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Defining terrorism

Should the Maoists now active in Chhattisgarh and Dantewada be called terrorists? Should the state respond to Naxalites the same way it does to terrorists? As India debates these questions in the wake of Operation Greenhunt, K S Subramanian provides a definition of terrorism and suggests appropriate responses to it

There has been no consensus on the definition of terrorism among official agencies or academia. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission of India (SARC, 2008) cites the definitions given by other official agencies and by the UN, besides providing its own. It also cites definitions used in anti-terrorist legislations in India. However, definitions are different from what happens on the ground. The definition used in the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act 1985 is scholarly but on the ground the provisions of the law were misused. 

A senior police officer in Gujarat, whom I interviewed as a member of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal on the Gujarat Carnage 2002, revealed that every time an ugly law and order situation erupted, the orders of the state police chief to his subordinates was mechanical and routine: “Apply TADA and report compliance”! Gujarat had the largest number of illegal arrests under TADA. Other such examples abound.  

Terrorism is often seen as low-intensity warfare by one state against another state, as happened in the Mumbai terrorist attack in November 2008 (Rand, 2008, Tellis, 2009). The SARC report approvingly cites the UN’s “academic consensus definition”that “terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons whereby, in contrast to assassination, the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims are chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisation), (imperilled) victims and main targets are used to manipulate the main target audience, turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought”(Schmid,1988). 

The UN Crime Branch (1992) held that an act of terrorism was the peacetime equivalent of a war crime. Schmid himself wonders, after listing 109 different definitions of terrorism in his monumental survey Political Terrorism: A Research Guide, whether the list contained all the elements necessary for a proper definition (see also Howard and Sawyer, 2002; Martin and Romano, 1992).  

The SARC report provides a history of terrorism and the types of terrorism: ethno-nationalist terrorism, religious terrorism, and ideology-oriented terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism and narco-terrorism. It examines the definitions prevalent in the US, the UK, France, Canada and Australia as well as India. 

‘Terrorism’ does not figure in the periodically amended Indian Penal Code. The first special law which attempted a definition was the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (prevention) Act (TADA), 1987. This was followed by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002 which was replaced by the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 2004.   

The conventional means of terrorism are attacks on persons and property using weapons, bombs, improvised explosive devices (IED), grenades and landmines as well as hostage-taking, hijacking and forcible takeover of buildings, especially public buildings. Other means include suicide attacks and kidnapping, use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological), cyber terrorism and environmental terrorism. Suicide terrorism has included the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE on May 21 1991, the attack on the Jammu & Kashmir legislative assembly complex in October 2001, the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, the storming of the Akshardham temple in Gujarat in 2002, and the abortive attempt at Ayodhya in July 2005. Outside of J&K, there have been only three acts of suicide terrorism in India: the Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh assassinations and the attack on the Special Task Force Office in Hyderabad in 2005.  

An Indian counter-terrorism specialist states that while there may be differences over what constitutes ‘terrorism’, there can be no doubt about what constitutes a ‘terrorist act’ (Raman, 2008: 327). Acts like the hijacking of an aircraft and other means of public transport for achieving an objective through intimidation, blowing up a civilian aircraft midair, the use of IEDs against civilians, throwing hand grenades and firing mortars into a civilian crowd or establishment, for example, constitute ‘acts of terrorism’ and organisations indulging in such activities, irrespective of motives, should be dealt with as terrorists.  

A US scholar states that ‘terrorism’ means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes (Richardson, 2006). It has seven crucial characteristics: i) a terrorist act is politically inspired; ii) if the act does not involve violence or threat of violence, it is not terrorism; iii) the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message; iv) the act and the victim usually have symbolic significance; v) terrorism is the act of sub-state groups, not states; vi) the victims of the violence and the audience the terrorists are trying to reach are not the same; and vii) the most important characteristic of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians.    

The author distinguishes between terrorists, guerrillas and freedom fighters. A terrorist “is neither a freedom fighter, nor a guerrilla. A terrorist is a terrorist, no matter whether or not you like the goal he or she is trying to achieve and no matter whether or not you like the government he or she is trying to change. Two key variables for understanding all terrorist groups are: the nature of the goals they seek and their relationship to the community they claim to represent”.  

