Terrorism and Vigilantism: Twins born of fear, hatred

Terrorism and Vigilantism: Twins born of fear and hatred

If terrorism is unacceptable to India and Indians, can vigilantism, of the mob-lynching, moral policing variety, be accepted?

People from various organisations and citizen rights activists came together at SBM circle on Thursday condemning communal violence and demanding that the Chief Minister take back his 'action - reaction' statement on moral policing, in Bengaluru. Credit: DH photo

Reports of vigilante groups taking the law into their own hands for various reasons connected with inter-faith matters are on the increase. At the same time, terrorism is a subject of daily reportage. Both these matters affect everybody directly or indirectly, and bear discussion.

Vigilantism, and its span

A vigilante is “a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.” Vigilantes bypass the government’s legal-justice system by taking measures against whosoever they believe are violators of established law (or social norms), as they understand it.

This sometimes extends beyond extra-legal enforcement of established law, to imposing self-accepted “laws”, rules, morals and mores, to punish people who are seen to violate customs, or are deemed to have caused insult or harm to ideas, icons, etc., which they hold to be sacred or inviolable. Usually, persons hailing from the numerical majority of a population try to enforce a moral code.

Persons or groups who profess a certain idea, or claim to “protect” a certain entity, and act outside of the law-and-justice framework by attacking whosoever they deem has opposed their idea or ideology, are also vigilantes. Vigilantes often treat their targets as “inferior” or unwanted “others”, who deserve to be hated and killed.

Vigilantes strike fear among their declared targets, and are not concerned that their activities are illegal. If governments are unable or unwilling to prevent such activities, vigilantes enjoy freedom to operate. Sometimes, a government or powerful social-political lobby may clandestinely support or tacitly approve of vigilante groups because they find their activities convenient, even beneficial, to further their political interests.

Vigilantism is not at all recent in origin. Two examples should suffice: Starting in 12th Century France, groups within the Catholic church conducted a Holy Inquisition to combat religious deviation and heresy. Heretics and “witches” were burned at the stake; and, in the 17th Century, Galileo was indicted for suggesting that the Earth and the planets revolved around the Sun.

In America, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist terrorist group, targeted African- Americans as well as Jews, immigrants, leftists, homosexuals, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. KKK used physical assault, including lynching, against politically active blacks and their allies, even if the latter were whites. They also intimidated voters, targeted African-American leaders, and organised opposition to the civil rights movement, including suppressing activists. KKK later adopted a ‘business model’ of full-time, paid recruiters to induct members into its fraternity.

Vigilantism is thus an instrument of organised violence, used by a group to further its dogmas, beliefs, ideas and ideals, by targeting groups or individuals, to create fear, or injure and kill. Vigilantism is also used to silence or subjugate opposition. A political aim or agenda is undeniably at the core of vigilantism.

Terror, terrorist, terrorism

Terror is an emotion of extreme fear, caused by the threat or use of violence, or perception of grave danger. Terror is also an instrument, to cause extreme fear in targeted individuals or groups. Use of terror as an instrument for political purposes is age-old, and terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

The person who uses the instrument of terror, for personal, partisan, political or any other conceivable purpose, is a terrorist. A terrorist’s claim of representing or belonging to a particular ethnic, religious, ideological, or political group, and whether or not that ethnic, religious, ideological, or political group acknowledges or denies his membership or allegiance, is of no consequence. Terrorism is undeniably terrorism, and a terrorist is a terrorist regardless, although different from a militant.

Terrorists are indoctrinated, trained and launched by their mentors, handlers, financiers and sponsors, to attack soft targets and create fear among populations. They strike at people to kill them and destroy property, with the intention of spreading fear and causing maximum damage. Terrorism is a complex global issue, with social, religious, cultural, economic and political dimensions.

As the erstwhile UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, is unacceptable and can never be justified”.

If terrorism is unacceptable, can vigilantism be accepted?

Extra-legal or extra-constitutional use of threats, or physical and psychological violence to punish, or to cause, incite or stoke fear and hate – and especially in present times, by fake or false news on social media – are common to both vigilantism and terrorism. Also common is the politics-religion agenda.

To enforce their chosen moral code, or protect a certain entity, idea or custom, vigilante groups victimise individuals who they believe have violated a law. Reportedly, the police have often been complicit. Accusations of tacit support or encouragement of vigilantes by politicians or subverted government agencies for political benefit are hotly refuted by government supporters. These accusations and counter-accusations are sometimes accentuated by use of epithets such as “Islamic terrorist”, “Hindu terrorist”, etc.

These 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 social-religious background or who/what terrorists may claim to represent.

Governments fight shy of connecting the religious identity of vigilantes who killed Akbar Khan (Jaipur, Rajasthan, 2018), Alimuddin (Ramgarh, Jharkhand, 2017), Mohammad Akhlaq (Dadri, UP, 2015), for example, and other killings.

Significantly, in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, PM Modi is reported to have said: “In my culture and in my limited knowledge, no Hindu can ever be a terrorist and if he is a terrorist, he can never be a Hindu.”

Notwithstanding our PM’s categorical assertion, the reader might like to decide whether vigilantes are indeed terrorists, and if not, whether vigilantes and terrorists are siblings, born as a result of the vicious politics of hate and fear.

(The writer retired as Additional Director-General, Discipline & Vigilance, in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements and People’s Union for Civil Liberties)