The Tribune - Spectrum

Special Issue: countering terrorism
Special Issue
Countering terrorism

Views of eminent experts and thinkers on countering terrorism

Hari Jaisingh

Kanti Bajpai

Asghar Ali Engineer

Owen Bennett Jones

Shelley Walia

G. Parthasarthy

T. V. Rajeswar

Gen V N Sharma

Ashok K. Mehta

Prakash Singh

M. J. Akbar

Sunday, January 5, 2003
Tribune special

Roots of terrorism

Over the last few years there has been a polarisation of the debate on terrorism — in the agencies of the government and in public life. Two basic points of view — a liberal and a conservative — have been vying for supremacy, as India has grappled with militancy in Punjab, Kashmir, and the Northeast. Are these two viewpoints the best way to think about the causes of terrorism? Do we as ordinary citizens have any role to play in containing terrorist violence, asks Kanti Bajpai.

IT is ironic that liberal democratic India has been the stage of immense violence. The promise of liberal democracy, after all, is that extreme, violent action, whether by governments or other members of society, will be avoided. Yet in the fifty years of its independence, India has been assailed by social and political violence: witness communal rioting, caste wars, the political assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi, the leftist insurgencies in Hyderabad. Naxalbari, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh, and secessionist terrorism in Kashmir, Punjab, and the Northeast. It would, of course, be a disservice to Indian democracy to exaggerate the amount of violence: in per capita terms and by global and historical comparisons, the incidence of violence in India is low. Equally, though, it would be irresponsible to turn away from what is a rather melancholy history.

Communal rioting, caste conflict, the threat of political assassination, insurgency in the countryside, and secessionist terror in the borderlands remain a clear and present danger. The violence in Gujarat in March 2002 reminds us that our future may be every bit as bloody as our past. The suicide attack on the Kaluchak army camp in Jammu on May 14, 2002 could have instigated an India-Pakistan war under the shadow of nuclear weapons: secessionist terror could have escalated into near-apocalyptic international violence. There is every chance that there will be more Gujarats and more suicide attacks in and out of Kashmir. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) seems determined to reinvigorate the Ayodhya issue, and the vicious campaign in Gujarat to drive Hindus and Muslims apart is polarizing communal relations as never before. In Kashmir, the seemingly unending cycle of violence has not been broken by the US military campaign in Afghanistan and President Musharraf’s political turnaround indeed the violence may be accelerating and becoming more provocative, as the Kaluchak attack shows.

The future is never very far. If we are to sustain, indeed deepen our liberal democratic way of life, we must give more thought to the violence around and ahead of us. Nowhere has violence been more continuous and extensive than in India’s borderland states — in Kashmir, Punjab, and the Northeast. The violence in Punjab is over, but no one is predicting an end to the troubles in Kashmir and the Northeast. Why did secessionist terrorism take hold in these states? Are bad governments and broken promises responsible for the turn to violence? Are poverty and social misery the ‘swamp’ in which violence is bred? Is India, given its size and social diversity, simply an historical impossibility? Is terrorism an inevitability, a phase in the life cycle of a nation? Is the problem not with us but rather with the countries neighbouring us that are conspiring to unravel our unity? Our leaders and social commentators have, at one time or another told us that all these things and more are the causes of terrorism. Are they right?


The events of September 11, 2001 in the US, and the attack on our Parliament just two months later, on December 13, were signs that the scale and scope of terrorist violence is expanding. The Northeast beats Kashmir, in terms of a continuous history of violence. But it is Kashmir that repeatedly brings home to us that terrorism remains undiminished and that our system for dealing with secessionist violence is questionable. Given this, there are few more urgent questions before us than what we should do about terrorism.

While each case in India is unique, we need a more general understanding of the causes of terrorism in our society. Equipped with it, we should be in a position to make better policy and to cope more sensibly with the violence. This does not purport to be a detailed analysis, a rich history, or a reconstruction of the politics of Kashmir, Punjab and the northeastern states.

Over the last few years there has been a polarization of the debate on terrorism — in the agencies of the government and in public life. Two basic points of view — a liberal and a conservative — have been vying for supremacy, as India has grappled with militancy in Punjab, Kashmir, and the Northeast. The contest between these differing positions has in some ways sharpened after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the US strikes in Afghanistan, and events closer to home particularly the bomb blasts at the State Assembly in Srinagar and the attack on Parliament last year. Are these two viewpoints the best way to think about the causes of terrorism? What should the government be doing — and, just as importantly, not doing — about it? Do we as ordinary citizens, as individuals and members of various private associations, have any role to play in containing terrorist violence?

