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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

Getting to the Roots of Global Terror

Monday 26 January 2009, by Gilbert Sebastian


The Mumbai terror strikes on November 26, 2008 and a number of other terror attacks in the Indian cities have shocked our conscience and our sensibilities. The strikes on locations of the rich and powerful like the Taj and Trident hotels in the metropolis have woken up the Indian security establishment, something which did not happen when bombs exploded in busy marketplaces and railway stations. The visual media revealed its class bias by paying little attention to the first terror strike in Mumbai this time leaving 30 persons dead on the spot at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station.

Rather than analysing the root causes of terrorism, the visual media in particular has been indulging in anti-Pak jingoism and politician-bashing for security lapses. The police and armed forces have been painted in larger-than-life images. The stereotyping and stigmatising of the Muslims has also proceeded apace. The paranoia about security and intolerant attitudes have reached unprecedented heights. One would well wonder if we are going to have a paranoid society in the near future.

There are many politicians as well as middle class persons who believe that the fight against terrorism has to be in the US/Israeli way. The fact of the matter remains that the US and Israel have not been able to solve their own security problems even after several decades of following a security-centric approach. The floor managers in the UPA Government were quick to capitalise on the Mumbai attack by promptly passing the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2008, which clearly signalled a going back on the promise that civil liberties would not be curtailed in the fight against terror.

Of our Comrade Country in the Anti-colonial Struggle

WAR-MONGERS on the Indian side such as the Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray, propose to deal a crushing defeat to Pakistan for supporting terrorist outfits through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The civilian government in Pakistan, however, is still struggling with the military to wrest control over the ISI. Listen to Arun Shourie, our erstwhile Disinvestment Minister, who personifies the confluence of neo-liberalism and Hindutva:

… no war is won with minimal force. It is won by overwhelming the enemy. Not an eye-for-an-eye, not a tooth-for-a-tooth. For an eye, both eyes! For a tooth, the whole jaw!

Given the fact that both the countries are nuclear powers, the dangers underlying such war cries should be obvious. In fact, with the nuclearisation of South Asia, initiated by India in the first place, New Delhi has lost out its conventional military superiority over Islamabad. The presence of terrorist outfits that would fight against India is an added factor in future wars with Pakistan. It is said that even a full-fledged conventional war could take the country back by 50 years. Remember the conditions prevalent in India in 1958! Unfortunately, our historical memories do not extend beyond our violent communal partition. Should we not also recall that the peoples of India and Pakistan have fought shoulder to shoulder against colonialism and that Muhammed Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, had composed our patriotic song, ‘Saare jahaan se achha, Hindusitan hamaara …’?

Shall we Agree on what is Terrorism?

THERE was no consensus in the UN on the definition of terrorism nor on which organisations are terrorist, possibly because certain states wanted to de-legitimise militancy based on genuine political assertions of rights. But it would not be inappropriate to designate the indiscriminate act of killing of innocent civilians as terrorism. The purpose, of course, is to wreak revenge and to draw attention to the demands of some aggrieved section. Terrorist acts are fallouts of a deep sense of alienation of a section or sections of people. That the terrorists are treading a completely misguided path should be amply clear: a bomb in the marketplace can kill both the saint and the sinner.

Sources of Communal Ideology

WE need to begin from the premise that common people from all religious backgrounds are peace-loving. The communal ideologies owe their origins to the dominant classes whether from the colonial policy of divide and rule or from communal politicians of different shades. Remember the call for ‘Direct Action’ and the ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan …’ slogan of the partition days. Who did these come from?

