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Multiple shades of terror

india Updated: Aug 31, 2010 12:49 IST
Varghese K George

When an article in medical journal Lancet named a virus "New Delhi Metallo-1", the mainstream response — including the government's — was to treat it as a conspiracy against India. Colour saffron

Substantive questions on public health were relegated to the backburner while there was a debate on the propriety of naming the virus in a way that suggested India was its source. The BJP's protest against the use of the word"saffron terror", used by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, is something similar.

Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi conceded the BJP point."Terrorism has no colour and the only colour of terror can be black," he said. What should have been a serious debate on terrorism driven by Hindutva fanatics has gone off tangent and has been reduced to one on the semantics of it.

Political terminology evolves to represent evolving situations — the Left and the Right are two political expressions formed after the French Revolution in the late 18th century. The rise of Hindutva politics created new vocabulary and altered the meanings of existing ones. Secularism, Ram bhakts, kar sevaks, etc are words whose meanings are hotly debated."The word ‘saffron' came to be associated with Hindutva politics in academic and popular parlance," points out Tapan Basu, co-author of Khakhi Shorts and Saffron Flags, a treatise on the rise of Hindutva. Sympathetic accounts of the Sangh also use the term — for instance, Brotherhood in Saffron by Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle. On August 16, 2001, there was a short discussion in Parliament"regarding saffronisation of education".

During the same period, internationally, words such as jihadi terrorism evolved to represent terrorism inspired by fanatic Islamists. The original meaning of the word"jihad" is entirely different. Now, Indian security agencies have discovered that Hindutva, the equivalent of Islamism, inspired a series of terror attacks.

"There has to be a term to describe the phenomenon unless we want to do something like Rancho's description of a notebook in the film Three Idiots each time we refer to it," says an intelligence official. "The Hindutva groups have appropriated saffron and saffron terrorism is a valid phrase," says Basu.

So, are the protests against the term"saffron terrorism" valid?

Limitations of negative arguments

Arguments such as all Muslims or Hindus are not terrorists and therefore usages such as jihadi/saffron terrorism are insulting to the entire community are sterile. Going by that logic, can we use the term "Naxalite"? The villagers in Naxalbari in north Bengal may take offence. The Chinese may object if we use the word Maoist terrorism because Mao created the People's Republic of China. Can we use terms such as"Punjab terrorism","Kashmir terrorism", etc? Only a handful of people were/are terrorists in these states. Could we even talk of a female terrorist? What if women took it as an insult? Left-wing terrorists? We are sure many Leftists are certainly not terrorists.

Terror has no religion?
The other argument against giving labels to varieties of terrorism is rather inane —"terror has no religion or colour".
History has witnessed millions of murders by religious fanatics across centuries and continents.

Terrorism is inspired by religious fanaticism and the response to terrorism will have to account for this.

"It is religious fanatics of one kind or another kind or the third kind. In order to understand the argument, we are using certain words. It is nobody's intention to blame any community," said Chidambaram in the Rajya Sabha in December 2009.

BJP's protest

The BJP is protesting that religion cannot be linked to terrorism. However, the party's literature is replete with references to"Islamic terrorism". After the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur on terror charges, the party has been careful to use only the word"jihadi", but that too has strong religious connotations. Anyway the word"Islamic" creeps too often in BJP discourse on terrorism, as a Google search on its website would show.

In his enthusiasm to appear on the"right" side of the saffron debate, Dwivedi forgot the recent history of the Congress. One, soft Hindutva has never paid for the party.

Secondly, his association of black with terrorism can be interpreted as racial. Black, for instance, is the complexion of Niyamgiri's Kondh tribals, whose sipahi (soldier) in Delhi is none other than Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Not the least, if Hindu clerics wear saffron, many Muslim clerics wear black. Christian clerics wear white, saffron and black as the situation demands!

Rather than getting caught in the semantics, both the Congress and BJP would do better by waking up to the challenges posed by both the jihadi and saffron versions of terrorism. The virus is real; what's in a name?