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Some Thoughts on Terrorism:
An Open Letter to All Fellow Indians

October 2009


To my mind, terrorism means the use of physical violence (by any individual, group or state) to compel any other individual, group or state for any reason whatsoever, except in self-defense against unwarranted or illegal aggression from some agent or agents. Causing loss of life and property, private or public, desecrating any place of worship, attempting forcible religious conversion, rape or murder, are all different forms of terrorism. The use of violent means for achieving any objective or purpose, howsoever desirable, as such, (including, liberation from foreign yoke) is a form of terrorism, hence, undesirable.

Terrorists are not born as such but youth turn into terrorists due to aberrant and perverse ideologies that themselves spring from distorted perceptions, irrational fear or hatred of some out-group or other. All cases of hatred and hostility against ‘the other’ are equally evil. The state, as such, becomes guilty of self-contradiction and terrorism (without realizing it) when it blunders into accepting double standards of harshly suppressing the terrorism of A against B, but ignoring or condoning the terrorism of C against D within its territory.

Gandhiji affirmed a crucially important and basic sociological truth when he proclaimed that ‘terrorist methods’ do not solve human problems but complicate and multiply them, even though using greater brute force by one group may temporarily suppress the other. He insisted that means are as important as ends themselves and drew pointed attention to what sociologists and economists call the ‘hidden social costs’ of our policies or actions.

All patriotic Indians must ponder over the following possible explanation of the alarming growth of a ‘terrorist climate and culture’ in India in the last two decades.  The terrorist method of demolishing the Babari Masjid in 1992 resulted in wide spread indignation and protest by Indian Muslims. These protests were not addressed but brutally suppressed. A section of the Indian family celebrated the demolition as a victory of Hinduism over Islam on the soil of India. It never occurred to them to ponder over the social cost of their act: the incalculable damage to the sanctity of the constitution of India, the unsuspected silent erosion of the of the common Indian citizen’s underlying respect for the rule of law. This insensitivity wounded not only the religious sentiments of the severely traumatized Indian Muslims, but millions of eminently tolerant and fair-minded citizens of India, indeed, the global human family.

A section of the under-world in Bombay, for reasons of their own, engineered serial blasts in Bombay in 1993 as a retaliatory and deterrent measure against their ‘perceived state terrorism’. This shook the entire country. Again, the perpetrators of this act of terrorism never even remotely suspected the incalculable social costs of their imagined role of ‘teaching a lesson to the Hindu enemies of Islam’ and the collateral damage that this act would cause to the silent majority of the Indian family, both Muslim and Hindu.

The next major act took place at Godhra railway station and shortly thereafter in Gujrat as a whole. While there may be some controversy as to what exactly happened at the Godhra railway station on the fateful day there is clear evidence of its aftermath in Gujrat, and the dubious role of the state government itself. Whatever the verdict of the next two Assembly elections in Gujrat may be, the conscience of the Indian family, as a whole (minus the Sangh pariwar) as well as impartial international opinion was that the government of Gujrat fell woefully short of discharging its solemn duty. Thereafter begins the sad story of an unceasing spate of numerous terrorist acts on the soil of India in one region after the other. The evil tentacles of ‘terrorism’ have now embraced the Christian segment of India in several regions of the land. This is deeply deplorable. Will India, as one nation be able to survive if Indians fail to live up to the basic values of humanism, democracy, federalism, secularism and respect for all religions. The vicious circle of ‘retaliatory terrorism to stop further terrorism by the ‘other’ will never, never get broken unless all segments bring the power of moral courage and clear honest thinking to bear upon defeating the demon of terrorism and upholding the constitution of India.      

The Indian constitution reflects the range and depth of the Gandhi-Nehru vision of modern India. This vision is the evolutionary fruit of the long inter-action of the wisdom of India and of the West. Centuries of the labor of love of people of diverse races, regions, cultures and languages have gone into its making. Professional politicians and their henchmen may care for nothing but the next general election, but millions of our countrymen do care for the beautiful synthesis of Eastern and Western values that have gone into the constitution of India. And they respond to the call of duty as they did when the Mahatma beckoned them. However, the Mahatma’s high ethical level has eluded every political party in our country, including the grand Indian National Congress itself.