Terror from the Other End

THE Malegaon episode showed that there is nothing community-specific about terrorism as such. It refuted the dictum: ‘All Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.’ No one really knows who is responsible for the recent bombings of many of the civilian targets in India because hardly anyone has been indicted so far. The bomb blasts at Muslim-majority locations at Malegoan and several other towns in Maharashtra and in Ahmedabad, the unexploded bombs at Surat, the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad, the blast in Samjhauta Express, plausibly the powerful bomb blasts in Guwahati etc. could have been the handiwork of Hindutva terrorists. There are people alleging a Hindutva-Zionist nexus in carrying out such attacks. There have also been allegations of the cynical operations of shady state agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW—the Indian counterpart of the notorious ISI of Pakistan) in inciting the Kuki-Naga conflict, carrying out bomb blasts in Pakistan etc. If the case of Sarabjit Singh was one of mistaken identity, who then carried out these sinister operations? The alleged fake encounter at Jamia Nagar in Delhi recently, the fake encounters allegedly carried out by the Gujarat security establishment under Narendra Modi showed that there are also conspiracies hatched by the state and the dominant social forces to get the desired political impact. There have also been international parallels to this phenomenon: it is now widely believed that the burning of the German parliament, Reichstag, was carried out by the Nazis. The Pearl Harbour bombing in 1941 and plausibly the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in the US were allowed to happen in spite of clear knowledge by the state.

Three Hated Targets of International Terror

HOW did it all begin? When did the phenomenon of international terrorism start? Although there were Al-Qaeda bombings before, 9/11/2001 is put as the watershed by many analysts.

The US, Israel and India are the prime targets of the Islamist terrorists. What could have been the plausible reasons? Antagonism to the US and its allies could have been owing to the long suffering of the Palestinians, the US dominance over the oil-rich region of West Asia and more recently the US attacks on the Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. Antagonism to Israel could be for inflicting untold sufferings on their Arab Muslim brethren in Palestine and for acting as the prop of the US in Muslim-dominated West Asia. And antagonism to India could be for the sufferings in Kashmir, ‘the paradise on earth now stinking of charred human flesh’, and, of course, for our violent track-record against the Muslim minority. India’s strategic alliance with the US and Israel, especially as a junior partner of the US in South Asia, is definitely a cause of disaffection. George Bush’s ‘doctrine of zero tolerance for terrorism’ had already lent a new idiom of politics to the dominant classes in India. Although Russia and China have also been under fire over the suppression of the self-determination movements of Muslim-majority nationalities in Chechnya and Xinjiang, respectively, it is the US and its allies, Israel and India, that are the most hated powers in the Muslim world. A collision course with a vast and sprawling Islamic world does not bode well for the future of India even from a strategic point of view. It may be borne in mind that at the world level the Hindu community, a heterogeneous category as they are, constitutes a minority vis-à-vis Muslim or Christian communities.

Allah as Justice

THE cultural dimensions of the conflict and the contours of the process of identity formation are important but not without their bases in the political economy. Consider the exhortation in the Hadith: “Slay the infidel, when he attacks you and will not let you practise your religion.” This may explain to some extent why Muslims protested so vehemently against the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Narai taqdeer, Allahu Akbar (Do not be afraid, Allah is great) is a powerfully motivating slogan most often used in the mass protests in Kashmir. If God in Christianity is love, Allah in Islam is justice. It cannot be overlooked that Prophet Muhammed himself was a militant for the cause of justice. No wonder Islam, even today, motivates people to rebel against injustices. No doubt, the reactions of the Islamist terrorist groups like the Al-Qaeda and Lashkar are highly disoriented and abominable but the context of these reactions cannot be missed out. As the world renowned Islamic Madrasas Association at Deoband in Uttar Pradesh ruled on February 25, 2008, the terrorist reaction is un-Islamic to the core and there are explicit injunctions in the Koran against killing innocent civilians.

Did they also ask for Something?

