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Social Science and Contemporary Conflicts
The Challenge of Research on Terrorism
Ajai Sahni*


The study of terrorism as an academic discipline is very much in its infancy. This is the case, not just in South Asia, but across the world, and as recently as in 1977, one of the pioneers of terrorism research, Paul Wilkinson, observed:

…in the colourful aviary of contemporary Academia many shriek and squawk against any project of this kind. Some, while admitting the fact of terrorism in the contemporary world, want its defenestration from the ivory tower either because of academic snobbery or plain squeamishness. One is reminded of the widespread academic prejudice against war studies. War, like terrorism, is a nasty, bloody, messy business which, some wish to argue, should only be studied by universities under the cache sexe of ‘Peace’ or ‘Conflict’ studies.1

Since then, however, terrorism research has developed significantly in the West, with a number of Universities setting up departments dedicated to the study of terrorism, insurgencies and political violence, and a significant proliferation of Think Tanks and other research institutions focusing on these issues.

South Asia in general and India in particular have, however, remained at the periphery of the substantial research activity that has followed. India has, over the past decades, suffered enormously as a result of terrorism and low intensity warfare. It has scored dramatic victories in its struggle against an unscrupulous and relentless enemy, one, who has, almost invariably, been encouraged, armed and supported from across its borders. Nevertheless, the realities of this struggle have gone substantially unnoticed – or have been willfully ignored in this research. There is today, little commentary on the sustained wars of attrition being carried out within India’s borders. Worse still, the little that is published on the subject displays systematic biases, and is often either written by or on behalf of those who are encouraging, supporting or financing terrorism in India. A few examples from the very limited literature on the subject will help illustrate the point.

Through the 1990s, Western research that sought to give an overview of terrorism in the world entirely omitted mention of this region. Thus, a study on ethnic terrorism in 1998 observed,

Ethnic terrorists are neither limited geographically nor unique to the current time period. They have been active around the globe: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the Irgun in Palestine, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland, and the Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain are all examples of ethnic terrorist groups.2

The omission, here, of the multiplicity of ethnic terrorist conflicts in India was not an individual aberration, but reflected a systematic neglect of this region in the literature. Of the several specialised journals focusing on terrorism and low intensity warfare published in English, there had only been an occasional paper that referred to or focused on terrorism in India during this period. Relatively minor movements in Africa and the Middle East received far greater attention, and, of course, any terrorist movement or action that had an impact on Europe or the United States receives overwhelming attention.

The situation has changed radically over the past two years, and a substantial volume of literature on conflict in this region has subsequently burgeoned, particularly after India and Pakistan were imprinted on Western consciousness, by the Pokhran and Chagai blasts in 1998, as the new theatres of a possible nuclear confrontation. The trend intensified even further after the US State Department declared in 2000 – with little startling or new evidence – that there had been a "geographical shift of the locus of terror from the Middle East to South Asia."3 On May 1, 2000, the then Secretary of State, Madeline Albright had also noted a sudden "eastward shift in terrorism's center of gravity" towards South Asia. It is unsurprising, consequently, that this idea of a ‘geographical shift’ is now being increasingly and vigorously propounded, identifying Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir as the new loci and primary sources of extremist Islamic militancy. There are, however, some difficulties with this notion. The first and more obvious is the fact that there is no evidence of any sudden or abrupt ‘shift’, or a radical discontinuity in the situation at or around the time this thesis was propounded – Afghanistan’s spiral into chaos has been an inexorable fact for over a decade, as has Pakistan’s complicity in the activities of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups, and the steady decline of its polity; even a cursory glance at fatalities in Kashmir would confirm, moreover, that terrorism has been at comparable levels in this theatre for over a decade.4

To those familiar with the course of terrorist movements in the region, there was no radical discontinuity between the situation at any time in 1999-2000, and it is interesting to see how an arbitrary shift in American perceptions (or perhaps the US agenda) has dramatic reverberations throughout the intellectual community across the world.

The surfeit of literature on ‘Islam as a threat’ that currently abounds in Western academia – characteristically dominated by the American paradigm – misses a crucial point. It is hazardous to focus inordinately on the transient geographical location or concentrations of terrorist activity, to the exclusion of its ideological moorings and state sponsors, or their intended targets and proclaimed goals. The error here is the belief that the threat of Islamic terrorism is contained within the regions of its most visible manifestation. But extremist Islam must be recognized for its essential character as an ideology and terrorism as a method that it accepts and justifies. A method will be adopted wherever it is perceived to have acceptable probabilities of success. An ideology extends wherever it has believers. These are the actual limits or ‘foci’ of extremist Islamic terrorism.

The upswing in scholarship on the ‘Islamic threat’ needs to be assessed within the context of the influence of the American research paradigm on security studies across the world. It is a shift in geographical loci of perceived US ‘strategic interests’ that has substantially created the impetus for much of this research. Within the context of a fundamentally altered international polity, the unipolar ‘New World Order’, this is an expected development. However, South Asia, and indeed India, are presently uniquely placed, and would need to challenge such exclusive and dominating frames of reference. A plurality of approaches towards terrorism and internal conflict, dictated by hard data on the ground situation, and not by an externally imposed ‘dominant paradigm’, is necessary to produce a valid, efficacious and practical understanding of the complex threat in this region. The totalizing Western framework needs to be questioned, and research priorities must increasingly be focused on the study of the actual theatres of conflict.

