Terror As It Was and Is

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

Aparna Sundar

The Other Side of Terror:
An Anthology of Writings on Terrorism in South Asia
Edited by Nivedita Majumdar
New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009, 368 pages,
$49.95 hardcover.

DESPITE THE CENTRALITY today of “terrorism” as a political phenomenon, justifying a re-ordering of global power relations as well as the suppression of dissent and civil liberties domestically, it is in fact a far older phenomenon, as Nivedita Majumdar’s wonderful anthology of writing on the subject reminds us. The work excerpted in The Other Side of Terror includes fiction, poetry, and essays on the subject of terrorism by South Asians over the course of more than a century.

The anthology aims to give the subject of terror a genealogy other than the one ascribed to it by the Bush doctrine, to examine its impacts in places other than the United States of the 21st century, but most importantly to allow us to engage with the phenomenon in the most complex, situated, historicized, and empathetic way possible.

Majumdar’s introduction to the collection begins with deconstructing the claims of the “war on terror.” Accepting provisionally the definition of terrorism as “the use of violence to achieve political ends,” Majumdar points to its ancient origins.

Not only has it always “lurked within the heart of war itself,” but there are also histories of small groups like the Zealots in Palestine in the first century AD, the Assassins in Persia and Syria in the 11th century, deadly instruments of terror in ancient Greece, ranging from tyrannicide, poison and the Trojan horse, to the Jacobin reign of terror in post-revolutionary France, and the debate over terrorist methods in the writings of 19th-century Russian populists, socialists and revolutionaries.

But it was in the course of the anti-imperialist/anti-colonial movements of the 20th century, from Ireland, Algeria and India to Palestine and South Africa, that terrorism became part of the political vocabulary. Nevertheless, Majumdar argues, “its contemporary pre-eminence is a novel phenomenon,” and it’s against the post 9/11 backdrop that she locates this work.

She examines critically the claims of the counter-terrorism discourse, that what is despicable about the terrorists is their attack on innocent civilians, showing how the civilian deaths in the war on Iraq alone, numbering over 650,000, are more than those killed in all the terrorist attacks worldwide since 1968 (some 46,986).

Why is “shock and awe” not terror? Is the difference, then, that some forms of terror are sanctioned by state power, and others are not? But does state sanction equal moral legitimacy? If some forms can be justified because of their political ends — e.g. the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a means of ending the war and further loss of life — then why is not violence for the sake of liberation from colonialism, surely at least as devastating as war, justified on the same grounds?

Asymmetry of Power

The difference, she argues, is not really about the use of violence, but about dissent, and the use of violence by dissenters. And in this unequal battle between the occupying or imperialist state and the dissenter, she is unequivocal in her conviction that it is the state who is the greater terrorist.

The enormous asymmetry of power between state and dissenter often forces the dissenter to use guerrilla tactics or target civilians. For Majumdar, “the violence of states is usually more egregious and less justified than the violence of terrorists…. (It) is almost always more methodical, more deliberate, more sustained and, most important, sanctioned.” (xx-xxi)

She is equally unequivocal that violence directed against ordinary people living their ordinary lives, whether by the state or by other kinds of terrorists is unjustifiable: “If political goals are to derive from anything, they must derive from the embrace of ordinariness, that is, human life. The kernel of justice must be to protect this ordinariness, not to target it.” (xxi)

But Majumdar is only too aware that there is a debate to be had here, and she foregrounds it from the very start in epigraphs from Gandhi, abjuring violence in the pursuit of political ends, and Fanon, for whom the violence of colonialism engenders a “voracious taste for the concrete” so that anti-colonial violence works as a cleansing and restorative force.

Regardless of her own position in this debate, the richness of Majumdar’s work is in allowing us to see this debate as it is played out in a variety of writings over the course of a century. While there have been other works that critique the civilizational claims and general mendacity of the “war on terror,” (Eqbal Ahmad’s Terrorism Theirs and Ours(1) and Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing(2) are two elegant and passionate works that come instantly to mind), the attempt to canvas literature to make these arguments is quite unique. And it leads to startling results — I would never have guessed that such a wealth of writing could be drawn on from within the South Asian region alone.

Further, the fiction gathered here makes possible a diversity of perspectives, of “subject positions” — militants, army men and administrators, victims, family members, poets and creative artists struggling to create, the list can go on. Most crucially, for Majumdar, the literature allows us to challenge the image of terrorist violence as irrational, purposeless and rootless.

“In literature, regardless of whether terrorism is cast in a sympathetic light or unequivocally rejected, the phenomenon is invariably embedded within a context that is both historicized and humanized.” (xxxvii) For the authors in her collection, “terrorism is not automatically to be taken as a grotesque, irremediable cancer arising incomprehensibly within a society, but is rather an inevitable outgrowth of our social and political order.” (xliv)

Here I must confess to an instant affinity not only with Majumdar’s aims but also with her judgment. Both in her acknowledgements and in her introduction, Majumdar cites When Memory Dies, A.Sivanandan’s novel on the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka, as the inspiration behind this anthology.