Every political party blames the ‘other’ for hurting national interests and our social ills. The Sangh pariwar always laments the ‘minorityism’ of the Congress or other ‘pseudo-secularists’, but hardly suspects the traces of brute ‘majoritarianism’ in its own approach. The leftists blame the capitalists, the ultra-nationalists blame communalists, and so on. However, the overwhelming majority of the Indian people are just plain, simple, good, and kind-hearted human beings just like other nations and societies. The ‘aam aadmi’ (common man) in every religious, regional or ethnic group wants peace, not power, a little corner to live, work, love and find peace and happiness. The ‘aam aadmi’ constitutes the overwhelming majority in every race, religion and region of the globe. Whatever the fiery demagogues, or the saviors of sacred causes say or do, the ‘aam aadmi’ knows that love is more powerful than hate, and none can love any country, culture, cause or the Creator without truly loving simple human beings, irrespective of race, religion, caste, or ideology.

Gandhi is the prophet of this spiritualistic and humanistic politics in the modern age.  The killer of the Mahatma was ignorant of the fact that Gandhi was a true Hindu, whose overflowing compassion and love embraced all humanity without any exception, not an enemy of Hindus or an appeaser of Muslims.  The Quran itself calls Muhammad ‘a mercy for all the worlds’ (rahmat ul lil aalameen’). Ideally, a true Muslim should be a fount of universal love and compassion, not a spout of hate or a human bomb. This applies to all religions provided the believer is enabled to grasp the grain and drop the chaff. And this is precisely what Gandhi had done.          

Lasting collective human welfare can come only when every individual or group sincerely tries to understand how the ‘other’ really feels and responds. When this concern for the ‘other’ is absent or negligible, one becomes unable to share one’s authentic views, fears, and disappointments that are the part and parcel of all human relationships. Surface courtesies, polite exchanges regarding the market or the weather become the topics of conversation, but there is no honest communication and sharing of ideas and values. We become afraid to open out before the ‘other’, to face the inner world of the ‘other’.  

Muslims in India and almost all over the world today stand perplexed and almost bewildered as to what it means to be a good Muslim in the modern age. Due to various factors there is an utter confusion between the ‘fundamentals of Islam’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. There is an alarming rise of internal terrorism in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indian Muslims have come round to believing that a large section of the majority is scheming and conspiring to use the terrorist crimes of a handful of misguided, fanatical or perverted Muslims in India or elsewhere as a stick for maligning and beating the Muslim community as a whole.

I submit this fear is very natural and understandable. If the strength of any chain lies in its weakest links, all truly patriotic Indians must accept the task of rooting out the legitimate fears and grievances of the minority groups in the great Indian family. Right now the challenge lies in stopping and rooting out the terror acts against Christians in Orissa, Karnataka and elsewhere as well as the irrational and almost pathological regional chauvinism rising in Maharashtra.  The Congress party and the central government must take immediate confidence building measures to restore mutual trust among all Indian citizens, irrespective of region, religion, caste or political affiliation.

The freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct, but the manner of exercising this right must be subject to inner self-restraint as well as judicious legal regulation. The media as well as different state agencies come out with detailed and rather sensational reports of terrorist activities without proper confirmation of their truth. Some unscrupulous or fanatical elements, under the illusion of serving ‘Bharat Mata’ endanger social harmony and the true welfare of our nation, just as some deluded Muslims turn into suicide bombers, believing that they alone are true Muslims.  Indeed, some hard-boiled skeptics among both Hindus and Muslims ever remained cold to Gandhiji’s total rejection of the politics of hate, deceit, intrigue and violence, as advocated by a Machiavelli or a Chanakya. Hitler also must have felt amused by the ‘illusions’ of a ‘naked faqir’. But, as we all know, a string of geniuses in the wide world and numerous luminaries of India from every walk of life in every corner of India as well as the masses of our great country took the Mahatma seriously. We are called upon to do the same today. 