Unfortunately, the ‘retainer’ approach has tended to be endemic in Indian scholarship. The exclusive emphasis on J&K as a theatre of low intensity conflict, and the enormous neglect of India’s Northeast, as well of a number of other terrorist movements, including Left-wing extremism (Naxalism), for instance, is an expression, not of local sensibilities, but of extraneous interests. Kashmir is, of course, the most important low intensity war in the region – both in terms of immediate strategic threat and a variety of critical indices, including fatalities – but it is not the only one. This is true, equally, of the current trends in scholarship on Islamic fundamentalism, which tend to ignore its vital ideological basis, since its source is located precisely in countries that have long existed under the western security umbrella and continue to do so.

Nevertheless, with the US gradually perceiving itself as a target of increasingly lethal terrorist attacks from mushrooming Islamic terror networks, there has been an intensifying confocal5 research interest on South Asia. There are twin dangers here, the first, a consequence of the ‘retainer’ approach to research, is visible in the shrunken and simplified perspective on other theatres of conflict; the second is that, with little documentation or research on the range of conflicts, increased international attention has often meant little more than the magnification of gross misconceptions and the wider dissemination of disinformation, with "academia simply churning out endless tertiary accounts based on secondary ones."6 The character and scale of this disinformation can be gauged by some examples of what has passed for research and scholarship on conflicts in South Asia in the past, and the distortions that have crept into the information systems and records even of highly regarded institutions, with significant, though clearly not adequate, safeguards against their motivated manipulation.

We find, thus, a highly regarded "World Conflict and Human Rights Map, 2000" published from the Netherlands declaring that, (on the basis of ‘data’ relating to 1999) there were as many as 14 ‘low intensity conflicts’ in India. These included, amazingly, to those who live in this region, ‘low intensity conflicts’ in Bombay (listed separately) and Maharashtra, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, in Pakistan, low intensity wars were shown to be ongoing in the year 2000 in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and in Baluchistan – both theatres that had been more or less quiescent for several years.7

Such perceptions, with virtually no basis in reality, have been embedded in the literature over the past decades. Perspectives even on a conflict such as the movement for Khalistan in Punjab, which terminated well over seven years ago, and to the study of which there is little attendant risk, continue to reflect a curious contempt for facts, for data, and for the minimal standards of academic rigor. A few of the more implausible examples are interesting to note:

Mark Juergensmeyer, an ‘international authority’ on Indian politics, reduces the war against terrorism in the Punjab to a ‘caste war’ between the ‘jat Sikh’ militants and the ‘mazhabi Sikh’ and "churha" police working at the behest of the ‘merchant caste’ political and administrative leadership. He writes:

In the absence of a legitimate government in the Punjab, the rural area became a no man's land in the battle between the militants and the armed police. The war was exacerbated by caste; the militants were largely poor, younger members of the dominant caste in the Punjab, the jats. The leaders of the police and the central administration of the Punjab were often urban Hindus and Sikhs from merchant castes - traditional rivals of the Jats. The armed police waging the war in the villages on the urban Hindus' behalf were often members of the lower castes, who in the past often acted as serfs for Jat Sikhs.8

In a footnote to this section, he adds,

Punjab Police are often drawn from the so-called backward castes, such as the blacksmiths and carpenters, as well as from the lowest, the scheduled castes which include churas (sweepers). Urban sweepers, known as balmikis, have traditionally been Hindus and have allied with urban merchant-caste Hindus (such as aroras and khatris). Rural churas are often Sikh; known as Mazhabis (believers), they have traditionally been allies of the Jat Sikhs. In modern times, however, economic opportunities offered by government service have drawn large numbers into the army and the police…. The other major group within the Punjab scheduled castes, the chamars (leather workers), who are both Sikh and Hindu, have become economically more successful and less dependant on Jat support than the churas

No statistics relating to the caste composition of the police, no sources and no authority is cited to support these views, and the only cross reference given is to another of Juergensmeyer’s own writings. But this is a red herring. It refers us to Juergensmeyer’s Religion as Social Vision,9 for a "background on Punjab untouchables." Juergensmeyer’s analysis of the Punjab conflict was, moreover, written years after the then Director General of Police, Punjab, K.P.S. Gill, had declared in a succession of interviews that the conflict in Punjab was a fight between "jat Sikhs and jat Sikhs."10 After such a position had been articulated by a major authority on, and player in, the conflict, minimal standards of academic research would have required at least a more rigorous process of confirmation or disconfirmation to have been followed before a radical departure was suggested.

The selective use of confirmatory information along preconceived lines, to the exclusion of the realities of the ground, is also well illustrated in the writings of Joyce Pettigrew. In her Sikhs of the Punjab, Pettigrew chooses entirely to ignore the history of the strife and communal mobilization of the Sikhs over the years preceding June 1984, and to define the ‘causes’ of terrorism in Punjab purely along the lines articulated by the advocates and proponents of Khalistan: land relations and the agrarian situation; military recruitment policies of the Indian state; the reaction to the events of 1984 (Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination); and police activities in the villages.11 Pettigrew asserts that "allegiance to modern political institutions was replaced by armed conflict only after the attack on the two central Sikh institutions, the Darbar Sahib and the Akal Takth…. and the murder of four thousand and more Sikhs in the cities of Northern India" in 1984.12 In what is certainly an extraordinarily perverse interpretation of the Sikh Faith, Pettigrew adds further, on the basis of the testimony of some of the most prominent terrorists who were responsible for the murder of numberless, predominantly Sikh, civilians, that "It is the guerrillas who have defended the Sikh way of life."13 The fact, as K.P.S. Gill notes, that "it was overwhelmingly the Sikhs themselves who were the victims of terrorism…(and)… it was the Sikhs – in far larger numbers than ever comprised the terrorist armies – that stood against the movement for Khalistan,"14 does not, in Pettigrew’s vision, detract from the yeoman service rendered to the cause of the Faith by the ‘guerrillas’. Gill, in contrast, is emphatic that it was a

