They asked for no answers, made no threats
Gentlefolk, they went away
Now, the rustle of leaves speaks of fear
— Ashok Vajpeyi in ‘They are here’
In whatever way it is defined, violence, politics, and civilian casualties constitute an integral part of every act of terrorism. To understand terrorism, it is essential to understand the historic processes that create conditions for the calculated use of violence by fanatical groups to deliver political messages and gain mileage. Mutiny, insurgencies, wars and uprisings have been with us in Southasia since the Aryan invasion and before, but terrorism is a distinctly post-colonial pathology. It needs to be treated, not fought.
The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has taken a bold constitutional step to correct past mistakes. It has declared everything about the coup of 1975 and subsequent martial law pronouncements as illegal. This precedence will be useful in future when courts of Pakistan and Nepal become confident enough to pass judgements on the decisions of Gen Pervez Musharraf and King Gyanendra. But even in the limited context of Bangladesh, the landmark ruling will be a stern reminder to ambitious military generals and their foreign sponsors that, sooner or later, everyone has to stand trial in the court of history.
Who knows whether the Americans had a role to play in the dark deed of 15 August 1975, but there is no denying the impact the carnage of Bangbandhu Mujib and his family had on Bangladeshi politics and society. The culture of vengeance took root in the fertile soil of a newly independent nation, religion as a tool of populism found willing takers, and international players discovered that the cost of meddling in a squabbling nation was surprisingly low.
Thirty years after the putsch, serial bomb blasts on 17 August proved that the tree of terrorism planted in the blood-soaked soil has grown so big that its shadow now covers the breadth of the country. Casualty figures from the series of explosions – two dead and 100 injured – belie the fact that this was a carefully coordinated operation in which 63 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh were affected. With ruthless efficiency, 200 explosions hit the country within half an hour, frightening locals and forcing foreigners to flee. The Western media has already begun to portray Bangladesh as the next Indonesia – hotbed of Islamist extremism harbouring Osama wannabes in every mosque.
Beyond Ben Gurion
Media pundits often forget that terrorism is a religion in itself with its own paraphernalia of holy books (most of it authored by British and American counter-insurgency experts), hoary prophets (Ben Gurion and bin Laden) and high-sounding principles (end justifies means; terror is the tool of the weak, etc). Use of adjectives such as ‘Christian’, as in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, or ‘Islamic’ as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Indonesia, blurs the main issue. Terrorism is a historic phenomenon that cannot be tackled militarily with simplistic slogans.
In his address to the nation shortly after the 9/11 attacks, amidst inflammatory catchphrases he used the terms ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘terrorist’ all of 32 times. But he did not bother to define the terminology. But back in the saddle for the second term, he now wants to be remembered as statesman rather than warmonger, so his administration is replacing the belligerent battle-cry “global war on terror” with a ‘principled’ commitment to “global struggle against violent extremism.” Fiddling with phraseology doesn’t mean much; it is intentions that matter. However, the words set rolling by the Potomac may very well change the way the Southasian intelligentsia looks at its own little wars in nooks and crannies of our region.
India, that is, Bharat has once again outlawed the Naxalites. Fear-mongering is the latest sport in Hyderabad and New Delhi where armchair analysts pontificate endlessly about the dangers of Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) and the supposedly developing corridor of Maoist insurgency from Nepal to Sri Lanka searing through Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala. The idea of an east-west corridor controlled by extremists appears even more farfetched, and so whoever spouts it is naturally worthy of peer respect in the seminar circuit. No security analyst worth his palmtop can stand the seductive charm of an al-Qaeda, ISI, Naxal and Bangla Bhai link running through the Hindi heartland and networked with militants of Assam, Manipur and Kashmir. For the sensation-addicted mass media, these is the stuff that banner headlines are made of.
Maobaadi and madrassas
To give credit where it’s due, the Maobaadi of Nepal are much more international than their Subcontinental cousins. The CPN-M is one of the founders of Revolutionary International Movement (RIM), is credited for creating CCOMPOSA, and is even indirectly responsible for bringing various factions of Indian Naxalites under the banner of Communist Party of India-Maoists. But despite their audacious attacks on military targets, even the Maobaadi have begun to lose their lustre. So far, their every action has had an equal and opposite reaction of strengthening the hands of the King Gyanendra’s royal palace as it engages in subjugating the people. Even the unilateral ceasefire that they declared in the first week of September appears to be a concession to the palace rather than an olive branch thrown in the direction of political parties and civil society.
Meanwhile, King Gyanendra let slip while speaking to some villagers in west Nepal that he wants to split the insurgents. But the divide-and-rule policy has its own perils. If smaller groups of extremists were easier to handle, Gen Musharraf would be sitting pretty letting his force do the bidding of American sleuths engaged in hunting the mythical Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas. He has de-recognised madrassa diplomas instead. Macaulay’s children in Southasia have a paranoiac disdain for religious education. The English-speaking elite in our metropolitan cities – the general sahab is just an over-achiever specimen of the same – do not realise that without Sanskrit Pathshalas that are run with temple funds in India and Nepal, and Madrassas funded through zakat almost everywhere, some of the poorest of the poor will not only remain illiterate but malnourished too. These seminaries provide free board to the needy (though admittedly most of pathshala beneficiaries tend to be poor Brahmin boys) in addition to imparting the rudimentary 3R’s.
Had Islamabad diverted some of its nuke and missile money to social purpose -for example, compulsory free schooling and midday meals for the children of the poor – the madrassas would have been forced to compete with formal schools. Stability of Pakistan is inversely proportional to the prosperity of its professionals – the better the air-conditioning in the cars that cruise about Clifton in Karachi, the more the likelihood of an uprising in rural Sindh. The bigger the bungalows amidst Islamabad’s other-worldly green, the more violent the protests in Punjab. But these are matters that a military (or royal) ruler can never understand.
Sri Lanka isn’t getting any better either since the military engineered a split in LTTE and began to back the splinter group to the hilt. On 12 August, the foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar fell to a sniper bullet. But while blaming the usual suspect ¬the LTTE – the government has done precious little to check Sinhalese chauvinism of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) parties. The peace process in Sri Lanka is unlikely to succeed without some sort of settlement with Tamils, but the Sinhalese majority still awaits a leader courageous enough to make an unpopular deal. Chandrika Kumaratunga tries, but not hard enough. Strong centres are too strong to let devolution happen.
The earthen lamp
Post-9/11, peace has come to be defined in terms of war: wars are declared to win peace. The world has somehow forgotten the frail man in a dhoti who was Mountbatten’s one-man army in Bengal during the Partition carnage of 1947. M K Gandhi countered the terror tactics of fanatics with nothing but his conviction that violence begets violence and it is only peace that can create peace.
Gandhi had yet another prescription that very few remember anymore. Devolution of power to the lowest units of government will render the use of terror tactics meaningless – the value of rocket-launchers in ‘dirty wars’ would plummet if the prize at the end of it were limited to control over an impoverished village somewhere in Telangana
The suicide bomber – the ultimate terror machine – is not the product of hope but the escape of the desperate from the injustice of history. That desperation cannot be addressed by sovereignty or independence of the post-colonial state, or even the delivery of development. Nothing less than sustained and sincere efforts to build a just structure can address the grievances that breed terrorism. Even a “global struggle against violent extremism” is war by another name, being waged upon the world by the most powerful country in human history. Fear incites violence, even when the fear is caused by mere shadows. To build peace, we must learn to overcome our fears and rediscover hope.