IN a talk on terrorism, the retired Professor from Delhi University, J.P.S. Uberoi, was insistent that one must look into the demands of the terrorist/militant organisations. Well before the 9/11/2001 attack, the demands of the Al-Qaeda were already broadcast on the BBC in 1998; so was the Peshawar conference of the Al-Qaeda covered in the news. The following demands of the Al-Qaeda are worth recalling: (1) holy places of Muslims should not have military presence; (2) there should be no sanctions against Iraq; (3) the United States’ support for non-democratic Muslim governments should stop. The United States maintained that these demands were ‘motivated’ and President George W. Bush pledged not to have any negotiations with the terrorists. He asserted that they had to be ‘hunted down and brought to justice’. Even the Khalistani militants in Punjab had their demands which included that agricultural prices should not be fixed so low.

Dealing with ‘the Other’ Within

M.S. GOLWALKAR, the ‘Guruji’ (master) of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in his book, We or Our Nationhood Defined, had written about the approach the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ should adopt towards its religious minorities:
There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race.

Again, he says the minorities

must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens’ rights.

“There is,” he says, “at least should be, no other course for them to adopt.”

Even if Golwalkar’s proposal is accepted, it is well-nigh impossible to crush a huge minority of 12.4 per cent Muslims in India as of 2001. In Hitler’s Germany, Jews were only around one per cent; so it was much easier to subjugate them. Even the Christian minority in India today is 2.3 per cent as per the 2001 Census. Attempts to forcibly subjugate these communities can only lead to the tearing apart of the social fabric which would be detrimental to the interests of even the dominant social forces because in such a situation, a regime of unhindered accumulation cannot be sustained.

What Mothers have given Birth to the Terrorists?

DURING the Afghan war against Soviet occupation, it was the CIA that funded and supported Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Even today, the ultra-conservative Saudi monarchy of the Wahabi ilk is actively backed by US imperialism because of its oil and geo-political interests in West Asia. Probably, the present Islamist Saudi regime qualifies as the case of Third World fascism but is hardly pulled up by the US and its allies for lack of democracy or violation of human rights. It has been pointed out that the Saudi regime’s funding to Wahabi missionaries finds way into the hands of the terrorists who fight in the name of jehad (holy war). It has been shown time and again in history that chauvinistic ideas, including communal ideas, gripping people’s minds can become a potent material force that can eventually threaten even the dominant class interests that had initially propped them up for their own narrow and selfish material interests. These are also reminiscent of the Bhasmaasur-Shiva episode in Hindu mythology. It is known that Bhindranwale, the Khalistani terrorist, was propped up by Indira Gandhi and eventually she herself fell victim to the Khalistanis. The Pakistani political elite, who had at times extended overt or covert support to the terrorist outfits, are themselves now at the receiving end of these ‘non-state actors’. Similarly, the US has not been able to control the militancy that it promoted against the Soviets with the militants now turning against them. Here the cultural processes of identity formation assume autonomy from their material bases.

Getting to the Roots

IT is apparent that neo-liberal globalisation has been accompanied by the rise of fascistic communalism in our country. Communal divisions preclude the possibility of a united fight by the majority and minority communities against neo-liberal globalisation akin to the anti-colonial revolt of 1857 which was fought unitedly by the Hindus and Muslims. On this count, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement since the mid-1980s had prepared the ground for the aggressive self-expansion of oligopolist capital. The political sustainability of neo-liberal reforms was ensured by the rise of Hindutva communalism and the minority communalism that arose was mostly a reaction to it.

The dominant discourse in India on tackling terrorism has been a security-centric one in which one hardly finds a way out from the unending and vicious kaarmik cycle of action and reaction. The paranoia about security gives rise to a spiral of violence. It is a violence that begets violence—it is not the violence exercised in a Ceasarian section to give birth to a baby. It has no long-term vision or sense of direction and is based on a communally jaundiced view of meeting pragmatic targets. Whether the dominant classes are obsessed with short-term gains in pursuing such ad-hocism in policy and/or sections of them are deluded by their own ideology is a matter to be investigated. Security, however, can be understood in a broader sense as ‘human security’ as related to the insecurities arising out of the impact and repercussions of neo-liberal globalisation and especially the military globalisation of today.