…gross abuse of the teachings of the Gurus, and the petty, malicious conspiracy for power that inspired this heretical campaign… The Sikhs have been involved in warfare almost throughout their history, but no campaign has ever brought odium and disgrace upon them and upon their Faith as this despicable movement did. And yet the Faith, and a majority of the community, in whose name the most unforgivable atrocities were committed – against every explicit tenet of that very Faith – had nothing whatsoever to do with this lunatic and savage adventure. Indeed, it was this very community that most vigorously resisted, and eventually helped defeat, the scourge of terror in Punjab.15

The effort to project terrorism as a noble religious revolt, or as a mass movement of the Sikhs, is similarly rubbished by Indian historians who cannot share Pettigrew’s comfortably distanced perspective:

The mass of Sikhs refused to accept that the separatists and the terrorists were fighting in defence of Sikh religion and Sikh interests. To most Sikhs it became gradually clear that the terrorists were abusing and betraying their religion, debasing Sikh institutions and the teaching of the Sikh gurus and defiling the gurudwaras. Of the 11,700 killed by the terrorists in Punjab during 1981-93, more than 61 per cent were Sikhs.16

Interestingly, a study of the motives for joining terrorist ranks in Punjab found that as many as 74 per cent of the terrorists samples by the study startlingly cited ‘Shaukia’ (out of fun) as their reason for taking to the gun; 21 per cent were influenced or persuaded by other terrorists, especially relatives; 12 per cent also indicated that the moving impulse was smuggling, ‘looting’ or making money. Just 5 per cent were inspired by the ideology of Khalistan, with 3 per cent mentioning the influence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; 4 per cent mentioned anger at Operation Blue Star, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and related reasons. Just 2.5 per cent mentioned harassment by the police, with another 2.5 per cent identifying harassment by the terrorists as their motive.17 And yet, for Pettigrew, the Khalistani terrorists were noble rebels against the unbearable oppression of the Indian state, and the upholders of the tenets and the honour of Sikhism.

In another case, Hew McLeod, another ‘expert’ on Punjab, writes,

...In recent times a new chapter has been added and Sikh martyrology now lists the name of Jarnail Singh Bhindranvale and others like him, men who in the late 1980s and early 1990s laid down their lives while defending the Panth against the designs of evil men and women from Delhi.18

Apart from the questions of fact that can be raised on this claim, this is hardly the language of academic analysis. But these distortions have also characterised the writings of Indians and of writers of Indian origin, especially those whose sympathies lie squarely with the militants. Thus, Sangat Singh claims that, in Punjab, between 1 and 1.2 million "Sikh youths (sic) have been liquidated one way or the other" during the period 1981-91. He adds: "The mass scale killing of the Sikh youth and massive induction of Purbeas in Punjab to reduce the Sikhs to a minority in Punjab by the end of the century are two main ingredients of Congress (I) policy."19 These casualty figures and theories are trotted out by various ‘scholars’ of this ilk with little concern for consistency, logic or historical fact, and are substantially the articulation of the ‘conspiracy theories’ and sense of victimization that dominate their delusional world view.

However, supposedly ‘objective’ writers and intellectuals from Punjab have been equally slovenly about facts. Thus we have Patwant Singh claiming, sweepingly, without qualification and without the burden of any evidence, that during the period of terrorism in Punjab, "everyday crime was also attributed to the Sikhs – as if the State were free of all crime except for the criminal activities of ‘terrorists’!"20 The fact, however, is that even in the years 1990-92, generally acknowledged as the peak of terrorism, the registration of cases of general crime in Punjab rose dramatically. For instance: comparisons between murders categorised as Terrorist / General crime gives the following figures – 1990: 2467 (Terrorist) / 1570 (General); 1991: 2591 / 1810; 1992: 1518 / 1169; the figures in the general category are almost twice the subsequent peacetime average. Statistics on other categories of serious crime display similar trends. These statistics do not constitute classified information and are easily available from the Punjab police. Their neglect represents nothing more than the personal prejudices of the writer.21

These systematic distortions have been exaggerated hundred-fold in the writings – currently widely projected through the Internet – of those who openly advocate the cause of ‘Khalistan’. There are, at present, several websites dedicated to the cause of ‘Khalistan’ and, while these had tended to become somewhat static in 1997-98, there is now enormous and continuous activity on these sites. Grossly exaggerated reports and utterly absurd statements are repeated constantly on these sites. Thus we find that the Council for Khalistan website recorded in its annual submission to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in 1998 that "a quarter of a million Sikhs" had been "liquidated" by the Indian State.22 It supposedly ‘quotes’ former Speaker of the Indian Parliament Balram Jakhar as having said, "If we have to kill a million Sikhs to preserve India's territorial integrity, so be it."23 Needless to say, there is not even the remotest confirmation of a source for such a statement.

