Terror and the Political Space of Southasia

A year ago in hearing of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto my heart sank as I thought our region was at boiling point.  Over the last week as I heard news of the brutal attacks in Mumbai my heart sinks further as I mourn not only for Mumbai but for our region.

I want to begin with Southasia, borrowing from Himal SouthasianHimal claims it wants to “restore some of the historical unity of our common living space – without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”.  I want to go further and not only hope for the eventual withering away of those nation states, but also consider the political space of not only Southasian history but of the Southasian present.  And in thinking about Southasia, I can not avoid considering South Asia, as defined by the nation states and their relationship, particularly in the form of SAARC.  And when I remember the last two SAARC Summits in 2007 and 2008, I recall a silence and an emphasis.  Silence on political processes and emphasis on terrorism.  Why the latter and not the former, even from the nation state perspective, both would be important within nation states and between nation states.

Is it that the nation state conception of sovereignty and territorial integrity avoids emphasis on political processes in the regional organization? But then why emphasize terrorism, is it only because of the violence, destruction and instability caused by terrorism, or is it also because terrorism questions the very definition of the state, as the entity that monopolizes the legitimate use of violence?  But then why not political process, for does it not also define the nation state?  Unless of course there is only the conception of a repressive state in SAARC, that of a nation state which only thinks of security and the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.

I want to think about the political space of Southasia, the space in which nation states, but also terrorism and political processes exist.  This Southasian political space surpasses nation states, including their conception of sovereignty and territorial integrity.  It is the political space – both in its history as well as its present – that should project the “national question” in Sri Lanka, the Tarai in Nepal and Kashmir as political problems for Southasia. But that projection is repressed by the problem of terrorism.

But what is terrorism?  At the moment, the Government of Sri Lanka is primarily claiming to fight a war against terrorism.  And in fighting its war against terrorism it is denying the political problem of minorities.  But Sri Lanka has a longer history of claiming to fight terrorism; the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ came into effect in Sri Lanka in the late seventies.  Significantly, terrorism now has much greater purchase, globally and regionally, to silence any call for a political process.

I want to think about and understand the relationship of terrorism to political space.  And in thinking about terrorism, I want to borrow from the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) [UTHR(J) – over the last twenty years has been a critical voice of dissent challenging all armed actors; the Sri Lankan State, the LTTE and other armed groups through their voluminous reports of political critique].  UTHR(J) helps me to distinguish between the concept “terror” and the doctrinal status of “terrorism”.  Not only were they able to articulate the existence of “state terror”, they went further and talked about “internal terror”.  For UTHR(J), it was not only the bombs, the targeting of civilians alone that was a problem of “terror”, it was also what it did inside the very community the LTTE claimed to represent, particularly the targeting of dissent, where the killing or abduction of carefully selected individuals could lead to the silencing of an entire community.  The massacres and indiscriminate killings that form “external terror”, as seen by the LTTE’s massacres of Sinhalese civilians, or the mass eviction of Muslims by the LTTE or the massacres of Tamil civilians by the security forces, have to be understood in relation to the dynamics of “internal terror”, which can sometimes be far more repressive and cripple an entire community.  The political numbness we see in the Tamil community over the last two decades, the lack of diverse voices, is a consequence of such “internal terror”.  The perpetuation of the State’s war against terrorism as a dirty war with the use of military death squads and Tamil armed groups – characterized by political killings, extrajudicial executions, abductions, disappearances and torture – contribute ironically to further “terror” for the minority communities; of both “internal terror” and “external terror”.

Now, I would argue that “internal terror” and “external terror” reside in the political space which is also the space of political processes.  There is a dialectical relationship between “internal terror” and “external terror”, and the possibilities for political processes.  The repression and unwillingness to move on the political process by the Sri Lankan State and its use of “external terror” will weaken the Tamil community further and make it susceptible to the “internal terror” of the LTTE.  The “internal terror” of the LTTE and its decimation of Tamil actors capable of political engagement in turn will further weaken any possibility of a political process.  In other words, both forms of terror will work towards the further polarization of society.  And both forms of terror are about power, control and the consolidation of the “other”.  The politics of the grave spectacle of terror in Mumbai more recently can perhaps be seen as an act to polarize and consolidate the “other”.  For me, this seems to be the logic of cultural fascist movements and repressive states; they need each other and rely on forms of terror as opposed to the political process.

Returning then to the question of terrorism, particularly non-state actors, I have to ask the question, are some of these organizations terrorist, religious or fascist?  I find fascist politics, including cultural fascist politics to be far more dangerous, because their aim is to erase the possibilities of political processes and create the foundations for further cycles of terror.  Such cultural fascist politics can be claimed on the basis of nation as in the case of the LTTE, or in the name of Hinduism in the case of the Hindutva movement or in the name of Islam in the case of certain other groups.  Fascist politics then, through its political claims and its acts of terror rejects the possibilities of political processes towards reconciliation and coexistence.

It is here that progressive forms of solidarity and peoples engagement in general should be one of challenging terror with politics.  The nation states and their regional forums find it convenient as well as in their interest to be silent on political processes; they are satisfied with problems of security, intelligence and counter-terror.  For those of us who value politics as the realm of possibilities for our social worlds, the ongoing cycles of war and terror, poses the challenge of pushing not just the states but also non-state forces to enter the realm of political processes.  It would require a different political language from that of terrorism, security, intelligence and counter-insurgency.  Rather, it would explore the political language of peace, justice, coexistence and reconciliation.  Nation states and cultural fascist movements have their own logic, some of them may never let go of their visions of legitimate violence and redemptive violence, or their practices of external terror and internal terror.  The nation states that signed the SAARC statement of 2008 do not mention the Vanni, Tarai or Kashmir; it is as if those places do not exist in South Asia.  As we mourn the tragedies of Southasia, a peoples’ vision must consider the political space of Southasia, use a different political language and embrace the possibilities of political processes.

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