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Hour of the Assassins

Terrorism rears its head whenever a society suffering from great inner political confusion and social disintegration reaches a cul-de-sac, where certain aggrieved sections of the people find that the democratic business of political change becomes an impossibility, and when the socialist and secular forces break faith with these disgruntled and desperate masses by failing to provide an alternative leadership. Tragically, governments have in turn put in place a state of permanent emergency through a slew of draconian laws, and created a monolithic monster that controls every activity of individuals - from street demonstrations to air travel.


Hour of the Assassins

Terrorism rears its head whenever a society suffering from great inner political confusion and social disintegration reaches a cul-de-sac, where certain aggrieved sections of the people find that the democratic business of political change becomes an impossibility, and when the socialist and secular forces break faith with these disgruntled and desperate masses by failing to provide an alternative leadership. Tragically, governments have in turn put in place a state of permanent emergency through a slew of draconian laws, and created a monolithic monster that controls every activity of individuals – from street demonstrations to air travel.


… and now when we are retreating into the silence of our past ambivalence...Now is the hour of the assassins!

–Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Matinee d’ivresse’ in Illuminations(1872).

s the death toll rises in Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Assam, Mumbai and Malegaon, the atrophied conscience and paralysed will-power of the Left and other democratic forces are opening the doors of civil society to an authoritarian world order. The forces behind both terrorism and state repression need each other as accomplices to tie everybody in a bloody circle. Both create false alibis to garner public support for their respective causes, and both share an identical goal – power with a capital P that holds down the people in total subjugation. In the near future, both the repressive state and its terrorist opponents may come to a Yalta-type agreement on a territorial division of power-sharing, which will allow the hitherto-designated “terrorists” to run their own governments in territories that are under their occupation. They will be incorporated into the institution of the state that will legitimise their old methods of extortion, subordination and terrorisation.

This is already happening. President Musharraf of Pakistan recently signed an agreement with the pro-Taliban tribal leaders in north Waziristan, recognising their authority in that area (to impose their oppressive religious order on men and women), in exchange for a promise that they would not allow Taliban cadres to move into neighbouring Afghanistan to upset the US-propped up Karzai government there. In Sri Lanka, for all practical purposes, Colombo is getting itself reconciled to the fact that large chunks in the north will remain under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

– a Tamil chauvinist group, which in the name of a liberation struggle, has consistently resorted to terrorism to kill not only innocent Sinhalese and Muslim civilians, but also Tamil political rivals within the Eelam movement, and Tamil intellectuals who dared to differ (like the assassination of Rajani Thiranagama in September 1989 and Kethesh Loganathan recently). The LTTE “supremo” Prabhakaran’s cold and calculated methods of removing all democratic and left wing forces from the Eelam movement by systematically assassinating their spokespersons over all these decades, have made his organisation the sole arbiter today in any negotiations between Colombo and the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka.

I am deliberately equating the Taliban with the LTTE (one an Islamic and the other a Hindu-dominated outfit), since they epitomise the spirit of modern terrorism in its most institutionalised form. Primarily motivated by aggressive sectarian ideology (Tamil chauvinistic nationalism of the LTTE and Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban), and firmly rooted to a parochial mindset, both have had ample opportunities of demonstrating their model of governance (the LTTE in Jaffna and the Taliban in Kabul during their occupancy).

Both the experiments were marked by tyranny and violation of the democratic rights of the common people there. But even after their ouster from those areas, thanks to the free trade in weaponry (again mainly supplied by arms-manufacturers in the US, which allows such trade despite branding Taliban and LTTE as terrorists), both the groups have been able to re-equip themselves with adequate military strength to take on the agents of their respective states in conventional warfare, and combine this with acts of individual assassination of their political opponents, and extortion and terrorisation of the common people in their areas of control.