The case of Omar Sheikh (a British citizen and a highly unlikely, educated and civilised terrorist, who claimed responsibility, among others, for the bombing of the Jammu & Kashmir state assembly in October 2002, the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the attack on the American Cultural Centre, Kolkata, in January 2001) showed that the causes of terrorism lie at the individual, national and international levels. The emergence of terrorism “requires a lethal cocktail of three ingredients: i) a disaffected individual; ii) an enabling group; and iii) a legitimising ideology” (Ibid, p.40).   

Terrorism is a tactic employed by different groups in different parts of the world in pursuit of different objectives. The causes of terrorism must be sought at a number of levels: at the individual level, the terrorist organisational level and the sponsoring state level. At the level of society, socio-economic factors reveal causes; at the trans-national level, the causes can be found in religion and globalisation. Many of the causes are interconnected. In terrorist organisations, leaders tend to be different from followers, often more educated and from better socio-economic backgrounds. Some, such as Osama bin Laden and the late Velupillai Prabhakaran of the LTTE, enjoy godlike status among their followers. 

Richardson found that terrorism by definition is the behaviour of sub-state groups, but notes that in the US the idea of state sponsorship of terrorism is prominent. Perceived as an instrument of foreign policy, terrorism provides many advantages for governments: relatively low risk and low cost, easy to deny and difficult to prove with the potential for a high pay-off. Relatively weak states often support terrorists to strike against their more powerful enemies. The Mumbai terrorist attack in India by Pakistan-based terrorists in November 2008 is a classic example.   

There has been a significant growth in the number of terrorist groups with religious orientation over the last few decades. Most religious traditions have produced terrorist groups and many terrorists have been atheists. The notion of Islam and terrorism being inextricably linked is wrong, notes Richardson. However, in 2004, of the 77 terrorist groups listed by the US state department, 40 appeared to have mixed religious and political motives and of these, 37 were Islamist groups. Two characteristics of these mixed groups are that they have been more trans-national than groups with purely secular motives, and they have exercised less restraint. Religion plays different roles in different terrorist groups. Often, religious and political motives are inseparable. For many, religion plays a role similar to a political ideology, such as Maoism did for the Shining Path movement in Peru or Marxism-Leninism for other socialist revolutionary movements.  

The philosophical justification for radical Islam, starting with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1920, was influenced by three political events: i) the Iranian revolution in 1978-79, which overthrew the Shah and established a radical Muslim state under the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini; ii) the war in Lebanon against US and Israeli interests by the Iranian-inspired and assisted Hezbollah, famous for the terrorist tactics of hijacking, kidnapping and suicide bombings; and iii) the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s.  

Richardson states that the last event shaped the escalation of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The war demonstrated to Islamists that a superpower could be made to withdraw its forces and be defeated by motivated armed Mujahedin. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to retain its influence in the region. Pro-Soviet governments in Afghanistan were not going down too well.  Ten years later, after the death of over 1 million Afghans and 15,000 Soviet troops, and the creation of 5 million Afghan refugees, the Soviets withdrew.  

Afghanistan proved to be a training ground for Islamic militants from across the Middle East, providing them ideological unity, international connections and experience in warfare and the use of sophisticated weaponry provided by the US against the Soviet Union. At the end of the war in Afghanistan, the radical Mujahedin returned to their home countries and joined pre-existing terrorist groups. They had defeated a superpower and the only other remaining superpower was the US, which was propping up many discredited feudal regimes in the Middle East, besides supporting Israel in the Palestine-Israel conflict, which was generating Palestinian terrorism.  

India in recent times has witnessed various types of terrorism including religious terrorism and state terrorism in different parts of the country. Three major areas are relevant: Jammu & Kashmir; the Northeast, and the Central Tribal Belt comprising several states.  

Cross-border terrorism in J&K 

The troubled relationship between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir question started with independence in 1947. Major insurgency in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley started in 1989, following the controversial elections held in 1987. There was an increase in cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into Kashmir and the deployment of Indian security forces in the state. Terrorist violence shot up and has continued ever since.  