It would be easy to dismiss the wild accusations of Khalistani advocates as so much rubbish – part of the innumerable ‘hate sites’ that proliferate on the Internet. The campaign of these advocates of terrorism and separatism, however, are not restricted to the net, but comprehend systematic efforts to influence a number of international institutions and national agencies of their countries of domicile. Thus, the Council for Khalistan secured admission to the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation (UNPO) in 1993 through a sustained campaign of misrepresentation.24 Organisations purporting to represent Khalistan (and other Indian militant groups), moreover, make annual submissions before various Human Rights and United Nations bodies,25 creating an elaborate chronicle of alleged violations that, in substantial measure, goes into the records of these institutions without effective contradiction or rebuttal. This campaign has also been consistently carried into the British Parliament and the US Congress as well, through a number of ‘sympathisers’ and paid lobbyists, and there have been several statements in the US Congress alleging a continued campaign of ‘Indian genocide’ in Punjab.26

The preceding and rather extended ‘outline of intellectual rubbish’ on terrorism in India has a purpose. Many of the distortions in international research and perceptions are a consequence, not necessarily of a basic antagonism or of malice (though some certainly are). They are born, instead, out of a lack of adequate information, data and critical inputs from, and research by, independent agencies directly in contact with the actors in and areas of the conflict, which could constitute a reliable backdrop to academic analysis by commentators located hundreds or thousands of miles away from the actual ground situation about which they are writing, and with which their familiarity is based on fitful and brief ‘field tours,’ during which they are often ‘guided’ by interested parties. These patterns of research and writing reflect an acute case of the larger and "continuing misuse of theoretical models and the shallowness of methodological approaches"27 prevalent in the entire field of terrorism studies, of which it is noted:

There are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research. Perhaps as much as 80 per cent of the literature is not research-based in any rigorous sense….28

The difficulty is that, for instance, despite at least one movement in India that has lasted nearly 50 years, and several others that have exceeded 10 years, the academic community within the country has not committed itself in sufficient measure to the documentation and study of issues relating to terrorism and insurgency. To the extent that there has been some academic writing, it has chosen ‘safe areas’ – such as discourses on the definition of terrorism, the ‘root causes’ of terrorism, and the distinctions between terrorism and ‘liberation struggles’; or politically correct ‘meta-issues’ – such as human rights and political violence – that do not demand engagement on the ground or unpleasant field research in the affected areas. Current scholarship appears to be insulated from the more demanding and crucial aspects of the conflicts, and from the areas of risk, while reductionism and an entirely doctrinaire approach dominates most such analyses

While this is true of terrorist conflicts, where risks of engagement are extraordinarily high, it is not necessarily the case in other areas of conflict studies – such as caste and communal conflict – where a substantial volume of research has been forthcoming. Unfortunately, the character of the discourse even in these areas has tended to be partisan or doctrinaire or at the level of politically correct rhetoric, and not of the incisive analyses that could aid resolution or policy-making. The inability of academics to abandon the baggage of ideologies, of dominant paradigms and partisan affiliations, and to look clearly at the situation and at the facts and events as honestly and clearly as these can be construed, has severely undermined the relevance and impact of conflict research in India. The academic discourse has also been variously distorted (as has thinking in governance) by intellectual inertia, by passing fashions of thought, and by the tyranny of public opinion and media endorsement. There has been little effort or courage to challenge received wisdom or settled orthodoxies – except in the language or idiom of another such orthodoxy. There are, moreover, the "grosser problems of confidentiality, secrecy and publication" that inevitably afflict research in highly controversial and ‘sensitive’ subjects,29 and that creates a virtually unbridgeable gap between the scholar and the administrator.

Over the decades, consequently, both the policy-making and the academic community have substantially transformed themselves into relatively ‘closed’ systems, dominated by an incestuous discourse addressed only to their own colleagues and peers. There is, as a result, knee-jerk resistance to ‘interference’ from any other source, particularly one that is sometimes regarded as fundamentally ‘hostile’ to the activities of either of these ‘systems’. These tendencies are magnified even further as a result of the regime of indiscriminate secrecy that dominates much of governance in India.

These are probably a small and arbitrary selection of the structural constraints that keep practical policy out of the sphere of influence of academic research. The cumulative impact of all such constraints, however, is that they have progressively marginalized social science research in terms of its impact on policy, particularly in problematical areas such as the management of conflict. In India (and indeed, perhaps, all of South Asia) the influence and feedback received from the academic community on the incessant chain of crises that afflict the region, is negligible, even, perhaps, non-existent.

Among the most significant reasons for this, is the reluctance of the academic community to address complex, even dangerous, issues while these are still alive. Researchers have, by and large, preferred to look at conflict from the safety of a few intervening decades. To take an example, even today, over eight years after terrorism was defeated in Punjab, there is only one book on the terrorist movement there that has even a pretension to empirical or field research.30 This is not to say that there have been no publications on this conflict, but that they have primarily been written by journalists, former civil servants, politicians, or propagandists of the defeated movement, and many of these substantially fail to meet standards of academic rigor and consistency. Even today, in the numerous theatres of ongoing terrorist violence in India, there is simply no empirical focus or academic feedback. There is, indeed, little effort even to draw from a synthesis of experiences of various administrators and counter-terrorism practitioners who have worked in these situations. Research, evidently and regrettably, is considered to be a remote option, if not an actual luxury.

