The sooner we realise this, faster we will be able to address our problems
Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been doing at almost all international forums, external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj urged the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to ‘accept that terrorism is an existentialist danger to humankind. There is absolutely no justification for this barbaric violence. Let us display our new commitment by reaching agreement on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism this year itself.’
To make her case, she recalled India’s proposal made in 1996 for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. Since then the UN, unmindful of periodic nudges by India over the last two decades (more persistent since the present government came to power) has not prioritised it, primarily because member countries have not been able to come to a common definition for terrorism; and also, because most of them do not believe that terrorism is the biggest threat to them or their citizenry. For instance, last year European Union’s law-enforcement agency, Europol, offered the statistics for 2015. According to it, of the 152 terror attacks in Europe in 2015, only two were ‘religiously-motivated’; and at least 84 were carried out by ‘ethno-nationalists’ or ‘separatist groups’.
Perhaps, this is the reason that despite 9/11, when the US threw its weight behind the global war on terrorism (a euphemism for crushing al Qaeda and settling old scores with Saddam Hussein), the UN has not found it fit to take upon itself to define what terrorism actually is.
Far from defining what terrorism was, the previous Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon presented a ‘Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism’ to the General Assembly on 15 January 2016. While presenting the plan, he had said, “Many years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”
He then proposed to the General Assembly a mechanism based on five points. The first, and the most important point, was ‘…we must pay particular attention to addressing the causes of violent extremism if this problem is to be resolved in the long run.’ His third point emphasised upon the importance of human rights. ‘All too often, national counter-terrorism strategies have lacked basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law. Sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are often used to criminalise the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organisations and human rights defenders. Governments should not use these types of sweeping definitions as a pretext to attack or silence one’s critics.’ Finally, in a reference to a uniform definition of terrorism, he said his Plan recognises that no ‘one size fits all’.
Ban Ki-Moon’s plan probably grew from the experiences and assertions of different member countries. For example, till a few years ago, while the Sri Lankan government viewed and projected the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as terrorists, several other countries, including India, did not see them as such for a long time. Subsequently, when the Sri Lankan military finally got the better of LTTE, India was amongst the countries that criticised the war crimes committed by the former against the civilian Tamil population.
More recently, nations are divided over the Syrian civil war. While some, including the US considers the Syrian government as a criminal regime perpetrating terrorism on its civilians, others, led by Russia supports the government against those it considers terrorists (rebels in popular parlance). These are just two examples. The world unfortunately is full of such hotspots of dissension and subjugation. As Ban Ki-Moon said, ‘no one size fits all.’
India’s case and clamour for a universal definition of terrorism is interesting and probably was relevant at some point in history. The decade of the Nineties was difficult for India. Even as violent militancy, abetted by Pakistan, raged in Jammu and Kashmir and the last ambers of Punjab terrorism continued to cause anxious moments, there were a few terrorist attacks on mainland India, the most unnerving of those being the serial bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993. Also, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, the communal situation within India was frayed. There were reports about sections of Muslim youth getting radicalised with active support from Pakistan. Add to this the political instability within the country in the mid-Nineties; at least three Prime Ministers came and went in 1996-1998.
Given all this, perhaps there was thinking then that if there could be a UN convention on international terrorism, it may take the pressure off India (for human rights violations in J&K) and put it on Pakistan as state sponsoring terrorism.
However, over the years the situation has changed; not only in India, but in the world as well. Sometimes around 2005-2006 when the Global War on Terrorism was raging, I was swayed by the rhetoric of terrorism being the biggest threat to India. In the course of writing an article highlighting how vulnerable India was to terrorism, I had met with the home secretary for an informal chat. After a few rhetorical sallies in support of my article, he eventually said that the threat of terrorism in India was hugely exaggerated.
“Internally, there are far larger concerns which impinge upon human security than terrorism. Road accidents, for instance,” he said. “India has the highest road fatalities in the world. Our infrastructure has not been able to keep pace with the increasing number of vehicles that are added each year. Our law enforcement system is so weak and corrupt that people violate rules with impunity. I think this subject deserves an article rather than terrorism.”
I had sniggered as I stepped out of his office. How can a serious issue like terrorism be conflated with something so flippant like road accidents? Subsequently, he sent me statistics for the previous five years listing the roads accidents and the fatalities caused. While the figures were way beyond anything I had ever imagined and certainly many times more than all terrorism casualties put together, I ignored the data because like our Prime Minister and external affairs minister now, at that time I was convinced about the importance of terrorism as a threat.
Today, I know better. I know that terrorism is not ‘at the very top of problems’ as Swaraj said at the UN. In fact, outside J&K, certain Northeastern states and the tribal belts of middle India, which have their peculiar problems perpetrated largely by the Indian State, there is hardly any terrorist violence in any part of the country. The sporadic incidents are too inconsequential to merit repeated attention of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
What do merit his attention are these protracted regions in India which have remained alienated and restive 70 years after India’s independence. Swaraj said to her audience that, ‘We have been the oldest victims of this terrible and even traumatic terrorism,’ and urged the UNGA to ‘introspect and ask ourselves whether our talk is anywhere close to the action we take.’
Shouldn’t we start at home and introspect ourselves? Why is it that such a large section of our population continues to remain at the periphery of national mainstream? Is Pakistan the only reason or just one of the contributing factors for the rage of the Kashmiri people? Why do certain sections of the Northeast states continue to view the Indian government with suspicion? Why has the tribal population of central India thrown its weight behind the arms-bearing Maoists instead of walking the road to development that the government is offering them? Why a large section of Indian population continues to live with suspension of their fundamental rights – guaranteed by the Indian Constitution – because of Armed (Forces Special) Powers Act?
And most importantly, why does the biggest democracy in the world need to keep its population together through a combination of military/ paramilitary forces? How can the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism help resolve these issues for us?
Could it be that the government of India’s resolve against terrorism and the desire to link-up with global terrorism is directed only towards ‘one kind’ of terrorism? If indeed this is true then we have lost already.