Some quarters cry hoarse that the UPA government has totally failed to curtail terrorist acts on Indian soil while USA has crushed terrorism on American soil. But the US has not delivered what it had set out to do. To be honest to all concerned, it is virtually impossible to eliminate or even bring down stray terrorist acts to sub-zero levels precisely because the terrorist aims to kill himself even before he destroys others.  Because of this incredible passion for self-destruction a suicide bomber (quite irrespective of his religion or faith) can materialize from nowhere, as it were, just as Shakespeare’s Falstaff had the knack of escaping through a keyhole. Our neighbor, Pakistan, once the epicenter of manufacturing these demoniac human weapons; is now facing the full fury of its own ‘Frankensteins’. Pakistani Muslims made a fatal blunder in the eighties of the last century, when utterly short sighted religious frenzy and ignorance of history and sociology led them to found the Taliban organization on their soil, just as Indian Muslims blundered in the forties when they endorsed the ‘two nation theory’, no matter who formulated it.      

Combating terrorism in India is far more difficult than combating this evil in the USA  The record of the Centre and the State governments is, obviously, unsatisfactory. But this fact should not be made into a stick to beat with and denigrate any government. There are too many internal ills and highly involved issues for smooth and effective handling in the space of five or ten years. The BJP government itself could not overcome the demon of terrorism in its years of power.

The issue of Jammu & Kashmir is also a hornet’s nest or Pandora’s box. No rhetoric will ever deliver due to a variety of reasons. Thanks to the sagacity and moral courage of Atal Bihari Bajpai, in this particular case, India and Pakistan started traveling on a road that could and should have been opened up much earlier. I wish Atalji could have been equally just and effective in his handling of the infamous Gujrat episode in the trail of Godhra. Indeed, the collapse of ‘Rajdharma’ in Gujrat will ever haunt the conscience of every true Indian patriot, irrespective of one’s religion or politics. Right now regional sub-nationalism in Maharashtra is poisoning the arteries of Mother India. But Shivaji himself was not a regional chauvinist. 

I shall now make some candid comments on the role of some political parties in India today:

1. The BJP makes the routine charge against the Congress that it is out to appease the minorities and unscrupulously uses them as vote banks. But does not the BJP itself attempt to build its own vote banks?  What is wrong in building a constituency on the basis of sound principles and genuine concern for the welfare of every segment of the Indian family, rather than any particular group?

I was also much disappointed with the recent BJP stand on the Indian nuclear deal with USA. The original proposal had come from the BJP itself when it was in power at the Centre. There is no reason why, the BJP, in the opposition, should have raised the hue and cry of Indian sovereignty in danger. The CPM had better reasons to oppose. But they struck an ‘historic affair’ with the BJP with scant regard for the political fall-out on the future of secularism in India due to their rupture with, admittedly, the largest secular formation in Indian politics. Electoral strategy for party gains becomes more important than the welfare of the nation. How to win more seats for one’s party displaces the concern how best to serve one’s country.  Such is the complexity and the acrobatics of the game of power in our society.

2. I have many Communist friends whom I respect for their scientific socialism and a basic sociological approach to human affairs. But I trust they will not take offense if I say that their god failed them long ago. They, however, still cling to their illusions and are not yet tired of committing historical blunders, one after the other. Their latest blunder was to break away from the UPA.

3.  I also have many friends in the Islamist family in the broad sense, since I regard myself as a good Muslim with an open mind. But I dare say the Islamist parties have a tunnel vision, and hardly any sense of proportion, any empathy or realization that there are more things in heaven and earth than their fixation on their own interpretation of the human situation and their simplistic diagnoses and therapies for human ills.

4 The Bajrang Dal, the VHP, the Shiv Sena, each has a hobby horse, a pet slogan, but no compassion, humility, humanistic love, maternal tenderness and concern for the inner growth and full blossoming of the human person as a creative and free spirit ever connected with others, irrespective of race, religion, caste, region, language, gender and status. All truly spiritual, enlightened and self-realized souls are touched by an inner Divine spark.. But the leaders of the said parties have only an obsession that they alone are the chosen ones.

