Between Despair and Hope: Interrogating ‘Terrorism’

by Dilip Simeon
Himal Southasia

The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world – Hannah Arendt

The words ‘terror’ (meaning intense fear and dread), and ‘terrorism’ (the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community into acceding to specific political demands) are steeped in controversy. From the time of the French Revolution, ‘terrorism’ has been used to describe a range of violent political activism, including certain forms of Russian populism; Italian, Serbian and Irish nationalism; anarchism; and the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Nowadays, ‘terror’ is what the ‘civilised world’, led by the United States, is combating. It is identified with Islamist fundamentalism, the Taliban, suicide bombers, Palestinian resistance and Maoist revolutionaries. Even though terrorism is quite clearly a form of political violence, mainstream journalism today does not associate it with aerial bombardment (although Hitler’s use of the Luftwaffe against the Spanish town of Guernica in 1936 was considered an act of terror); armed actions by the American and Israeli defence and special forces against their real or perceived enemies, kidnapping, collective punishments, and encounter killings by the apparatus of various Southasian states. In India ‘terrorism’ is also not generally used to describe the activities of the Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS, the Ranvir Sena or the Shiv Sena, even though some of their activities would qualify them as terrorists within the dictionary meaning of the word. Yes, the usage of ‘terror’ is heavily politicised.

Stark examples of these differentiated standards of judgement confront us when we consider the boundaries that religion shares with the world of terror. Contemporary common sense does not associate Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism with terror and terrorism. However, Sinhalese Buddhist monks have been known to participate in anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka. The Zionist Stern Gang and Irgun indulged in ‘communal killings’ of Palestinian villagers to enforce the evacuation of territory. Irish nationalists and loyalists alike (Catholics and Protestants) used terror for decades as an integral part of their politics. And it is the Hindu Tamil Tigers) who began the latest use of suicide bombers – Rajiv Gandhi was killed by one in 1991. Let us not fool ourselves. Every major religious tradition has produced theological justifications for murder and mass killing in the name of sacred causes. And it is clear that terror is and has been employed by states and anti-state activists alike.

Historically, national liberation movements and democratic movements have often taken for granted that violent means would be necessary for the attainment of their ends. The French Revolution of 1789 was the first major instance of the marriage of terror with modern democracy. “There is nothing which so much resembles virtue as a great crime”, said Robespierre’s comrade, St Just, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror in 1794. Mid-nineteenth century Italian nationalism was an inspiration for military style patriotism in the early twentieth century, such as the Serbian, Irish and Indian. Russian populism, which later emerged as the Left Socialist Revolutionary tendency, used terrorist methods in varying degrees, as did Anarchists and Bolsheviks. Trotsky wrote a lengthy pamphlet, Terrorism and Communism, justifying such acts as hostage-taking as a means of ensuring good behaviour by ‘class enemies’.

Terrorism is the quintessentially ambivalent political deed, the place where good and evil are mixed to the point where its proponents need to invoke God, or a secular metaphysic such as History or Revolutionary Destiny, as justification. Apparently transcendental dogma can transform great crimes into virtuous deeds. In a situation where terror has become normalised (virtually the entire span of the past century), it is to be expected that rational debate aimed at understanding political crises become next to impossible. For example, in the post-9/11 world, anyone putting forward a historical analysis of the emergence of Islamist fundamentalism against a background of Western imperialist policies in West Asia, Arabia, Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan, would draw suspicion in establishment circles as an apologist for terrorists – even if he or she vehemently denies such sentiments. Someone who adduces the reparations imposed upon Germany in 1918 as a factor contributing to the rise of Nazism, is not necessarily a sympathiser of Hitler. In considering the history of Zionism, we would have to remember that Christian anti-Semitism provided fertile ground for Nazi ideology and the genocide of European Jews, which in turn fuelled the demand for a Jewish homeland. Such an analysis would not imply an approval of Israeli expansionism and oppression of Palestinians.

