Dr. Anil A. Athale.

Formerly Joint Director War Studies Division Min of Def and retired Colonel. Currently co-ordinator of a Pune based think tank Inpad (Initiative for Peace and Disarmament).



On May 13, 2008, Islamist terrorists struck at Jaipur and killed over 60 innocent people and injured over 150 in a well planned attack. The usual routine followed, there were VIP visits, compensation announced to the victims, govt. made yet another declaration of ‘zero tolerance’, TV news channels held usual debates ( actually more of  a slanging match), police announced imminent breakthroughs and soon every one has forgotten the event till another terror attack. At which time, I am sure the same sequence would be repeated. The whole thing has become as predictable as a Republic Day parade……..one is no different than the other!


I have been a student of insurgency and terrorism for last 24 years. At social gatherings when asked what I do for a living, my answer invariably provokes flurry of questions, much to the annoyance of my better half (who glares and hints that I should stop holding forth on my pet topic and not spoil the party). Here is my attempt at reaching a wider audience and answer some of those frequently asked questions.


Why do you call it Islamist terrorism, when there are many other terror groups like LTTE(Tamil Tigers) or IRA (Irish Republican Army) that has Hindus or Christians you do not call them Hindu or Christian terrrorist?


It is undoubtedly true that there are other terrorists as well, for instance the Naxalites or Maoists. The reason why adjective ‘Islamists’ is being used is that no other terror group invokes religious sanction or quotes religious texts to justify their acts. In fact the Tamil Tigers has in its fold Hindus as well as Christians (their spokesperson for many years was Anton Balashinghe, a Christian). Neither has IRA nor Tamil Tigers ever quoted any religious scriptures to justify their actions, the Islamists have and continue to do so. The link between religious places and religious schools (the Madarassas)to these acts,  is also well established. Finally, the Islamist terrorists themselves have time and again openly admitted the religious nature of their ultimate goal- Islamisation. It would be dishonest if this reality is ignored.


What about state terrorism?


It is true that state also uses force to deal with revolts and violence and against criminals. But in a democracy with a judiciary and rule of law, the use of force by state is accountable and has to be within the bounds of law. At times individuals do transgress those limits, but that is an aberration. Use of force by a state to enforce law cannot be equated with state terrorism, unless that state has a policy of genocide  or is dictatorial like Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.


Unfortunately the social activists and champions of human rights forget that it is the legitimate function of the state to use force. If state abdicates this responsibility then we are inviting anarchy and in words of Hobbes, a 16th century English philosopher, a situation of war of every one against every one and human life “nasty, brutish and short.”


You are biased, what about the terrorism of Shiv Sena, Bajarang Dal etc?


These are indeed organisations that believe in violent means and must be dealt under the law. But at worst, these are extremists and militants, like militant trade unions for example. The shallow coverage by media has created the confusion about definition of terrorism and who is a terrorist. There is  tendency to lump together terms like Militants, Insurgents, Extremists, Fundamentalists and Terrorist. While all the variety of people fighting for some cause or other may at times indulge in terrorism, Terrorist is one who’s primary aim is to cause maximum destruction. In that sense strictly speaking, when a Kashmiri extremist attacks a soldier, it is wrong to call it a terrorist attack, it is part of an insurgency. We must be clear about this difference.  


Terrorist is an individual who carries out a terrorist act. Terrorist act is one in which totally unconnected persons are targeted and killed. Terrorism is random violence that makes no distinction between people and is carried out to promote fear. It is no accident that in Jaipur attack as well as elsewhere, many Muslims have lost their lives.


It is a fallacy to claim that everything is fair in love and war. It is not, for one sided love cannot justify throwing acid on a girl! Even in war there are written and unwritten rules. The terrorists do not follow them. For instance in war, civilians are not deliberately targeted (they still die as a collateral damage) while terrorists, for instance in Beslan in Russia, chose a school or local trains in Mambai!


While there are groups and organisations that are militant, fundamentalist and violence prone, they have not as yet graduated to earn the ‘Terrorist’ tag. If the state fails to curb the minority terrorism then the majority may well begin to have its own terrorist organisations.


