December 29, 2005

For what it is

Just got done writing two different articles on the IISc tragedy, and I'm left numbed, though with a splitting headache. Because I've been wondering yet once more about what's possibly the world's most overused word these days.

There are contenders for that crown -- "WMD", "globalization", "Bush" come to mind. But the one I'm thinking of outstrips the others in one respect: the aura it has acquired over the last several years.

The word is, of course, "terrorism".

Especially since 9/11, terrorism as term and phenomenon have come to stay. But gruesome as its effects are, it retains a strange appeal: everybody longs to be seen as its victim. Just following the news in recent years, I recall at least these countries that have laid claim to being greatly affected -- the worst affected, they often hint -- by terrorism: Israel, Cuba, the USA, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Pakistan, England, Russia and of course India.

(Don't snort, or at least not just yet).

Few in India have any doubts about Pakistan's culpability in terror attacks like at IISc. Yet consider this: Pakistan itself claims to be a victim of terror, and points the finger at India. Snort all you want now, but it's what you will hear in that country. Further afield, you will find more such paradoxes. Israel suffers regular tragedies from Palestinian suicide bombs -- though I wonder if it is just my imagination that they've slowed down somewhat -- but cross into the Palestinian enclaves and you will hear tales of Israel's brutal oppression. Russia is regularly devastated by the horrors Chechen terrorists perpetrate; but in Chechnya, Russians have committed horrible atrocities against Chechens for over a century.

So what do we believe? Where's the terror? In fact, what really is terrorism?

I ask because of these opposite views on terrorism. But I also ask because I get letters that read like this: "Why is every terrorist attack condemned -- but only [with] a simultaneous condemnation of riots?" (This particular writer began by saying he was so disgusted with my writing that he "want[ed] to vomit down my gullet" -- but that's another story).

The implication here: riots are somehow different from terrorism; so different that we must separate our condemnations of each. After all, terrorism, you'll hear said with purpose, serves political ends.

Yet it seems to me that for a whole lot of scheming politicians, riots certainly serve political ends -- just as much terror does. Besides, Indian victims of Indian riots certainly felt terror as they were burned, sliced or lynched to death. The scale of slaughter in these outrages was certainly comparable to anything that's happened in Kashmir, or Russia, or Israel.

So what's the difference?

Answer: none. Riots amount to terrorism, that's all, and that's how we must see them.

Well, there's one difference: the perpetrators of riots live unpunished among us. Not some shadowy figures from across the border, but our own fellow citizens. You'd think that would make it easier to catch and punish these criminals, but no. Because they are our fellow citizens, they each have their defenders who will not admit their crimes, their claws sunk deep in the circles of Indian power and influence. Not only is it impossible to punish them, it is impossible even to point a steady and unanimous finger at them.

What's the answer? As far as I can tell, there's just one. Recognize terror for what it is. Riots, bomb blasts, attacks on temples and scientists: all are ghastly assaults on India and Indians. All leave ordinary Indians bloodied and dead. All must be punished swiftly and severely.

That's hard. I know. But tell me another way.


TTG said...

it is an odd statement to make - comparing riots with terrorism. Terrorism is the domain of the few, whereas Riots represent a breakdown of civil society.

How is a suicide bomber equivalent to a Narendra Modi? The suicide bomber operates alone, and strikes fear into the hearts of common people. A Narendra Modi plays on the Middle-Class Majority prejudices and uses them to his advantage. Narendra Modi needs an entire apparatus, he is dependent on it to fuel a riot. One idiot going out and exhorting people to kill muslims can't cause any damage if nobody listens to him. But Osama doesn't need anybody to listen to him. He'll just strap a few bombs to himself, and that's the deal.

Terrorists want to destroy the existing civil order, whereas a riot represents the actual breaking down of the civil order. Terrorism can lead to a riot, and vice versa, but they sure as hell aren't the same thing.

Further, a state murdering its own people is not terrorism. That's repression.

The end results, the first causes, and the nature of action are different for each one. It's the first time I've ever seen anybody try to club 'em together...

km said...


Excellent point.

The politics of language is a strange business. Like the use of the phrase "hate crime" in the US. Is there any other kind of crime?


TTG said...