It is the historian’s job to suggest explanations of major events by weighing context with cause, structure popular moods and ideological developments. In today’s world. however, history is rapidly being replaced by propaganda. Speaking about terrorism in 1998, the late Eqbal Ahmad described the official approach to it as one that eschews causation and avoids definition, because such concepts involve “analysis, comprehension and adherence to some norms of consistency”. He cited a query about the causes of Palestinian terrorism, addressed by the Yugoslavian foreign minister to US Secretary of State George Shultz, twenty years ago. Shultz “went a bit red in the face. He pounded the table and told the visiting foreign minister, there is no connection with any cause. Period.” (The New York Times, 18 December 1985). Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee told the United Nations General Assembly that all talk of ‘root causes’ served only to justify terrorism. However, his RSS soulmates routinely talk of ‘root causes’ when they need to defend the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. Terrorism has a ‘root cause’ when we identify with it, but becomes a monstrous violation of human rights when we don’t. Such ethical contortions are as common in the ranks of left-wing intellectuals as they are among religious fundamentalists and the ultra-right.

The decline of conversation
The dynamic nature of social reality implies the need for constant theoretical reflection. Without this, the radical imagination loses itself in the dominant discourses of capitalism, nationalism and identity. This is what is happening today, even within the so-called extreme left. Unfortunately this trend is buttressed by the habit of denigrating critical thought to a level inferior to so-called ‘activism’. A further complication is that nationalist ideology and capitalist media have perverted the concept of truth. In the first case, God or Truth (sometimes named History) is always with Us. In the second case, truth is substituted by credibility. This is demonstrated by the phenomenon of advertising. The truth-content of a message is of no importance, what matters is whether it is credible or incredible. This is why the concept of ‘image’ dominates modern political vocabulary, despite the obvious distinction between ‘image’ and ‘reality’. The war of images goes on in the political realm as well, and affects the question of terror. As they say, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. We owe it to ourselves and the coming generations to pierce the imagery and arrive at a well-considered understanding of terror and political violence.

The dogmatism surrounding political theory in India has reduced radical politics to a moribund condition. The Leninist concept of “the outside” and the Stalinist convention that “the party is always right” imply an authoritarian notion of truth. The comrades’ habit of claiming possession of Absolute Truth (Party Line = Param Satya) is similar to the religious belief in divine revelation (ilhaam). Such approaches to knowledge are shared by organisations as far apart as the Vatican (with its notion of papal infallibility), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Taliban (and its variants), and various Leninist groups and parties. This attitude is an important causative factor for the fractious nature of Southasian leftism. An absolutist mentality finds ambivalence intolerable. Faced with historical complexity, it finds refuge in black and white ideas about the social universe. The resulting theoretical vacuum has left questions such as the value of democracy and the nature of violence to be treated as ‘tactical’ matters rather than as aspects of social relations. The political ideologies dominant in our time attach a pragmatic or positive value to violence and to the Nation. The word ‘foreign’ is too easily used as a term of abuse. Many radical political currents treat democracy as something to be used rather than preserved. Where it is yet to be achieved, its protagonists preach but do not practice democracy within the movement – they believe authoritarian methods can achieve democratic goals.

Such issues need to be addressed. Unfortunately, it has become a habit among radical activists and intellectuals to attribute base motives to those who criticise established doctrine. Polemic is what passes for debate and discussion in the Indian socialist tradition. (polemos in Greek means strife). Our mode of debate is often coloured by personal remarks, sarcasm and pointless rhetoric. Indeed, there will be moments when nasty verbal contests become unavoidable, but the replacement of all political conversation by polemic is symptomatic of an authoritarian attitude to ideas. Polemic reinforces factionalism, causes useless distraction and is a waste of time. It also signifies mental laziness. Instead of a careful and rigorous consideration and/or refutation of critical ideas, we prefer to dismiss them with contempt. Firm adherence to dogma may be psychologically comfortable, but it can only ensure political marginalisation.

