As if to reaffirm the stance of those critical of the new joint mechanism against terrorism, Pakistan has reiterated its standard line over a list of wanted persons sent by India. A Pakistani spokesperson asserted earlier this week that some of those wanted by India have a “different” status in Pakistan because of their association with “the freedom struggle”, and that the joint mechanism is not “a plan to hand over wanted people”.
That one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is a well-worn cliché, repeated most recently by Pervez Musharraf in his memoir. The international community has struggled in vain to arrive at a consensus on the definition of ‘terrorism’. This failure has brought most efforts towards combating the menace — including half a dozen UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions — to nought. While elaborate strategies have been planned to combat terrorism — the latest being the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy adopted by the world body earlier this month — action on the ground remains limited because various States and non-State actors differ on what does and what does not constitute terrorism. Defining terrorism is a contentious issue because it is a matter of moral judgment that is subject to political leanings and exigencies. For instance, while the Reagan White House called the Afghan mujahideen ‘freedom fighters’, the Bush White House calls their successors ‘terrorists’.
Internationally, the issue remains divisive due to the multiplicity of actors and interests involved. However, there is no reason why two countries which agree that they are both victims of terrorism and that they want to counter it, should not be able to agree on a mutually-acceptable definition. As far as India and Pakistan go, why should there be a problem in accepting that killing, injuring or kidnapping non-combatants for a political reason or ‘cause’ is terrorism? And that a definition based on this principle be the basis of India-Pakistan cooperation? Without this, all attempts to counter terrorism will amount to putting the cart before the horse.