There is a mirror image of this neglect. The policy-maker and executive’s attitude to the findings of research tends to be just as ambivalent. By and large, he seeks "reassurance rather than enlightenment,"31 and their transient interest may not necessarily be in some abiding ‘truth’, but in information that can contribute to the success of ongoing programmes and policies. The problem is compounded when politicians have invested ‘substantial political capital in a particular policy’, and feel that the findings of specific research may compromise long-term goals. Thus, where research findings can be expected to be critical of ongoing programmes (and all research would contain some critical elements, which are vulnerable to political exploitation), there is active resistance to such a focus. The motives, here, are not necessarily murky or dishonest. The tasks and time frames of administration demand a degree of reductionism, and virtually every action has some negative fallout. Excessive focus on the possible injuries of a specific course of action can result in a paralysis of governance. The gap between the practical orientation of the administrator and the ‘purist’ goals of the academic often forecloses the possibility of a fruitful association. There are, therefore, significant differences between the policy establishment and academia over conflict management practices that necessarily impact upon the policies being followed. Commenting on these differences Maurice Hayes opines:

What the academic sees as a ‘problem’ or as a subject for research comes from theory or abstract thought. The policy maker gets his problems delivered to his plate by the political process. There is no point in one blaming the other for being academic or theoretical on the one hand, or political on the other. The inexorable nature of the pressures, too, means that the policy maker is looking for answers rather than explanations, and for advice and guidance rather than general theory.32

The Indian civil services suffer, moreover, from the ‘cult of the generalist’, and an inability to develop any degree of specialization among their personnel. The problem is aggravated by policies of task allocation and transfer that do not value continuity of experience. The result is that there is little opportunity for the development of long-term perspectives and a knowledge base that may help in an authoritative and informed assessment of emerging or ongoing emergencies. Even when significant research findings – drawn from experience or fieldwork – are able to point out the lacunae in the existing paradigm of response, and to offer alternatives, the efficacy of such an exercise is lost in the indecisiveness of the security establishment.

The bureaucracy itself is too notoriously sluggish to require a detailed critique in the present context. Ideas take too long to gain acceptability within the administration or to significantly influence the policy framework, and transitions to new conceptual frameworks and procedures are painfully slow. Far greater reliance is placed on ad hoc approaches and suppositions, than on any coherent framework of assessment and response. It has been remarked that ‘bureaucrats left to themselves will easily indulge in corruption, abuse of power, laziness and inefficiency,’33 and bureaucrats in India have, for an extended period of time, been left substantially to themselves. The only oversight they have had, by and large, has been that of the political executive. Unfortunately, given the present quality and calibre of India’s political leadership, this is, in most cases, more of a problem than a measure of accountability.

Nevertheless, it is not sufficient to argue purely from the perspective of the paraphernalia of governance that refuses, or is not properly equipped, to execute its duties with an adequate sense of commitment, integrity or responsibility. There are, in fact, objective constraints on policy makers, whether civil servants or politicians, that severely restrict their capacities to receive, absorb or utilize research findings.

The sheer enormity and inescapable imperatives of the daily routine precludes a wide range of options for the bureaucracy. This is especially problematic in conflict related departments – such as the Home Ministry and the law enforcement agencies – where a sense of continuous, immediate and iterative crises blocks out the possibility of developing a ‘big picture’ perspective; and even where this may exist, in translating it into effective policy and action. This specific difficulty is compounded by the prevalence of an attitude and orientation that is its exact opposite in academia. Where the administrator cannot fix his attention on the context of an ongoing problem or crisis for any length of time, academics are generally unable to complete research within a time-frame that would make their findings relevant to the resolution of conflict in any but the most indirect way of a gradual alteration of the context of discourse. "The disease which seems to prevent Ph.D. theses from being completed in time, has contributed to the delay in many research projects beyond the time at which they can be helpful. The wheels of government grind on without it."34

The necessity, in such a context, is to devise possibilities of revival, and of reasserting the central role of the intellectual and academic community in the spheres of public policy and welfare, in national reconstruction, and specifically in the management and resolution of conflict. This task has, perhaps, never before been quite as urgent as it is today, in the contemporary world of unprecedented transformations, and of widespread instability and strife. It is, moreover, not only the levels of persistent violence that are a matter of urgent concern. The state’s responses have predominantly been arbitrary, inadequate and inconsistent. Successive administrations in India have displayed little capacity for institutional learning, and current policies and tactics are seldom shaped by the experience either of the successes or of the failures of the past. Nor is there evidence of a strategic vision within which each existing or emerging conflict is assessed. If this situation persists, the prognosis for conflicts within the country is certain to remain bleak.

The good news, in this generally dismal vista, is that there is an increasing realization within government of these multiple deficiencies – though the mechanisms to translate this realization into appropriate institutional structures and processes of correction are still to be defined or developed. This, precisely, is why the role of the social sciences now becomes more critical. However, a substantial revolution, indeed, as one commentator has expressed it, "a Copernican revolution in the knowledge process… (and in) governance,"35 will have to precede the concrete development of such mechanisms. The most significant obstacle to such a revolution, however, lies in the mindsets of the members of the governmental establishment, on the one hand, and the academic community, on the other, and in a measure of reciprocal suspicion and contempt that these reflect. It is fruitless to enter into a debate on whether such attitudes can be historically justified on the basis of the performance of the one or the other institution. Such a blame game benefits no one. A more utilitarian exercise ought to be to look at some of the specific deficiencies as they currently exist in each of these institutions, essentially with a view to restore, or perhaps even create anew, pathways of communications between the ivory towers of academia and the realpolitik of administration. All future collaborations between the policy and research communities will have to be based on an infinitely better understanding of the strengths, the weaknesses and the structural limitations of each by the other.

We are confronted here, not with a localized failure, specific to Indian academics, or a narrow aberration in a specialized subject, the study of which is saturated with risk. Indeed, the approach to terrorism or conflict, by and large, illustrates a magnification of a larger problem in the social sciences, what Donald A. Schon evocatively refers to as the "dilemma of rigor or relevance".