The Militarisation of Social Democracy
The word ‘terror’ is used to distinguish between forms of violence. In commonplace conversation, it conveys the meaning of something other than war, mass resistance, police action, and so on. Closer attention will reveal that political terror is a manifestation of militarism in the domain of civil society – whether expressed by left- or right-wing terrorists. Actually the very norms by which we define Left and Right need re-definition. Right-wing neo-liberals often talk of the need for far-reaching economic and political reform, whereas leftists seem to be taking a conservative position. Multinational corporations advocate a capitalist version of internationalism, whereas leftists appear to have become nationalists, paying lip-service to international working-class solidarity. Rightists fabricate history one way, leftists do it another way. Nobody can say whether the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ carry any definitional meaning for ethnic identity movements – support for or opposition to Lankan Tamil, Kurdish, Baloch, Kashmiri, Naga or Tibetan self-determination depends upon political convenience or pure whim rather than consistent principle. When it comes to positions regarding war, militarism, nuclearism, violence, patriarchy, democratic freedoms, human rights or ecological degradation, it is difficult to discern a systematic difference between left and right. The Communist Party of China has become (effectively) the Capitalist Party of China. It supported Yahya Khan in 1971, and even launched a war against Vietnam in 1979. As Orwell once said, there is no enormity that we condemn in the conduct of our enemies that we would not commit ourselves. Is there a way out of this labyrinth? There is, but only if we embark once more upon fearless critique.

Left-wing terrorists, including certain left-nationalists and communists, display a self-conscious attempt to convert social democratic protest and struggle into a form of warfare (‘social democracy’ is used here in its broadest and pristine meaning, as the original name of the socialist movement). The capitulation of Europe’s major social democratic parties to war hysteria and patriotism in August 1914 was arguably the greatest political disaster in the history of international socialism. It is a complex and tragic tale, but the nature of twentieth century communism was unalterably coloured by warfare and the warrior cult. In fact, the century gone by has been the bloodiest period in the life of humanity. One result has been the appearance of Bonapartism, the domination of the communist movement by men of military stature – warlords like Stalin and Mao. Another was the erosion of any respect for human life – mass slaughter came to be accepted as the natural price to pay for ‘victory’.

This mixture of socialism, nationalism and militarism has produced many political hybrids. Subhas Chandra Bose was one of them. In India today it is not a good idea to criticise Subhas, a popular icon for many leftists, even though he allied himself with Hitler’s imperial war aims and bemoaned the defeat of the Axis. Although it takes off from a conservative standpoint, fascism, too, is one of these hybrids – and religion-based communalism is Southasia’s brand of fascism. In summary definition, communal politics are projects for the militarisation of civil society. The ultra-left programme of ‘people’s war’ feeds upon the same mentality. The utilitarian morality expressed by the phrase “the end justifies the means” has cast its effect on Left and Right alike. Quite apart from the matter of political ethics, it is remarkable that the Maoist world-view finds ‘peoples war’ as relevant in India as it does in Nepal, despite the obvious differences in the constitutions of the two countries.

Among some comrades, it would appear that strategies are decided upon first, and doctrinal justifications invented later. It is also significant that, on the whole, the ultra-left and the ultra-right avoid confrontation with one another. Thus, in its declaration of October 2004, the newly formed Communist Party of India (Maoist) stated that armed struggle would “remain the highest and main form of struggle and the army the main form of organisation of this revolution”. The main purpose of mass organisations would be “to serve the war”. The declaration makes a passing reference to “Hindu fascist forces”, but makes it clear that it would keep “the edge of the people’s struggles directed against the new Congress rulers in Delhi along with the CPI/CPM and their imperialist chieftains”. On 15 August, the CPI-Maoist (allegedly) carried out an armed action in Andhra Pradesh, gunning down an MLA, his son, driver, some local Congress activists and a municipal employee. The ideology that can cast such ordinary people for the role of “class enemies”, deserving extra-judicial execution, reflects a mentality closer to fascism rather than socialism. These ‘revolutionaries’ have not even publicly challenged the mass murderers responsible for pogroms in India during 1984 (Delhi) and 2002 (Gujarat), let alone call them to account. Yet they constantly direct scornful polemic at all kinds of moderate democratic politics. Apparently radical rhetoric establishes one’s commitment to the public good; and proposing violent solutions provides proof of one’s admirable character.

