First Person | Need to Think Again

Presence of democracy is no guarantee against terrorism

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

It was only to be expected that in the backdrop of the Old Fort in New Delhi, which has been the citadel of kings like the Pandavas of Mahabharat, Sher Shah Suri and Humayun of the Mughal empire, President Bush start his address with a tribute to Indian democracy. He said, ‘In both our countries, democracy is more than a form of government, it is the central promise of our national character.’ He further said, ‘The second great purpose is to confront the threats of our time by fighting terror and advancing freedom across the globe… Together America and India will bring the light of freedom to the darkest corners of our earth.’ This was perfectly in line with Bush and his administration’s convictions that replacing authoritarian regimes, if necessary by force (Iraq) with democracy is a sound remedy to fight terrorism.

This should have made the Indian government squirm. Who knows better than India that democracy is no antidote to terrorism. India has been a free democracy since 1947, and with the exception of two years of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, has remained a vibrant democracy. It is true that every now and then the Central government dismissed democratically elected state governments on specious pleas but essentially in India democracy is celebrated as a carnival with politics being the favourite pastime of every Indian citizen.

Yet, for at least 50 years, Indian government and citizens have been exposed to extreme violence, often terrorist violence in various parts of the country. Insurgencies have been going on in its north-eastern states and in Jammu and Kashmir. Punjab also suffered terrorism for nearly a decade which was crushed ruthlessly by cruel state machinery. The middle India, comprising nearly 40 per cent of its landmass is in the grips of left-wing extremism. Naxalism, as it is collectively called, has killed more people in the last 30 years than any other terrorist violence in the country. All these states had democratically-elected governments when terrorism grew and flourished. In fact, the democratically-elected state governments were dismissed and Presidential rule imposed to fight terrorism in these states. Draconian, anti-people laws were imposed to give the armed forces additional powers to fight terrorism. As contemporary Indian history shows, all these measures have had only a superficial effect at best. Why is India a victim of home-grown terrorism when it has given democracy and freedom to its people? It will be fooling ourselves if we heap the blame on Pakistan for exporting terrorism to India, because even in the case of Kashmir, Pakistan only stoked the fire when it was already lit. In the Northeast and in middle India it has no role. Okay, so the blame for the Northeast can go to China, we are surrounded by horrible neighbours. But isn’t there a wee bit chance that these horrible neighbours took advantage of the disaffection these people felt towards India?

The hawks would say that terrorism thrived because India is perceived as a weak state. But deep down even they know that this is not true. Violence is an extreme manifestation of dissent, but why has there been so much dissension for so many years? Why has it not been addressed by the democratic governments year after year? The reason is simple. Terrorism grows when a large mass of people feel that they are not part of the development taking place all around them; when they feel that their rightful issues are not being addressed; when they suffer inequality and injustice without any hope of redressal or relief; and when they are violently suppressed by the state machinery.

There could be a number of reasons why perfectly ordinary citizens take to guns, but they all stem from one central theme: denial of liberty and absence of governance. Democracy in India has not been able to take governance or even a semblance of governance to every part of the country. Presence of democracy could not make up for the absence of justice and governance. It is said that justice should not only be done, it should be seen to have been done. Sadly, in India, for a large number of people justice simply has not been done. And in that respect, our democracy has not been able to ensure a terrorism-free state.

If a state that celebrates democracy as a way of life has not been able to prevent terrorism from taking root, won’t it be safe to presume that peddling democracy in the Middle East (as the US is bullishly trying to do) is not the right way of fighting terrorism? What is even worse, it has made terrorism into a monolith, as if all the terrorists in the world can be dealt with in a uniform fashion. Perhaps, here the Indian government can advise the US, as it has been trying to apply different approaches to address terrorist violence in Kashmir, the Northeast and middle India. More important than advising the US would be to disassociate ourselves from the US global war and its ancillary: promotion of democracy in troubled areas. Democracy is an ideal worth pursuing. There can be nothing better than people having the right to decide their destiny. But what destiny they want should be left to them to decide, it should not be imposed on them, because imposition smacks of authoritarianism.


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