In the varying topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or to society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.36

The difficulty lies not just in the ‘messy’ character of the problem and the irreducible complexity of the issues involved, but in the inflexible pursuit of conceptually elegant models of resolution, or of a rigid adherence to contra-factual ideological constructs. These approaches have produced a substantial literature, saturated with passion, and committed to diametrically opposed postures and a polarization of the discourse on virtually every issue relating to terrorism and counter-terrorism policy. Fortunately, attitudes both within government and in academia are undergoing a dramatic transformation today. Academics appear to be a little more willing to ‘soil’ their hands and risk their reputations by engaging in the uncertainties of ongoing crises, and policy makers are more and more aware that they cannot continue to address these crises in an ad hoc analytical vacuum. There is, today, an increasing, albeit inchoate, awareness that, "A good and decent society needs good politics. Good politics requires good theory. Good theory requires good methodology."37

The possibilities of a radical transformation of social science research in the coming decades are, consequently, immense. It is necessary, however, to approach this task of transformation with far more humility than either civil servants or academics have displayed in the past. The polemical, ‘systemic’ debates of the 20th Century have tolerated, justified, and often even inflicted, enormous suffering, great tyrannies and immense and avoidable distress on large masses of people, and it is necessary to avoid the blunders of our recent past. "A great deal of tentativeness must attach to our judgments and actions in human affairs,"38 and it is necessary to guard against supplanting one set of reductionist ideologies with another, and to focus firmly and consistently on the complex, confusing and often conflicting realities of social and political interaction in the real world. This warning is particularly urgent in the present context in India, as we move from one ideological mantra of ‘socialism’, to another, of ‘liberalization and globalisation’, with a majority of our policy-makers entirely blind to the advantages of the system they oppose, and the flaws of the one they advocate. This is a natural problem, particularly when we struggle to come to terms with the arbitrary and uncertain realities of human existence and the increasing, chaotic, complexity of contemporary economic, social and political organization, within which "adding more theories to current theory is likely to be unhelpful."39 The point, now, is not to determine which theory is the better but rather the conditions under which widely held propositions are sometimes true and sometimes false.40 A fixed ideological framework does, of course, help to bring some apparent order and a sense of security within what has been described as the ‘fundamental insecurity of the modern world’, but this is entirely illusory. Remarking on post-World War II development theory, one critic observes that,

…both the (socialist) orthodoxy, with their concern for planned change, and the market-liberals, with their concern for spontaneous order, were deeply concerned to address the insecurity of the social world and to uncover some mechanism which would offer guarantees in respect of future development… In both cases, humankind submits to an external authority and is thereafter secure. However, all such strategies fail because the project of modernity is both potent and insecure.41

Thus, if social science research is to restore its links to policy and public welfare, it is necessary for it to overcome the rigidities of its past, and to allow its priorities to be defined by the, albeit chaotic and unmanageable, pattern of events in the real world. The intellectual community, both within and outside academics, will have to rally its force against ideological extremes, paradigmatic rigidity and polarization of all kinds if it is to be successful in identifying and pursuing efficient solutions to contemporary problems.

Such a reorientation will, naturally, meet with some resistance, and a transient phase of conflict within the academic community is inevitable, as long-established intellectual fiefdoms and the intellectual hegemony of specific ‘schools’ of thought and of ideologies are questioned. As these frameworks are dismantled, it is possible – indeed, perhaps, inevitable – that other equally rigid ideologies, including a range of revanchist creeds, will seek to occupy the intellectual ‘space’ that is temporarily vacated. In this scenario, it is the social scientist’s role and duty to inject a measure of sanity and sagacity into the discourse, and not to engage in polemics.

The increasing consensus in favour of creating an effective role for social science research in public policy and welfare will also have to be translated into institutional structures, resources and processes. Three institutional ‘loci’ have generally been identified for social research, and this is where the primary thrust of the ‘renaissance’ (if, indeed, it can be catalysed) would have to be located. These are the ‘in-house’ research institutions within government; ‘capital city’ think tanks; and university-based centers of research.42 To the extent, however, that these loci continue to operate in isolation, however, the possibility of their ‘restoration’ would be compromised. The essential precondition of the revival of the social sciences is in the creation of effective and multiple operational pathways of cooperation, coordination and dissemination. This implies enormous interdisciplinary research, continuous interaction with government and its numerous agencies, and an increasing voice in the popular media.

The last of these deserves some further elaboration. There has, in the past, been a quality of snobbery in the academic attitude to the popular media, as opposed to ‘serious’ journals and publications (this is, of course, being progressively and rapidly diluted). While it is the case that academic proficiency and achievement cannot be judged through writings in the popular Press, and must be based on the ‘peer review’ system of academic publications, it is equally true that many sound ideas and analyses have simply been stifled and killed in the musty shelves of university libraries, or have reached a larger public long after their relevance was lost. This is increasingly the case as our educated public becomes less and less ‘literate’ in terms of the willingness to read serious writing. Pathways will consequently have to be constructed between academia and the popular media in order to generate a pressure for change, based on a wider – if relatively less detailed – understanding of events in their social, political and ideological context.

The most crucial shift that is needed, however, is a necessary corollary of the earlier emphasis on a rejection of a ‘doctrinaire’ approach that social science research on conflict must be increasingly hands-on. It must be carried out, not just in the identified ‘loci’ of academic research, but primarily in the field, with all its attendant risks. It is important to understand, here, that security is not just the responsibility of the ‘security forces’ and of the government, but is the concern and responsibility of every single citizen. If academics believe that they can help the government resolve conflict from the security of the protected university campus, they deceive themselves. While isolation and reflection are important for the assessment and analysis of the complexity of facts and the dynamics of conflict, familiarity with these facts and dynamics is a precondition of such analysis and reflection – and such familiarity can be gained only in the actual areas of conflict. Bland statistics and banal secondary sources cannot replace the understanding that comes through engagement in field research at the time when the conflict is current.

