Terror has no colour

Thinking aloud

The controversy over home minister P Chidambaram’s reference to ‘saffron terrorism’ should not be allowed to distract attention from an appraisal of the true nature of terrorism. Some terrorists might be Hindu just as others are Muslim or Christian, but what matters even more than what they do is who they are and why they do it. Without that differentiation, no country, neither India nor the United States, can ever come to grips with the political challenges that instigate gun-toting activists.

Janardhan Dwivedi, who heads the Congress party’s media department, missed the point when he argued that saffron is not the issue and that ‘the main issue is terrorism.’ That is like a doctor proclaiming that disease is not the issue but death is.

He might as well say that medicine’s only challenge is the heart since death means heart failure; not any of the many causes that lead to the heart stopping to beat. No other cause of mortality need be examined. No disease needs be treated. All the organs of the human body can be allowed to rot. The limbs might atrophy. The brain’s disintegration need not be arrested. Heart failure being the ultimate end, it alone deserves attention.
Terrorism is the outward eruption, not the issue. There will be no solution to any of the many issues that prompt terrorist outrages if governments choose to ignore the underlying causes and treat the outrages themselves as the issue. Returning to the medical analogy, it’s like doling out the same medicine for all boils that break out on the body. Some might be caused by blood poisoning, some by an unbalanced diet, some by a skin infection, of course, the boils have to be treated. But they will erupt again and again if ointment, hot compress or lancing is the only treatment.

Because of the American nightmare of New York’s Twin Towers, we identify terrorism with Islamic fundamentalism. And, indeed, the bulk of today’s terrorist movements are Muslim. But blind Islamophobia will get us nowhere. It was probably to avert that danger and break that mould of stereotyped thinking that Chidambaram recalled the 1998 Malegaon bombing and reminded listeners that Muslims are not the only perpetrators of violence.
They should have needed no reminding after Sri Lanka’s experience with the overwhelmingly Hindu Tamil Tigers. Had the Union home minister ventured farther afield, he would have recalled that the hard core Roman Catholic Provisional Irish Republican Army holds the record for the world’s longest terrorist campaign. Spain’s Basque terrorists are also Catholic.

ISI not pioneer

As for official sponsorship of terrorist acts, the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence network’s involvement in the Mumbai blasts was not the first of its kind. A notable feature of the First World War was the bombing of Turkish railway lines in West Asia by Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab allies as part of the British strategy of destroying the Ottoman Empire and winning over its Arab subjects.

Not only is terrorism never without a cause but the cause is often lofty in some eyes. Bengal’s tradition of bomb-making did not end when the British left. Dozens of Naxalite groups re-enacted the Chittagong Armoury Raid in attacking police stations all over the state. It’s a truism that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. That would apply to Punjab’s Bhagat Singh as much as to Bina Das in Bengal.

Many readers will be outraged at the comparison but that is only because they understand and approve of the motivation for what Bhagat Singh and Bina Das attempted. But not understanding the reason for jihadi violence and seeing themselves as the target, readers will naturally take a different stand.

Let them, however, pause to consider that young men who sacrifice their lives must have a reason for doing so. Further, no one who is not placed in exactly the same situation can ever understand a motivation that seems warped to others. Richard Baldwin, the black American writer, said once he would never know if he had to wait for the lift because the liftman was genuinely busy or because he was black and the liftman was white. Rarely can one man get into another’s skin.

Sanity lies, therefore, not in speaking of green or saffron terrorism, or even in branding all terrorism as black, as one politician suggested, but in trying to analyse and understand the separate cause behind each outburst.

True, there is evidence of cross-border cooperation (Chechens among the Mujahedeen, Taliban with the Uighurs and Malaysian assistance for beleaguered Bosnians) but that unavoidable expression of globalisation is a relatively limited phenomenon. Cooperation doesn’t always indicate ideological sympathy either: Palestinians were suspected of helping both the IRA and the Tigers for reasons of commerce as part of the global underworld trade in arms and armaments.

What matters more is that Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other current centres of unrest are as separate and distinct as were Ulster and Eelam. Lumping all these highly individual and sensitive political problems together as only terrorist threats will only further aggravate the situation.

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