The Definition Shortchanges India

Guest post by DILIP D’SOUZA

Responding to Rahul Gandhi’s recent Wikileaked comment, Sadanand Dhume asks “What Terrorizes India?” (Wall Street Journal, December 20). It’s a good question that deserves an answer. Did Dhume answer it?

As is well known now, Gandhi said this to US Ambassador Tim Roemer last year: “The bigger threat [to India] may be the growth of radicalized Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community.” Dhume’s essay is a severe criticism of Gandhi’s comment, and in the end of the man himself. The criticism, I’m not particularly interested in: people have their varying opinions about Gandhi and that’s fine with me. But I wonder if Dhume has thought through the implication of his own title. Indeed, what does terrorize India, and Indians?

When homegrown mobs went after their fellow Indians in Delhi in November 1984 and slaughtered 3000 of them using knives and fire and the like, were those slaughtered Indians terrorized? I find it hard to imagine that, as they were being hunted down and murdered in trains, on roads, in fields, they did not feel terrorized. So in what sense, by what arcane definition, did this ghastly episode from our history not terrorize India?

In much the same way, mobs hunted down Indians in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, killing about a thousand. In 2002, mobs slaughtered another thousand or more Indians in Gujarat. Ask again: did these now dead Indians not feel terrorized as they were being picked out and killed? Was India not terrorized by these massacres? Let me freely admit: I lived through that killing in Mumbai in 1992-93 and I felt an overwhelming terror for weeks. I can hardly have been the only one.

The flaw in Dhume’s logic is common to a lot of us: he starts off by defining terrorism in his mind as what maniacs driven by “radical Islam” do, and only what they do. What other maniacs driven by other sinister ideologies do is, therefore, not terrorism. Maybe it’s communal or sectarian violence, maybe. Or perhaps it’s just a “fanatical mob”, the caption on a photograph accompanying his essay. Whatever it is, it ain’t terrorism, because terrorism is what only the Muslims do — didn’t we define it that way?

I mean, it’s revealing that in a comment on his own essay, Dhume himself says “communal violence” does not belong in his op-ed, “which is focused specifically on terrorism.” It’s simple, you see: call it something other than terrorism and that’s it, by definition you can’t discuss it along with terrorism.

But what else is it but terrorism?

And this logical flaw leads Dhume to simply blank out too many inconvenient truths.

There’s the “question of scale”, he says, pointing out that “alleged Hindu terrorists are accused” — and oh, he reminds us, they are not convicted — of bomb attacks that killed 17 people. Compare to “the radical Islamic terrorist attacks since 26/11” — as Dhume tells us, those have killed more than 950. 17 vs 950: huge difference. Right?

But only months after 9/11, Gujarat was drenched in blood. By Dhume’s own admission in that same comment, over a thousand people were killed in that state in early 2002. Why then gloss over that figure in his essay? The only reason 17 looks small compared to 950 is that Dhume has defined the Gujarat thousand out of the comparison. Put them back in and suddenly the “question of scale” is not quite the question it was.

There’s there’s Dhume’s reliance on the South Asia Terrorism Portal for that 950 number. When I first read news reports a few years ago that quoted numbers from SATP, I went digging on the Portal. Three things struck me then and they haven’t changed at all since.

* First, many reports cite SATP’s numbers on fatalities due to terrorism. Their most current listing of these “India fatalities”, as of December 19, is 59,471 since 1994 (add the columns on the extreme right of each table). It’s a startling total. It is even more startling when you look more closely at the tables and find that the 59,471 includes terrorists, and in fact as many 28,018 terrorists, or nearly half of the total.

It’s worth asking, at any rate: Should a list of deaths due to terrorism include dead terrorists?

* Second, no sources are listed on that India Fatalities page. Not one. None, as far as I can tell, for Dhume’s 950 figure either. On some other pages, you will find this statement: “Figures are compiled from news reports and are provisional”. Or this one: “Compiled from English language media sources.”

SATP uses unmentioned press reports to compile its figures. In turn, the press quotes SATP’s figures in its reports. It’s worth thinking about, at any rate.

