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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 45, New Delhi, October 23, 2021

Violence, Militancy and Terrorism: A way forward | S.G.Vombatkere

Saturday 23 October 2021, by S G Vombatkere


Terror, terrorism, terrorists

Terror is the emotion of “extreme fear” caused by the threat or use of violence. Terror is also an instrument to cause fear, “a weapon of the impotent, the disenfranchised and the unorganized in the face of profound grievance“. Causing extreme fear using the instrument of terror are both age-old.

However, only in recent times has terrorism been defined: “The use of violence or the threat of violence to harm or intimidate civilians for political purposes”; “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against people or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives”; and “Violent acts directed primarily at civilian targets, or which produce primarily civilian casualties”.

Terrorists strike at innocent people to kill them and destroy property, with intention of causing fear and maximum damage to soft targets, according to their own warped political-religious “principles”. Terrorism is a global issue.

There can be no disagreement with erstwhile UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said: “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, is unacceptable and can never be justified”.


In the definitions of terrorism, there is a significant common point, namely, the assumption that the words “violence” and “force” pertain to physical violence and physical force. This is only natural, since the most visible and experienced outcomes of terrorist attacks are physical, through deaths, injuries and damages.

But there are other kinds of violence, and not inflicted by terrorists. So it is well to examine “violence” in greater detail.

Violence always begins in the mind, and is the result of a conflict of interests. It may take verbal, economic or physical form, involving certain groups, or individuals who may be of any age, of any sexual, caste-religion or political orientation, within homes or in the street. Reactions to violence may be immediate or delayed, and may range from fearful silence, to verbal protest, or physical resistance or retaliation.

Delayed reactive violence by the physically, financially, economically, or socially disadvantaged, may be directed at a different target from the person(s) who inflicted the violence. For example, the social and physical violence that Jews were historically subjected to in Europe over centuries, resulted in the formation of the Israeli nation, which now inflicts systemic violence on the occupants of the land “given” (by a third party) to form Israel.

At the individual level, violence on children often produces violent adults. Patriarchy within families across the social spectrum has similar results, with violence of various sorts against girls and women, within and outside the home. When a victim of violence is unable or unwilling to use violence against the perpetrator of violence or against a different target, he/she nurses a deep grievance which may manifest as hate or scheming to cause harm to others.

The psychological effect of the extreme violence of prolonged armed conflict on children and its effects on society in their later years is unimaginably grave. It is known that most persons who have experienced violence in childhood to themselves or their parents are violent adults both within and outside home.

The awful physical, social and economic violence against Dalits that “upper castes” have been inflicting for many generations and continue doing, are a similar matter deserving serious concern.

Violence of any sort, whether at inter-personal level within or outside the family, or at a social level, most often breeds more violence of some sort, which then gets amplified in recurrent spirals of escalation.

There is no need to cite examples of violence, which is daily news, in the home, the community and the nation. Most acts of violence are not even observed, far less are reported, very few are punished, and some are even implicitly condoned by the political power structure. Frustration due to inability to react to these acts of violence may build up in the individual and social psyche of victims, and lead to formation of groups “dedicated” to the cause of violence against others.

Sometimes there is an identifiable cause for the violence, like economic or political or cultural (religion, caste, custom, language, ethnicity, etc.) oppression or suppression. At other times, violence is a way of life, with the target or victim being chosen at random as in street crime or deliberately chosen, as in communal violence.

The State assigns to itself the right to commit violence through use of its force-instruments, and its criminal justice system. However, this is circumscribed by the need for due legal process to protect a citizen’s right to life and liberty. Notwithstanding, violence and counter-violence in a civilized society must be avoided, not justified.

Economic violence

The WTO Agreements drafted by economically powerful countries have resulted in a raw deal for countries that are economically disadvantaged. Its implications are viewed as legalized economic oppression of the weak by the powerful with the consent of the weak, who are signatories.

It can be argued that the economically weak countries should never have signed the WTO Agreements if it was not in their best interests. This would be a valid argument if the people who represent the weak countries in international fora actually represented the interests of the poor within their own country. It is known that in practice, especially within poor countries, powerful and wealthy persons represent their countries in international fora and sign agreements and treaties. Even though they represent the people, as in a democracy, they fail to represent the best interests of the poor.

The poor cannot represent their own economic interests simply because, being poor and illiterate or just about literate, they may not understand the issues and their effects, and cannot argue their cause with the power structure. Thus the need for good governance, social justice, universal education, upliftment of the poor, etc., all of which are in our Constitution, but appear antithetical to the philosophy of the promoters of competition, market forces and trickle-down economics.