What is terrorism?

Before we turn to these questions it is worth saying something about what we mean by terrorism. Terrorism is the organised use of violence for political ends and is directed primarily at non-combatants. Organised by whom? We generally think of terrorist violence as being organised by non-state actors of various kinds — nationalists, anarchists, rightists, leftists, secessionists, and so on. Terrorist violence is also an instrument of states or governments, often to combat non-state terrorists.

Is there a difference between the terrorism of the non-state actor and of the state? Both seek to frighten. Both can be bloody. Both may seek to shock and disrupt. Both may be defensive in nature, seeking to protect society against the oppression of the other. Both try to undermine the legitimacy of the other. Neither tolerates rivals — the state will not permit the instruments of violence in the hands of terrorists; the terrorist organisation will not permit other terrorist groups to flourish. We could draw a number of other parallels. Achin Vanaik suggests though that two key differences exist between terrorism and state terrorism. Terrorist organisations usually take, if they do not positively affirm, responsibility for their violence; states on the other hand are reluctant to acknowledge the use of violence to frighten and intimidate. Terrorist organisations seek publicity for their outrages; the state, on the whole, does not. Even these differences are not inherent: in the right circumstances, the state might well admit to and advertise its use of violence. For instance, states have used violence to deter violence. A punitive use of violence against a population may demonstrate that a government means business and thereby seeks to prevent or reduce terrorist violence.

This rather abstract discussion shows, I think, that terrorism and state terrorism are not terribly different activities, conceptually speaking. Having said that, most of us sense that there is a difference. While our government has from time to time used terror tactics to quell internal disturbance, the Indian state, even now, remains a democratic, rule-bound, persuadable, and accountable entity. We could as a people exert ourselves to increase its accountability and reduce its arbitrariness, and indeed we do so with some success. At least some — admittedly too few — of those responsible for committing acts of terrorist violence have been punished (for instance, in Kashmir and Punjab). More importantly, the possibility that they could be punished may well have prevented government agencies from using violence in many other cases. Can we say anything comparable about terrorist organisations? Surely not. At this time in our history and in these circumstances, we can say that state terrorism, while unacceptable, is the relatively tractable problem. Terrorist organisations are the greater evil. In another place and time that may not be the case; but it is in India, in the present.

If terrorism is the use of violence for political ends, is it different from war? This is quite important. Most people are not terribly squeamish about war, accepting that it is more or less a part of human existence, regrettable but somehow unavoidable. The word terrorism, though, makes them much more squeamish.

What about the distinction between terrorism and national liberation struggles, or between terrorists and freedom fighters? In the broadsides fired by India and Pakistan after the Agra summit in July 2001, the Indian government claimed that the Kashmiri militants were terrorists while the Pakistani government argued that they were freedom fighters. Obviously, not all terrorists are involved in national liberation struggles. Some terrorists are Robin Hoods, trying to redistribute the goods of society more evenly; they are not motivated by the struggle for national independence. Obviously, also not all freedom fighters are terrorists. It is quite possible to fight for freedom from colonial rule without using terror.

If freedom fighters meet standards of representativeness, rationality, and responsibility, then their resort to violence may be justified. No political community, not even a democratic one, is easy on secessionism. Freedom fighters may feel that they must carry out acts of violence in order to be heard seriously. Here again, certain standards must be met. For violence to be tolerated in a freedom struggle there must be limits. Secessionists who turn to violence must answer the following questions satisfactorily: Will the use of violence be effective, that is, does it have any chance of actually achieving its political objectives? Clearly, this is a tricky question to answer a priori. Nevertheless, to resort to violence without a good sense that it can be effective — whatever ‘effective’ means — is ethically objectionable. Do the freedom fighters ensure that violence is used discriminately, so as to avoid hurting non-combatants? Violence against non-combatants is decried universally, as an ethical offence. For violence to be in any way legitimate it must avoid hurting non-combatants and those who do not represent oppressive state authority (for instance, what is the justification for targeting a post office which is not involved in policing or repressing a people?). Is the use of violence proportionate to that inflicted on those who want to secede, or to other forms of repression they live under? Secessionist violence should in some way be proportionate to the violence or repression that is inflicted on the society on whose behalf the militants are fighting. If it is not, then the violence perpetrated by secessionists is unacceptable.

