Tackling terror

THE arrest of three Indian citizens for attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow marks a turning point. This is the first time any Indian Muslim has been involved in a jehadi attempt to commit terrorist violence abroad. At its centre was Bangalore-born Kafeel Ahmed.



By Praful Bidwai

Published: Sat 14 Jul 2007, 8:44 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

Had the plot succeeded, hundreds of innocent citizens would have died. That’s reason enough to condemn the plot — without ifs and buts. There’s no hard evidence that Al-Qaeda was involved. But no sane person can justify the killing of non-combatant civilians — regardless of the cause or provocation.

The episode has shattered the certitude that India’s democracy is strong, inclusive and secular enough to create a reliable firewall against extremism; and that well-educated, talented, middle-class professionals from cities like Bangalore cannot be attracted to jehadi ideas because they don’t personally experience the discrimination that underprivileged Muslims suffer.

These notions must be subjected to critical scrutiny if India is to avoid panic-driven responses and fall for a draconian “we-take-no-prisoners” strategy to combat terrorism.

First, much is made of the fact, frequently cited by Indian leaders, including Manmohan Singh, that “not one” of India’s 150 million Muslims participated (until last week) in Al-Qaeda/Taliban-style activities. This bears a sharp contrast to Pakistan. But this was part complacent self-assurance, and partly a way of chiding Pakistan for its lack of democracy.

Indian leaders now wisely say that terrorists have no “religion or country”. But for years, they attributed a specific national character to terrorism and called Pakistan its global “epicentre”. There was truth in the charge although Pakistan changed its policy after 2001. However, today, the assertion sounds pitifully defensive.

Complacency about India’s democracy is even more disturbing. India has a proud 60-year record of holding free elections. But its democracy is flawed by a lack of substantive (not just Constitutional) freedoms, of the rule of law, and above all, inclusion and participation. Under Hindutva’s rise, secularism has taken a beating for 15 years.

The Gujarat carnage was a turning point because of its scale and the state’s complicity, and because of its persistent failure to bring the culprits to book. Gujarat has left deep scars on the minds of Indian Muslims and weakened their faith in the state’s will to give them a modicum of justice. Such flawed democracy cannot form a firewall against extremism.

A study of 172 Al-Qaeda operatives by forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman found that 90 per cent came from relatively stable, secure backgrounds; three-fourths from upper or middle-class families. Two-thirds were graduates.

In Gujarat, it’s the well-off, well-dressed, cellphone-wielding fanatical Hindus who led the rampaging mobs.

We still don’t know precisely what sowed the seeds of extremism in Kafeel’s mind: Was the motivation purely doctrine-driven? Was it India-specific? Or was it the West’s demonisation of Islam, and the murderous occupations of Iraq and Palestine?

Without justifying anyone’s conversion to extremism in any way, we must acknowledge that a successful anti-terror strategy must analyse and address its causes.

This can only be done by a dual approach: careful police investigation and prosecution of extremists, which upholds civil liberties; and a concerted attempt to win the hearts and minds of alienated minorities through inclusive, participatory democratic practices.

Without the second, extremist ideologies cannot be weakened. It’s only when all citizens, irrespective of religion, feel they are full, equal participants in democracy, and no group feels besieged, that extremism can be successfully tackled.

That’s where the rub lies. India has tried to fight extremism by draconian means: TADA, POTA, “encounter killings”, and other strong-arm methods, largely imitating the US approach evidenced in the “global war on terror” (GWOT). The idea of a military solution to terrorism stands discredited. In fact, the language of war has alienated millions of Muslims — and non-Muslims — and aggravated their sense of injury at the West’s treatment of the Arab world, which it has pillaged and messed with for centuries.

Here lies a major lesson. If terrorism is ultimately a tactic or technique, it can be used by any agency — religious groups, ultra-nationalists like the LTTE or Irish Republican Army, or governments. There is nothing specifically “Islamic” about terrorism. The prejudice underlying the term is highlighted by the absence of “Judaic terrorism”, “Hindu terrorism” or “Christian terrorism”.

It’s vital to separate terrorism/extremism from particular religions and make efforts to overcome the sense of siege that Indian Muslims experience. This cannot be done by exhorting Muslims to think of themselves as Indians — when they are cornered on account of being Muslims. Members of a besieged community will always look for solidarity among themselves.

Muslim alienation can only be overcome through measures to secure justice for the victims of communal violence, including Mumbai-1992-93 and Gujarat, and through affirmative action to combat social and educational disadvantage, well-documented by the Sachar Committee.

We must remember that state terrorism is potentially far more dangerous and destructive than sub-state/group terrorism. The state commands resources and destructive power far in excess of any international or national sub-state network. It also enjoys impunity.

The world’s worst-ever terrorist act was an act by a state — the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This killed 40 times more people than the 9/11 attacks.

The time has come for serious soul-searching — not only among Muslims, but all Indian citizens. If they are to counter the gathering Right-wing assault on freedom, they must not give the state excessive powers. They must come together — regardless of their faith or creed — in a huge civil society mobilisation in defence of liberty, democracy and humane values.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in


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