The unseemly politics of terrorism in India (Commentary)

May 25th, 2008 - 11:34 am ICT by admin  

By K. Subrahmanyam
Following the Jaipur terror blasts resulting in over 60 deaths, there is an intense debate in the country on how to deal with terrorism. As is very characteristic of the political culture of this country, this outrage, instead of bringing our political parties together in a united effort to fight terrorism, has led to mutual recrimination. This would give a great deal of comfort and encouragement to the trans-national and intra-national terrorist organisations that target this country. The debate is about the policies towards terrorists advocated by different parties, the laws available to counter them, the jurisdiction of various central and state agencies, adequacies and capabilities of organisations at centre and states etc. All these are very legitimate issues needing to be debated constructively. Instead of using those arguments to score points against political rivals there is an imperative need for political parties to get into a meaningful dialogue among themselves.

Contrast the behaviour of Indian political parties with that of parties in other mature democracies such as the US, Britain and European Union countries. In no other country claiming to be a democracy do we see as much acrimony in facing what is recognised as a national threat. This is the situation in a country that has been engaged in fighting terrorism for well over a quarter of a century.

This calls for a serious introspection among our people, academia, media and politicians on the basic features of our society and political culture that makes this country so vulnerable to terrorism and so difficult to unify in countering it.

Though the UN may not have succeeded in formulating an agreed definition of terrorism, there is commonly accepted definition largely acceptable to the social scientists. Terrorism is the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against people or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies often to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.

While explosions like those in Jaipur, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Malegaon, Bangalore and Varanasi are recognised as terrorist acts, the killing of people during the election violence (as in West Bengal recently) has been happening routinely and is not considered as terrorism for some inexplicable reasons. Similarly, when civilians are killed in ‘bandhs’ called by political parties, they are also not described as terrorism.

But since terrorism is violence or threatened violence against people and property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological purposes, in fact all such violence should be treated as terrorism. Further, when the presiding officer of a legislature is prevented from discharging his legal duties by members storming into the Well of the house or through various moves such as shouting, that too amounts to violence to intimidate the presiding officer to achieve political objectives.

In other words, the behaviour of legislators amount to terrorism. One does not see such behaviour of parliamentary terrorism, bandh terrorism and electoral terrorism in other mature democracies. It is submitted here that all these categories of terrorism form a continuum and to arrive at the place and role of religious extremist terrorism, one must look at the whole spectrum of terrorism.

When parliamentary terrorism, bandh terrorism and electoral terrorism are tolerated by the majority in the country, that too often in the name of democracy, freedom, right to protest — all of which are permissible only if violence is scrupulously avoided — then some others push the envelope further and resort to political, religious and ideological terrorism.

It must also be clear that violence does not necessarily mean inflicting bodily harm to another person. It also means preventing and intimidating the other person’s legitimate freedom of action or legal functions. Preventing the presiding officer from discharging his legitimate duties by slogan shouting and storming the Well of the house are clear cases of violence. Stopping traffic on roads and compelling shopkeepers to shut down through intimidation are also acts of violence. They are being undertaken for political, ideological or religious purposes. Therefore they are all acts of terrorism.

While in some other parts of the world it has been argued that one man’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, it would appear in India that one man’s terrorism is projected as another person’s legitimate democratic political activity: Often it becomes a matter of double standard that one’s own terrorism is permissible political activity the other person’s is not.

Which decent democracy will need hundreds and thousands of police and paramilitary personnel will be required to guard the elementary right in democracy — voting in the election — to be exercised? We take pride that the country has held successive free and fair elections under such conditions of strict policing to avoid largescale political terrorism being resorted to by our political parties. Our Election Commission is not in a position to assure our people that they will be in a position to hold a one-day poll all over the country without terrorist violence resorted to by political parties. There is yet no sense of shame or remorse among our political parties on this kind of political culture nurtured in this democracy.

In other genuine democratic countries, it is easier for security services to gather intelligence about preparations to resort to terrorism from the common citizen since such activities involving potential violence will be an aberration in the society. In India there is no rapport between the common citizen and the police force as the latter has been politicised and made an instrumentality of the ruling party.

Secondly, given the Indian political culture where local dons turn into ‘netas’ and often enjoy political power and patronage, the common citizen is not willing to take the risk of communicating to the police or security services such aberrant activities.

The politicians themselves have denigrated the reputation of the police and security services with their charges that all cases against political persons are foisted ones at the instigation of the parties in power. We have situations in which political dons are able to run their criminal empires dealing with extortion (which invariably involves terrorism) from jail cells.

While terrorism is a specific threat in other democracies, in India it is part of our present political culture. In these circumstances it is difficult to expect terrorism of the Jaipur, Bombay, Hyderabad type to be overcome before the country is able to cleanse our parliament of the scourge and to a significant extent our electoral process. But there is not even adequate awareness in the country about the nature of terrorism that is afflicting the country.

It is extremely unlikely the present generation of senior political leaders can be expected to be de-conditioned from their mindsets that accept terrorism of certain categories as part of politics. It is now up to the civil society to bring about a basic change in the perception of our politicians.

(K. Subrahmanyam is India’s pre-eminent analyst on strategic and international affairs. He can be contacted at

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