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State must fight terrorism industry

One truth that has established itself over the years in India’s political scenario is that, if you seek a short-cut to political prominence, all you have to do is pick up a gun, adopt some inchoate political ideology, identify a few ‘popular grievances’, and set off on a spree of ‘political violence’ – killing, maiming or kidnapping according to personal preference or the dictates of profitability. Sooner, rather that later, you will have the government talking to you, offering a multiplicity of benefits and sending down high profile ‘negotiators’ to secure a ‘political solution’ that will give you a permanent and prominent position in the democratic processes of your State. In case this is not sufficient, the option of entering into extended and inconclusive negotiations with the government, even while you consolidate highly lucrative extortion and other criminal rackets is always left open. The advantage of not allowing the ‘negotiations’ to break down is that they confer a quasi-legal status on your activities, and leave security and police forces reasonably confused, so that no effective action is taken against your criminal networks.

This is a pattern that has been repeated again and again, in Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam (albeit substantially unsuccessfully at present), Jammu & Kashmir, and earlier in Punjab. Many ‘successes’ have been proudly exhibited by their negotiators. Some of these, like Mizoram, have been conclusive. Others have been more limited, securing the surrender, pacification or containment of a particular militant faction, or sowing discord between or within such factions. What has never been assessed is the enormous and deleterious effect that these ‘successes’ have had on the body politic in general.

The most obvious of such consequences is the demonstration effect on the unscrupulous, the impatient and the politically ambitious. Simply put, if murder, extortion and political violence can elevate one person to the Legislative Assembly, the Parliament, or even the Chief Ministership of a State, what prevents others from emulating such successes? And retaining the very substantial profits they make on the way after they have had their respectability officially restored?

To those who do not believe in the impact and efficacy of such a demonstration effect, one needs only point to the proliferation of militant groups in India’s Northeast. General awareness tends to be limited to one or two groups active in each State, but the actual numbers are simply astonishing. Assam boasts of over 34 ‘liberation armies’ that find their justification in a variety of tribal, sub-tribal, and communal identities and ideologies; Tripura has over 30 such groups, and a thriving ‘kidnap industry’ that accounts for over 70 per cent of all kidnappings in the entire Northeast region; Manipur has 35 groups. The ‘peaceful’ States of the Northeast, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have also witnessed the recent emergence or consolidation of a number of militant groupings. Of course, in States such as Nagaland, where one or two gangs succeed in establishing a monopoly, this proliferation is impeded. But the route to political power through criminal violence under the garb of ‘revolutionary’ activities remains the same – though in such cases eminence can only be secured through the organizational structure of the dominant groups. One aspect that is common to all such groups, whether they have monopolistic position in a particular area, or whether they act in a ‘free market’ of many minor players, is that their activities are extraordinarily lucrative, and the incentives, both for existing players and for their imitators, to keep the ‘business’ alive, are immense, and far outstrip anything that legitimate activities could offer. The tiresome route of conventional democratic politics, through social work and mobilization, obviously, has no comparable enticements.

The greater and more insidious impact of this regime of negotiation with terrorists and their ilk is the effect it has on the very fundamentals of democratic and constitutional governance. First, if a violent shortcut is available to the Legislative Assemblies, why bother with the more arduous journey of a real democracy? Related to this is the danger that those who are more principled democrats – or who lack the stomach for violence – will simply be muscled out of the political equation, both by the threat of violence from these groupings, and by Governments eager to negotiate a ‘peace’ with them. Most importantly, while reams of newsprint are dedicated to the discourse on the disastrous consequences of the creation of extra-Constitutional centers of power, these arguments have never been consistently applied to the processes of negotiating with terrorists, which occur entirely outside the Constitutional sphere, which both create and endorse such extra-Constitutional foci, which obstruct the implementation of the Constitutional imperative of rule of law, and which undermine and destroy the basic principles and processes of Constitutional democracy. Speaking of the impossibility of principled negotiations with terrorists, Yossef Bodansky writes:

"There can be no reasonable outcome of negotiations under such circumstances. A government committed to the safety and well being of its citizenry and an organization intentionally using the indiscriminate injuring of the same citizenry as a negotiations tactic do not speak the same language…. Even if they seem to agree on certain procedures and accommodations, the difference between their respective principled positions is irreconcilable. There can be no common denominators or common grounds between terrorism and democracy."

How is it then, that after more than half a century of democracy, regime after regime in India chooses to initiate such unprincipled liaisons, and does so without any political opprobrium – indeed, does so with the general approval of most political parties?

Many factors contribute to the context of such contradictions. Among the more important of these is the persistent ambiguity that attaches to counter-terrorist policy and practice, and their legitimate limits. In the absence of a coherent and commonly accepted counter-terrorism doctrine, ad hoc measures, and hence short-term expediency, is the only principle in play. Neither law nor logic, neither ethics nor the long-term interests of the nation, have a defining role in such determinations. Narrow and transient partisan political interests, the ambitions of individual bureaucrats, negotiators and political leaders, and the personal character and insecurities of the various players constitute the defining elements in such policy formulation.

Another crucial element is the character of India’s contemporary political leadership. It is the case that a large number of political parties do, in fact, overtly or covertly encourage or support terrorist groups, both on Indian soil, and those acting in friendly countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In a polity where a gentleman who tries to blow up a train becomes the hero of the Emergency, and then rises to eminence as a Minister in more than one Union Government, attitudes towards terrorism as a political weapon remain extremely ambivalent.

If this general political propensity is to be reversed, it is imperative that the present Government take the initiative to define a clear and non-discriminatory counter-terrorism doctrine, one that places the national interest and the principles of Constitutional governance and democracy above all other considerations. It must then work to secure a national political consensus on such a doctrine, and to define its own policies and practices strictly within its parameters.

‘Accords’ with terrorists and their over-ground representatives have become the panacea of the day for extremist political violence across the country. What is not remembered here is that these Accords are signed with individual terrorist leaders, not with constitutional entities or with any agency that would be permanently bound by law or any predictable ethical standard. Such accords constrain only individual players, and only to the extent that they perceive a greater benefit in adhering to their terms than in a resort to violence. They do not permanently prevent a return to violence even by these players, and place no constraint whatsoever on any other free agent from seeking to replicate the success of those who have already risen to power along the route of terrorist violence.

(Published in The Pioneer, March 31, 2001)





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.