Terrorism Update
Show/Hide Search
    Click to Enlarge

Dubious things called "popular support"

It is interesting to discover, in the rout of the Taliban and the resurgence of a free Afghan people, the anatomy of a terrorised society. At the end of under two months of war, we discover only two pockets of serious resistance to the US-Northern Alliance (NA) blitz – Kunduz and Kandahar. The largest estimates of total Taliban forces in these locations stood at under 30,000. Even among these, the Afghans themselves – numerically the greatest component of these forces – were far from committed to the extremist vision, and showed themselves not only willing, but eager to arrive at a settlement with the new powers in the war ravaged nation (as, indeed, they did eight years ago, in the face of the Pakistan-backed sweep of the Taliban across their country). The only elements of serious resistance were, in fact, the foreign terrorists – the Arabs, the Pakistanis, the Chechens, the Algerians, the Phillipinos, and the smattering of other nationalities among the ‘lunatics of Allah" who were actually willing to die for their "cause"; and at least part even of their "commitment", in these last engagements, would be the result of their fear of reprisals and the repeated assertion by the NA leaders that, while Afghan Taliban could be forgiven and accommodated, the foreigners would be mistaken if they expected any mercy.

There is more than overwhelming evidence, moreover, that the defeat and the flight of the Taliban has been greeted with enormous relief, even unconstrained delight, by the mass of people in Afghanistan. How, then, is it that a few thousand foreign fanatics and mercenaries, backed by a small number of no more than compliant locals, could enslave a nation of 26 million for nearly eight years of unrelieved suffering? A nation, moreover, that is celebrated for its proud, combative, unyielding and warlike people?

There has, in every theatre of terrorist violence, certainly in South Asia and in other parts of what is referred to as the Third World, been a general, albeit implicit, assumption of popular support to terrorist movements far in excess of what actually exists on the ground or among the societies on whose behalf the terrorists claim to speak. Such assumptions are apparently ratified by the public statements of many leaders and even of the "common people" and the local media, from time to time. And yet, they are utterly false – though this fact can only be confirmed after the terror has been conclusively defeated. This is precisely what happened in Punjab. In the end Eighties, I recall many a muddle-headed "liberal" arguing that "we" had lost the hearts of the "people of Punjab", and so there was little sense in holding on to a piece of land. Thousands, at times even hundreds of thousands, assembled in bhog ceremonies of slain terrorists, and the media pointed to this intractable evidence of the mass support that the Khalistanis enjoyed. But by 1992, when the terrorists were in open flight, there was visible elation in the streets, as markets began to remain open late into the evenings, and I recall the sheer jubilation that marked the first "musical night" – organised by the Punjab police at Tarn Taran – that was attended by thousands of people rediscovering their freedom. It was the same sense of relief that was visible among the crowds thronging the broken-down cinema halls in Kabul to stand in the midst of collapsed seats through a projection of the only film available – a documentary on the mujahiddeen who drove out the Russian forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The truth is the impact of the introduction of sophisticated and extremely lethal weaponry, in the hands of people who have no qualms in using it ruthlessly against civilians for the purposes of creating terror, cannot even be imagined except by those who have actually experienced it. It is nonsense to talk about the ‘will of the people’ under the shadow of the gun. There is, in fact, a "societal Stockholm Syndrome", a pattern of submission, resignation, acceptance and eventual justification that becomes a necessary survival strategy under extreme, lawless and pervasive threat. Terrorism – even by small but well armed, and especially externally supported groups – has the capacity to produce, in large masses of men, a widespread belief in the futility of resistance and a loss of faith in the state and its agencies and their ability to protect life, liberty and property. These patterns of thought gradually create a denial among the people of their own fear, and an increasing justification of the terrorist cause. However outrageous the extremist demands may be, the "logic" of these demands begins to find sympathetic echoes among the people, the media and the "secular" or "moderate" leadership as well. Gradually, this is also translated into an increasing willingness to provide, at least, non-terrorist support to the activities of the terrorists – feeding, harbouring, sympathetic bandhs, dharnas and protests, the creation and operation of Front Organisations that take up the "cause" of the "human rights" of arrested terrorists, etc. To believe that these are the acts of a free people, willingly undertaken, is to utterly and completely misunderstand the very nature of terrorism. Indeed, the most tragic, the most pathetic, symbols of terrorism are not the mutilated corpses that are so often projected through the media, but the images of members of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat singing paeans to their own enslavement and the homage that the Hurriyat pays, from time to time, to the mehmaan mujahiddeen, the foreign mercenaries, and to Pakistan, whose ambitions and machinations kill thousands of innocent Kashmiris every year.

One of the tasks of an administration in a region emerging from terror is the "de-terrorisation" of the society. This is not simply a question of lifting the irrational restrictions and the pervasive sense of threat that the terrorist oppressors had imposed. In Afghanistan, even the symbolic acts of men shaving off their beards and a few women venturing out tentatively without their burkhas, were crucial events in the reassertion of a freedom that had been totally surrendered. But the enslavement of a mind in terror goes much deeper than these externalities. It can only be countered by a gradual process of psychological reconstruction, a restoration of confidence in the institutions and instrumentalities of a free society, the reassertion, among the people, of their ability to think independently, to take their own decisions, and to accept responsibility for their own destinies.

Where the conflict has not entirely ended – and it is far from over in Afghanistan – this task is even more difficult. As the tide began to turn in Punjab, we had made efforts to bring the people into the movement against terrorism. But even where there was little sympathy for the terrorist cause, there was almost insurmountable resistance. I recall the first village that eventually joined the counter-terrorism effort. It was located near Jalandhar district, and had a mixed population, as well as a number of gun licence holders. Our initial efforts to organise them into a Village Defence Committee to fight back against the marauding terrorists met with sullen and obdurate opposition. It was only through constant visits, day after day, by a group of senior police officers, that, after almost a month of ceaseless motivation, the Village decided to join in the self-protection scheme. The project was a success, and became a model that was emulated, first by surrounding villages, and later all over the State. It is this gradual and participatory restoration of faith in the institutions of governance that is the most important task in the reconstruction of a society ravaged by terror.

(Published in The Pioneer, December 1, 2001)





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.