5. Take the caste-based parties and the regional parties of our vast country. Their god is the service of a particular caste or region. They seek allies mainly because they are clever enough to know that they can never win power solely on their own.  And they do get allies, equally clever in the same way, but the allies too are concerned only to promote their own interests as a group. Neither the founding hard core of caste based or regional parties nor their floating allies share any real commitment to the ethical approach to politics, as practiced by a Gandhi, a Lal Bahadur, a Mandela. Their bond is common interest, not common ideals. How will such parties deliver and bond together on a long-term basis?

6. Now take the Congress party. Its historical role in the emergence of modern free India and national development in the early decades of freedom is unquestionable. I still hold Jawaharlal Nehru as my eternal mentor and leader. But it seems the Congress leadership has gradually lost the ‘political will’ and moral courage to carry the country forward on the lines of the directive principles of the constitution. Expedient compromises at different occasions in the past and adopting the ethos of the line of least resistance in vital matters have weakened the political will to implement the Gandhi-Nehru vision. Compromises might keep a party in power, but they destroy its soul, its inner vitality and capacity to inspire the rank and file of the party and also the ‘aam aadmi’.

The party needs to propagate and deepen the Gandhi-Nehru vision and implement it with vigor and full political will. Courageous moral leadership, not straw dominance, is the need of the hour today. Rajiv Gandhi had the moral courage to spurn this temptation. Soniaji also has exhibited rare courage and vision. The gentle but immensely talented and resilient Prime Minister is a model of selfless dedicated service to the nation. But the halting and patchwork Congress stand on several national issues today raises fears among many authentic and selfless well wishers of the country that the party at times comes close to running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

What is the way out of the convoluted darkness and fear into the open terrain of light, love and courage that befits India now rising to its potential greatness in the human family?  In the short space at my disposal I shall mention only a few points:

(a) Should the repealed POTA Act be put back on the statute book, as the opposition insists? Whatever its effectiveness or not during it period of operation, it is indisputable it was misused on several occasions in some state or other.  This happened in spite of emphatic solemn assurances in the legislature that this will not be allowed. Draconian laws are usually double-edged weapons. The risk of misuse becomes even greater in a federal polity. Thus, what appears to be a simple matter is full of complexities and can lead to grave unintended consequences. Giving sweeping powers to the police and investigating agencies increases the chances of human errors of different types: mistaken identity, malicious incrimination, manipulative and unscrupulous politics etc. Faked police encounters have often been staged by proactive administrators with the blessings of the state government when it fails to prosecute known criminals through legal methods.

(b) Several quarters are urging the Union government to ban the Bajrang Dal in view of the recent atrocities against palpably innocent Indian Christians in several parts of the country. But the crux of the matter is not banning an organization but the taking of proper and effective preventive and punitive measures to ensure peace and justice. If these measures are not taken merely banning the said organization will hardly help. But the prime competent authority to take proper measures is the state governments. The Orissa and Karnataka governments, in turn, would be happy to displace the Central coalition. So, who will bell the cat? What sounds so easy at first sight is full of complications and every step has cascading consequences.

(c) There is a dire need for vastly increasing the integrity, efficiency and working facilities provided to the police and other investigating agencies and also ensuring their functional independence without any political interference, pressure or threat of arbitrary penal transfer. No matter how harsh and severe the law may be, it will not deliver unless the preconditions mentioned above are uniformly present in our vast land. This again is easier said than done. The central government appointed several high level police commissions for police reforms, but did not implement several well considered suggestions barring a few. The crux of the matter is the need for developing the moral courage, political will and utter consistency on the part of the government, without any fear or favor. Other consequential steps, like creating fast track special courts, giving statutory status to the Minorities Commission, enforcing a code of conduct for the media and so on will flow if this root condition is fulfilled.   

I, therefore, solemnly beseech all patriotic Indians (cutting across all distinctions of religion, caste, region and politics) and all political parties to ponder over the wisdom of jointly combating the demon of terrorism on Indian soil. I submit, this is a patriotic duty that transcends all electoral politics. 


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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.