Since fighting terrorism with terror has not yielded the desired result, there is an urgent need for an alternate paradigm.
The ahimsaic option is to prevent or overcome enmity. Unwavering commitment to truth is the essence of hospitality as well as ahimsa.
Fighting terrorism can be strategised in two contrary ways. The first is to match force with force, and to overwhelm terror with superior terror. Terrorism is the outworking of hostility. So terrorists must be paid back in their own coin. We must thr ow every conceivable weapon at them, devise draconian laws to disable them and beef up security to outsmart them. This boils down to a familiar prescription, ‘a tooth for a tooth’. Going by available evidence, this has not yielded the desired results. Nor does it seem likely to; that is, going by the track record both of the Global War on Terror and of our own endeavours to contain terror.
Perhaps there is another way? And it is time we gave it a thought?
Our actions and reactions are conditioned by the reigning paradigm or mindset. A paradigm is a key idea that shapes a people’s outlook and strategies. The prevailing paradigm is ‘hostility’. Faith in the imperative need for violence — “by violence alone”! — is the hallmark of this paradigm. Like the tacit dogma that a cola can be fought only by a better cola, it is presumed that disproportionate violence is the only panacea for violence. As a result, we feel irritated when a counter paradigm is suggested; and not without reason. Shifting from one paradigm to another is a painful and daunting prospect. It entails a radical change in one’s outlook and responses. It feels like an outrage: like having to believe that the earth goes around the sun, after having been for centuries told to believe the contrary. Small wonder, Galileo was deemed a subversive heretic, an enemy of truth.
A boxer, curiously, seems more practical than security pundits in dealing with violence. In protecting himself from his opponent, he alternates between two contrary ways. He attacks. But he also holds the attacker, strategically, in a defensive embrace. Physical proximity is a curious thing. One has to be near enough to be hit. But if one is too near one cannot be hit. The boxer’s embrace is, however, situated in the matrix of hostility. It is meant to save oneself from violence to be able to inflict violence. It does not involve the acceptance of the other, which is the essence of hospitality.
‘Hospitality’ could be an alternative to ‘hostility’. The latter paradigm has reigned supreme in the history of the world. Hence it was that history became a story of man’s cruelty to man. A fascination for violence, even an admiration for criminality, as Aristotle points out in The Poetics, seems innate in human nature. We have, says Collin Wilson, in The Origin of the Sexual Impulse, a secret admiration for the criminal. It is not accidental that the underbelly of leadership, both in religion and politics, is tainted with criminality to a greater extent than it is with the common folk. The larger the scale on which crime is committed, says Aristotle, the greater our admiration for the criminal. While a petty thief is despised, a mega-criminal acquires an aura of romanticism and heroism. Remember the crush that several university girls had on Charles Shobhraj when he was in Tihar jail? Why do you think Monica Bedi fell for Abu Salem? The only shortcut to political stardom that an aspirant, a pathetic political cipher, could find was murdering Phoolan Devi! All these point to the love-hate relationship that we have with violence. Our basic instincts are that of hospitality; but our tastes are conditioned by the culture of hostility. We are split-personalities.
‘Hostility’ need not be the only strategy for countering terrorism. From ancient of days the saints and seers of this land advocated ‘ahimsa,’ or non-violence, not as mere posturing, but as a holistic worldview. Ahimsa is a whole, integrated and all-embracing culture. Truth, according to Gandhiji, is the shaping force of this culture. The truth is that we all belong together. “Beneath the skin,” as social anthropologists assure us, “we are kin.” The whole of creation is one integrated family. Universal togetherness is the truth. Splintered otherness is falsehood. If so, ‘enmity’ is maya. Hospitality is the outworking of the inner truth that we all belong together and that we need to accept and rejoice in each other, irrespective of our differences. Hospitality is to the paradigm of peace what hostility is to the paradigm of war and violence. Regrettably, we do precious little to propagate a culture of hospitality and non-violence. We are becoming hospitality-challenged and peace-illiterate. Our level of tolerance is sinking alarmingly, as the phenomenon of ‘road rage’ pricks us to realise. The feasibility of hospitality as a strategy for overcoming violence is, hence, dismissed out of hand, untried. We persist and persevere with hostility even though we bleed all the more for it.
Culture of hospitality
To get a flavour of the culture of hospitality, consider an episode from the life of St. Francis of Assisi narrated by G. K. Chesterton in his fascinating biography of that saint of non-violence. The shepherds of Assisi were upset that a wolf from the nearby jungle was plundering their sheep daily. So they decided to hunt it down and end the menace. Francis came to know of their plan. He sought time from them to solve the problem. He disappeared into the forest and returned, three days later, with the wolf: now totally tamed and domesticated.
Such a way of solving the problem did not occur to the shepherds; for they too were conditioned to think that violence was the sole remedy. From the perspective of ahimsa, their mindset was no different from that of the wolf! Francis resorted to the strategy of hospitality rather than of hostility.
The goals of these two paradigms differ radically. While the outlook of hostility endeavours to eliminate ‘the enemy,’ the paradigm of hospitality seeks to eradicate ‘enmity’. The paradigm of ‘a tooth for a tooth,’ as an anti-terror strategy, targets the enemy, who targets innocent human beings because he cannot get at his enemy. It is no longer ‘a tooth for a tooth’ but ‘as many innocent and indiscriminate teeth as possible for a tooth’. Violence spreads, gets glorified, and its logic penetrates deeper into the collective psyche. The ahimsaic option, on the contrary, is to prevent or overcome enmity. Almost invariably, enmity is based on falsehood. Unwavering commitment to truth is the essence of hospitality as well as ahimsa. The truth about others can be known only by accepting them. At a distance there is only propaganda. Propaganda is nothing but word-pelting. It is the whirligig of hostility aimed at aggravating alienation. Truth is to hospitality what falsehood is to hostility. Falsehood is the offspring of fear. Fear and mutual suspicion make us eager to lap up the propagandist falsehood dished out as though it is the ultimate truth.
We can only do better by shifting from the mindset of hostility to that of hospitality — which is also the necessary foundation for ‘unity-in-diversity’ — as our doctrine for overcoming terror! The curse of terrorism is not merely that several innocent lives are lost, tragic as that surely is. The greatest peril of terrorism is that it tears apart the fabric of unity-in-diversity. Terrorism, and the strategies for countering it predicated on hostility, are weakening the sinews of our unity as a nation. Standing inflexibly by the ‘tried and failed’ strategy of overcoming force by force amounts to dogged irresponsibility. “Peace,” as John Milton says, “has its trophies not less than war.” The resources and strategies of peace and non-violence need to be given a chance, even as a matter of honouring our unique spiritual heritage, in healing the nation of this rising epidemic of terror, untruth and alienation. India cannot afford to be a house of hostility. We — all Indians — are neighbours who need to love each other. We are brothers and sisters. “A house divided against itself,” as Abraham Lincoln said, “cannot stand”. India must stand, and stand united and strong; not just for our sake, but also for the sake of the world. The strength of a nation is not in its fire-power, but in its unity-power! Hospitality, or unprejudiced openness to each other, is the seed of unity. We become one, when we accept each other as we are and seek together that we may become, as a people, what we need to be.
Valson Thampu is the Principal of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi.
6 months ago