The third anniversary of the terrorist attack on Mumbai is a chilling reminder that the perpetrators of numerous earlier and subsequent terrorist acts have mostly not been identified, charged, found guilty or punished. Although all the evidence shows Ajmal Kasab to be guilty, the investigative and judicial processes continue, without end.
With justice so delayed, citizens are growing increasingly frustrated by the inconclusiveness of investigations into cases of terrorism – and the discourse around terrorism is becoming defined in sectarian (religious) terms for political advantage. Terrorism has become so infused with the politics of short-termism, that we have lost sight of the motivation for the original act of terror and are thus unable to respond adequately to the grievance. Consequently, terrorism in India has become hydra-headed, morphing into different forms and spanning the gamut.
Let us examine the various kinds of terrorism, manifested over time in different ways and in different countries around the world, and see where India stands.
Bits of the old traditional fighting between religious groups can still be seen in their modern incarnations in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Southern Philippines, for instance. Often these can also have an ethnic element as in the Sinhala-Buddhist versus Tamil-Hindu (and Christian) conflict in Sri Lanka and the Turkish versus Kurdish PKK fighters. Another variant is the separatist struggles of the ETA in Spain or the many ethnic groups in Myanmar.
Ideological differences have spawned innumerable terrorist groups, especially after the advent of Marxism. So Russia had its Nihilists and Narodniks, the Brigate Rosse in Italy, the Japanese Red Army, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany. More recent and long-lasting have been left wing terrorist groups in Latin America such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Shining Path in Peru which claim the ideological and romantic lineage of Che Guevara.
India seems to have experienced all of the above. The size of our country, the colonial legacy, the vast diversity of religion, ethnicity, language and ideological persuasion has meant that we have lived with some form or other of violent protest since Independence. Among the earliest was the threat of secession by Tamil Nadu in protest against attempts to dilute the use of English as a national language. The long-running Telangana agitation remains unresolved. Although Assam was carved into seven different States between 1963 and 1987 to fulfil ethnic aspirations, deadly insurgencies continue. Sub- nationalism is alive and well in the North East, with support initially from Communist China followed by Pakistan and occasionally unfriendly governments in Bangladesh.
Hindu-Muslim riots have received the most media exposure, scholarly examination, and official focus because of the wide dispersal of the minority community over the country, its depressed economic conditions, and lower level of accessing education. All of this has enabled political manipulation of the Muslim community and kept communal passions inflamed. The division of the country on religious grounds and continuous Pakistani posturing on behalf of Indian Muslims, the differences over Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistani support to terrorist activities has driven the two communities further apart – so much so that speaking of minority (Muslim) terrorism versus saffron (Hindu) terrorism has become part of mainstream discussion.
Added to the Hindu-Muslim religious mix was the Punjab problem and Sikh terrorism. This was the product of local grievances and political manipulation of religious sentiments sustained by training, funding, and safe haven provided by Pakistan as well as wealthy Sikh communities abroad, channelled largely through Gurudwaras. Now we also have the attacks on Christian preachers by groups and individuals affiliated to the Sangh Parivar.
The ideologically-motivated Naxalite movement peaked in West Bengal in the late 60’s and 70’s. But related Communist groups, birthed in the exploitation and degradation of tribal communities, are now active as ‘Maoists’ in some 223 out of 645 districts – one third of the country. Their acts of terrorism flow in an arc starting below Nepal from Bihar and West Bengal, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, to pockets in Maharashtra.
Unsurprisingly, the growth of the communist insurgency and its final accommodation in Nepal’s Republican government, has added to the momentum of left wing terrorist groups. Although they are called Marxist or Communist, their continuing – and even growing – attraction to the inhabitants in these areas is connected to corrupt and poorly-regulated commercial mining activities. Consequently, the ideological element as motivation has been supplanted by the dispossession of local communities.
It feels as if the violence will never end. But dissidence does have a shelf-life.
The historical record shows that while some conflicts such as Israel-Palestine can go on for decades, others have been wiped out by determined military action over time. The most recent example is the LTTE in Sri Lanka, eliminated by the current Rajapaksa administration. Some like ETA in Spain have been made irrelevant by democratisation and increasing prosperity. Others such as the ones in Germany and Italy diminished as a result of police work and judicial procedures. Yet others such as the Kurdish PKK disappeared through a combination of diplomacy, the arrest of its leader Abdullah Öcalan in Syria, political concessions such as allowing the use of the Kurdish language in educational institutions and the media, and Turkey’s increasing prosperity and prominence on the world stage.
Can we too look forward to a future free of terrorism?
At the macro level, yes. But only if we can craft a consistent policy on Pakistan and depoliticise our internal processes of investigation, and the pursuit of terrorists. That may take years.
A more achievable success is possible at the micro level, if we can deal humanely with elements in our society that suffer on account of terrorism. The politics of nations gives inadequate attention to the way acts of terror affect communities, the personal lives of the injured and the families of those killed. They deserve to be assisted financially so they can live with dignity. As important, their acts of bravery need to be recognized and honoured by the State to give solace to the families and the public. Even the families of those who perform acts of terrorism deserve sympathy and privacy to deal with their grief and shame.
We must also think of the unfairly accused, those who suffer years of incarceration, and the trauma of their families. Our authorities must recognize that monetary compensation is only part of the healing process and public apology may be the only way towards rehabilitation of – and in – a community.
Only then can we hope for the sort of conciliation we have achieved, imperfect though it remains, after years of conflict in the Punjab. Our continuous endeavour should be to dampen the bitterness and polarities in our society.
Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
This article is part of the series “26/11: Reflections”. You can find a compilation of all the articles that are part of the series here.
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