Show a picture of a uniformed man battling a wild-looking civilian to a hundred people and ask them to identify the terrorist. Ninety-nine will point to the civilian; one might point to the man in uniform.
It's a question of political or ideological optics: one man's terrorist can be another's perceived freedom fighter. These are the two, interlinked and often interchangeable, faces of terror. Which is why in international, or non-parochial media, the preferred word to describe an individual who resorts to indiscriminate violence against society and the state to further his own ideological or religious agenda is ‘militant' not 'terrorist'. Media professionals, no less than serious historians, are only too uncomfortably aware that today's 'terrorist' might become tomorrow's victorious champion of the downtrodden, or a martyr crucified for a noble cause.
You are the local magistrate. Brought before you by the police is a scruffy individual, of no fixed address, who not only has a chargesheet of physical assaults on prominent members of the banking profession but has also been holding public rallies alarmingly subversive of the sovereignty of the state. You would classify the accused as a dangerous extremist, a proto-terrorist if not a full-fledged suicide bomber, and deal with him accordingly. Which is what Pontius Pilate did in the case of the State vs Jesus Christ.
"What is truth?" jested Pilate, and did not wait for an answer. If he had, it might have perplexed him not a little. As it has done in the case of successive generations and governments. For Indians, Bhagat Singh was, and always will be, a tragic hero in our fight for freedom. To the British imperialists of the time he was a political criminal, a terrorist. Which is how the apartheid government of South Africa saw a guerrilla called Nelson Mandela, subsequently hailed as the African Mahatma.
It's often said that history is a partisan narrative dictated by the winning side. But yesteryear's victors — from Pilate to the British Raj — become the villains of the present, and their mortal enemies are valorised by their victimhood.
But can even the most tortuous turns and twists of history justify the killing of innocents, including women and children, as collateral sacrifices on the altar of a higher cause? In what we call India's First War of Independence - and which others still refer to as the Sepoy Mutiny - in what was then known as Cawnpore, and in other places, civilians, including women and children, were put to the sword and flame by the insurgents. Fighters for independence or mutinous terrorists? The Allies justified the atom-bombing of the civilian centres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the grounds that the alternative to ending World War II - an infantry invasion of Japan - would have cost even more lives. Justifiable act of war, or a terrorist attack on an unprecedented - and still unsurpassed - scale?
Take a look at that picture of a uniformed man combating an unkempt civilian. Imagine the uniform to be that of the Chinese army, and the civilian to be a Tibetan activist. Still sure which - invariably and unalterably - is the true face of terror?
6 months ago