The rise of Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism has aggravated the terrorist situation in Kashmir. The threat to India is not directly from Al Qaeda and the Taliban but from Laskhar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), a terrorist outfit with a specific focus on Kashmir. LeT, located in Pakistan, is known to have developed cells in about 18 countries including India, the USA, the UK, France, Singapore and Australia. An affiliate of Al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) has also been responsible for terrorist attacks in Kashmir. Masood Azhar of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, who was handed over to the Pakistani authorities in exchange for the release of the hostages of an Indian plane hijacked in December 1999, formed the JeM with the objective of uniting Kashmir with Pakistan. The involvement of JeM cadres is suspected in several suicide attacks in J&K including the attack on the J&K state assembly in October 2001 and the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and some other terrorist attacks in India during 2006-7. 

The nature of the terrorist attacks in J&K has changed over the years. Suicide terrorism has made its presence felt and the Jammu region has also become a target of attack. After April 2006, soft targets like minority groups, tourists, migrant labourers -- all innocent civilians -- are becoming targets. Grenade attacks have increased by 49% from 2006-7 to 2007-8. An aggravating factor has been the formation of the United Jihad Council (UJC), an umbrella organisation of 14 militant groups led by Hizbul Mujahedin, which along with LeT and the JeM is equipped with the most modern weaponry and enjoys the support of international terrorist groups.  

While trying to tackle the problem with a multi-pronged strategy, the Indian government has attempted political dialogue with disaffected groups. Confidence-building measures with Pakistan, people-to-people contact between the two countries, reunion of separated families, relaxation of control over movement across the line of control at the border, are some of the steps. Several internal security steps and administrative steps such as relief for victims of militancy, encouraging return of Kashmiri migrants, special concessions for government employees posted in Kashmir have also been taken. Though the government cites the successful holding of the recent elections in the state, subsequent events such as the Shopian incident involving the rape of two innocent young women by security force personnel, have marred the picture.              

Ethno-nationalism in the Northeast 

In the Northeast, ethno-nationalism has been a prominent feature of several states, including Assam, the biggest state in the region. The ‘mother of all insurgencies’ in the region started in Nagaland in 1955. An incipient insurgency, which should have been handled wisely, was aggravated by the ill-advised induction of the Indian army into the state. A sense of cultural aggression by a more advanced culture over the more primitive Naga community, led to strong resistance. The insurgency in the other states was shaped by their perception of injustice towards the local people by the government of India. 

Nari Rustomji, an authority on the Northeast, in his classic Imperilled Frontiers (Oxford, 1983) provides a deep insight into the region and its multiple insurgencies. Rustomji was a member of the Indian Civil Service and spent his entire career in the region. He demonstrates that people, however primitive, resent the imposition of an alien culture and that nothing gives rise to so much anger and hostility as the threat of cultural aggression. Heavy economic investment is in itself of little avail in securing the goodwill and loyalty of the people of the frontiers, any more than an excessive military presence, which creates more problems than it solves. His central message is that while change is imperative for a community’s healthy development, the pace of change must be adjusted to the community’s capacity to absorb it without detriment to its essential values.  

The impact of conflict, terrorism and incidents of violence in the region has been severe on women and children especially. At the same time there has been an increase in the number of paramilitary forces deployed in the region; paramilitary forces outnumber the civilian police in the region (Subramanian, 2007, 2009).         

After independence, the government of India took steps to democratise and decentralise governance in the region. Funds for development were allocated but leakage of such funds was common. Human development failed to occur.  

Conflicts in the region range from insurgency for secession or autonomy, to sponsored terrorism, to ethnic clashes, conflicts arising from inflow of migrants from Bangladesh or from intra-state migration. Besides, criminal enterprises aimed at expanding and consolidating control over critical economic resources have contributed to the conflict in the region. Violence in the region is also caused by the failure of the government to provide security. This has led to the creation of ethnic militias, which seek to provide human security. In an ethnically polarised situation, when the government fails to provide security, the actions of the army are seen as partisan. Conflicts in the region are state-specific.   

Maoist threat in the central tribal belt 

Maoist/Naxalite violence is relatable to Indian leftwing politics, which was a product of the nationalist movement. Nationalist politics in India was a “site of strategic manoeuvres, resistance and appropriation” by different groups and classes. This led to a “split in the domain of politics”. Many of the resulting contests are still unresolved. According to the ‘subaltern school’ of historians (see Guha, 2000), what occurred in 1947 was a “passive revolution”.  