There will, of course, be many problems with such research, and these are not limited to the risks of violence and possible resistance by government and security agencies to what may, initially, be perceived as unwarranted interference. The fact is, the bulk of conflict research in India has been based on a regurgitation of data compiled and released by various government agencies, and this has many limitations, not only of possible bias, but of scope as well. There are an immensely large number of critical variables that simply do not fall within the ambit of government statistics. Many of these are complex, concerned with secretive closed systems and no methodological precedents or authoritative norms exist for their study. This is, for instance, a problem that would certainly be confronted in the study of the dynamics and impact of terrorism and organized crime. But the availability of ready data and established methods of study cannot be allowed to continue to define research priorities. It is necessary that social scientists carve out new pathways of empirical research and methodologies precisely in the areas where information is the least and most difficult to secure.

A great deal of inventiveness and initiative will need to be exercised in order to do meaningful research on such problems; the methods, analyses and findings will, for some time, appear crude and may be misleading. It is, however, only on the basis of such preliminary research and the continuous – if fragmented – documentation of these hard-to-pin-down variables, that a better understanding and improved methodologies can be evolved. A glaring deficiency in the structure of research in India has been the absence of a "scholarship of application,"43 and this is the case even in specialized institutions set up within the security establishment to provide research support to policy assessment and analysis in the government and its agencies. The development of new methodologies and the study of the most fractious problems of our age should, consequently, be one of the overriding priorities of social science research in India.

Among the various mechanisms and experiments that need to be undertaken to link conflict research with practical goals and national priorities, there is one that would prove to be extraordinarily effective. This is the creation of a system of ‘attachments’ or ‘internships’ with various government, enforcement and security agencies. Even short-term associations of this nature can produce a sea change in the attitudes of social scientists, and infinitely deepen their understanding of the actual dynamics and realities of conflict management, as against the arcane ‘glass bead games’ so many indulge in. Such a system of affiliations can, moreover, significantly benefit administrators and security managers, creating a superior critical understanding of the problems they are handling, and better and more consistent systems of documentation and analysis than those that currently exist. An experiment of this nature was attempted in the judiciary in the early eighties, when the then Chief Justice tried to introduce the American ‘court clerk’ system in the Supreme Court. This system involved a senior law academic assisting the judge in documenting, referencing and assessing case law. It was a brief experiment, and other than its initiator, was not adopted by any other judge.44 The adoption of any similar system within the larger framework of administration and the security apparatus would be an extremely radical development, and will meet with enormous resistance from both conservative academics and administrators. Academics will tend to overemphasize the dangers of possible cooption and bias. But these are risks that must be taken, and there will always be an independent mechanism of academic evaluation to assess the degree of such subversion of the original intellectual intent. On the other hand, administrators will tend to stress the need for confidentiality and the inhibiting presence of ‘outsiders’ on critical decision-making processes. But this is only the rigidity of habitual thinking, and it is no one’s case that academics and scholars must immediately be inducted into the core of the crisis management apparatus of government.

Once again, there has been, at least, a partial ‘opening-up’ in this regard. The Police and Army establishment, for instance, has now found it convenient to run short ‘courses’ for journalists covering terrorism, during which they spend time at various security establishments, and learn about, and in some measure observe, the complexities and challenges of the task of law enforcement, peace keeping, counter-terrorism operations and defence. Such an approach is just a step away from a system of short-term internship or research attachment that is suggested here, and there are many areas in which, if the initiative is taken by the academic community, it would be possible to develop a suitable working arrangement.

Another significant area, which could bring forth an exponential increase in the understanding of internal conflict and terrorism, is that of futures research.45 To focus research towards a variety of emerging factors in the near or distant future, and to undertake a range of scenario projection and management exercises can go a long way in identifying effective policy alternatives, and in pre-empting a number of currently ‘unexpected’ eventualities. More often than not, such an exercise of identification, projection and assessment in rapidly evolving scenarios has been ignored within the security establishment. The construction and projection of diverse perspectives on the latent trajectories of the dynamics in theatres of conflict is increasingly important, and will prove extraordinarily fruitful if properly managed. Such an exercise can lead to more efficient early warning systems, and the initiation of timely and appropriate response strategies. Perspectives that seek to harness long-range latent trajectories can also assist in constructing ‘alternative futures’ and choices, and such exercises can influence the basic character of the discourse on conflict itself.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg of the extraordinary effort that is needed to reorient the social sciences. "Contingency," Andreas Behnke remarks in another context, "rather than necessity, seems to define the current research agenda."46 It is time that the social sciences turned their attention to the imperatives of necessity.

* Dr. Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management and the South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, faultlines.

