Terrorism does indeed gravely threaten the people not only of Asia but the entire world. But to call it the “gravest threat”, as was reiterated in the Tajik capital at last Saturday’s Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, invests terrorism with a life and momentum of its own which is far from being the case.
India’s concern is Kashmir-centric terrorism inspired and abetted by Pakistan. Indian politicians spend no sleepless nights over the depredations of Peru’s Shining Path. Few have even heard of Japan’s Aleph, the former Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the deadly sarin attacks in Tokyo’s underground. If it hadn’t been for the likelihood of refugees, they wouldn’t have turned a hair over Myanmar’s state terrorism against the Rohingyas. For all the pain these criminals inflict on humanity, terrorism remains the means to an end, never an end in itself. No one, not even the abhorred Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a mockery of an “army of the righteous”, maims and murders out of sadistic delight.
Listening to the taped speech of 31-year-old Mohammed Siddique Khan, the oldest of the 2005 London bombers, one hears in the flat Midlands accent of this child of Pakistani immigrants the last testament of a rebel who had believed fervently in his cause. The cause was utterly distorted. Although brought up in the innocence of a Yorkshire village playing cricket with other local lads, Khan was brainwashed by his Islamist mentors. He saw himself as a pillar of righteous self-sacrifice. “We are at war and I am a soldier” — was his dying declaration. “Now you too will taste the reality of this situation”, he warned before unleashing the horror that killed about 60 Londoners and wounded another 700.
Not that all terrorists are Muslim. We know from Ireland, Israel and Sri Lanka that they can be Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist. Indians know that a Hindu terrorist is not a contradiction in terms. Terrorism cannot therefore be generalised. Neither does India want to, except perhaps for the tactical reason of elevating the mission against Pakistan into a global crusade. Khan might be compared with the young Bengali Naxalites who were convinced in the 1970s that the countryside was about to encircle towns in the desolation of Debra and Gopiballavpur in West Bengal’s Midnapore district. Or, indeed, with Wordsworth warbling ecstatically — “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” — about Robespierre’s Jacobin regime, which others dubbed “The Terror”.
These truisms bear repetition because India has been chasing the shadow instead of the substance for at least 23 years. We mistake passionate adherence to a cause for the cause itself, and lull ourselves into the comforting belief that a deadly new ideology holding civilisation to ransom can be exorcised by global fiat. It’s like saying that Kashmir will become reconciled to New Delhi’s rule if bombs are outlawed.
Many Prime Ministers have taken office and retired or died since H.D. Deve Gowda’s short-lived government — it had to be one of those idealistic coalitions that acted on the fallacy that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds — mooted the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in 1996. Each new outrage — Mumbai, Dhaka, Pulwama — prompts New Delhi to clutch at the dust-covered shade of a CCIT the rest of the world has forgotten. Each new challenge to India’s stability and our leaders rediscover the past with renewed vigour.
Sushma Swaraj pleaded passionately for the CCIT at the UN’s 71st session in 2016. Ever anxious to appear original, Narendra Modi, who had spoken at the UN about the treaty two years earlier and tried to drum up support during his recent lightning visits to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, has now coined a new acronym “SAGAR” — Security and Growth for All in the Region — as a further seemingly clever argument for a blanket ban on terrorism.
These are the understandable gimmicks that politicians live by. Catchy slogans are thought to appeal more to the simple public than substantive programmes. Some small good might even come of such efforts if an international consensus on a version of the treaty means stronger collective security, simplified extradition, checks on money movement and speedy prosecution. But with his wide personal and professional experience of the world, the new external affairs minister, Subramanyam Jaishankar, will know better than anyone else that no one — not even India — comes to the negotiating table with clean hands. That the British had institutionalised terrorism as a legitimate form of defence during the war to end all wars.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous line “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” about the Nicaraguan dictator was noteworthy not for its cynicism but its honesty. India’s own recent siding with Israel against the Palestinian rights group Shahed, that would once have been hailed as the voice of resurgent Arab nationalism but is now branded as terrorist, is similarly rooted in realpolitik. It prompted Benjamin Netanyahu to thank Prime Minister Modi. Thalif Deen’s claim that “the key sticking points in the draft treaty revolve around several controversial yet basic issues, including the definition of ‘terrorism’” puts a polite gloss on yawning chasms between national positions.
One man’s terrorist is still another’s freedom-fighter. The CCIT is a pipe dream because few other UN members share India’s misgivings about Pakistan. Or our own rosy myths about India, the uniquely peaceful superpower-to-be.
Palmerston suggested a more realistic alternative to an unrealistic international law. Nations have no eternal allies or perpetual enemies — was his famous dictum. But interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests must be defended. Trying to make a global gospel of it is far less effective than decisive action like the Balakot airstrike as and when the need arises.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and auth