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'We Fight, Therefore We Are'

Violent Activism: A Psychological Study of Ex-Militants in Jammu and Kashmir by Shobna Sonpar;


‘We Fight, Therefore We Are’

Gautam Navlakha

owever much one decries recourse to violent means to achieve political objectives, there is neither any sign of it abating nor a decline in attempts to suppress it violently. And while it is known that violence affects everyone, including the perpetrators, violence not only begets violence but violence is perceived as the way to end violence. This is akin to the perception that only war against war can bring about peace. It is, therefore, important to take a close look at violence. One area of inquiry is to understand why do people take to arms to meet their political objectives? Is it that there are personal psychological factors which drives them to take to violent means? Or is it that they are driven to it by circumstances? What happens to them in the process, both

Violent Activism: A Psychological Study of Ex-Militants in Jammu and Kashmir by Shobna Sonpar; Aman Public Charitable Trust, New Delhi; April 2007; pp 227.

during the time of violent acts and afterwards? The book under review is a psychosocial analysis of violence, and an attempt to unravel and understand the role of those who “have propelled their political goals through violent means” (p 1). The study seeks to “make visible the experience of ex-militants”, to “bring fresh insight to the understanding of violence” and to help in “rehumanisation of these people” (p 10). The author does well to point out that “(i)n popular discourse, the polarity is not violence against non-violence. Rather, legitimate violence or ‘good’ violence is set against illegitimate or ‘bad’ violence”. She then goes on to remind us that “(m)odern torture has a practical rationale in the arena of policing. It is integral to the maintenance of the nation state’s sovereignty where

national security needs override other social values and legal rights. This legit mates those forms of pain that the state can inflict and those that are proscribed” (p 2).

Thus rehumanisation is necessary because the militants have a stake in postconflict reconstruction and without the parti cipation of armed groups a stable social order and peace building cannot be achieved.

The author analyses the phenomenon from the perspective of 24 ex-militants in Jammu and Kashmir through a qualitative method. “This consisted of a long semistructured interview with individual respondents and one focus group discussion with another group of ex-militants” (p 11). Through a review of the literature “significant themes” were identified and were the “aims and objectives of the study”. All

april 12, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


the 24 persons were now in civilian life and comprised both the “released” militants, i e, those who were captured and then, having served their time, released, as well as those who “surrendered”. All of this is based on the lives of the ex- militants she studied through their own narratives. She points out that “(n)arratives matter because a narrative’s metaphors and images can tell us a lot about how individuals and groups understand the social and political worlds in which they live, and reveal the deep fears, perceived threats and past grievances that drive a conflict” (p 23). But the analysis goes beyond, to find out what befell them and their own subjective account of their life experiences.

The Life of a Militant

She points out that “the capacity, and even appetite, for violence is human and familiar. But being difficult to own and morally integrate, it is externalised. As an external phenomenon, its abhorrent nature is visible and magnified. However, when approached from within it always presents [itself] in a cloak of moral righteousness. Indeed, it no longer appears as ‘violence’. It is rather the restoring of honour, the redeeming of injustice, the struggle for liberation, the safeguarding of the nation, the purification of a people and so on” (p 17). In this sense, in “theorising about violence, the study has implications for three broad areas: the polarisation of violence into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the perpetrator-victim-perpetrator cycle that hinges on trauma and sense of victimisation, and the dynamics of violence of subordinate or oppressed groups compared to violence ‘from above’ – that is, from the state or dominant groups” (p 100). Again, as the author points out, “(t)he legitimi sation of violence by the state in terms of national imperative makes it likely that violence will be more extensive and will have a larger impact. Oppressed groups that take to violence are usually small and weak and need to attract supporters. This sets limits to the use of violence. But state-organised violence is based on the power of a government and need not, to the same extent, seek support for its actions. Further, there may be laws that permit a culture of impunity for statesponsored violence…” (p 102).