There is thus an unwitting coalescence between the US and the organisations, which it has designated as “terrorist”. Both are aiming, in their different ways at the common goal of steadily chipping away at the democratic space of citizens by stripping them of their civil rights. The witchhunting of dissenters and women who differ from the religious codes imposed by the clergy in the Taliban-ruled enclaves of Afghanistan and bordering tribal districts of Pakistan, is paralleled by the persecution of innocent people under the USA’s Patriot Act of 2001, which in the name of surveillance, subjects visitors “with Asian or Arabic looks” to strip-searches and racial profiling. When a Palestinian bomber kills a busload of Israeli school children, he can be sure to find a comrade in the English policeman who in south London shoots dead an innocent Brazilian called Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005

– who looks to him like a terrorist! When the shia and sunni clerics of Baghdad lead their followers into an internecine civil strife killing thousands of Iraqi citizens, it neatly fits into the US game plan of dividing the anti-imperialist forces there. In India’s Kashmir, north-east and other parts, every bomb blast by the Lashkar-e-Taiba or United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) offers yet another opportunity to the state to further tighten its repressive apparatus, and deprive the common citizens of their rights, like free movement. From the top of the slopes of US-led global tyranny there flows a cascade of petty tyrants holding power in states, where in their efforts to secure themselves against perils that are of their own creation, they need terrorism

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006 as an enemy to frighten their subjects into accepting a more rigid and authoritarian state. Anti-state terrorism is thus producing the raw material that governments are using to build up and legitimise a state of permanent emergency through a slew of draconian laws, and create a monolithic monster that controls every activity of individuals – from street demonstrations to air travel.

The Popular Ethos

In this intriguing relationship between state power and modern terrorism where they collide with each other in mutual need, what is even more intriguing is the support that terrorism is found to enjoy among the people of the terrorist-ravaged countries. In their attitude towards the terrorists who come from their own communities, the popular mood ranges from ardent sympathy to helpless submission, both often amalgamating into a position that ends up with acquiescence in terrorist deeds – even when they result in the killing of innocents, as in Kashmir and Assam in India, or when their rash acts invite vindictive retaliation from the enemy, which causes massacre of their own people, as in Lebanon and Palestine in west Asia. It is interesting to observe how the Kashmiris in the valley, who are ready to come out in the streets in protest whenever any atrocity is committed by the Indian security forces, have chosen to refrain from any mass public demonstration against the most heinous acts of terrorism by the militant outfits, like rape and abduction of Kashmiri girls or killing of innocent members of their own community. Even the present Mirwaiz chose to remain ambivalent when the terrorists assassinated his predecessor.

The evasive and equivocal attitude of the common people towards atrocities committed by terrorist groups who belong to their own communities (e g, ULFA drawn from Assamese Hindus, the Hizbul recruited from Kashmiri Muslims, the LTTE of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, Hamas of the Palestinians) could be prompted by a variety of factors – genuine admiration for “our brave boys” among some sections, which look upon the terrorist outfits as heroes fighting for their emancipation; fear of the terrorists among some others who are afraid of condemning their atrocities lest they be targeted; confusion among vast sections of these affected communities who are torn between sympathy for the cause for which the terrorists are fighting and revulsion for the methods that they are adopting. In other words, terrorist groups have succeeded in occupying a particular space in the popular mood of certain communities who had been desperately searching for avenues of protest. This space had been abandoned by revolutionary socialist forces that are committed to universal secular and democratic values (but concentrated solely on class conflicts), and had ignored the grievances of the oppressed religious, ethnic and different minority groups. In the absence of an alternative and progressive language of protest that could have united them with other sections of the oppressed people, these aggrieved groups in the various countries have found their way of expressing their outburst in the raw dialect of sectarian and indiscriminate violence that has been offered to them by the terrorist outfits.