Observation of economic development through the prism of neoliberal economic reforms indicates that much of the economic or social benefits of development do not “trickle down” to the lowest socioeconomic strata. The benefits accumulate in the higher strata of society, and exacerbate economic inequality.

Economic polarization causes frustration and a feeling of alienation and injustice, both for individuals and groups, and results in social unrest and sporadic, unorganized or organized violence.

Increasingly, within most nations, the economic system operates to limit options for economically productive activities of the poorest sections. This is economic violence. It leads to small or large groups of people with little or no chance for equity and justice, and no recourse, resorting to violent activities and militancy, because of frustration and deep-seated grievance at the individual or group level.

Six axioms

1. For violence causing injury, wrong or injustice, there is a doer, a “target”, and a victim.
2. A doer of violence has power over the “target” and victim.
3. The planner of violence in any form, is as culpable as the doer of violence.
4. A doer of violence may be individual, group or institutional, and the victim of violence may be individuals or a group.
5. Violence has violent consequences which may be immediate or delayed, and may change in form, whosoever the doer or the victim.
6. Perceived or expected threat of violence, or actual infliction of danger, pain, or harm, generates fear in victims or potential victims.


When there is a conflict of interests, protest follows. Most people, in their childhood or teens, have protested something which an elder may have done or said, because of perceived or experienced injustice or restriction of a freedom. Thus protest, justified or not, is natural.

Protest is resistance to some form of actual or perceived violence, or loss or infringement of some freedom, which is the power or the right to act, speak or believe as one wants, without hindrance or restraint.

Naturally, freedoms are not absolute — they are circumscribed by cultural, social and legal restrictions. Freedom means different things to different sections of society. In the contemporary context, focus is on freedoms such as freedom from fear, from hate, from repression, from poverty, from illiteracy, from forced “progress”, or freedom to co-exist or be in control of one’s own destiny. Threat to, or denial of, any of these or other freedoms, are a form of violence, and result in protest.

Protest in society may take several forms, such as persuasion, non-cooperation, non-violent intervention, positive action or militancy, in ascending order of intensity. However, it is by no means necessary that protests follow that sequence.

Militancy and terrorism

Protests are usually against centers of power — governments, government agencies, or corporate bodies. People who demand their rights or protest governments’ policies, plans or actions are usually ignored at first, but when the protests become effective or cause embarrassment to the political power structure, governments use physical force even against peaceful, unarmed protesters.

In most circumstances, police are deployed to maintain law and order, because even a peaceful, unarmed protest is monitored. However, one can quote innumerable occasions when police have lathi-charged or opened fire on peaceful protesters. Such initiation of violence by the State results in escalation in the level and intensity of protests. Governments introducing an agent provocateur to trigger violence in a peaceful protest so as to “justify” police action, is not unknown.

Most protests are against governments’ policies, plans, etc., but there are also protests against violence and injustices between sections of the public, with members of one group taking the law into their own hands. However, here again, the finger points at governments, which fail to implement the law or uphold constitutional provisions because of small-minded caste or communal politics. This is typified by the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon violence between two sections of the public, and alleged partisan action or inaction by government.

A militant is one who is “prepared to take aggressive action in support of a political or social cause”. Aggressive action is not necessarily physical — it can be verbal, written or legal to vehemently or forcefully oppose government policies or actions. Further, economic or environmental causes, which impinge upon the daily life and livelihood of marginalized sections who have no political voice, and live hand-to-mouth, are often involved. For example, the PESA Act and the Forest Rights Act, which protect the rights of forest dwellers, are routinely flouted by governments. Their losing habitats and livelihoods, constitutes economic violence against them, and is the primary cause for organized protests, legal battles in Courts, and even political and armed militancy.

Naxalites, Maoists, et al, are armed militant groups with a political ideology of overthrowing the State. This is against the Constitution, and unacceptable, but it must be recognized that it is fundamentally organized to oppose social and economic violence by powerful interests or individuals against weak individuals or groups. This reactive violence inevitably causes harm to individuals, communities and society at large, but governments or government-supported agencies being the “first cause” through economic or environmental violence, needs to be recognized.

The terrorist, however, is in a separate category, disowned by society, and used by his mentors, handlers and sponsors, to create fear among people by threats, planted false/fake news, or real attacks on soft or easy targets, executed singly or in small teams.

In the Indian context, militants and terrorists are often indiscriminately clubbed together. Vested interests use this confusion to brand them “Islamic terrorist”, “Hindu terrorist”, etc. These epithets are naturally objected to by Muslims and Hindus respectively, who assert that such epithets are unfair to the tenets of their religions, and that terrorists are simply terrorists, regardless of their religious background or what they may claim to represent.

