By Dilnaz Boga ,07 November, 2009
The ugly scar on his cheek gripped me. With a loaded weapon between his legs, his eyes searched the parched terrain from our jeep. We were hunting for the Reds – left wing extremists who boast of a Red Corridor in the heavily mined jungles of Gadchiroli, some 350 km from Nagpur, Maharashtra state in India. To break the ice, I asked him why he had chosen to be a commando in the dreaded C-60 anti-Naxal force. It was then that he revealed his story.
Suresh was a tribal from a hamlet in an impoverished district that copes with forest fires annually. He rarely visits home — that too only under the cover of darkness, always accompanied by the commandos to protect him from the Communist rebels.
In Gadchiroli scars run deep and a clash of ideologies is a bloody affair. A neglected tribal population is abandoned by the State. No electricity, water, hospitals or industry. Naxals win locals over with a bag of rice. People are trapped between the gun of the security forces and that of the Naxal – sides have to be taken.
Suresh’s only brother was a Naxal. So, I asked him what he would do if he came face to face with his brother.
"I will kill him," he replied calmly, fixing his gaze on me.
My bewildered expression prompted him to continue…
"Because if I don't kill him, he will kill me."
That day, my lines between ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’ blurred. I started to question beliefs on nationalism, civil liberties and history, and found that it was easy to be judgmental on a full stomach.
Suresh's story changed the way I viewed conflicts. Were these the only two choices available? Does it boil down to kill or be killed? The Naxal conflict in India affects Indian states like Orissa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Militant uprisings in these states have the more fundamentals in common with the ‘separatist’ or ‘terrorist’ movements in Kashmir and India’s North Eastern states than we’d like to admit. People in these states lack the basics, and like Suresh and his brother, they have to choose sides.
Only when terror attacks make it to the news, do we ask ourselves: Why do ordinary folks become desperate and hopeless enough about their chances to have a normal life, that they are willing to support such rebel movements?
"What for one may be a 'rebel', may be a 'freedom fighter' to another," says Rupa Chinai, a veteran journalist who has been covering the North East. “Many rural youth in the North-East join militancy because there is no other force supporting their education or helping them develop skills and knowledge to supports their survival. The underground outfits give them a sense of social worth and belonging that they earlier lacked.”
Sri Lanka-based Jeyanthy Siva, an international trainer in communication, healing and empowerment, who co-founded the Diversity Project to bring non-violent communication to people of colour in Lanka, looks at the problem through another prism: "I think the only time there is organised revolt is when sustained oppression includes people who are used to being in power and are disenfranchised due to ethnicity or religion. If their attempts to get heard prove ineffective, then they revolt. Then, their leaders use this despair and disillusionment to build support. "
There can be no lasting peace without justice. To an extent, militant uprisings all over the world have similar roots and possibly, similar solutions.
In Kashmir, crushing the voice of the people for a demand for ‘independence’ has exacerbated the feeling of alienation. Subjugation and torture over the years has failed to dampen it. As doors remain shut for any form of dialogue or negotiation over their right to self determination, they find themselves seeking help from other nations, who then take advantage of the situation to destabilise the Indian state. In this case, the problem of terrorism cannot be treated as one element – it is a culmination of external influences (trouble fermented by neighbouring states), events of the past that shape people’s perception (broken promises made by the governments of the past), the politics of division based on religion and race, and last but not the least, economics. Some parties involved in the conflict resort to criminality to further their own selfish means. And that, in no measure, can be termed terrorism. These equations are ever-changing, and generalising these issues can prove detrimental towards conflict resolution.
Barring the psychosocial factors, some people turn to the gun for money and power, others are just hired hands. There have been renegades or mercenaries who have switched sides several times to end up working for the highest bidder— like Papa Kishtwari from Kashmir, who was a part of the security forces (CRPF) and then was a militant leader for several years before turning into a counter-insurgent. He had alleged that he was kidnapped by militants for four years! There is a strong aspect of criminality woven into the terrorism tapestry. Cross-border narco-trade, human trafficking and smuggling of weapons – all sponsor “terror” networks.
Kashmir is a highly militarised zone, where even seven-year-olds can distinguish between the firing from a Light Machine Gun (LMG) and a Kalashnikov. I met children here who could even distinguish between the sound of firearms from the security forces and militants.
