Labelling democratic actors, whether dissenters or protesters, without a watertight case of terrorism, is a slippery slope, and one that is bound to attract unwanted attention. (Shutterstock)
Labelling democratic actors, whether dissenters or protesters, without a watertight case of terrorism, is a slippery slope, and one that is bound to attract unwanted attention. (Shutterstock)

How India is weakening its case on terrorism

Trivialising India’s posture on terrorism in the international community can undo years of steady gains, for the short-term and myopic benefits of political support, ideological upmanship and electoral victories in the country’s never-ending election cycles.
By Kabir Taneja
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2021 06:33 AM IST

If there is one country that has been short-changed by the international order on issues relating to terrorism, more specifically cross-border terrorism, it is India. The Indian narrative on terrorism has been loud since the 1980s, but falling mostly on deaf ears, especially at forums such as the United Nations (UN).

New Delhi’s echoes on the perils of terrorism got a voice back predominantly in the post-9/11 era, and that too with mostly residual support for historical Indian concerns. Debates in and around the fundamentals of what terrorism entails, and how to deal with it, have been unresolved at the UN for decades. Member-states have failed to conclude a universal benchmark, choosing instead to use open-ended terminologies and vacillating between academic takes and real-world policy applications predominantly led by individual States and their geopolitical aims.

The lack of clarity on countering terrorism, specifically within the UN Security Council (UNSC), has cost India tremendously both in economic and human capital. Till today, almost on a weekly basis, Indian troops die in theatres such as Kashmir while battling terrorism. This is a continuous reminder of the international community, UN and UNSC’s abject and fundamental failures in achieving their most primal aims towards a peaceful world order.

However, increasingly, India’s firm and correct stance on terrorism not only from its own perspective, but a global one, is arguably getting diluted with the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” applied to the most frivolous domestic challenges. This ranges from countering political narratives to attempts to label political ideations, dissent or the simple act of disagreement, as “terrorism”. Of course, the lack of a clear definition only adds to the potential of obfuscating narratives.

To put this in perspective, the eighth report of India’s Second Administrative Reforms Commission on combating terrorism, published in June 2008, highlights the conundrums of defining terrorism while listing the various sub-categories, from ideology (Left and Right-wing terror) and religion to ethno-nationalism and narco-terror. In the end, the report highlights the short legal definition proposed by Dutch scholar Alex P Schmid to the UN Crime Branch in 1992, which reads: “An act of terrorism=peacetime equivalent of a war crime”. But even this is wrapped around caveats, showcasing that a State or a commission’s most nuanced attempt on defining terror is, in no manner, the final word.

So, the question then remains, why use “terrorism” as an absolutist term for messaging with regard to domestic political cracks? The broad stroke use of laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and extending the anti-terrorism narrative to issues such as an organisation “sending too many emails” over environmental rules or localised political debates, may cause grave harm to the slow, steady and arguably positive progress New Delhi has made over decades to elbow-in its concerns about the organised terrorism it faces from its immediate neighbourhood.

A hyper-connected, social media-led world has added further to the complexities that we witness regarding narrative construction and destruction. The government and its functionaries may not use such terms directly themselves. But their ecosystems, which provide them with both digital and electoral oxygen, using terms such as “terrorist”, without realising its larger implication, is equally problematic, if not more, considering no course correction is offered from the political class. We now often witness ministers and senior government functionaries using a cocktail of social media and diaspora politics to shore up support, where once again the labelling of “terrorism” is at times used in a worryingly superficial manner.

Defining or classifying terrorism distinctly in two separate domains, one as part of foreign policy and one as part of domestic politics, is an unsustainable mission, and one that many countries have tried and failed to play in the past. This is a group of countries that India must not to get clubbed with. Labelling democratic actors, whether dissenters or protesters, without a watertight case of terrorism, is a slippery slope, and one that is bound to attract unwanted attention.

The label of terrorism should not be seen as a play of strength to build domestic rapport. As scholar C Raja Mohan recently noted, “Without a visible and sincere political effort to promote unity at home, internal divisions will get worse and make India more vulnerable to external meddling.” Trivialising India’s posture on terrorism in the international community can undo years of steady gains, for the short-term and myopic benefits of political support, ideological one-upmanship and electoral victories in the country’s never-ending election cycles.

Kabir Taneja is fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, and the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia

The views expressed are personal

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