If we use violence against terrorists then are we not betraying our Gandhian legacy?


Gandhian methods of non-violent struggle were indeed successful against the British colonialists. But the British were a civilized people. British liberals like Edmund Burke were in favour of Indian independence as early as in 1773 (Burke’s speeches in British parliament on Regulating Act). To assume universality of success of these methods for all times to come is false. Did the non-violent Jews survive Hitler? Closer home, in Gandhiji’s lifetime itself, in October 1947, it was force that saved the Kashmir valley from the raiders. Even more telling, the same non-violent movement against Portuguese colony of Goa, failed in 1956-57. Goa was liberated by the force of arms in 1961.


An oft quoted Gandhian phrase is that if all were to follow eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, then the world would go blind. The counter to that is that if only some follow this and others don’t then it is the non-violent who would go blind while the rouges will rule the world.  


Using force against terrorists is like treating only the symptom. What about the root cause like Babri demolition and Gujrath genocide?


The demolition of Babri mosque at Ram Janmabhumi was wrong and against the law of the land. But obduracy of the fundamentalists in denying Hindus their holy place, is equally wrong. I am an agnostic but do believe that others who have faith have equal right to their belief. It is not that a compromise had not been worked out in similar cases. The case of Krishna janmabhumi temple in Mathura is similar so is the case of Somnath temple. Making an issue of an obscure mosque in Faizabad was the original sin. In a plural society both the majority and minority have an obligation to respect each others beliefs, this cannot be a one sided affair. Many sensible people on both sides had tried to find solution to the issue, but politicians on both sides, interested in dividing the society, thwarted all attempts at a solution.


This issue has been further vitiated by the ‘secularists’, who in league with the fundamentalists have first disputed the authenticity of Hindu’s historical memory of Ayodhya being the birth place of Ram. The illlogic has been extended further  when many question the historicity of Ram and Ramayan………asking for evidence of his birth certificate ! There is glaring asymmetry here, all Hindu beliefs and history are thus sought to be rubbished on ground of lack of ‘evidence’. It is this moronic approach that has turned even the liberal, tolerant and agnostics against the ‘sickularists’ and their fellow travelers.   


The Gujrath riots of 2002 were indeed horrendous and a blot on the nation. But it cannot be forgotten that the Godhra incident was a grave provocation. In 1969, when ‘Secularists’ were in power, worse riots had taken place in Gujrath. The question is, if Godhra had not happened, would Gujrath riots have taken place? A corollary to that is that even today, in any state, if a Godhra like incident takes place, equally severe repercussions would occur. This would happen despite the best efforts of police or the army. I have personal experience of dealing successfully with riots during my army career. But we all, who have this experience, agreed that if there is grave provocation and riots spread to rural areas, no army or police can control it. The root cause of many riots is the intolerance shown by minority towards the beliefs and faith of the majority.


In addition, some NGOs and individuals with vested monetary interest in foreign funds, have kept alive the memory of those riots. They have falsely created the brand ‘Gujrath genocide’ by harping on the 2000 killed when the (Secular) central govt. puts the figure at 800. The fact that close to 200 majority community people were killed in police firing is swept under the carpet.


In any case, in a very ‘secular’ manner, the score has been equaled. The deaths in Mumbai, Varanasi, Delhi etc blasts since then, are equal to the loss in Gujrath. It must be reiterated that there is a basic difference between violence in a riot and a terrorist act. While the former is a crime of passion the later is like a pre-meditated murder. The strict judicial principles recognise the difference.


The Gujrath riots or Babri issue are NOT the root causes, these are mere symptoms. The root causes are population explosion, lack of economic opportunity, lack of education and separatism. Added to this is the fact that religious reformation in all the communities, has bypassed the region of North India. Political interest in dividing society on bases of caste and creed and foreign vested interests to destabilize India, complete the circle of root causes.


We have in the past held talks with Nagas, Mizos and sundry groups. Why not with the Islamists?