An army officer who has served in Kashmir (name withheld on request) cites his experiences: "Male children, by nature, have a habit of playing with weapons – it's enchanting – even for young women, so they join terror outfits. In some cases, those who were rejected by the army became terrorists – they took sides because of their environment. Others graduate from a life of petty crimes to serious offences, and then they seek protection with terror outfits from the authorities. And lastly, you have militants who have been sent by foreign countries to create unrest here."
Religion is just the socially accepted framework on which terror outfits function,” says Hubli-based Dr Abhay Matkar, who had served as a psychiatrist with the Indian Army, studied captured militants in Kashmir. “My studies reveal most of the terrorists are themselves atheists. Religion is used merely as an additional motivating factor," he adds.
“To identify groups who have the potential to be trigger happy, you will need to look for them in socially deprived rural areas,” according to Dr Matkar.
Some may might argue that this doesn’t always stand true, pointing to instances of wealthy, educated youth joining terror groups and participating in suicide missions all over the world (the Glasgow bombing, for example). In reality, the mirror has many faces. The Army officer explains: "There’s a huge economic divide here, so an educated, well-informed and heavily indoctrinated terrorist feels responsible, and readies for a fight for the deprived, against the haves. He seems to believe ‘I’m the messiah for my clan — others are illiterate, so they will remain subservient. If I don’t do it, then who will?’"
Clubbing all these militants into one slot and calling then ‘terrorists’ is clearly an oversimplification of a more multidimensional matrix. Eliminating them en masse as part of the same simplification strategy hasn’t proven successful either — a lesson that Israel, for example, still refuses to learn.
Progressive and desperate governments all over the world are now trying to integrate ex-combatants into the mainstream (Eg. Ikhwanis in Kashmir, underground groups (UGs) in the North East). After trying their best to unsuccessfully eliminate them through ruthless suppression for over a decade; the Indian government in the nineties, sought to resolve the problem by looking beyond the symptoms and changing the paradigms of mechanisms used to address them in different parts of the country.
No matter what the nature of the conflict, experts all over the world are finding similar underlying fundamentals. Professor David M. Crane, Syracuse University College of Law, US, was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. “The youth of any transitioning society need some sense of hope for a future,” he says. “Once that disappears, society is in trouble. The question arisies: ‘What is the point of going to school or working hard, when there is no future?”
In a paper titled, ‘A psychosocial study of ex-militants in J&K’ by researcher Shobna Sonpar written in October 2006, for a non-government organisation (name withheld on request) in New Delhi, states that the experience of 'trauma' is often a 'starting point' for continuing cycles of violence. Eventually, this translates to ‘victimhood’ of the entire ethnic group. The main components of this victimhood: “A history of traumatic aggression and loss, the belief that the violence is not justifiable by any standard, the constant fear that aggression could start at any time, and the perception that the world is indifferent to their plight..." This perceived apathy, according to the study, eventually turns into hate for the group that witnesses the silent suffering of the victims….
That means hate for the rest of us.
Politics does its own bit to polarise groups and stoke the fire. Doctors, lawyers, journalists and human rights activists who refuse to bow to the State have been falsely charged and imprisoned in different parts of India. Examples: filmmaker Ajay TG in Chhattisgarh and journalist Iftikhar Gilani in Kashmir (both subsequently released).
It isn’t hard to label someone a terrorist, especially with archaic laws that impede civil liberties. Chinai opines: "The current state of lawlessness in the North East has created a situation where terrorists operate at will because of their political mentors, while innocent people are the victims of draconian laws. The role of the judiciary and the press is crucial in the restoration of democratic conditions."
Chinai explores the possibilities, "In a globalised world where borders matter less everyday, perhaps we have to look at the solutions emerging from groups such as the Native American and Canadian Indians, the Pacific Islanders, the Maori, Australian Aboriginals and other indigenous minority groups who have long fought a hopeless struggle for 'independence'.
“Today they are speaking of their painful experience of coming to terms with their 'loss of a dream' and accepting new realities. Hence, they are speaking of the 'rights of a nation within a nation', which includes meaningful health and education for their people and a return to a way of life based on their traditional wisdom.”
Solutions exist, provided we learn to do things differently. We might want to ask ourselves why people feel alienated or helpless enough to get violent to begin with, or what causes the trauma that regularly produces new terrorists. As David Crane puts it, "Terrorism feeds on fear and anger and uses it as a source of strength. The key is to cut the cycle of failure, fear, and anger, thus cutting off the strength that terror needs to achieve its goals."