The third anniversary of the terrorist-fidayeen attack that scorched Mumbai on November 26, 2008 resulting in the death of 170 innocents and injuring more than 700 people, is an opportune moment for an objective assessment about the nature of the proxy-war challenge that India is dealing with and the policy changes that have been introduced to ensure that there is no recurrence of such a macro-terrorist incident that instills fear and uncertainty among the average citizen.

The fact that the Home Ministry has issued a general alert is part of this insecurity that has been engendered and it may be recalled that in 2010, at the time of the second anniversary there were similar apprehensions.  Yes, it is true that there has been no repeat of Mumbai over the last three years and this is a reflection of the improved security procedures and constant surveillance by the police and other agencies – but the pattern is tenuous.

A large democracy like India will remain inherently vulnerable to a determined terrorist attack, especially by the suicide-bomber fidayeen type of perpetrator and this is the abiding challenge to the Indian security establishment.   Post November 2008, the central and state governments – Maharashtra particularly – announced a slew of policy measures to ostensibly to plug the many gaps in the national security grid – but the results have been modest.

While a certain degree of improved coordination between the Navy and the Coast Guard - and some coastal states has been evidenced – the larger strategic backdrop that led to the Mumbai attack in the first place is cause for concern. For India, the first sponsored terrorist attack on Mumbai took place in March 1993 – a few months after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992 – and over the years there have been attacks on the city in 2002, 2003 and 2006 before peaking in November 2008. And Mumbai is one the many targets of terrorist violence directed against India.

This proxy war is part of the strategy of investing in religious extremism leading to terror, that has been adopted by the Pakistani establishment and from all accounts, there is little change in this position.  On Tuesday (Nov 22), the Minister of State for Home Affairs Jitendra Singh informed the Lok Sabha: “As per available intelligence inputs, Pakistan-based terrorist outfits, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hijbul Mujahideen etc., continue to receive support from ISI."

While there has been some improvement of relations with Pakistan in the recent past - as for instance in the IAF helicopter incident and the granting of MFN status for trade - it appears that this is more of a tactical nature and does not imply the change of mindset in the Pak establishment that will make the strategic difference to the challenge of terrorism.

Two illustrations of this unchanged attitude to terrorism in the Pakistani state were discerenible over the last month. At the Male SAARC Summit, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik adroitly shifted the onus for the entire Mumbai attack to the ‘non-state’ entity, urged the death penalty for Kasab - and thereby distanced the Pak establishment from any kind of involvement let alone support to
these groups that goes back to 1993 - based on  investigations carried out by Indian agencies.

The second incident which points to the Pakistani security agencies complicity has emerged in the Headley related testimony and other reports where it has been revealed that Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT chief arrested for the brutal attacks in India, was still directing Lashkar operations while in Pakistani custody. It has been reported by American sources that Gen Kayani rejected the US suggestion that at the very least the LeT’s access to a cell-phone should be immediately withdrawn.

Further reluctance by the Pak establishment to effectively contain terror groups was seen as recently as Thursday (Nov 24) in Lahore, where the Jamat ud Dawa (JuD) organized a large protest against the granting of MFN status to India and issued a warning to the Pakistani state for doing so. The shrill anti-India rhetoric that is either actively supported by the Pakistani state - or tacitly endorsed – is at the core of the strategic challenge for India and the global community that has been directly affected by terror and Islamic extremism.

How can the Pakistani military be prevailed upon - or compelled to change it strategy and desist from supporting terror?  This was the Central issue in the January 2004 Vajpayee-Musharraf agreement between India and Pakistan and Delhi has been consistent in exhorting Islamabad to deliver on this commitment. But while Delhi is in dialogue with Islamabad and the civilian leadership - Rawalpindi – the HQ of the Pak military clearly is a reluctant partner in improving ties with India or stopping support to terror groups.

It merits recall that even the USA has been unable to find the right mix of carrots and sticks to make Rawalpindi alter its strategy of investing in terror.

Concurrently there is increasing assertiveness by the various groups that subscribe to the Islamist ideology espoused by the al-Qaeda or the Taliban and the discourses within Pakistan are instructive. The Pakistani Taliban and their support base is threatening to fulfill its supra-national agenda of imposing a ‘sharia’ system through a caliphate - and while this is often seen as a fringe group – their determination and ruthlessness to realize their objective is not to be ignored. The patterns emerging from the Arab world, wherein conservative/right-wing Islamic parties are gaining popular support is art of this increased contestation about Islam and its practice.

Thus the third anniversary of Mumbai ought to lead to a far more sombre and objective assessment about the threats and challenges that India needs to address and the need for a bi-partisan political approach to matters of national security.