The debate in the Indian communist movement over the nature of the ruling formation in India led to a ‘double split’ which saw the emergence of the CPI, CPI (M) on the one hand and the Naxalites on the other. In the subsequent period the Naxalites themselves fragmented into numerous groups on ideological grounds. Unresolved agrarian tensions in rural India after independence led to an agonised and agonising debate within the communist movement which saw the emergence of the Naxalites.  

The Union home ministry, in its report on the Naxalite movement in 1969 titled ‘Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions’ warned that far-reaching agrarian reforms were needed to forestall the green revolution from turning into a red revolution.  

The Naxalite movement was not handled politically as it should have been and was brutally suppressed by the use of police power. Since the causes which led to the agrarian tensions were not addressed, the tensions generated by the movement re-emerged in the 1980s. But government strategy has continued unchanged. The political options were not exercised and the police were left free to handle the situation as they deemed fit. Militarisation of the movement has gone hand-in-hand with the militarisation of the state response. Killing and getting killed has become the norm on both sides. In the absence of calm consideration and resolution of the underlying causes, the consequences of the violence remain unaddressed. This can again lead to a recrudescence of violence after its initial suppression by force (Wallace, 2007). 

The Maoist maxim is that the disaffected, angry, disgruntled peasantry constitutes the water in which the militants are the fish which move freely. Government policy must be to try and reduce the anger of the peasantry and not attack them by using the police. During the last few years 180,000 farmers are reported to have committed suicide owing to agrarian distress nationwide. The recent report of an Expert Group (Planning Commission, 2008) brings out the methods that are needed to contain the distress.  

The report, titled ‘Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas’, makes an analysis of the socio-economic situation in the states comprising the Central Tribal Belt (CTB) in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand, and comes out with the suggestion that the violence and terrorism resorted to by some discontented Maoist elements should be understood in the proper development perspective and handled politically and administratively rather than by using brute police force. Further, once hostilities cease, if the consequences of the violence and the wounds remaining in the human survivors and/national psyche are not dealt with adequately and a reasonable degree of ‘closure’ is not secured, then political violence and terrorism can re-appear (Wallace, 2007).    

Apart from the merger of the CPI-ML People’s War with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in September 2004 to form the CPI (Maoist), which is the focus of official attention, there are a very large number of Naxalite groups/parties that have their own methods of functioning and may differ on the extent of mobilisation of the people, the role of the armed underground cadre etc, but they are at one in the belief that the Indian state must be overthrown by force as a precondition for revolutionary change in society. Some of these groups are represented in elected bodies such as panchayats and legislative assemblies. Mass unrest cannot be reduced to dramatic incidents of terrorism such as blowing up of police stations since mass participation in militant protests has always been a feature of Naxalite mobilisation, the report says.

The Expert Group examined the life and livelihood of the people and the failure, inadequacy or injustice of state mechanisms and institutions which create a space for Naxalite activities and help generate public support for them. It points out that though the long-term perspective of the Naxalites is to capture state power by force, their day-to-day activities constitute a fight for social justice, equality, protection and local development. The report thus calls for a political approach to a movement that is essentially political.  

The recent peace talks with the Naxalites were given up on the grounds that they did not give up arms and violence. However, this was not the precondition imposed on dialogue with extremists in J&K and Assam and the Naga rebels. Why insist on a different approach to the Naxalites, asks the report, which adds that “the doors of negotiations should be kept open”.    

On the role of the police, the report states that the “methods chosen by the government to deal with the Naxalite phenomenon has increased the people’s distrust of the police. Protest against police harassment is itself a major instance of unrest frequently leading to further violence by the police in the areas under Naxalite influence. The response of the CPI Maoists is to target the police and subject them to violence, which in effect triggers a second round of the spiral. The rights and entitlements of the people which give rise to the Naxalite and Maoist movements find expression in the Constitution, the laws enacted by various governments and the policy declarations. The administration “should not have waited for the Naxalite movement to remind it of its obligations towards the people in these matters” (ibid p 47).

