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Terrorism and the idiom of discourse

The national response to the hijack of Flight IC 814, the character of negotiations that followed, and the eventual settlement, have exposed numerous chinks in the national armour, and many of these have been widely commented upon. There is one aspect, however, that needs repeated emphasis, and I feel it is best exemplified by a headline a few days ago in this Paper (The Pioneer, January 6, 2000): "Hijack opens window for interaction with Muslims". The report concerned a meeting of the Prime Minister with some "Muslim leaders".

The headline itself will, or should, offend every right thinking Indian. Do we – or our national leaders – need a "window" for interaction with a section of our own citizens? And does it take a national crisis and its humiliating denouement to create the space for such interaction?

As for the report, its language appears to suggest that the meeting was an exception brought about by the hijacking crisis, and that such interactions do not occur in the absence of abrupt and extreme interventions in the air. I am not, of course, privy to the actual record, but I find it difficult to believe that this was the first delegation of ‘Muslim leaders’ with whom the present Prime Minister has conferred in his tenure of almost two years. The problem is essentially one of interpretation.

It is not just a problem that afflicts the media, which has, of course, not emerged smelling of roses from any of the recent crises. Journalists have, nevertheless, at the end of the day, by and large served the objectives of a free Press in a democracy. The larger fact is that we are yet to extricate ourselves from the shadow of the two-nation theory and the Partition-inspired communal underpinnings of our political discourse. In this, it is not sufficient to point fingers at the character of the party presently in power. It is one of the convenient fictions of our time that the BJP is responsible for communalising the nation’s polity. The fact, however, is that none of our political parties can be absolved of blame, and some of the foremost "secular" formations have been guilty of the greatest distortions and injustices in this regard. It was these secular formations that repeatedly divided the country into caste and communal vote banks at a time when the precursor formations of the BJP had no more than a negligible presence in India’s electoral politics. Communally divisive strategies have often been reinforced by two conflicting trends – on the one hand, laying emphasis on providing special avenues for the expression or accommodation of the "Muslim point of view" on various issues, and, on the other, creating an inchoate, yet ever present pressure on the entire community to "prove its nationalist credentials", a pressure that is not ordinarily exerted upon, or experienced by, any other community in the country.

Is there really a distinguishable "Muslim point of view" on national issues in India? I do not wish to enter into the usual argument of the ideological and cultural diversities, and the wide difference of perceptions and viewpoints within the Muslim community. Or into the question of the various internal demands, relating to preferential employment, social development, educational and job reservations, which are sometimes projected by a sectarian leadership – such demands and aspirations are voiced by every single sub-group in India without presenting any threat to national sovereignty or integrity. I am certain, however, that there is a complete identity of views across communities on matters of national security, and this has been demonstrated again and again in moments of crisis, and most dramatically in the face of external aggression, when there has never been even a single dissenting Muslim voice, and when so many Muslims have been counted among the nation’s martyrs and heroes. Yet, more than fifty-two years after Independence, the Indian Muslim is made to feel that he must run an additional distance to prove his patriotism.

If anything, this feeling has been deepened by perceptions of what is frequently referred to as "Islamic terrorism" in Kashmir. The imperatives of brevity and condensation in communication often result in the fashioning of a convenient, if careless, idiom to express complex ideas and to describe complicated sequences of historical events. The omnibus expression "Islamic terrorism" is one such careless construct, and it has had critical and baneful consequences in shaping our perceptions of the larger community of Islam, not only in India, but the world over. It is, moreover, a frightfully – indeed, unforgivably – inaccurate expression for more reasons than one. In the first place, the idea and the values of Islam – indeed, of all religions – militate fundamentally against the tactics and methods of terrorism. Influential members of the Muslim clergy in India have, time and again, unequivocally condemned the methods of terrorists who claim the protection of Islam for their action. Those who accept or sympathise with the objectives and tactics of the terrorists, in any event, constitute a minuscule minority of the nearly 100 million Muslims in this country. I have, moreover, never heard of the expression "Hindu terrorist" or "Christian terrorist" – though members of these communities have also been responsible, from time to time, for acts of terrorism in various parts of the country.

The words we use are important for another reason. The nomenclature and idiom of the discourse on terrorism is an integral element of the war against terrorism. The Pakistan backed terrorists and mercenaries seek to project their acts of amoral savagery as part of a unified ‘Pan-Islamic’ movement. To the extent that our language reflects and confirms this claim, it reinforces the terrorist cause – irrespective of the prevailing reality. In this, we have been ill-served by contemporary Western intellectual fashions, especially the influential – though entirely inaccurate – Huntington thesis of the prophesied ‘Clash of Civilisations’. The Huntington thesis, if anything, has the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has no basis in present reality, but the more it is believed and acted upon, the more will it be realised. To the extent that the world looks at the objective situation in the heterogeneous complexity of what is described as the "Islamic world’ and bases its responses and policies on such a realistic evaluation, the limited probabilities of the predicted ‘Clash of Civilisations’ would tend to recede.

One of the critical lessons of the recent hijacking has been that India has to defend itself on its own strengths against the massive, if covert, war unleashed against it. Not only do we have to stand alone in the world, we have to stand together within the country. This is not going to happen as long as a large proportion of our population, our media, and influential segments of our political leadership, speak and act in a manner that deepens fissures between communities. Our inherited worldview, conditioned by the recurrent traumas of the last century, will have to be given up; old and obstructive habits of thought will have to be abandoned. A new paradigm and idiom of discourse will have to be created to serve our national ends in the new Millennium.

(Published in The Pioneer, December 8, 2000)





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