Monday, September 15, 2008

How should liberals respond to terrorism?

Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and now Delhi. There seems to be no let up in terrorist violence this year. How should liberals react to the deplorable violence perpetrated by terrorists, in the midst of a clamour for more 'stringent laws'? If the history of anti-terror legislations in India is anything to go by, this stringency will reflect in POTA/TADA-like laws liberals tend to dislike - reverse onus clauses which presume guilt rather than innocence, death penalty, admissible confessions to police officers, privacy violating surveillance. And yet, terrorism itself violates the core liberal value of respect for the individual person.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in this interesting article published by the Indian Express yesterday, identifies the following politico-legal solutions:

"So many obvious things to be done, creating cross-party structures to evolve a shared understanding of the problem, better coordination between the Centre and the states, legal reform, more imaginative forms of engagement with different communities to enlist their proactive help in defusing this phenomenon."

Some of these responses may be more effective than the idea that that even more stringent punishments will deter terrorists. Disappointingly, Mehta does not elaborate upon 'legal reform', but it is doubtful that this is a call for a law like POTA (his dislike for POTA was discussed on this blog three years ago in the aftermath of a previous terrorist attack on Delhi! Unfortunately Mehta's older piece linked in that post is not accessible and I couldn't find it on google either.)

In fact, yesterday's article discusses legal responses only marginally. Mehta speaks primarily to the terrorists:

"But what sort of a jihad is this, characterised by rank cowardice and bereft of even the diabolical martyrdom that usually characterises such visions? There is the appeal to a fight for justice. But what sort of conviction is this in the justice of one’s cause that it can be articulated only anonymously, and can speak only the language of bloody revenge? Then there is the narrative of victimisation: portrayals of a community at the receiving end in assorted episodes from Babari Masjid to Gujarat. But this narrative of victimisation seems to become simply a pretext. It has its own self-fulfilling logic, so that everything that happens is simply more grist for the victimhood mill. Every political party, every state organ, every media intervention is portrayed as one vast conspiracy to reduce Muslims to victimhood, as if there are no spaces left to address legitimate grievances. There is something of a subterfuge by which these groups contrive to create an impression that they are nothing but voices of the oppressed. If this is a battle on behalf of Muslims, what sort of a battle is this? For if nothing else, these acts make life more, not less difficult for Indian Muslims."

The important point to note above is the unequivocal rejection of the apologist position sometimes adopted in sections of the Left - one that identifies 'a deeper malaise' as the cause of terrorism. Mehta, of course, accepts 'a deeper malaise' but is clear that it is neither an explanation nor a justification of terrorism. Note, in the following quote, that he identifies the sense of (real or perceived) 'victimisation' in all communities, implying that the solution cannot be community specific. He poses his question to the state thus:

"The disquieting challenge is going to be this. While there may be widespread revulsion against terrorism, what will be the form of politics that will overcome the sense of victimisation that is now creeping in on all communities? How will we break the vicious circle the Indian Mujahedeen have identified: that any action taken by the state, investigation or punishment will be taken as further evidence of victimisation? Can the state overcome the accusations from all sides that it is partisan in the prosecution of its core duties? It may turn out that our biggest vulnerability is not communalism; it is a state structure now floundering for credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness."

He goes on to commend the frustration of the main goal of recent terrorist attacks - to spark a backlash:

"The silver lining is that so far the backlash this dare intends to provoke has not occurred. It is clear that these groups do not appear to have an interest in justice; they have an interest in polarisation. In so far as this polarisation does not become visible, at least something of a resistance to terrorism is being offered."

Finally, Mehta laments that 'No state has more experience of handling terrorism than India, yet there seems to have been no institutional learning, reorganisation or innovation in dealing with it.'

I think it is a very well-written article, but it left the lawyer in me dissatisfied (it seems that his inaccessible older article on terrorism addressed some of the issues I am about to raise). I know I don't want the return of POTA. I believe that majority and minority intolerance feed on each other and every jihadi terrorist attack strengthens the Hindu Right (and vice versa) - so, I desperately want this government to 'do something'. But mere appearances will not be enough. I want the state to do everything it can to prevent terrorist attacks and prosecute the perpetrators, without violating civil liberties. How does one achieve all of these goals? Can intelligence agencies be restructured to be more effective? Can the problem of centre-state co-ordination be solved by institutional reforms? How does one protect a community from harrassment and innocent individuals from becoming scapegoats when a case is 'cracked'? Does a solution really lie in addressing the 'deeper malaise' through fairness-enhancing measures like anti-discrimination laws? Then, what does one do in the short term, if anything? Are POTA-like laws even effective against terrorism, or are they just for keeping up appearances? Has there been any criminological study to examine this?

Perhaps terrorism needs a political and societal response rather than a legal one, and a belief that laws (stringent or otherwise) will solve the problem itself is misplaced. But even then, what shape should a political response take? How can a non-partisan understanding on terrorism come about? What is the role of political leadership in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack? I hope the Prime Minister is asking himself similar questions.
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