Terror across the Straits

The Asian Age.  | Jacob Punnoose

The war on terror is indeed a catchy phrase but it will often be a wild goose chase, if it is fought only with weapons.

Terrorists appear to attack members of another religion but, in reality, their actions do more harm to the religion they claim to defend.

Religions teach and extol peace, prayer and piety; but terror attacks remind us that brutal bloodshed results when faith yields to fanatic fury. As one zealot spews venom with guns in mosques in Christchurch, another group wreaks presumed revenge in churches across Sri Lanka on Easter Day. Those blasts reverberate across Palk Straits, making us shudder in revulsion and fear. And we are doubly anxious when we hear that the perpetrators could have had allies in India.

Terrorism is revenge masquerading as religion. There is nothing Islamic about the blasts in Sri Lanka just as there is nothing Christian about the shootout in Christchurch. Terror has neither a religion nor a home to claim as its own. It stalks the earth and appears in different forms at different places at different times. No nation is totally free from terror. “IS” has become international while other terror groups tend to be local in fields of operation or selection of targets. IS stands committed to terror without borders and seeks recruits everywhere. The fact that our country is no exception makes us sad, but we need not be surprised. Terrorism is a mindset; it persists as a streak in all societies. It can delude some human beings and all societies must learn to discern, discourage and defuse that mindset.

To defeat the IS, we must understand why IS is able to attract any one at all here. Indians are not immune to indoctrination by terrorist outfits. The subcontinent was not a terror-free zone prior to the rise of IS. “Thuggee” terror was the scourge of India for many centuries as millions of wayfarers used to be strangled by misguided zealots ostensibly to please some deity. Ancient texts of India refer to suicide attacks on specified targets. The tradition of suicidal attacks in Malabar was strong both during duo-decennial “Mamankam” festivities as well as in “Moplah” peasant protests against British Rule. Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka were notorious for savage terror. An Indian Prime Minister was killed by terrorism of another hue, while the Father of the Nation was assassinated by another one in yet another garb. Maoist terror has been present for long in the country.

International terrorism can easily penetrate migrant populations. That partly explains why there were quite a few terror recruits from even a progressive state like Kerala. Kerala is definitely not a terror centre and the public are all against terror of all hues. There has been no terror killing in Kerala for decades now. But since millions of young Keralites migrate to the Gulf and other countries, a few can be preyed upon by IS recruiters by a combination of deceit, reward and blackmail. The genuinely pious fortune seeker can be inveigled into a terror trap by the offer of high salaries and by cleverly manipulating religiosity with prospects of lawful material reward.

The best way to hide is to merge in a crowd. Efficient Internet and multiple international airports offer greater prospects for foreign terror infiltration. Contacts and indoctrination over the internet offer unprecedented levels of privacy. Earlier, peer groups flourished by physical interactions; but those on the Net flourish by virtual contacts. Deception is easier. Ease of travel makes access and rendezvous possible and inconspicuous.

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This leads us to a quandary. We cannot close down airports and Internet, nor dispense with foreign employment and contact. But governments can evolve strong surveillance mechanisms locally by which travel and internet communications are lawfully kept under watch.  New dangers from new technologies necessitate new responses with newer technology. Just as we patrol roads, we need to patrol cyber highways. It is also necessary to keep tabs on groups that try to influence and win over large Indian communities overseas. In a terrorist environment, surveillance is inevitable and this has to be done lawfully without violating the right of citizens to privacy.

“Ghetto-isation” by communal identity can also lead to infiltration by terrorists. When large areas are inhabited by only one kind of believers, or when it is possible for any individual to grow up without making friends with different kinds of people, it is easy for prejudices to grow and suspicions to increase. Plurality in social interactions, education and workspaces as well as avoidance of isolationist sub-cultural practices which drive a wedge preventing healthy interaction between groups is essential to prevent radicalisation by fundamentalists.  No society can encourage “We-They” dichotomy within itself and survive. Interactive plurality must be consciously encouraged.

Terrorists appear to attack members of another religion but, in reality, their actions do more harm to the religion they claim to defend. Terrorism has never ushered contentment or prosperity anywhere. It is a denial of every sacred streak in human temperament. Entire communities come under suspicion and the sanctity of religious faith itself is brought into disrepute. The overwhelming majority in such communities does not condone terror. In fact, in States like Kerala, the IS recruit stands detested and disowned by the religious community from which they hail. Therefore the right way to resist terror is to support the vast majority of the community to assert itself and defeat the designs of the terrorist, realising that terror will destroy the communities which it professes to promote.

The fanatic is the foe of freedom and we shall be free of terror only when rabid fanaticism of all hues is defeated by popular will. Guns and grenades are useful when we know who the terrorist is and where he is hiding. But if we fire at random, we kill innocents; and this is what the terrorists want us to do. Driving the adversary to deny civil liberties in response to terror is what the terrorist desires and seeks by suicide. Even if terror kills 1,000 persons a year, it will take a million years to eliminate a billion people. The terrorist knows that. So what they really hope for is to ignite a reaction in blind rage by which the nation will start persecuting all groups said to support terrorists, irrespective of whether such groups support or know the terrorists or not. The terrorist seeks to divide a nation against itself; and a divided nation is easily defeated.

The war on terror is indeed a catchy phrase but it will often be a wild goose chase, if it is fought only with weapons. Searching for the terrorist is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack; very often, none is found and, in desperation, a probable suspect is given the treatment intended for the real one. That is why armies and commandos have never put down random terror. Terror is best fought by a vigilant people, who, rising above the religious divide, can notice and report suspicious activity promptly to security agencies, who themselves are able to get information continuously from the people. That can happen only if security agencies befriend the common people and do not terrorise them into fearful passivity. A vigilant community empowered and emboldened to locate and lawfully expose radicalisation is the best means to stamp out terror.

(The author was formerly State Police Chief, Kerala)

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