In its sadomasochistic relationship with state power that had spawned it, modern terrorism is forever tied to its parent, which feeds it with endless recruits from their victims of oppression and persecution. The terrorist groups escalate their acts that quite predictably invite state retaliation in the form of indiscriminate persecution of the uninvolved members of their community (as is happening in Kashmir and Maharashtra), which in its turn further alienates these common people, the youth among whom, out of despair, join the terrorist ranks. The deliberate refusal (euphemistically described as “lack of political will”) of even the secular Congress-Nationalist Congress Party ruled Maharashtra government to punish those found guilty by the government-appointed Srikrishna Commission for the massacre of Muslims in Mumbai in 1992 stands out in sharp contrast with its favouring the sentencing of the Muslim accused in the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 that followed the massacre. Should one be surprised if such discriminatory treatment drives angry young Muslims into the arms of Islamic terrorist groups? For them there is no democratic platform to voice their grievances, no secular protector to defend them against state oppression, and no judiciary to mete out justice.

It is significant that during the last two decades, it is precisely those groups that are committed to fanatically sectarian ideologies and wedded to the tactics of terrorism who have succeeded in establishing their bases among the oppressed and disgruntled sections of the population in places like Kashmir and the north-east in India, or Palestine and Lebanon in west Asia. In Palestine, for example, it is not the secular Fatah, but the religiously inspired Hamas that gets elected by a frustrated people disappointed by the Fatah’s corruption in local administration and failure to get rid of Israeli occupation. The local people are persuaded to believe that it is only by indiscriminate terrorist acts against Israeli citizens and abducting their soldiers, that Hamas can compel Tel-Aviv to come to the table for negotiations. The secular ideology of a war of liberation is being distorted by Hamas into a religious ideology of a Muslim jihad against Jews with the sole aim of destroying Israel. In south Asia, the efforts of organisations like the LTTE of Sri Lanka or ULFA, the Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (all Hindu-dominated) in other parts of India to impose their respective sectarian ideologies through terrorist methods are no less detrimental than that of the Islamic terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan and west Asia. An entire generation in these countries is being reared up on a paroxysm of hateful belief that Hindus and Muslims, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Christians, or different ethnic and linguistic groups are irreconcilable communities who can never live together. Ironically enough, these self-proclaimed opponents of US imperialism are reinforcing by their own terrorist acts the neoimperialist thesis of “clash of civilisations” that Washington is surreptitiously trying to establish in the discourse of world politics.

In the present historical situation, for the academic political scientist it may be essential to examine first, at what stage terrorism, from the phase of tactics transforms itself into an ideology per se, and secondly, at what stage the tactics evolves a logic of its own and turns its individual user into a mechanical extension of itself. The examination of these issues is beyond the analytical competence of the present writer who can only hazard a few impressionistic speculations.

The Terrorist Psyche

In trying to understand the individual terrorist’s point of view, one finds it extremely difficult to flesh out the unknown motives that remain obfuscated in the depths of the underground organisation. The confessions in police custody – brought out by torture or other means of coercion – are

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

hardly trustworthy. The past uni-linear generalisations like unemployment and poverty driving the youth to terrorism are no longer universally valid. A whole lot of problematic questions have been thrown up in recent years by facts that demolish old myths. Why are the most radical antiwest protesters adopting the most profoundly conservative goals? Why is the old drug-addict individual’s inevitable merry journey to self-destruction being replicated in a tragic orgy of collective suicide bombing by a generation of young people in the name of a cause, whether in Sri Lanka or Iraq? What metamorphoses a well-educated Muslim employee of a commercial firm in London, or a nightclub going Muslim youth in New York, into a terrorist who is ready to kill himself along with hundreds of innocent people by exploding a bomb tied to his waist? What makes even a white young middle class youth in these cities to convert to Islam, and join a terrorist group in west Asia? Is it a culture of death and valorisation of martyrdom, with each martyr incubating parasitic terrorism that lives on popular anger? Is it a total hatred of the prevailing order that wants to destroy both the order and one’s own self? When condemning the violence of the terrorist in equally violent verbal outbursts, we tend to lose sight of the personal tragedy of the individual terrorist, his/her spiritual emptiness, the despair at the failure of getting justice, and the reassurances that he/she must have sought by merging with a collective that gave the alienated individual an opportunity for personal retribution and recognition. But once having joined this collective group, the entrant gets submerged in the exclusiveness and isolation of the underground, living in a milieu where he/she never hears any opinion different from the collective view – or even becomes aware of the changing ground reality outside. The terrorist becomes a doomed person.

