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Individual as a Terrorist: A Sympathetic Critique

Bhaskar Majumder

I was perusing as usual the contents of print media a few days back and came to swallow the news that a new Act in motion in the esteemed Parliament of India is going to take the individual as the unit while identifying the terrorist. In social sciences, this is a major question: should the individual or the household be taken as the unit of study? The unit is taken as the household in India like living BPL or APL other than for Accountancy purposes like when a member of the household is in job and pays taxes at source. In case of each of the couple employed in jobs in the organized sector, one gets the house rent benefits, not both; in this case also the family/household is taken as the unit. Or, for example, rural employment scheme like MGNREGA where it is 100 days work per year as minimum mandated for the household. Thus, it is basically the household that is the unit of study in social sciences.

But I support the state for taking the individual as the unit of study/identification when it is terrorism. Why? The first reason is drawn from the Great Epic Ramayana where parents of Ratnakar declined to be punished (by God) for the offence (killing of innocent people) committed by Ratnakar (who later became Great Valmiki). My own understanding is, whatever the family background be, it is the individual who is responsible for all the wrong actions committed assuming the individual is adult enough, if he is in mental equilibrium, to understand what he committed or was going to commit.

Since the days of Ratnakar in pre-history to the days of Bhagat Singh in British-India history, much water has flown down the Ganges. The polity-administration-society-economy took new dimensions, looked at things differently depending on who had been the ruling apparatus. No wonder, Singh was declared a terrorist (during Ramayanic era Ratnakar could not have been identified as a terrorist; had he been so, Ramayan would not have been written!) and hanged by the British; in parallel, Dyer was glorified by the Empire followed by some compensation the British paid later for the genocide that the latter committed. The punishment/reward also depends on the crime by purpose and the number of the criminals suspected to have been involved in the crime. I visited Savar (some kms away from the city of Dhaka) in Bangladesh that was a mass burial ground of the soldiers/martyrs of Bangladesh (former East Pakistan post-1947) because of the Indo-Pak War 1971. In genocide it is difficult to identify the individual as the terrorist and hence the applicability of the Act perhaps does not arise.

Here comes the question. How do we decide who the terrorist is? One guideline could be to locate the individual who imposes terror on the peace-loving human society. In a loose sense, the stalker also does the same thing – creates ‘’Atank’’ (terror) in the mind of the person (generally a lady in many regions of India) who is stalked.  I believe the Act on terrorism does not encompass the stalkers. I found stare of some individuals in public places like train compartments and public roads very frightening. In spite of women seen as Bharat Mata, some such looks that targeted them nowhere resembled the look at one’s mother! However, it seems I am beating around the bush.

Ok, let me come back to the central point now. It is about the individuals who potentially threaten the sovereignty of the state. If the state is an agreement of the people, then this intimidation, of course, is to be offset. The state protects innocent people and the geographic boundary of the country of which it is the custodian. If the state is responsible then it needs weapons (not Guns but Rules) also to keep the wrong-doers at a distance. What the state believes about itself has to be believed by the man on the street also. The accountability of the state is unfathomably more than that of any individual whatever the wisdom of the individual is.  

The problem is deeper than what I opined so far. The problem lies in the size of population of India, the innocence of people, the opinionated people, the people in status quo and above all, the political determinants. The problem is not more with the less rational in herd behaviour but in more rational. The problem in human civilization was birth of some individuals ahead of their time. Had they been involved only in academics like 5-day Test Cricket with no consequence, the problems would not have taken serious proportion to draw the attention of the state. The problem is, some of these individuals also float the Idea of Justice. The problem is severe with the socio-political activists that question the state. The state as the authority may not like to be questioned.

Suppose, A (state) has chalked out a trajectory for happy living of the people and B (non-state actors) has decided to walk on a different trajectory. A thinks that B’s trajectory will lead to questioning A that A does not like. So A decides to nip the problem in the bud by identifying B as the trouble-maker and at the extreme a terrorist. The US trajectory suggests pre-emptive action – lest B overpowers A, A decides to cage B. The game depends on the extent A thinks B as formidable.

In case terrorism is set on the pedestal of international relations, then the game becomes more complex. Let us take one concrete example – A as the state of India, B (individual), C (Indo-Pak relations). C had been in process like 1965 War, 1971 War, 1998 War or border conflict and hence the issue is not under the carpet. State (A) sovereignty requires cent per cent security of all the citizens (people residing) in India. A as the legitimate authority decides how B will be affected. Now the problem is, B may have two or more segments like X, Y, Z; X is state-decided, Y is society-decided and Z is state-questioning through violence (terrorism). A calculates the relative weights: if the game is A vis-a-vis YZ, the state takes Y into confidence and cages Z. What if Y is further segmented? In that case, it becomes difficult for A to identify Y partly (who is with A and who with Z). Theoretically, I distinguish between the state and the society in processes for what the society often practices may not be liked by the state and what the state legislates may not be liked fully by the society.

Both state and society are abstractions – they are categories and not identified as one individual or some individuals. The difference is, state has its laws, hence a legal entity while a sub-section of the society as political entity (legislators) formulate the laws. The polity also amends the laws, if needed, understood in the context of social need. Society is a hydra. Given this, it may be difficult to pinpoint a segment of people as ‘the terrorist’. Identifying the individual somehow (by some indicator) does not eliminate the problem – de facto and de jure for the nature of terror as visualized may continue to change over time. The state of India in the European frame is not very old – it was post-Westphalia 1648, and mostly post-British India. Human civilization, and surely India’s civilization, is older by many centuries. So in case of any issue that affects humanity-civilization, I shall suggest the state to abstain from chalking out any trajectory in a hurry. This is obviously not to advocate anarchy. 

I have some suggestions on the issue. There is no short-cut route to ending terrorism (or to use a soft phrase, militancy) with or without the Act. Based on my spending more than four decades in the academia in Universities/Institutes in India, I claim to have seen no terror on any student’s face (some of them were in fear for examination and hence failure in the subjects like English/Mathematics/Sanskrit at the school level) and no face of any potential terrorist. In my schools (in undivided Assam and West Bengal) the teachers used to glorify the visionaries of our great civilization (mentioning Ravindranath Tagore, Vivekananda, Vidyasagar,...) that worked as preventive of budding terrorism, if any. My suggestion is simple. Let us restore that era where the students/children with fear-free mind get to know what the civilization produced.

Rather than delving into aberrations and exceptions, let us concentrate on universal value – that is humanity where truth triumphs (Satyameva Jayate). What is the truth? The truth in context is, terrorists are not born. In the great Epic Mahabharata Arjun was unwilling to use his weapons in the battlefield even on his enemies for he was not ready to kill his relatives knowing full well that the latter were the cause of the evils perpetrated. I personally fail to accept that people (society) are against people (state). I believe the state does not see people as its enemy – the state cannot declare war on the people. If this is true, the idea of an individual seen as a terrorist will give birth to the idea of the individual converted into and seen as Valmiki.     

 Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Aug 7, 2019


Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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