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All you want to know about terrorism in India

Last updated on: June 12, 2008 15:39 IST
After the Jaipur terror attacks on May 13, we saw the routine that happens after every attack. There were VIP visits, compensation announced to the victims, politicians spoke of 'zero tolerance', television channels held the usual debates, the police announced imminent breakthroughs. Soon everything is forgotten, till the next terror attack. At which time, I am sure the same sequence will be repeated.

I have been a student of insurgency and terrorism for 24 years. At social gatherings when asked what I do for a living, my answer invariably provokes a flurry of questions, much to the annoyance of my better half (who glares and hints that I should stop holding forth on my pet topic and not 'spoil' the party). Here is my attempt to answer some of those frequently asked questions.

Why are attacks by Islamic groups called Islamist terrorism? Other terror groups like the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) or the IRA (Irish Republican Army) have Hindus or Christians but are not called Hindu or Christian terrorists?

It is undoubtedly true that there are other terrorists as well, for instance the Naxalites or Maoists. The reason why the adjective 'Islamists' is used is that no other terror group invokes religious sanction or quotes religious texts to justify their acts. In fact, the Tamil Tigers has Hindus as well as Christians (their spokesperson for many years was Anton Balasingham, a Christian). Neither has the IRA nor Tamil Tigers ever quoted any religious scriptures to justify their actions, the Islamists have and continue to do so. The link between religious places and schools to these acts, is also well established.

Finally, the Islamist terrorists themselves have time and again openly admitted the religious nature of their ultimate goal -- Islamisation. It would be dishonest if this reality is ignored.

What about State terrorism?

It is true that the State also uses force to deal with revolts and violence and against criminals. But in a democracy with a judiciary and rule of law, the use of force by the State is accountable and has to be within the bounds of law. At times individuals do transgress those limits, but those are aberrations. Use of force by a State to enforce law cannot be equated with State terrorism, unless that State has a policy of genocide or is dictatorial like Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union.

Unfortunately social activists and champions of human rights forget that it is the legitimate function of the State to use force. If the State abdicates this responsibility then we are inviting anarchy and in words of Hobbes, a 16th century English philosopher, a situation of war of every one against every one and human life 'nasty, brutish and short.'

You are biased, what about the terrorism of the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal etc?

These are indeed organisations that believe in violent means and must be dealt under the law. But at worst, these are extremists and militants, like militant trade unions for example. The shallow coverage by the media has created the confusion about definition of terrorism and who is a terrorist. There is tendency to lump together terms like militants, insurgents, extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists.

While all the variety of people fighting for some cause or other may at times indulge in terrorism, a terrorist is one whose primary aim is to cause maximum destruction. In that sense strictly speaking, when a Kashmiri extremist attacks a soldier, it is wrong to call it a terrorist attack, it is part of an insurgency. We must be clear about this difference.

A terrorist is an individual who carries out a terrorist act. A terrorist act is one in which totally unconnected persons are targeted and killed. Terrorism is random violence that makes no distinction between people and promotes fear. It is no accident that in the Jaipur attack as well as elsewhere, many Muslims lost their lives.

It is a fallacy to claim that everything is fair in love and war. Even in war there are written and unwritten rules. The terrorists do not follow them. For instance in war, civilians are not deliberately targeted (they still die as collateral damage) while terrorists, for instance in Beslan in Russia chose a school or local trains in Mumbai.

While there are groups and organisations that are militant, fundamentalist and violence prone, they have not yet graduated to earn the 'terrorist' tag. If the State fails to curb minority terrorism then the majority may well begin to have its own terrorist organisations.

If we use violence against terrorists then are we not betraying our Gandhian legacy?

Gandhian methods of non-violent struggle were successful against the British colonialists. But the British were a civilised people. British liberals like Edmund Burke were in favour of Indian independence as early as in 1773 (Burke's speeches in the British parliament on the Regulating Act). To assume universality of success of these methods for all times to come is false.

Did the non-violent Jews survive Hitler? Closer home, in Gandhi's lifetime itself, in October 1947, it was force that saved the Kashmir valley from Pakistani-backed raiders. Even more telling, the same non-violent movement in the Portuguese colony of Goa, failed in 1956-1957. Goa was liberated by force in 1961.

An oft quoted Gandhian phrase is that if all were to follow an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, then the world would go blind. The counter to that is that if only some follow this and others don't then it is the non-violent who would go blind while the rogues will rule the world.

Part II: How India can win the war on terror

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd) is former joint director, war studies, ministry of defence, and co-ordinator of the Pune-based Initiative for Peace and Disarmament

Dr Anil A Athale