Accidents of history often become intrinsic to the culture and thinking of a people. India secured its freedom through a process of non-violent confrontation with the British, and this has enormously encouraged a popular psyche that tends to reject the option of the use of force in the resolution of political conflicts—and, indeed, yields a significant resistance to the application of coercive measures even in cases of violent criminal transgression. At the same time, the extended history of the non-cooperation movement has become entrenched in an attitude of general disregard of, or even contempt for, the law. In combination, these proclivities have undermined our capacities, as a nation, to respond adequately and effectively to situations of crisis.
If anything, contemporary political thinking—or perhaps, more accurately, the absence of it—has deeply compounded the difficulties with inchoate and muddle-headed formulations, indeed, sustained obscurantism, clouding judgement on vital moral and strategic issues. Such confusion has historically had—and continues to have—a paralysing effect both on policy and on the operational command of enforcement and security agencies, addressing which has become critical within the context of relentless, utterly unscrupulous and unconstrained movements of terrorism within India.
The military thinker Carl von Clausewitz warns us that, in war,
"the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst... If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand".
This is the principle that must be kept in mind while framing an approach to counter-terrorism (we are still far from framing a counter-terrorism policy or strategy). There is, in the Indian discourse, an air of utter bafflement regarding the question of use of force within the context of democracy, with the dominant thinking endorsing the idea that all use of force is somehow a violation of democratic principles, and that the state must negotiate a solution to every emerging problem or conflict.
Within this bafflement, the idea of the rule of law—which, and not the electoral process, is the essence of democracy—has been completely sacrificed. Regrettably, those who claim to speak for democracy seem to be unfamiliar with the most fundamental aspects of democratic theory, and particularly with the debates on the role of force in democratic governance. Politically correct rhetoric has left us indifferent to the plight of the victims of criminal and terrorist violence, even while there is a constant harping on the grievances of those who resort to crime and terrorism. In doing this, the dominant discourse, in effect, removes all constraints from those who resort to violent excess, while it places extraordinary and irrational constraints on the agencies of the state that are intended to protect the rule of law.
The Indian response to terrorism—a problem we have confronted continuously at high intensities for at least the past three decades—has been plagued by vacillation, on the one hand, and an alternation between extreme under-reaction and excess, on the other.
The nature of terrorism demands quick, indeed, immediate and decisive application of appropriate force; it requires the creation of institutional structures and protocols of response, not only for counter-terrorist action, but for relief and containment of the impact of terrorist acts; above and before all, however, it demands a measure of clarity and an understanding of the nature and necessity of use of force, a realisation that the use of weak and ineffective force compounds and escalates violence, and that continuous emphasis on political and negotiated solution actively privileges violence and terror at the cost of the interests of the law abiding citizen, and of the nation.
Thus, when we argue that 'these are our brothers and sisters', and 'these are our children', we ignore the fact that those whom they kill are also 'our brothers and sisters' and 'our children'; and that it is the prior, inescapable and constitutional duty of the state to protect the latter, and to impose the laws of the land, before unrealistic considerations of a universal pacifism destroy the possibility of such protection. Counter-terrorist policy and response are an awful responsibility of the state, and must anchor themselves in a practical wisdom, "without conceding too much either to pity or to indulgence."
Terrorism has, moreover, emerged as a pattern of criminal transgression and warfare that has no immediate parallel in either other patterns of crime or of warfare. It allows hostile states to engage in continuous acts of war against India, even while they remain involved in a wide range of trade relations and 'peace processes', denying the country the option of condign response. Terrorism demands, and must consequently be accorded a special status in policy, law and warfare if democratic nations are to learn to protect themselves against a affliction that has the potential to enormously escalate in the foreseeable, if not immediate, future, with terrorists securing access to increasingly lethal technologies, potentially including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Through history, nations have had to maintain and often refresh their independence through the force of arms. The South Asian region has become an extraordinary locus of instability, with each of India's neighbours skirting state failure. India is, itself, deeply susceptible to a complex dynamic of destabilisation that has already extended areas of disorder and non-governance to large parts of the country, with nothing resembling an adequate set of responses in evidence. The use of force in the defence of freedom, and of its laws and institutions, is not just a moral necessity, it is a survival imperative. It is a demand that must be fulfilled, moreover, not with jingoism and hyper-nationalism, or with emerging patterns of communal polarisation and coercion, but rather with a strong and sustained reliance on rationality, on a detailed understanding of the challenge of terrorism and disorder, and of the imperatives of a democratic, lawful and effective response to the threats to the nation's freedom and survival.
Despite our sense of civilisational continuity and rising contemporary power, it is useful to remind ourselves that we are a very young and vulnerable nation. Our capacities to survive, to grow and to secure our position among the promised 'great powers' of the world will depend on our capacities to root governance in reality and reason, not in the political illusions that manifestly dominate most contemporary perspectives. Constitutionalism, the rule of law, and the imperatives of governance have too long been neglected in India, or have been reduced to slogans and rituals. Unless this trajectory is reversed, our failures will compound themselves to destroy the tremendous gains of Independence, and of the economic revival of the past decade.
K.P.S. Gill is former director-general of police, Punjab. He is also Publisher, SAIR and President, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was first published in The Pioneer.