A callous disregard for human life is apparent among ‘revolutionary’ groups in Southasia. In August 2004, 13 people were killed (including 9 children) and 20 injured due to a bomb planted by the United Liberation Front of Assam at an Independence Day function in upper Assam. In June 2005, 40 or more bus passengers, mostly peasants and working people, were killed in a land mine set off by Maoists in the Chitwan district of Nepal. The ULFA call themselves Marxists, as do the Nepali comrades. Marxist revolutionaries perceive themselves as guardians of human rights, democracy and justice. We need to ask them – what is the ground for your claim to represent the poor? Who gave you the authority to be judge and executioner and kill people without even the pretence of a consensual procedure to decide guilt and award punishment? Why do you complain about extra-judicial killings by the state when you have no qualms about carrying out such killings yourselves?  Is there any human rights body that the victims of your cruelty (or your bloody ‘mistakes’) could approach for justice? Why do you talk about the “murder of democracy” (this is how the Indian Maoist party described the ban imposed upon it after their ‘action’ on August 15) when you have no respect for the lives of children and poor people, let alone for democratic values and norms?

With honourable exceptions, human rights activists remain silent or defensive about atrocities committed by proponents of revolution and self-determination. This strengthens the impression among the general public that ‘preferred’ victims qualify as human beings, but if they happen to belong to the wrong caste or religion or profession, or simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, their lives are dispensable.  Sensitive observers the world over have rightly protested the atrocious principle of ‘collateral damage’ invoked by the Pentagon when its soldiers and pilots kill people they say were not targeted. It is equally infuriating when successive US presidents talk about ‘American lives’ as if Arabs and Rwandans and Vietnamese belonged to an insect species. But is it not apparent that revolutionaries of various kinds function with their own version of ‘collateral damage’? And what of situations where civilians are deliberately targeted? World War II abolished the distinction between combatants and civilians. We, who dreamt of a better life for humanity, have descended to the point where the deliberate slaughter of bystanders and bus passengers by ‘our’ side barely causes us to raise an eyebrow. Even to point to this selective and self-righteous morality causes intense irritation among the ranks of the politically correct. For socialists to ‘normalise’ the commission of mass murder, is nothing short of an ethical-political catastrophe. And it lends a poignantly different meaning to Marx’s warning that the choice before humanity is either socialism or barbarism.

Autumn of the Patriarchs
After the overthrow of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and the rise of democratic politics, the process of governing became impossible without some degree of popular legitimation. That is why even empires and dictators talk of freedom and the will of the peoples. But these developments, associated with modern capitalism, cannot occlude the fact that the state is the institutionalised crystal of centuries of warfare.  At its core are the armies that (in 19th century Europe), countered universal adult suffrage with universal male conscription; and the ideals of equality, reason and compassion with hierarchy, faith and the glory of war. We may judge for ourselves which set of values conquered the 20th century. The Great War of 1914-18 ended with the overthrow of four medieval autocracies. But alongside the establishment of Weimar democracy, the defeated German army of 1918 set in motion a political process that culminated in the conquest of the state by Nazism. It is the greatest historical irony that it was democracy that enabled ex-corporal Hitler to become Reich Chancellor, and that his actions led not only to the overthrow of democracy but to the complete destruction if the German Army. Fifty-five million people paid the ultimate price. Hitler’s regime was the historical acme of state terrorism – those who use these words frequently ought to study it – And the most glaring feature of the political mobilisation that preceded it was the binary dynamic of fear and revenge.