There are two types of internal conflicts, one is ‘Realist’ conflict that is fought for material objectives, for instance independence or separate state (the Bodos). Here since the goal is material and tangible, it is possible to negotiate and compromise. It is thus possible to negotiate with Kashmir separatists but not with the Jihadists. The second type of threats that we face, namely Islamists and Naxalites , are ideological conflicts. Naxalites want to overthrow the entire system and replace it with one party Communist rule (on lines of Stalin or Mao). Can a democratic state negotiate its own destruction? Similarly Islamists goal is Islamisation of India and establishment of Sharia rule. No negotiations are possible with such groups.


We must take seriously the literature found with SIMI (Student’s Islamic Movement of India) that talks of this goal. Hitler’s ‘Mien Kamf’ was not taken seriously and the world paid a terrible price for it.


The Islamist terrorist have another advantage. Since they cloak themselves in religious idiom and claim to bringing whole country in the fold of Islam, they draw support of average Muslim easily. For when it comes to the goal of Islamisation of world or the assertion that Islam is the only true religion or Allah the only God, there are no division between moderate or extremist Muslims. It is this sympathy for the ultimate goal that makes sure that the Islamist terrorist get willing or tacit support of the average peaceful Muslim and none betray him/her to police since that is synonymous with    betrayal of Islam.  


How do fight terrorism? Or should we just be fatalist and wait for the next attack?


It is indeed necessary to for the whole nation, not just the government to fight this menace. If left unchecked it has the potential to derail our economy and destroy our freedom and democracy. The measures to be taken can be divided into long term and short term.


The long term measures will entail overhaul of our educational system so that separatists and extremists do not breed more and more terrorists taking advantage of the constitutional guarantees. Our constitution gives the freedom to minorities to establish institutes to preserve their culture, language etc. But that does not mean we permit or encourage separatism under this guise. As a first step we must have a uniform curriculum, compulsory for all schools that must teach the students essence of all the religions, not just their own. Thus a child in madarassa or a Hindu pathshala must undergo a course that teaches him about Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism etc.  We have to enforce pluralism through understanding at that very crucial stage of child’s upbringing. Many a misconception about different faiths is born out this ignorance. Any institution that is not prepared to accept this should not be permitted to operate in this country. It will take many, many years for effects to be felt, but we must take this step to nip in bud the menace of religion based hatred and terrorism. To deal  with complaints of discrimination we must have a structure with powers to punish and redress.


As to short term measures, there is a need to enact a law that deals with not just terrorists but also their supporters and sympathizers. Present laws are wholly inadequate. The argument that a terrorism law does to or would not stop terror acts is infantile and moronic and is political cynicism at its worst. We have laws to deal with murder, but that has not stopped murders from taking place, does that mean we should have no criminal law, since despite the law crime still takes place? If a tough law that makes all those who help, support, conceal terrorists is in place, it will certainly remove the support base of the terrorists and make it difficult for them to operate! The US, UK, Indonesia and  Pakistan, all have an anti terrorism law. It is an irony that India, one of the worst sufferer does not have a law to deal with this menace that is unlike a normal crime in many ways.


An effective passive measure to fight terrorism would be to form a country wide grid of information by co-opting civil society organisations like mohalla committees, gram panchayats, housing societies etc. These organisations should be given responsibility to monitor their areas for suspicious activities and held accountable. To boost their prestige and effectiveness they must be consulted by the police in matters of arrest, detention and bail. Once the flow of information begins it should be possible to PREVET  a terror act.


But passive measures alone will never suffice. There are several pro-active and aggressive measures that have to be taken, mostly covert, within and outside the country. But these recommendations/measures are not fit for public discussion and debate and will remain unsaid. Suffice it to say that India will have to show its iron fist to the recalcitrant neighbours.  


Do you think these measures will succeed?


Frankly, no. The ultimate battle against Islamist terror has to be fought by the Muslims themselves, for they are its biggest potential victim. But that needs a religious reformation, a kind that took place in Europe in 16th century or in India during the time of Buddha! But presently there is no sign of this happening and it is going to be long haul when Muslims move away from literalist interpretation of their faith and contextualize it. On the other hand the victim Hindu society is so hopelessly divided that much terrorism will take place in India not because we are the number one enemy of Islam, which we are not, but because we are a soft target. India possibly is already a laboratory for the Jihadists, who test their tactics and weapons here before they use them against the West.