Political violence vs terror in South Asia

South Asia: The Spectre of Terrorism by P R Kumaraswamy and Ian Copland (eds)

Reviewed by Sudha Ramachandran

This is a collection of essays by analysts within and outside the region on various aspects of terrorism, ranging from its links with religion and the role of madrassas (seminaries) to how South Asian governments both foster terrorism and fight it.

In the introduction, P R Kumaraswamy draws attention to the dual approach that South Asian governments have adopted towards terrorism, condemning it when it happens within their own borders, while justifying it as a "freedom struggle" or "jihad" when it happens outside.

South Asian countries supported national liberation movements in other parts of the world. "By focusing solely on the political demands of these movements, India and other South Asian countries bestowed a kind of legitimacy upon their operational tactics - which sometimes included terrorism," he points out in his essay "Terrorism in South Asia: The Changing Trends". A similar approach was adopted by them in the region, he argues, "where each country adopted the familiar 'freedom fighter' logic to explain and justify" support to groups in the neighboring country that were using terrorist tactics.

The explosive growth of terrorism in South Asian countries and the fallout of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the US have forced them "to recognize terrorism in its true colors". Any meaningful action to counter terrorism in the region "must begin with governments accepting that terrorism, whatever its root causes cannot be justified. Even genuine political grievances are no excuse for terrorism," Kumaraswamy writes.

While national interest calculations appear to have prompted governments to support terror groups in neighboring countries, "narrow political calculations often resulted in parties and leaders adopting a benevolent attitude towards terrorism and its perpetrators" within their countries, observes Kumaraswamy. To illustrate this point, he draws attention to the covert support that India's prime minister Indira Gandhi and her Home minister Zail Singh extended to Sikh extremists in Punjab to keep Akali political influence under check.

How do governments in South Asia deal with armed uprisings? Two essays, one by Rajesh Rajagopalan on "Force and Compromise: India's Counter-Insurgency Grand Strategy" and the other by Washbir Hussain on "Ethno-Nationalism and the Politics of Terror in India's Northeast" throw light on the way India has dealt with insurgency and terrorism.

Rajagopalan provides an excellent overview of India's counter-insurgency strategy, arguing that while the use of military force is an important component of a counter-insurgency campaign, resolution of the conflict requires a political settlement. This necessitates limiting the level of violence in a counter-insurgency campaign. He points out that the intensity of violence in counter-insurgency operations by the Indian armed forces has been "relatively lower" than that unleashed by other armies. The Indian army has refrained from using heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, making it easier for the government and rebels to eventually compromise and reach a political settlement.

While there have been several instances - the peace accord with the Mizo National Front in 1985 is one example - where the government has taken advantage of the space opened up by successful military operations against rebels to hammer out a political solution, there are innumerable examples too of the government contributing to the proliferation of terrorist groups through what Hussain calls its "appeasement of extremism".

The state "is listening only to the voices of people holding guns", Hussain writes. "It tends to reward the more violent separatist outfits, while closing its eyes to the more subtle clamorings of groups pushing for autonomy within the country's legal framework."

For instance, the government chose the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) to hold peace negotiations with over the "less militant" Khaplang faction. Its approach, which appears then to be one of rewarding terrorism, is encouraging more groups to put forward extreme demands backed by violence and terrorism.

Several essays in the book explore links between religion and political violence. Robert G Wirsing concludes in "Unholy Alliance: Religion and Political Violence in South Asia" that "religion is often not the driver, or at least not the primary driver" of the separatist conflict in Kashmir and the Hindu-Muslim communal violence in India. The "real drivers", he says, "are more secular than sacred in nature."

Maria Vicziany points out in her article "Understanding the 1993 Mumbai Bombings: Madrassas and the Hierarchy of Terror," that while revenge for anti-Muslim riots in 1992 was the main compulsion behind the blasts, the profile of the 100 convicted in the blasts case indicates that neither religious fanaticism nor pan-Islamic sentiment played a role in their recruitment.

Examining the link between madrassas and terrorism, Vicziany argues that while some madrassas in Pakistan have functioned as recruiting centers for terrorism, the madrassa system as a whole has little direct association with transnational terrorism. She points out that the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jamat-ud-Dawa attract middle-class professionals, not the madrassa-educated. It is the curricula in Pakistan's government-run schools that promote hatred of India and Hindus, as well as jihad and martyrdom. "In the hierarchy of terror, the madrassas of South Asia rank low in importance," she concludes.

However, Frederic Grare disagrees. In his article "The Evolution of Sectarian Conflicts in Pakistan" he describes madrassas as the breeding ground of sectarianism. Terror outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Jaish-e-Mohammed, he says, originated in jihadi madrassas. The distinction between sectarian and jihadi groups is fading, he writes, pointing to the growing cooperation between them.

The link between increasing Islamization and extremism is examined by Sreeradha Datta and Rasul Baksh Rais. While Rais traces how the growing Islamization of Pakistan contributed to the marginalization of minorities like the Ahmadiyyas and Christians and their subsequent targeting by radical Islamic groups, Dutta describes the Islamization of Bangladesh as the "principal factor contributing to the growth and sustenance of militancy" there.

The final chapter by Gamini Samaranayake, "Political Terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE) provides a detailed account of the LTTE's terrorist acts. Samaranayake fails to examine, however, why the LTTE enjoyed support among Tamils despite its terrorist tactics.

The title of the book suggests that it is about terrorism. But several essays deal with various forms of political violence in South Asia, rather than terrorism per se. In the introduction, Kumaraswamy draws attention to the "tendency among scholars to treat all forms of political violence as terrorism". Unfortunately, in naming the book South Asia: The Specter of Terrorism, he slaps the terrorist tag on a variety of forms of political violence.

Rajagopalan's essay provides valuable insights into India's strategy to fight insurgencies in northeast India. Does the government adopt a similar politico-military strategy in fighting terrorism, especially, for instance, when Pakistani terrorists are involved? What is its strategy against the Lashkar-e-Toiba for instance? The book does not explore this.

The book throws light on the complex and complicated relationship between Islam and political violence in South Asia. Individually, the essays in the book are insightful. Some of them have been published elsewhere earlier.

What the book lacks, however, is a concluding chapter that would have tied together the issues raised by the contributions of the various authors. In the absence of such a concluding chapter, the book ends up a scattered effort. Strangely, Kumaraswamy refers to a final chapter in the introduction to the book that "looks at the changing debate in South Asia, and among South Asianists, towards the phenomenon of terrorism". That chapter seems to have failed to make it to the book for some reason.

South Asia: The Spectre of Terrorism by P R Kumaraswamy and Ian Copland (eds). New Delhi: Routledge, May 2009. ISBN: 978-0-415-48321-6. Price US$13, 193 pages.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.