All said and done, no Kashmiri militant group meets the test of representativeness, rationality, and responsibility. Also, thirteen years into the militancy, no militant group has shown that violence is politically effective or that it is committed to discrimination is using force. This is why Kashmiri — and other — militants are justifiably described as terrorists.

Coping with terrorism

What should India do to end terrorism or at least to manage it better? Ending terrorism altogether seems to go against the grain of history. Malaysia in the 1960s may be one of the few cases where insurgency — a leftist guerrilla movement — was destroyed and has not returned. In India, Punjab and Mizoram stand as the success cases. Punjab has been peaceful since the middle of the 1990s. Whether that constitutes the end of terrorism in Punjab is difficult to say. In short, terrorism is controllable though difficult to eradicate altogether. The question is, how then can we bring down the incidence of violence and how can we reasonably claim to have ended the driving force of terrorism? Liberal thinking on terrorism, as seen earlier, believes that the best way to respond to violence is by an imaginative programme of political, economic, and social engineering. Essentially, liberals urge that the government arrive at some sort of accommodation with aggrieved groups. Conservatives, by contrast, think that any attempt at accommodation is the slippery slope to appeasement and concession and can only end in secession. They argue that the government must see terrorism for what it is, namely, a ‘law and order’ problem, and stamp out the violence. Force and disruption of the terrorist group’s activities by good intelligence work are at the heart of conservative prescriptions. For realists, the conservative prescriptions are substantially correct, with the addition that any viable course of action must include stopping India’s neighbours from supporting terrorism. Diplomacy will not work, in their view, beyond a point; only force and coercion can persuade our neighbours from interfering in India’s domestic quarrels.

All three viewpoints are partially correct. For instance, it is hard to get a programme of political, economic, and social accommodation going if violence and other forms of intimidation are not brought under control. On the other hand, the policing of terrorist groups by itself cannot bring peace. It can only create the conditions within which a more thoroughgoing, political end to terrorism is achieved. The grievances of borderland groups, as liberals insist, must be addressed if terrorism is to be substantially eradicated. Violence and intimidation will only encourage more of the same, in return, if nothing is done to get at the root cause of ethno-religious secessionism in the borderlands. Finally, both the liberal and conservative programmes will fail if India’s neighbours are determined to harbour and support terrorist groups. As long as there are regional governments willing and able to interfere in India’s domestic politics, there will be groups who will continue to fight and to resist any settlement with New Delhi.

Dealing with terrorism in a liberal democracy is a great challenge and must stretch the imagination and patience of governments and peoples alike. It is no use pretending that there are any magic bullets here — that there is some singular, pristine course of action that is guaranteed to succeed; and is unfair to scorn the efforts of our political leaders and officials who have to cope with the twin challenges of controlling the violence and maintaining the rule of law even as they must manage a thousand other matters of state.

Power sharing

What kind of principles and precepts will reassure those in the borderlands who fear the power of the heartland? Since independence, India has evolved a complex set of values, rules, and institutions that in effect place limits on the power of the central and other governments as well as potentially domineering social groups. The political scientist, Arend Lijphart, calls arrangements such as these ‘power sharing’. At the core of the Indian powersharing structure are four elements: liberal constitutionalism, civic nationalism, the devolution of power in a layered federalism, and group rights.

Constitutionalism is the promise that the government will deal with individuals and groups according to established principles, rather than arbitrarily. A liberal constitution consists of principles that limit the authority and power of governments and protect individuals and groups against government tyranny or the tyranny of others, including social majorities of any kind who, by virtue of superior numbers, could override the rights and preferences of those who disagree with them.

Liberal constitutionalism means that the system of government allows those who feel that their rights have been violated to seek justice and compensation. A liberal constitutional order usually is marked by checks and balances between government agencies so that no one institution can dominate and trample on the rights of citizens. The Indian constitutional system has all these elements, and to that extent is a resource for the members of any ethnic group unhappy with the way they are being treated or may be treated.

(Excerpted from Roots of Terrorism by Kanti P. Bajpai. Penguin Books, India, 2002)