September 14, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Dr Ajai Sahni

'We have to confront terrorism and defeat it'

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, feels it is time India took a strong stand against terrorism. He says India must send a message to the world that terrorism will not be tolerated. A strong country does not negotiate with terrorists.

Sahni is also executive editor of Faultlines, a quarterly journal that deals with conflict and resolution. He spoke to Ramesh Menon.

What would be the impact of the attack against the United States?

This was the most devastating single act of terrorism in recorded history. It will certainly have dramatic consequences across the world for years to come.

I see two consecutive and conflicting movements. The first one will be a consolidation of the extremist Islamic groupings. They will see the happenings in New York and Washington as a great victory. Or as a harbinger of what can be achieved.

Till now, they were relatively unconnected as an organisation. They will suddenly consolidate into a far more efficient structure bringing together widely disparate groups but sharing Islamic platforms.

If we assume that Osama bin Laden is the chief architect of the attack, he becomes the uncrowned king of Islamist forces in the world today. The advantages of this from the counter terrorism perspective is that as they will get more organised, they will become more penetrable as compared to the tighter groups spread all over.

There are a lot of Islamic groups who are horrified.

This does not mean a consolidation of the Islamic world. Everyone thinks that when we speak of Islamic terrorism, we talk of Islam. This is a consolidation of extremist Islam. The world of Islam would in fact be horrified by what has happened in America. Conservationist Islamic nations will now be more destabilised by Islamic terror than Europe and America.

These acts of horror do not radically or devastatingly alter the dispersal of power. However, a similar act in Saudi Arabia could transform the region. Such an act in any of the conservative regimes of West Asia would result in fundamental political transformations. But even a dozen such actions in America would not alter the nature of the American state. The greatest threat to conservative Islam is possibly from extremist Islam today.

What about anti-terrorist forces?

The other conflicting trend will be a consolidation of the anti-terrorist forces across the world. There will be a decline in false sociology which tries to justify terrorism. A clear trend will emerge particularly in the liberal democracies of the world by a discriminatory regime which will distinguish between political causes and terrorist action.

How will things change now?

The moment a terrorist group attacks a civilian population or engages in other activities, its actions would demand retributive response. The world's tolerance of terror will now change. When an act of terrorism was committed against Europe or America in the past, there was an outburst of outrage. But when it happens in Kashmir, you have elaborate sociologies of terrorism coming in. Like saying, oh, you know, the elections were rigged and all that nonsense. Now the world will come together and recognize that irrespective of the political character and especially in the case of democracies no justification of terrorist activities is going to be acceptable. This will result in the evolution of sharing of intelligence, coordination activity, improved system of extradition in cases of terrorists and possible joint action by multiple governments.

We already have a joint working arrangement for exchange of information with United States and Russia. But the mechanisms of the working groups have been exceedingly formalistic. Previous impediments will now give way to an international counter-terrorism network. Obstructionist methods will no more be there when India seeks extradition from any of these countries. In almost every case when we asked for extradition, we've had problems.

Attitudinal or psychological barriers will now break from the western side. Till now they thought that they were not affected by terrorism. Last year, for example, the United States State Department propagated this nonsensical theory about how the locus of terrorism had shifted from west Asia to south Asia. Within three months of saying that there was terrorism in Palestine.

Can there be a locus of terrorism?

There is no locus of terrorism. The locus of terrorism is where ever the ideologies of terrorism penetrate, where ever they find supporters and sympathizers. It exists where there is funding for them. The identification of the locus of terrorism with the transient geographical location where it finds the largest number of victims, is a strategic error of judgement.

Just because the most number of people are dying in Kashmir, does not mean this is the locus of terrorism. This point has now been driven home by the incidents in New York and Washington. Now, where is the locus of terrorism? Is it New York or Washington?

There is no geographical limit to the impact of terrorism. A victory of terrorism anywhere in the world is a victory for terrorism everywhere in the world. The same successful methods will be replicated. The only way to prevent terrorism is to deny its successes. You have to confront terrorism.

What is the lesson to learn?

A very crucial lesson for us to learn is that there can be no compromise with terrorism. You cannot negotiate with mass murderers. They do not accept limits to what they want.

We must make a distinction between two kinds of terrorists. All of them do not work under fundamental Islamic terrorists. One category is of instrumental or strategic terrorists who see terrorism as a means to reach definite political goals. President Musharraf is an instrumental terrorist who uses and supports terrorism to secure the Pakistani goal to get Kashmir. When he finds that his pursuit through terrorism is actually threatening Pakistan, he will withdraw. So the instrumental terrorist responds to rational and conventional strategic considerations.