The roots of the deep sense of alienation and victim mindset among Muslims in India go back to the many communal riots that have shamed our country in the past and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. However, speaking of the root cause of terrorism in India, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in late 1992 and the riots that followed, the gross atrocities by the Indian security forces in Kashmir since 1990 and the Gujarat carnage of early 2002 (whose perpetrators are still at large), have been landmarks in the history of Islamist terrorism in India as were ‘Operation Bluestar’ and the anti-Sikh riots (both in 1984) in the history of the Khalistani movement. Dr Riaz Ahmed of the Delhi University rightly says that terrorism is the ‘desperate reaction of a desperate people’. Terrorists are crying for attention towards issues like the gross violations of collective human rights in Kashmir and justice to the victims of the carnage in Gujarat.

Kashmir has had an ardently secular Sufi past, it opposed the communal two-nation theory during the Indo-Pak partition in 1947 and the demand of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was for a secular, democratic republic of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and the Pak-ruled Gilgit. It is after the suppression of the JKLF that the Hizbul Mujahideen, a moderately communal militant group, arose. The origin of the communal, terrorist and pro-Pakistani outfits of Kashmir today, namely, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Muhammed owes a lot to the brutal suppression by the Indian state of the self-determination movement in Kashmir, costing around 80,000 Kashmiri lives as also to the sinister support extended to these outfits by the ISI from the Pakistani side. The travails of the near and dear ones of around 10,000 persons who have gone missing constitute the most poignant part of the Kashmir story. The fact that public debates in the rest of India on the gross atrocities by the Indian security forces in Kashmir have been few and far between casts a reflection on the democratic credentials of our public sphere. In the mainstream anti-terrorist rhetoric, the phenomenon of state terror is conveniently overlooked. The existence of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in Kashmir and the North-East of India clearly indicates that the peoples of these regions are treated by the Indian state as ‘incomplete citizens’.

So far, suggestions to address the root cause of terrorism have often come not from the mainstream Indian media but from external sources such as the governments of China or Pakistan. The anti-Pak jingoism in the visual media today is reminiscent of the malevolent role of the Bombay media in pushing us to the brink of a disastrous border war with China in 1962.

The crushing of terrorism in Punjab by sheer military means—as testified by the records of cremation of 2097 bodies, many of them at Tarn Taran in the early 1990s—was possible because the militant movement had lost its mass base owing to the much-hated tactics such as bombing civilian targets. People who are optimistic that since there is no trace of terrorism in Punjab today, a militaristic approach to the issue can be adopted even in the Kashmir case, may be grossly wrong. The Punjab militancy lasted for less than a decade since 1984 but the Kashmir militancy has lasted nearly two decades now since 1988 and the cause still enjoys popular support in the Valley despite all the Machiavellian tactics hatched by our strategic analysts. Sikhs have been a micro-minority at the global level which is far from the case with the Muslims. The communalisation of the cause of Kashmiriyat only signalled its merger into the potent pan-Islamic identity and by no means a weakening of this cause.

It is high time we stress on a political solution instead of a military solution. We are in a state of permanent ad-hocism. A durable, lasting solution is still out of sight. Are the results of the recent Assembly elections in four States an indicator that the ill-fed, ill-clad, illiterate masses of India—over three-fourths of whom subsist on less than 20 rupees a day, according to the Arjun Sengupta Committee report—are becoming politically mature enough to reject a cynically communal and a narrowly security-centric anti-terrorist agenda that does not address their basic needs? Yes, the fundamental choice is still with the Indian state and the dominant social forces whether to root out terror by addressing its deep-seated causes or keep chipping away at its branches for all times to

[The author thanks Dr Prashant Trivedi and Dr Riaz Ahmed for their comments. The views expressed above
are only personal.]

Dr Gilbert Sebastian works as an Associate Fellow at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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