Contrary to their self-understanding, the political paramilitaries and revolutionary warriors of all kinds are the loyal opposition of capitalist modernity. They share its fascination and structural use of revenge, martyrdom, heroism and patriarchal codes of honour, that invariably imply mysogyny. Hence they are the last refuge of patriarchy. Each of their ‘heroic’ actions strengthen the state, as each side counters war with more war, terror with counter-terror, revolutionary militarism with statist militarism. The link between state violence and the violence of left-right radicalism has become seamless – each feeds upon the other. This process is unfolding before our eyes. With 9/11 and, indeed, with every act of murderous resistance, hard won democratic rights are further eroded, and the state gathers legitimacy to impose draconian laws. With the growth of a universal climate of fear, the bonds between governments and the ordinary public are strengthened, rather than dissipated. This takes place, not on the basis of class interests, but on account of the dreadful fear of the murder of innocent people. What happens then is an unending spiral of violence, driven by the lust for revenge and very difficult to control. As Hannah Arendt said, all this bloodshed will indeed change the world, probably for the worse.

It is impossible to achieve democracy by authoritarian means. A new dispensation may be realised, by such methods, but it will carry with it the whiff of tyranny. Those who survive such a revolution will be a brutalised and damaged people. Undoubtedly the Nepali establishment, an outdated remnant of arrangements made between Nepali feudal potentates and the British during the heyday of imperialism, has managed to survive by maintaining the sheer poverty and educational backwardness of the population. Their decision to impose customs duty on educational books is only the latest example of their investment in ignorance. The government has also been assisted by cynical neighbours. The monarchy is not a ‘pillar of stability’, as its Indian well-wishers like to portray it, but the reverse. The Nepali state’s brutal aversion to democratic governance perpetuates instability. But the sad state of affairs has been worsened by the ruthless and destructive policies of the revolutionaries (including the recruitment of children and disruption of education); and the bankruptcy of the moderate democratic opposition, who found it impossible, especially during the troubled decade of the 1990s, to construct a responsible united front. Constant factional fighting and egotism are also symptoms of authoritarianism.

The politics and practice of revolutionary terror are detrimental to socialist ideals. They represent and reproduce desperation, cynicism, organisational autocracy and doctrinal dogma. As such, they generate fear and paranoia in the ranks of the revolutionary cadre themselves as well as among the very people they seek to liberate. Most persons drawn towards terrorist politics are undoubtedly sincere in their vision and aspiration for a humane socio-economic order. But how easy it is to commit atrocities for the sake of kindness! To interpret our primeval lust for revenge as a source of ‘modernisation’, and ‘progress’! Nearly 30 years ago, in 1976, this writer had the privilege of participating in a conversation (along with some close friends), with the great Marxist historian and peace activist E P Thompson. It was the year of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, a development that had forced us to think seriously about the value of democratic rights. He made the acute observation that the use of the prefix ‘bourgeois’ before ‘democracy’ was the most self-defeating practice of communists the world over. Democracy, said Thompson, was a hard-won institutional gain of the international labour movement and in the Indian case, of the struggle for Independence. Rather than dismiss it as ‘bourgeois’, we ought to work for its preservation and extension into social life – that was what was meant by social democracy.

Many of us in India have realised the truth of this approach as we have traversed the difficult and painful quarter-century from the 1980’s till today – a period that has seen the rampage of communalism and the politics of mass murder. It is significant that the Indian Left took a very long time to recognise the fascist nature of communalism. Even today, the relative weakness of our democracy is reflected in the fact that no party dares place a resolution in Parliament condoling the death of thousands of victims of communal violence.  Nonetheless, despite its terrible flaws, certain democratic norms, institutions and practices remain alive in the Indian polity. Groups that support the politics of secession or armed revolution still manage openly to propagate their ideas. Would it be possible, say, for a Tibetan version of the Hurriyat Conference to function in China, before or after Mao’s death? Or for Baloch or Sindhi secessionists to advocate separation from Pakistan, and conduct meetings with a visiting Indian dignitary? How much democratic freedom of expression and organisation could political opponents expect under a People’s War regime?