The report also says that the weaker sections do not have much faith in the police. They have no faith that justice will be done to them against the powerful. “Often it is as frustrating an experience to go to the police station as a complainant as it is fraught with danger to go as a suspect. One of the attractions of the Naxalite movement is that it does provide protection to the weak against the powerful and takes the security of, and justice for, the weak and socially marginal seriously” (p 46).  

Appropriate response 

The legal framework for dealing with terrorist violence has been dealt with extensively by the Second Administrative Commission (SARC, 2008).   

A people’s tribunal (Verma, 2004) has noted that a variety of anti-terrorist legislations have neither prevented the occurrence of terrorist acts nor acted as deterrents to the use of violence for dispute resolution. While terrorism is a matter of grave concern, distinctions need to be made between different categories of ‘terrorism’: fanatical use of force to intimidate the general population; militancy on behalf of adivasis, dalits and the dispossessed; armed resistance movements in the Northeast, which may have nothing to do with sources of foreign funding. 

The first type of ‘terrorism’ requires strong security measures. The second calls for radical social reforms, including land reforms. The third calls for accountability of army and paramilitary forces, which have developed a vested interest in hyping up the threat of terrorism in the Northeast.  

Hoffman (2004), while examining the implications of terrorism for human rights, states that the ‘war on terror’ launched by the US threatens to undermine the international human rights framework built since the Second World War. Writing before the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo torture revelations, Hoffman has argued that abandoning human rights in times of crisis is short-sighted and self-defeating. A ‘war on terrorism’ waged without respect for the rule of law undermines the very values it presumes to protect. The balance between liberty and security must be restored by reasserting the human rights framework which provides for legitimate and collective efforts to respond to terrorist attacks.  

The six rules spelt out for counteracting terrorism by Richardson (2006: 203-233) are i) have a defensible and achievable goal; ii) live by your principles; iii) know your enemy; iv) separate the terrorists from their communities; v) engage others in countering terrorists with you, and vi) have patience and keep your perspective.  

Wallace (2007) emphasises the need for institutionalising efforts to attempt a healing process for societies such as India that are wracked by political violence. ‘Closure’ should be clearly identified as a core element during the periods of political violence with the focus on institutionalising human rights especially for the state, but also for the anti-state political movement. He notes that reconciliation is an obvious element of closure. So is transparency and justice. ‘Closure’ measures include judicial processes ranging from war crime tribunals to more informal village-level trials. The major achievement of ‘closure’ is transparency. Setting out the facts, opening whatever records are available and attempting honestly to answer the questions of victims provides a major impetus to healing. It promotes understanding as a first step to some degree of justice and the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. Transparency may be the most lasting result, a willingness to live with the truth. In terrorism excessive means, sometimes clandestine, are used. Similarly, for security reasons the state is often forced to become a mirror image of the terrorist movement holding it necessary to use means that are illegal according to Geneva Conventions. Recent developments in Sri Lanka are a good example. The idea of reconciliation at the grassroots level involving civil society participation has figured prominently following the religious-terrorist violence in Gujarat, 2002 (Oommen, 2007).   


  • Banerjee, Sumanta, 1980 In the Wake of Naxalbari, Subarnarekha Publications, Kolkata.
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  • GOI 2008, Combating Terrorism: Protecting by Righteousness,  Second Administrative Reforms Commission, Eighth Report.
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  • GOI (2008) Planning Commission Report of the Experts Group on Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas.
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  • Schmid Jongman et al 1988, Political Terrorism: A new guide to actors, authors, concepts, data bases, theories and literature, cited in Government of India, 2008 p 7.
  • Subramanian, K S 2007, Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage Publications.
  • Subramanian, K S and Arvind Verma, 2009, Understanding the Police in India, Lexis-Nexis, New Delhi.
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  • Wallace, Paul 2007, ‘A Grassroots Approach to Healing Terrorism’ in Democracy and Counterterrorism: Lessons from the Past (Washington DC, US Institute of Peace).  

(K S Subramanian was a member of the Indian Police Service from 1963 to 1997 and is the author of three books: Parliamentary Communism: Crisis in the Indian Communist Movement; Political Violence and the Police in India and Understanding the Police in India)  

Infochange News & Features, April 2010