For me, too, this was the work, in its charting of the history of generations of families, of friendships tested by divergent political paths, and the political life of that small island, that showed me what great fiction can do — paint a vast canvas, tell a whole history, and yet convey to us the “structure of feeling” that underlies worlds different from ours, but not so radically different that we cannot see injustice, and the depths of feeling and the lengths of action that the struggle for justice can provoke.

Each of us will, of course, have our own list of powerful political fiction. My own includes At Swim, Two Boys,(3) Jamie O’Neill’s huge coming-of-age, gay love story that opened a window on the intricate ways in which class, sexuality and empire were interwoven in the Irish uprisings, through which I felt the Irish struggle more deeply than through any previous academic account. Yet Sivanandan must surely be high on any list!

South Asia Resistance and Counterinsurgency

Much attention is paid to South Asia as the source of today’s “global terrorism.” Yet as this volume demonstrates, the region has much more to offer in thinking about the concept itself: the origins of terrorism in resistance to British colonialism, the colonial “prose of counterinsurgency” aimed at delegitimizing the political validity of the terrorists’ claims, as well as colonial legal and coercive counter-insurgency frameworks. All of these continue to frame insurgency and counter-insurgency in the region.

As Majumdar notes, “In thus isolating terrorism as an issue of law and order, unconnected to the legitimacy of the political regime, colonial governance provides the model approach followed by states in their encounters with terrorism.”(xxiii).

Examples of such colonial era laws, applied with only the most superficial revision to “citizens” of the newly independent democracies are legion: the various Prevention of Terrorism Acts in operation in India and Sri Lanka, or the much hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that allows the Indian armed forces to operate with such impunity across Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur.(4)

The usefulness of the South Asian region as a space from which to think through terrorism lies also in the wide range of structures and motivations for dissent and the resort to terror it offers. This can be seen by the sections into which the book is organized.

“Freedom and Terror” groups works from the Indian nationalist movement, by stalwarts of the movement such as Aurobindo Ghose, Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra, Tagore, Bhagat Singh and Tilak. The section “Revolution and Terror” contains writing from the Naxalite (Maoist) movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in eastern India, and the Maoist movement in Nepal of the 1990s.

The final section, “Identity and Terror,” has writing from the Tamil struggle against the Sinhala chauvinist state in Sri Lanka; the militant movement for a Sikh state of Khalistan in Punjab, India; the ongoing nationalist struggles that arise from the “unfinished business of decolonization” in India’s North-East, colonized as buffer zones against China by the British, and likewise held militarily by India since independence; and finally Kashmir, a product of the particular forms taken by colonialism, nationalism and partition in the Indian subcontinent.

In India, as Majumadar notes, “the class and cultural formation of the post-Independence elite determined the particular character of the nascent nation. In the intricate ideological process of nation-building, two sets of interests were both co-opted and marginalized — those of the economically oppressed and those of ethnic minorities….Terrorism, as a phenomenon in post-colonial India, is intricately connected to this fundamental failure at the heart of the process of nation-building, which engendered the disenchantment of certain of the nation’s core constituencies.” (italics in the original, xxiv)

While this form of majoritarian nationalism is also the context for the Tamil struggle against the Sri Lankan state, in Nepal, which was never directly colonized, the Maoist movement has its roots in a failure to integrate the economically oppressed in the new processes of “modernization.”Debating Means and Ends

There is much to take from this collection, but three themes in particular stand out for me. First, I was struck by the freshness of the debates during the nationalist movement, now over a century old, and the ability of the arguments to continue to speak to us today. Those who advocated violent methods did so through a passionate reasoning, and those who opposed their means still understood and shared their motives.

Bhagat Singh, being tried for throwing a bomb into the Legislative Assembly, argued that the prosecution take into account the justice of the motive behind their act. Tilak, while himself not in favour of violent methods, recognized that “so long as the causes which gave rise to it are allowed to remain, it will be impossible to prevent its repetition.” (47) Aurobindo Ghose likewise made the case that:

“    when by removing everything and everyone that still encourages the people to engage in peaceful political agitation, Russia has been reproduced in India and all is hushed except the noise of the endless duel between the omnipotent policeman and the secret assassin, the Englishman [an Anglo-Indian paper of the times] will be satisfied, — but the country will not be at peace.” (14)

Then there is the debate, also still relevant, about the relationship of means to ends. Sarat Chandra’s hero, Sabyasachi declares:

“My sole aim in life is to achieve the independence of India, but I’ve never made the mistake of thinking that there can be nothing greater in life. Independence is not an end in itself. Religion, peace, literature, happiness, are all greater than that. It is for their full development that freedom is essential, else of what use is it?” (34)

In implicit retort, Tagore’s anti-hero, who regrets deeply the revolutionary path he is embarked upon, says:

“Meanness, unfaithfulness, mutual distrust, secret machination, plotting for leadership — sooner or later these drag them into the mud at the bottom. That the life of the country can be saved by killing its soul, is the monstrously false doctrine that nationalists all over the world are bellowing forth stridently.” (45)

Not A “Clash of Civilizations”

A second contribution of several of the pieces is in countering the civilizational discourse invoked to explain terrorism. What they reveal to us is not clashes between civilizations but debates within them, often between generations of the same family.

