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When the means don’t justify the end

In recent times, Indians have done a fair amount of reflecting over the violence. The Maoists/Naxalites, in particular, have been the cause of extensive debate, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jun 27, 2010 10:19 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

We live in violent times. Each day’s newspapers bring us news of more killings: encounters in Kashmir, honour murders in North India, terrorist groups who plant bombs in the name of Hinduism, violent Naxalite attacks and jehadi terrorism from across the border.

In recent times, Indians have done a fair amount of reflecting over the violence. The Maoists/Naxalites, in particular, have been the cause of extensive debate.

But the debate, seems to me, to flounder on a central misconception which, despite masses of evidence to the contrary, continues to reign within a section of the liberal intelligentsia.

This misconception is captured in three related statements. The first is: “For a man to give up everything and to turn to violence he must be really desperate and left with no alternative.” The second is: “If a man is willing to sacrifice his life, then it is clear that society has given him nothing to live for.” And the third is: “It is more important to understand the roots of the violence and to deal with those problems than to deal with the violence itself”.

This three-step construction is employed most often in discussions on the Maoist issue. “The fact that people have taken to violence in these areas even though they may be killed tells us that we have failed as a society. We must set that right, not go on and on about fighting the Maoists”.

You also hear this (though admitted far less often) in discussions of violence in Kashmir. “Why would the Kashmiris take to arms and risk their own lives unless India had left them with no option? We must look at their genuine problems.”

And of course, there is the global defence used for suicide bombers and jehadis. “The fact that a man is willing to use his body as a bomb tells how desperate Muslims are. The world (and the West in particular) has failed them.”

You will note that with each of these constructs, the credibility kept declining. We accepted this construction for Maoists, were troubled by it when it was applied to Kashmiris and were entirely unconvinced by it as an explanation for jehadi terrorism.

Now, let’s take this further. According to the CBI, Hindu extremist groups were responsible for the Ajmer blasts in October 2002, the Hyderabad blasts in May 2007 and the Malegaon blasts in September 2008. Perhaps the same terrorists were involved in the Samjhauta Express blast in February 2007.

The people the CBI regards as being behind the blasts have been arrested and now face trial. Many are clearly unrepentant. Why then, do we not say of them: “To resort to violence, Hindus must be treated really badly in India that they are willing to risk death in terrorist activities. We should improve the lot of Hindus in India”

Let’s take it even further. One notable characteristic of the maniacs who kill young people out of some sense of honour is that they show no remorse for what they have done. They are quite happy to face the legal consequences (which include the death penalty) because they believe that they have done the right thing.

But do we even say, “For people to turn to violence against members of their own family and risk death they must have been driven to desperation by the behaviour of their errant relatives and left with no choice. We should sort out their family problems before punishing them?”

The apologists for Naxalites and jehadis quickly abandon their special pleading when it comes to violent Hindu fundamentalists, let alone relatives who practise honour killings.

The different standards they apply to causes they approve of versus those they dislike, exposes the fundamental fallacy behind the people-only-resort-to-violence-when-they-are-desperate-and-have-no-choice argument.

Take the case of the Maoists. I don’t think any educated Indian disputes that the Indian State has failed to deliver either social justice or even an ounce of prosperity to the hapless tribals of Central and Eastern India. Contrary to the caricature painted by self-righteous professional activists, the average Indian does not treat the Maoist issue as a mere law and order problem.

But equally, who is to deny that there certainly is a law and order component to the problem? No State can afford to abdicate control over large swathes of its territory. And if a group declares war on the State then the State must fight back.

There is no contradiction between being sympathetic to the problems of the tribals and refusing to allow parts of India to slip into lawlessness.

Nor is it at all clear that people turn to violence only because they are desperate. Take the example of jehadis. Osama bin Laden is a millionaire who lived in luxury. The 9/11 bombers were middle class and well-educated. Even our home-grown terrorists tend to come from middle-class backgrounds. These are not children of deprivation, left with no choice but to turn to violence.

I get particularly annoyed when I hear some liberal activists arguing that 26/11 was a response to the problems faced by Muslims in Gujarat and Kashmir. The terrorists came across the border, they had no real experience of deprivation or suffering at the hands of the Indian State and acted only out of misplaced jehadi fervour. These were not desperate Indian Muslims striking out against the brutal Hindu majority — even the Pakistanis don’t claim that any longer.

Besides, if the jehadis are protesting Hindu domination, then why are there many more attacks in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority State? It is a matter of chance that Ajmal Kasab’s jehadi masters sent him to Bombay.

He could just as well have ended up in Karachi and caused havoc there.

It is significant that the they-are-desperate-and-have-no-choice argument is rarely trotted out to justify Hindu extremist violence.

Who oppresses Hindus in this country? Why should they be so desperate that they have to turn to violence?

The truth is that these are people who regard violence as an acceptable form of discourse. Such people include terrorists, Maoist revolutionaries, Hindu nutters, jehadi fundamentalists and maniacs with a twisted sense of family honour.

It is dangerous — and entirely wrong — to argue that such people are driven to violence because of desperation. The reality is that they actively chose violence.

Three factors lead to violence: strength of feeling, a belief that violence is not morally reprehensible and often, a sense that the violence will go unpunished. Each time we fail to recognise this and do not ensure that the perpetrators of violence are tracked down and punished, we strengthen their hands and give them more scope to kill policemen, blow up trains, attack temples and mosques and murder errant relatives.

So, of course we need to deliver social justice to tribals and we need to guarantee peaceful lives to the people of Kashmir. Nobody in his or her right mind disputes that.

But let’s stop romanticising Maoist killers. Let’s stop making excuses for terrorists. Let’s accept that when it comes to the crunch, a murderer is a murderer is a murderer.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Jun 26, 2010 23:18 IST