  1. Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism and the Liberal State, London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1977, p.ix.
  2. Daniel Byman, "The Logic of Ethnic Terrorism", Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, London, vol. 21, no.2, April-June 1998, p.149.
  3. Ambassador Michael A. Sheehan, Coordinator for Counterterrorism, US Department of State, Statement for the Record before the House International Relations Committee, July 12, 2000,
  4. Total Fatalities in J&K: 1990 – 1177; 1991 – 1393; 1992 – 1909; 1993 – 2567; 1994 – 2899; 1995 – 2795; 1996 – 2903; 1997 – 2372; 1998 – 2261; 1999 – 2538; 2000 – 3288. Source:
  5. The research interest on the Islamic threat is increasingly being ‘expanded’ by scholars hitherto focussing on other disparate areas.
  6. David W. Brannan, et al, "Talking to ‘Terrorists’: Towards an Independent Analytical Framework for the Study of Violent Substate Activism," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, London, vol. 24, no. 1, January-February, 2001, p. 13.
  7. Albert. J Jongman, World Conflict and Human Rights Map 2000, prepared by Interdisciplinary Research Programme on Causes of Human Rights Violation (PIOOM), Leiden, The Netherlands for Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution (IIMCR) Washington, D.C, , 2000. ‘Low intensity conflicts’ were defined as conflicts that resulted in over 100 and less than 1000 fatalities a year.
  8. Mark Juergensmeyer, Religious Nationalism Confronts The Secular State, New Delhi: Oxford India Paperback, 1994, p. 97.
  9. Mark Juergensmeyer, Religion as Social Vision: The Movement against Untouchability in 20th Century Punjab, Berkley: University of California Press, 1979; See also Juergensmeyer, Religious Rebels in the Punjab: The Social Vision of Untouchables, Delhi: Ajanta Publishers, 1988.
  10. See for instance, "K.P.S. Gill: True Grit," India Today, April 15, 1993, pp. 62-71, esp. p. 63.
  11. Joyce J.M. Pettigrew, The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence, London: Zed Books, 1995, p. 4.
  12. Ibid., p. 8.
  13. Ibid. p. 31. The sheer perversion of the Sikh Faith in the movement for Khalistan has been documented in some detail in K.P.S. Gill, Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood, New Delhi: Har Anand, 1997.
  14. K.P.S. Gill, "Endgame in Punjab: 1988-93", Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, New Delhi, vol.1, May 1999, p. 54.
  15. Ibid., p. 5.
  16. Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, India After Independence: 1947-2000, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 338.
  17. Harish K. Puri, Paramjit Singh Judge and Jagrup Singh Sekhon, Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality, New Delhi: Har Anand Publications, 1999. pp. 68-70.
  18. Hew McLeod, Sikhism, London: Penguin Books, 1997, p.130. Emphasis added.
  19. Sangat Singh, The Sikhs in History, New Delhi: Uncommon Books, Second Edition, 1996, p.530.
  20. Patwant Singh, The Sikhs, London: John Murray, 1999, p. 246.
  21. Cf. K.P.S. Gill, "The Sikhs: Chronicle Untold", India Today, April 12, 1999,
  22. Though this figure is, at least, an improvement on Sangat Singh’s 1 to 1.2 million, it exaggerates to the point of absurdity the actual casualties which amount to a total of 21,594, over the period 1981-2000, including 11,770 civilians, 8094 militants and 1,748 Security Force (SF) personnel.
  24. India subsequently reversed the UNPO’s decision after strong diplomatic action. Nevertheless, photographs and documents on the Council of Khalistan website continue to project the ‘fact’ that the UNPO recognizes ‘Khalistan’. See "Khalistan Admitted Into UNPO" at
  25. Arundhati Ghose, "Terrorists, Human Rights & the United Nations," Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, vol. 1, May 1999, pp.73-86.
  26. 105th Congress, 1st Session, Vice President Gore Letter Acknowledges ‘Civil Conflict in Khalistan’ www. See also "There is much support for an independent Khalistan," The Washington Times, page b2/Sunday, March 23, 1997 at
  27. Brannan, et al, "Talking to ‘Terrorists’", p. 5.
  28. Alex P. Schmid and Albert J. Jongman, et al, Political Terrorism: A Research Guide to Concepts Theories, Databases and Literatrure, Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1983, p. 179, cited in Brannan, et al, "Talking to ‘Terrorists’, p. 8.
  29. Maurice Hayes, "Conflict Research", Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster,
  30. Harish K. Puri, Paramjit Singh Judge and Jagrup Singh Sekhon, Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality, New Delhi: Har Anand Publications, 1999.
  31. Hayes, "Conflict Research",
  32. Ibid.
  33. Fred W. Riggs, Bureaucracy and Constitutional Democracy,
  34. Hayes, Conflict Research.
  35. Larry Reynolds, "Sociological Theory in the 21st Century", Archives of the Transforming Sociology Series of the Red Feather Institute for Advanced Studies in Sociology, No.133,
  36. Donald A. Schon, "The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology", Change, November-December 1995, vol. 27, no. 6, pp.27-34.
  37. Reynolds, Sociological Theory.
  38. K.P.S. Gill, personal conversation with the author.
  39. Brannan, et al, "Talking to ‘Terrorists’, p. 5.
  40. Reynolds, Sociological Theory.
  41. Peter W. Preston, "Development Theory: Learning the Lessons and Moving On", The European Journal of Development Research, vol. 11, no.1, June 1999, London: Frank Cass Publishers, pp. 12-13.
  42. Richard Rose cited in Hayes, Conflict Research.
  43. Schon, The New Scholarship.
  44. The ‘system’ adopted was not precisely the American ‘court clerk’ model, but rather a single appointment in the Registrar’s Office at the Supreme Court, of a Professor of Law to assist the Chief Justice.
  45. Futures research, the systematic study of possible future conditions, includes the analysis of how those conditions might change as a result of the implementation of policies and actions, and the consequences of these policies and actions. It is not a science; the outcome of studies depends on the methods used and the skills of the practitioners. Its purpose is not to ‘know’ the future, but to help make better decisions today in the context of the widest range of anticipated opportunities and threats, and of the options of response available.
  46. Andreas Behnke, "The Message or the Messenger? Reflections on the Role of Security Experts and the Securitization of Political Issues", Cooperation and Conflict, London, vol.35, no. 1, p. 90.





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