Chapter III of the book, ‘Findings and Discussion’, after highlighting the demographic and other factors which cast doubt on the notion that the militants were uneducated, poor, misguided and disaffected youth, shows that many of the ex-militants were people who, prior to militancy, had engaged in a variety of activities and were drawn to militancy out of a sense of humiliation and victimisation. The nationalist/ religious ideology offered the shared common space which acted as both motivation and sustenance. “Violent action not only provides an outlet for rage, but helps to restore control and agency as well as counteract the toxic effects of shame and humiliation on self-esteem” (p 36). But life as a militant has a mixture of bonding, freedom, isolation and fear…It’s a “closed world where criticism and the influence of ideas from outside….are severely restricted” (p 48). There is an “almost universal, intimate bond between warrior values and conventional notions of masculinity” (p 49). The author discusses how the respondents gave grounds for their violent acts in terms of their ideology so that “their acts become appropriate and morally defensible in their own eyes” (p 56). Finally, the post-militant phase covers what happened to the res pondents after their capture and subsequent release. There is the re-emergence of a sense of victimisation as they struggle to engage in civilian life.

The analysis is far richer than what is mentioned above and there are nuances, details, discussions and comparisons/ parallels with other studies of a similar nature, which make for absorbing reading. For instance, the sub-section on ‘Prison and Interrogation’ brings out the pervasive nature of torture employed by the Indian state against the people, whether they were militant or not, or had engaged in violent acts or not. Few studies mention this crime. Indeed, the fact that successive governments have refused to sign the Convention Against Torture has hardly ever figured in public debates. But here we have the first systematic account of what befell people when military suppression was unleashed. The account of the ex-militants “of imprisonment and interrogation are painful and shocking. For some, their experiences

Economic & Political Weekly

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in custody continue to evoke strong feelings of fear, anger and shame, or have led to post-traumatic stress symptoms. For most, there is a renewed sense of victimisation. These experiences are invariably related to torture….(and) have continued even after their release from prison” (p 58). “Torture was physical, mental and sexual” (ibid).

Insight into Violent Activism

While this meticulous study deserves to be read and re-read, there are questions that rear their head. It is significant that out of all the 24 ex-militants who had rejoined civilian life, not one of them refers to any legal proceedings against their torturers or even an expression of a desire to pursue the matter as a way of retribution or redemption. Is this a result of fear? Or a desire to suppress the memory of torture? Or to let bygones be bygones? Whatever the answer, it has a direct bearing on peace building and reintegration. The author is mindful of the need for justice as part of a peace settlement. But it is not clear how this is to be done “while steering a path between vengeance and forgiveness, between impunity and accountability for crimes committed during the period of political violence” (p 98).

Again, one cannot help wonder if, and how far, the issue of gender and dissent are context bound? Is there a difference between the life experience of militants in national, religious and revolutionary movements? What is the life experience of armed groups which comprise large number of women combatants? On a different tack, where does one place the militants in J&K today when they have committed themselves to be held accountable for their acts and to abide by international conventions and protocols? How does this undermine intolerance of dissent? What does it show in terms of their subjective role as victim and as perpetrator of violence? What impact would this have, if any, when theorising about violence?

These questions, however, do not detract from the scholarship and merit of the book, rather they enhance its value. The


book’s remarkable intellectual transparency invites, nay demands, the engagement of the reader. It offers a rare insight into the perceptions of those in J&K who took to violence to meet their political objectives without fudging the upside or the downside of “violent activism”. It does so by according humanity to the perpetrators and agency to the victims. Indeed, it opens a door into a variety of issues which somehow get lost in the unidimensional public debates over violence and militancy. Also the 24 interviews allow the readers to form their own judgment. While democratic politics, as the study argues, is an attempt to “rehumanise” those who have been demonised, it could be argued that those marginalised, or issues which are marginalised, must be brought to the centre stage in order that the appeal of violent activism gets eroded. Aman Public Charitable Trust must be congratulated for sponsoring and publishing this study.


april 12, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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