An urgent political issue confronts those of us who identify with the civil liberties movement of the 1970’s. The revolutionary movement of that time aimed at the violent overthrow of the constitutional polity, and the Indian ruling elite took refuge behind the rule of law. A quarter of a century later, significant sections of the radical left and its well-wishers became staunch defenders of the democratic rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution, while the Indian establishment repeatedly showed its discomfort with constitutional proprieties. In fact, the most massive violations of law (witness the carnages of 1984 and 2002), have been practiced by establishment parties and politicians. This should make leftists think about their attitude to democracy – is it merely a tactic, or do democratic norms and institutions deserve a deeper philosophical commitment?

The left could begin to rejuvenate itself if it gave up its revelatory approach to truth, its dogmatic approach to knowledge, its metaphysical attitude to politics, and its addiction to the warrior cult – society’s oldest and most powerful preserve of authoritarianism. The comrades should examine their conscience and consider the social consequences of children being denied an education and made accustomed to bloodshed and cruelty, and of armed groups and individuals functioning with the same kind of impunity that the army and police display. A mature course of action would be to agitate non-violently for a programme of political and social democracy and demilitarisation, and engage in constructive work to better the lot of the people. This would gain them wider credibility and respect than they will ever get via armed struggle. It will also gain them the gratitude of people whose lives are too full of violence and uncertainty. A close friend took a photograph of a slogan on the wall of a building in the village of Ghandruk in central Nepal after an armed clash between the army and the Maoists: “Maobadi + Shahi Sena suniyojit daman banda gara.” Addressing both the the Maoists and ‘royal army’, the graffiti asks them to desist from bloodshed and ‘deliberate suppression’. Whatever the support base of the Nepali comrades, there are also those who are tired and fearful of the bloodletting. Whatever the romance of extremism may once have been, freedom from fear has become a major political aspiration. Terror is no longer a means to an end – it has become an end in itself, autonomous of social and political control. It is no longer merely a symptom but the disease par excellence of capitalist modernity. Socialists should remember that respect for life and liberation from fear must be the foremost ideal and goal of socialism. Or else they will make themselves instruments of the system they claim to be combating.

The recruitment of women cadre and soldiers by paramilitaries is hailed by some comrades as a symbol of female ‘empowerment’. Actually, this should be characterised as yet another manifestation of the oppression of women by entrenched patriarchy. Would it not seem ridiculous to view child-soldiers as liberated children? Warfare empowers neither men nor women, it imprisons all of humanity in an endless spiral. Since 1914, we have never had peace – more than 200 million people were violently done to death in the 20th century – and it is clear that ’modern civilisation’ is structurally dependent upon war. That it is now recruiting women and children in the name of ‘empowerment’ is a travesty. The struggle for the complete equality of the sexes continues to be opposed bitterly by patriarchal structures and politicians. (The fate of India’s Women’s Reservation Bill is proof of this fact). Subjugation by fear is a common experience for women from all classes across the globe. Feminism is hence (implicitly) a struggle against militarism and terror.

The abolition of state terror and its twin brother requires the collaboration of all groups and movements working to end the grip of caste oppression, patriarchy, racism and the exploitation of labour. Wide-ranging campaigns are necessary against all forms of oppressive institutions, including militarist ones, in order to defang the enemy-producing killing-machine that the ‘West’ has become. But ambivalence about brutality as a means of resistance must cease. Millions of Europeans and Americans are opposed to war. The imperial system can only be encouraged to implode, as did the USSR. It cannot be destroyed by military means without exacting a merciless price which no revolutionary can wish on the common people. Terrorist attacks will only increase fear and feed conservative ideologies, which is the aim of the rulers.