Which again shows you why it is hard to arrest the the people who started the riots. Is Narendra Modi solely responsible for the riots? What about the 2 polarised halves of Gujarat? If you're going catch the culprits of the riots, half the state deserves to be in Jail. Yes the riots may have been started by a few, but that's not how they finished. How can the polity of the state hold itself responsible? It is a collective failure

But terrorist acts are individual actions. They were not created by bubbling-under-the-surface rifts between communities. There are specific individuals responsible for the co-ordination and execution of the attacks. Obviously a big difference.

Terrorist attacks are specifically designed for show. "Look, we can bring down the tallest buildings in your country." "Look, we can kill your people having a good time in a disco".

Is that the motive behind a riot? Or is it simply an orgy of violence brought about people's daily frustrations, which spill over simply because they need an excuse.

Overall rising incomes and content people prevent riots. But they won't be able to prevent terrorists.

In fact, rising incomes and content people might even LEAD to terrorism...

Of the two forms of violence, obviously riots are the worse. they leave permanent scars, and physical damage, but obviously are also the harder of the two to prevent.

The Indian Government(or any other government) will naturally focus on the easier one to prevent (i.e. terrorism).

TTG said...

Krishna, yes there are lots of other types of crimes.

A man killing his adulterous wife is not guilty of a hate crime.

A person killing a Sikh man because simply for being a Sikh is guilty of committing a Hate crime. Are the two types of murder equal in your mind?

A soldier killing an enemy combatant...

Also a hate crime?


Anonymous said...

I dont see why there should be a brouhaha about this. After all, in Kashmir people have been getting killed by "terrorists" almost everyday for over 15 years. We dont write reams on it. I bet there wouldnt be so much breast-beating if a couple of people in Dharavi or somewhere had been killed. Somehow, we all feel outraged when our middle-class cocoon is disturbed.
In any case, nothing is going to happen. As long as the political class is not directly threatened, they give a rats ---- about this kind of stuff. The middle class will just have to live with the new uncertainty. Welcome to the reality that many Indians have been living with for 15 years.

km said...


The Sikh-killer hates Sikhs. The adulterous-wife-killer hates adulterous wives.

Similarly, a soldier killing another soldier (that you choose to describe as an "enemy") is a hate crime depending on which side you are on.

Any act of killing is an act of hatred. No one ever killed anyone out of love for him or her.

Umesh Patil said...

You are dead right Dilip:
- there is no difference between a terror attack and a riot; and
- both are dealt with the same measure - no compromise, law is applied.

High time we stop splitting hair here.

Shinu Mathew said...

For some people Narendra Modi is what a Jaish-e-Mohd or Lashkar-e-Toiba for us Indians. Both are capable of executing innocent people in the name of religion. I wrote something in this line way back.

History always had two sides. The deciding side is always depends upon who the winner is. Same way Pakistan & India had always two versions of everything. If you read some Pakistani based websites about Kashmir, you would be stunned. Whatever be believe, or forced to believe is contradicted there and they teahc their childred just the opposite. There we, India, is the exporter of terror.
The recent case against an Indian spy (alleged) Sarabjit singh is a case in point.

Ashok said...

People also kill for profit. People kill to hide other crimes. There's often no hate involved there. Greed, fear, passion.. all of these can lead to crimes. Not just hate.

kart said...

English is a strange language. For that matter all languages are. Where one word would suffice, we have twenty. But somehow that makes it easier. It would be easy to say I am Happy or I am sad as all other emotions and feelings result in one of these. Yet, it is not so simple.
Similarly, Riot is different from terrorism purely in language. The results and consequences might be the same, yet we need the two different words. If I riot against a situation I might not be a terror, and If I am terrorizing someone I am not necessarily rioting. It's subtle but it's needed.
Yet, the two words meet. It is at this juncture that the resulting actions should remain the same.

Dilip D'Souza said...

TTG: why odd? Terrorism to me means the spreading of terror, involving murders of innocent people. Does that not describe rioting?

It may be the first time, but there you are: I'm trying to give you something to think about.

I can't see a soldier killing an enemy soldier in a war as a crime. That's what he's there to do.

Shinu, nice to have you come by here. And thanks for the mention of the two versions of everything.