In certain historical situations, tortured collective tensions that had been accumulating for decades explode initially into sporadic and spontaneous violent individual acts of destruction that are soon institutionalised into organised terrorism. The very term “assassin” owes its origin to the operations of the Nisari branch of Ismaili Muslims, who in the 12th century formed conspiratorial groups to physically eliminate princes, ministers and officers of the oppressive Saljuq regime in Persia (today’s Iran). They were supposed to be fed with hashish before being sent on their killing missions – an assumption rejected by modern historians – giving rise to the term ‘hashishin’ (the Arabic term for users of hashish), which the English, true to their habit of mispronouncing foreign words, distorted into “assassin”. In the west, a variety of anarchist movements ranging from Babeuf’s “conspiracy of equality” during the French Revolution to the Nihilists in Russia left a legacy of terrorism right up to the end of the 20th century (e g, the Red Brigade of Italy and the Baader-Meinhof of Germany). Historically, terrorism rears its head whenever a society suffering from great inner political confusion and social disintegration reaches a cul-de-sac, where certain aggrieved sections of the people find that the democratic business of political change through their pressure becomes an impossibility, and when the socialist and secular forces break faith with these disgruntled and desperate masses by failing to provide an alternative leadership. Lenin, having been a witness to the public sympathy for the Nihilists in Russia and the martyrdom of his own brother during his youth, was to rebuke his comrades later for the recrudescence of anarchism in the 1920s, by acknowledging: “Anarchism was often a sort of punishment for the opportunist sins of the working class movement” (“Left-wing Communism”: An Infantile Disorder).

Coming back to the present, it is not a coincidence that the violent diatribes of bin Laden (that we occasionally hear on videotapes), urging his followers to abandon prevalent moral codes, destroy all infidels and become martyrs for the sake of a global Islamic order, harks back (unknowingly perhaps) to the rhetoric of the “Revolutionary Catechism” that was penned way back in 1869 by the Russian terrorist Sergey Nechayev, who opposed the Tsarist autocracy and died at the early age of 35 in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress of Russia in 1882 – with the difference that Nechayev’s goal was the setting up of a secular egalitarian society. He urged the Russian youth to break “all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilised world with all its laws, moralities and customs”. Elaborating on the necessary qualifications of a revolutionary, he wrote: “Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honour, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution… Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and destroy with his own hands everything…” It was no wonder that Rimbaud, writing two years later, was to announce that the “hour of the assassins” had arrived!

Nechayev can be even described as the prophet of today’s tech-savvy terrorists – those who are training themselves in making sophisticated bombs and other destructive devices, or in flying airplanes to enact September 11, 2001 type catastrophes. Describing his potential revolutionary disciple, Nechayev said: “He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But…the object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.”

A hundred years later, in the turbulent decade of the 1960s, Frantz Fanon sought to capture the mood of his contemporary rebellious youth – the restless predecessors of today’s terrorists: “Those lightning flashes of consciousness which fling the body into stormy paths or which throw it into an almost pathological trance where the face of the other beckons me on to giddiness, where my blood calls for the blood of the other, where by sheer inertia my death calls for the death of the other…” But addressing these rebels, who in their struggle to destroy an inequitable and oppressive order were often being led into internecine warfare, he warned them: “…hatred alone cannot draw up a programme. You will only risk the defeat of your own ends if you depend on the enemy…. to widen the gap” (The Wretched of the Earth).

The warning rings a bell today, when mimetic participants devour one another in barbaric battles that masquerade as “liberation wars” or “wars against terrorism”. The lesson is clear. We must alter or perish. What is the message that we derive from global terrorism? Are we on the eve of a new cycle of changes? Like the compass needle that goes wild at the approach of storms, is terrorism giving a signal to the Left to make amends for its “opportunist sins”?



Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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