Is it possible to combine a radical programme with non-violence? Indeed it is. Undermining the British Empire was the most radical programme in Southasia in the first half of the last century. In a time that identifies Pathans with religious fundamentalism, we may yet learn something from the work of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan of the North West Frontier Province, aka Badshah Khan and the Frontier Gandhi, and the Khudai Khidmatgar (‘servants of god’) movement of the 1930’s, whose commitment to non-violence was based on Pukhtunwali culture and Islam. The Khudai Khidmatgar’s alliance with the national movement as a whole, its popular constructive projects and openness to non-Pathans and non-Muslims alarmed the colonial rulers, who subsidised the clergy to denounce its members (popularly known as the Red Shirts), as Bolsheviks and enemies of Islam. Confronting massacres, torture and repression, the Khudai Khidmatgar emerged as one of the staunchest Gandhian movements in the history of Southasian nationalism.

The Frontier Gandhi instructed his followers: “abstain from violence and do not defame your nation, because the world will say how could such a barbarous nation observe patience”. Even as the ‘civilising’ Englishmen behaved like mad dogs, the ‘volatile’ Pathans were teaching their rulers a lesson in restraint. A Turkish scholar who visited the Frontier in the 1930s suggested that the Pathans had developed a new interpretation of force. In her words, “non-violence is the only form of force which can have a lasting effect on the life of society… And this, coming from strong and fearless men, is worthy of study”. Badshah Khan was the last of those Gandhian stalwarts who could walk across four international boundaries in post-1947 Southasia and be treated by the citizens of each country as one of their own. His life work exemplified the compassionate spirit that stayed alive during the bleakest period of the twentieth century, proof that the self-assertion of the oppressed need not always be strident and narrow-minded. That he was an Indian national leader even after he became a Pakistani citizen ought to give chauvinists of all colours some food for thought. Not for nothing was it written of him, that “people brought him food and sat him down in the shade of trees”.

Let us also spare a thought for Chander Singh Garhwali, a platoon commander in the Garhwal Rifles, Hindu soldiers facing a Muslim crowd in Peshawar in 1930. He was court-martialled for refusing to order firing on his fellow-countrymen. Somewhere, somehow, Chander Singh and his troops too had been affected by the spirit of ahimsa. Decades before, so had the ordinary Russian soldiers who refused to shoot women demonstrators on International Women’s Day in St Petersburg in 1917, thus heralding the overthrow of Tsarism and the advent of the Russian Revolution. Would it not be truly radical for the revolutionaries to prevail over the soldiers and policemen via their conscience rather than through fear? Did not Gandhi speak profoundly when he said that what is obtained by fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts? The radicalism of satyagraha consists in this, that it (potentially) abolishes the distinction between method and goal. ‘Overcoming’ ceases to be a military concept and social democracy transcends its hysterical tension over ends and means.

Today, when Southasia is engulfed in civil strife and civil war, it is time to consider again whether the pursuit of truth and non-violent resistance are not the only radical social procedures left for the survival of the biosphere. The movement must be the germ of its goal. Social democracy’s associative principles and active ethos must prefigure those of the society it wishes to create. Ahimsa is not a tactic but the ethos of respect for life. That which claims to be new must stand on its own feet.

Speak the truth
Stop the killing
NB: This article includes material extracted from the authors’s earlier publications including a lecture in Patna delivered in 2000, entitled The End of History or the Beginning of Transformation?; the seminar paper, The Brains of the Living: A Discussion on Political Violence (Patna, April 2003); and the articles  The Enemy System (Hindustan Times, December 6, 2002); The Threads of Conscience (Biblio, March-April 2002); and Out of the Shadow (Communalism Combat, February 2003).