As opposed to him, there is the true fundamental terrorist who is not fighting for goals of this world but the empire of God. His calculations do not fall into this category of gain and loss.

Look at the statement of the Taleban. They have said that if the United States is going to target one man which is Osama bin Laden, they will not find him. If they target an entire nation, they will arouse more hatred against them. It is a calculated move. Their world is different. It is the world where God lives. It does not matter how many die to secure the empire of God. That is their belief and so their calculations are different.

An instrumental terrorists on the other hand, would be horrified with what has happened. He uses terror in restricted doses as long as his calculations go. He uses it as strategy, pulls back, then negotiates or uses diplomatic pressure. But now, instrumental terrorists will find that they are destabilised by this action. Because there are no limits to this action. So they cannot predict goals when terror goes to this scale.

There has not been a strong policy against terrorism.

You cannot negotiate or seek a compromise with terrorism. To seek a negotiated solution with them is absolute folly. To assume that their political demands are their actual demands is to misunderstand the nature of their conflict.

Look at the terrorist groups operating within Kashmir. They have made it amply clear that Kashmir is just the doorway to India. After Kashmir, it is going to be Junagadh and Hyderabad. Then it will be the entire world of unbelievers.

Why Junagadh and Hyderabad?

The Lashkar-e-Tayiba have identified Junagadh and Hyderabad as their next base. With Muslim populations there, they believe they have a natural constituency. Already, Junagadh was used as a route for the Coimbatore blasts. Linkages were there between those who organised the blasts.

When a terrorist comes and says I want this, and you give it to him, he immediately escalates his demands. There are no limits to what he wants. The only way to deal with terror is to confront it and defeat it.

What is the stand India should take now?

India and the rest of the world must send a simple message that terrorism will not be allowed to pay even if their demands are just. We need to say that the moment anyone associates with terror, they would be beyond any protection and will be confronted by the combined might of nations and be defeated. There are many forums in the world that pursue a just course. However, the injustices inflicted by terrorism will and cannot be tolerated.

Why has there been no real stand against terrorism till now?

There has been so much of quibbling and formalism in our combat with terrorism. President Bush said that no distinction would be made between terrorists and those who harbor them. A clear message has now been sent. Why are our human rights activists not screaming now?

In India, here has been a complete failure of the understanding of the nature of crime and the inadequacy of containing it. The irrationality of our practices will now go under review. Our vacillation that has characterized our response to terrorism will change.

Why did we vacillate at all?

Part of the vacillation is due to international pressure to talk to terrorists. Why should we ever talk to terrorists? Will Bush now talk to Osama bin Laden? Will he negotiate a dispute between him and the American nation? He will not. Why should we talk to the mass murderers in Pakistan? Why should we talk to Lashkar-e-Tayiba? Why should we even talk to Musharraf who is a harbourer and supporter of terrorism?

The West was very formal and legalistic in its demand for evidence. Be very sure in your mind, the western agencies have more than adequate evidence that Pak is orchestrating the proxy war in Kashmir. But it has been strategically convenient to accept Pakistanís denials because they had dealt with Pak during the Cold War and they need Pak to talk to Afghanistan. These calculations were distorting their response to Kashmir.

There was pressure on India at arriving at a negotiated solution to Kashmir. Negotiations are not played out in a rational framework in such a situation. It is played out in a framework of terror. Terrorism always demands more than what can be rationally given. Negotiations imply a rational exchange.

No government worth its salt will succumb to international pressure. We are succumbing to vacillation. Is it muddle-headedness or is it international pressure? What will now happen will be a long-term coherent counter terrorism policy. Terrorism is to be confronted and defeated. India must accept this mandate.

As an expert in conflict management, what do you think was lacking?

What is required is surgical responses. However, it should be consistent responses. It should not be fighting terrorists for six months and then declaring a cease-fire so they can go and consolidate themselves. Then after six months you ask the security forces to go back and fight them.

People say that a political solution must be worked out. No one denies that. But does a political solution mean that the law of the land must be suspended and that terrorists must be allowed a free reign for six months?

The cease-fire declarations were extra-constitutional initiatives. No constitutional government has the right to say that I will suspend the law of the land and allow terrorists to move around until they commit an act of terror. If they are around, I am duty bound to arrest them or neutralize them. Political initiatives today are deals with mass murderers.

No democratic government has the mandate to do it. This is an arbitrary and even criminal pattern of conflict resolution. How can a democracy allow that?

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