In “My Bleeding Punjab,” Khushwant Singh argues passionately against the attempts by the Khalistan leadership to define what it means to be a Sikh: “I condemn terrorism because killing innocent people is condemned by our gurus as a sin….I oppose Khalistan because I know it will spell disaster for the Sikh community as well as the country.” (216)

In Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies, the debate over terrorist means versus socialist ends is echoed by old friends within the Tamil struggle. In Ashim Ray’s “Auni” a father who himself participated in the nationalist movement as a member of the Communist Party of India is asked by his militant Maoist son to re-evaluate the utility of the non-violent, democratic path his party took in the context of the country’s continuing poverty and inequality.

Neerja Mattoo’s “The Story of A Women’s College in Kashmir” tells of the eagerness with which, in the early post-independence period when the college was established, women from all backgrounds were encouraged to participate in the activities of the college, which included traveling to other parts of the country to take place in theatre or debate competitions: “There was no confusion of course regarding what was right: doing their bit for creating a socialist, secular society where everyone was free to reach her potential in an atmosphere of freedom.” (283)

Although in the 1990s this was all reversed by a culture of homogenization, of a forced retreat for women into the private sphere, Mattoo’s aim in telling this history is not to point to some other civilizational reference point for liberation, but to remind the new generation of the rich history of diversity that was the culture of this region.

Women in War and Terror

Many of the pieces are by or about women, and their particular experience with terrorism. In the revolutionary groups of early 20th-century Bengal, as in the Maoist movements in India in the late 1960s, or Nepal more recently, or under the Tamil militant groups in Sri Lanka, women were recruited as militants.

For many, it was a moment of liberation, as the women in the Nepali Maoist movement interviewed by Li Onesto in this collection stated — the novel conditions of battle making possible a complete reversal of gender roles around housework, and giving rise to hope for the construction of new gender arrangements in a new society.

But we know of course from other writing, such as the stories of the women who took part in the armed uprising for land reform in the southern Indian region of Telengana,(5) that this liberation is not always permanent, and that “decommissioned” women fighters are generally expected to retreat to the private sphere.

The majority of the stories here, however, are not about women as militants. If terror is about a threat to the everyday, and if it is women whose lives and work are most closely associated with the everyday, then it is they who wait and watch, who run from pillar to post looking for lost sons and husbands and brothers — as in Mitra Phukan’s “Hope,” whose bond with their children requires them to negotiate, and make compromises even with the “enemy;” as in Bimal Singha’s “Basan’s Grandmother” where an old grandmother from the plains runs into the hills to save the life of her neighbour’s baby even though their “communities” are at war; or, like Sujata in Mahasweta Devi’s “The Mother of 1084,” mothers who learn to value the ideals for which their children die because of their love for them.

But the saddest account in the entire collection is perhaps this one, from the photo essay by Sonia Jabbar and Sheba Chacchi, and I don’t need to spell out what it suggests about war, “community,” and women’s bodies:

“Kunan Poshpara village is still remembered as “the raped village” in Kashmir. In February 1991 security forces raped 30 women. Even three years later when we visited the village we found that the married raped women had been deserted by their husbands. A seventy year old woman had been thrown out by her son. The young women, raped or not, remained single. Girls told us that they were teased even by the village men: ‘Did you enjoy it? Want some more?’” (301)“War on Terror” Never Ends

Majumdar’s editorial hand is light, arguably a little too light, for somewhat greater detail on the authors, their contexts and the texts themselves might have aided the reader, and especially the non-South Asian reader. But the care with which the pieces have been selected to represent such a broad range of “terrorisms,” to speak to each other across time and region, far outweighs any small quibble one might have with the presentation.

As India gears its considerable security apparatus to fight the Maoist insurgency that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has branded the country’s “Number 1 security problem,” as Sri Lanka is hailed as a model for its decisive but brutal defeat of the LTTE, and as Obama’s “Overseas Contingency Operation” represents nothing but the old wine of Bush’s “war on terror” in a new bottle, one cannot overemphasize the timeliness of a volume such as this. Nivedita Majumdar gives pause to rhetoric that isolates acts of individual terror from their structural conditions, and which seeks to restore to “terrorists” a basic humanity.


  1. Eqbal Ahmad, Terrorism, Theirs and Ours with a Foreword and Interview by David Barsamian. Open Media Pamphlet Series, Seven Stories Press, 2001.
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  2. Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
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  3. Jamie O’Neill, At Swim, Two Boys. London: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
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  4. For more on the AFSPA, see http://www.radicalsocialist.in/index.php/articles/national-situation/132-in-.
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  5. Stree Shakti Sangathana, “We Were Making History . . . ‘Life Stories of Women in the Telengana People’s Struggle.’” New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.
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ATC 146, May-June 2010