. For some time the community will be edgy. An odd incident of violence can destabilise them again. The community leaders and administration will have to be caring and vigilant.
By Col (Retd) US Rathore
(The author is a threat and risk analyst and defence and security expert.)