Vigilantes who profess a certain idea or claim to “protect” a certain entity, act outside of the law-and-order framework, and attack whosoever they deem has opposed their idea or ideology. They have untrammeled freedom to operate, and strike fear among their declared targets. However, vigilantes are not categorized as terrorists.

Many leaders, planners and executors of terrorist attacks are educated and even economically well-off individuals, who have adopted a violent political or religious ideology. Thus, although poverty may not be cause for terrorism, the April 2008 Planning Commission of India Report of the Expert Group on “Development issues to deal with causes of discontent, unrest and extremism”, reports strong correlation between militancy or extremism, and disaffection with governments’ development policies.


Poverty by itself does not cause militancy, but economic violence by governments or social groups causes disaffection, often leading to militancy. People who have been displaced for a mega-project, lose habitat and livelihood and suffer social dislocation. They and their progeny, can never have a kindly attitude towards government(s) and corrupt officials, or those who have benefited from their loss. In fact, they would nurse active animus towards society in general, often finding expression as randomly directed violence.

It is not difficult to understand that poor or marginalized people who are victims of (developmental) economic violence, may respond with physical violence. It is necessary to emphasize that this is not to justify such reactive violence, just as economic violence inflicted in the name of progress and development cannot be justified. Rather, it is to explain the causes and reasons for the growing levels of violence in society. Without addressing basic causes, no amount of force of any kind, including jailing activists or killing militants or terrorists, can stop militancy or terrorism. On the other hand, indiscriminate or unrestrained police or military force only further justifies militancy and terrorism to the militants and terrorists themselves.

It is near-miraculous that there are so many people’s movements which are non-violent without being passive, modeled on Gandhian principles. Experience shows that governments are unable to deal with non-violent protest, and that is the reason for infiltrating an agent provocateur, to enable use of State force. An exemplar is the Narmada Bachao Andolan, non-violent by choice and principle since 1986. The Farmers’ movement (Samyukt Kisan Morcha), starting November 2020, is perhaps the most recent, but there are many more on-going, less-visible, non-violent movements.

Successive state and central governments have used draconian laws (IPC Section 124A; UAPA; NIA Act) against agitating members of the public who are expressing their disaffection towards projects/ policies/ laws, or against those speaking on behalf of protesting groups. Such use of draconian laws and their constitutionality have been challenged in the Supreme Court, and the judicial decisions are awaited.

The power structure 

Certainly, terrorism needs to be put down. But this must be done with the firm hand of just governance, though not necessarily entirely without the use of police force. The harsh use of the bayonet and bullet, and custodial violence by State agencies, without positive delivery of equity and social justice using the political tools of consultation and consensus, only escalates the spiral of violence and terror. It is no exaggeration that many people live in constant fear of State violence by the police, or the “midnight knock”.

Security forces personnel kill militants or terrorists who in turn kill security forces personnel and sometimes their relatives. Thus, lower-ranking security personnel in the field, are also hapless victims by death or maiming by militant or terrorist attacks, with consequent downstream effects on their families.

Senior ranks of security forces and the senior politico-bureaucratic community, which form the governmental power structure, are well protected and largely immune from physical harm.

It is time that leaders in high positions realized that political problems can only be solved or resolved by constitutional political means. In the conspicuous absence of good governance, governments misusing State force or prolonging its use against people, irreversibly damages the social-economic-political life of society. It is causing brutalization of a large section of society, which is trapped in the atmosphere of suspicion, fear, violence and counter-violence1 [1]. People freely resorting to vigilantism indicates governance failure in the states and centre.

Fraternity, the way forward 

Successive top leaders have failed to take statesmanlike steps by rising above petty politics to resolve people’s problems. They have not understood that peoples’ protests are grounded on injustice or economic violence by the State. Using State force as the first option in dealing with people’s problems cannot be justified.

People’s protests countrywide over decades, indicate discontent with governments’ policies, projects, legislation, etc., and with government agencies themselves flouting laws. Using State force against people’s protests is a proven failure since, rather than dousing the fires of discontent, it has aggravated discontent and spawned militancy and terrorism. Governments therefore need to focus on dousing the fires, through honest, pro-People governance, which is not an oxymoron, not impossible.

If national and state leaders acted with sincerity on just one tenet of our Constitution’s Preamble, it would be a great leap towards peace and tranquility in society: “... promote among them all, FRATERNITY, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”.

(Author: Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as Additional Director General Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is a member of National Alliance of People’s Movements and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. His areas of interest are development and strategic issues.)

[1Sudhir Vombatkere. "The Third Position: Non-alignment with violence”, Mainstream; Vol XLVIII, No.13, March 20, 2010

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