Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The terrorist impulse

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Column in Business Standard, 2016

In the flood of Kashmir reporting since Burhan Wani’s killing a brief, deft video produced by the Hindustan Times has captured wide attention on social media. That it was made last year gives it a sense of both prescience and detachment.

The paper’s seasoned journalist Harinder Baweja tracks the story of young men disappearing from their homes to take to the gun. Visiting Burhan Wani’s father in a nondescript village, she asks him if he is pained by the thought that his son might die from a bullet at the hands of security forces. “Yes,” he replies, “it does pain a bit but Islam teaches us to put God before our son… first the Quran, then the son.” Muzaffar Wani’s mixed sentiments – of personal loss subsumed by his son’s martyrdom – were to come uncannily true when thousands poured in to attend Burhan’s funeral, raising Pakistani flags as a symbol of azaadi from the repression of the Indian state.

The video’s concise format conveys the message in sharp strokes rather like Burhan’s own clips on social media that made him a Robin Hood-like figure among disaffected Kashmiris. Except here the political and military establishment is seen giving its spin on the cult of Burhan Wani. The commanding general, Satish Dua, speaks of Pakistan’s tactical shift in training home-grown militants in place of exporting them. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah argues that the cause is the shrinking political space between the Hurriyat and the PDP and derides Prime Minister Narendra Modi for throwing money at Kashmir in the hope that the Burhan Wanis will disappear. And the late chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose daughter now occupies the chair, says “You can imprison Burhan but you can’t imprison his idea. You have to fight it politically.”

Wherever Ms Baweja goes, the recurring phrase she hears is “atrocity” – a stockpile of wounds and humiliations that range from encounter killings to the beef ban. (Dadri’s Mohammad Akhlaq is a household word in the Valley.) A piercing irony of the report is that while leaders realise the problem, they appear trapped in their stratagems to act strategically.

As the death toll this week rose to 35 – and the eyesight of many more dangerously impaired by pellet guns – no leader had the guts to step into the scenes of strife. They stayed shuttered in their fastnesses in New Delhi and in Srinagar, the Centre sending in security reinforcements and surgeons to handle the eye damage, and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, increasingly unpopular, talking of the “healing touch” as a palliative.

In recent years, while the overall number of casualties in the Valley has dropped sharply, the number of home-grown (as opposed to cross-border) militants is steadily going up – 91 locals out of 145, according to one report.

Yet, Kashmir’s Burhan Wani has little in common with the six terrorists who attacked a cosmopolitan cafe in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarters on July 1, except three things: their age, home-grown origin and rapid cultivation of an alternate identity on social media. The Bangladeshi killers swiftly became hardcore jihadists, swapping their wealth, upper-class connections and elite educations for a life of fanatical religious indoctrination. One of them, Nibras Islam, who went to expensive schools and colleges at home and abroad, was described as “fun-loving, in and out of love and keen on sport”. Their long brutal night of savage blood-letting and self-destruction is also in harsh contrast to Kashmiri militants, essentially because of no perceived evidence of festering insult or injury in their past. They seemingly fit the paradigm suggested by forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman in his book Understanding Terror Networks: “Terrorists are generally completely normal people…. People just like you and me.”

More strategic analysis, political and social research and pop psychology – in fact as well as fiction – has in recent years been expended on exploring the terrorist mindset than any other subject. As broad-based and baffling as human nature, there is no definitive terrorist impulse. How much does Kashmir’s Burhan Wani or Dhaka’s bloodthirsty jihadists, for instance, have in common with the impoverished, illiterate boys drawn from the Pakistani hinterland to be trained as suicide bombers for the Mumbai attacks in 2006?

Extrapolating several studies and examples from different parts of the world, one of the conclusions the economist and science journalist Annette Schaefer offers is this: “Indeed, joining a radical group provides a sense of community, power and identity to people who might otherwise feel alone, powerless and unimportant…. An armed action proclaims that ‘I am here, I exist, I am strong, I am in control … I am on the map’.”


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