* Third, nowhere in SATP’s India Datasheets will you find data for, or even a mention of, the atrocities I mentioned earlier — the 1984, 1992-93 and 2002 massacres. Nowhere. Why? Well, perhaps SATP, like Dhume, considers these events to be “communal violence”, or “sectarian violence” — but not terrorism. I cannot agree, but it’s their opinion, their site, his article in the WSJ.

But then I looked at SATP’s Pakistan Datasheets. One of them is titled Sectarian violence in Pakistan since 1989. It has tables and graphs and descriptions of this “sectarian violence” in that country, which has left nearly 3500 Pakistanis dead in two decades.

Why does SATP offer comprehensive numbers on sectarian violence in Pakistan, but remain silent on exactly the same kind of violence in India? That’s worth a question or two, surely?

It’s these three features of SATP’s work that told me exactly how seriously I should take them. It’s too bad Dhume wasn’t as sceptical of SATP as he is in his other journalism.

Dhume ends by suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is “out of touch with the dominant ethos” of India. Maybe so, but what ethos is that, really? One that asks us to be ostriches about one kind of violence, but only one kind, in this country?

If so, I’m glad to be out of touch as well. I’m gladder still that plenty of my countrymen are just as out of touch. And that’s why I suspect it’s not as dominant an ethos as Dhume thinks it is.

10 thoughts on “The Definition Shortchanges India”

  1. On this one , Rahul Gandhi is ABSOLUTELY right.

    Anyone , with half a brain , knows that Hindu communalism is a greater threat to India as a nation.

    Also note the term “Hindu terror”…..this term is invented by the media (both mainstream and alternate) to mean the bomb blasts which are alleged to be the work of far right hindutva groups…….he was NOT referring to this “hindu terror”……he was mostly referring to communal violence perpetrated by the far right groups…….


    1. “Anyone , with half a brain , knows that Hindu communalism is a greater threat to India as a nation”

      Someone with a full brain would disagree.


  2. great…. passionately argued. does well to reveal the nakedness of ‘Indian’ double-standards with regard to all that is ‘religious’.


  3. Dilip you know what terrorises me? Your very easy going omission of one bunch of blood thirsty thugs who ran amok in late 1989 butchering about a 100 people and driving about half a million more out of their home and hearth…I am talking of the Kashmir Valley where bloodthirsty Islamic thugs drove Hindus out. And you know what is the best thing that has happened to them since? Their leaders like the one time rapist Yasin Malik and jihad and sharia loving Geelani get to be feted by the likes of you.


  4. Islamic terror is ideological, relentless and transnational. So called Hindu terror is reactive and localised. The Islamists want to establish a theocratic state run on the lines of the Koran, and impose it on non-Moslems worldwide.

    If this “Hindu terror’ were as big a problem as Islamic, then surely it would appear in those countries where Hindus are in a minority, and have suffered injustice, discrimination and violence. Yet, there hasn’t been a single instance of Hindus in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan( or anywhere else) indulging in serial bombing, hijacking, murder or sabotage, with the idea of avenging injustices, let alone setting up a theocratic Hindu state, whatever that is.


  5. Also, D’Souza did not answer all the other trenchant observations that Dume made, including motivation, ideology, size and state support.


  6. Two supplemental points:

    1. I don’t know why Rahul Gandhi’s remarks are controversial. He was only articulating what his great-grandfather had said even before independence. Nehru distinguished between majority and minority communalism and maintained that the former was more dangerous than the latter. The following excerpt from Asghar Ali Engineer’s article ilustrates Nehru’s thinking:

    Jawaharlal Nehru maintained even during pre-partition period (when minority communalism was comparatively more aggressive) that majority communalism is aggressive and reactionary and minority communalism is defensive and borne out of feeling of insecurity.

    The majority communalism showed its aggressiveness in post-independence India first in Jabalpur riots of 1962. Nehru never thought in post-independence India such aggressive communal violence can break out. He was greatly shocked. However, Nehru and Maulana Azad were great pillars of secularism and did everything to protect and even promote it.

    I think Rahul Gandhi’s remarks are controversial only to the extent that he borrows from his great-grandfather without attribution.

    2. Gyanendra Pandey in an old article titled In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India today (in EPW?) notes that the Indian press typically tries to “equalize” Hindu and Muslim/Christian/Sikh “responsibility” for violence in its coverage of riots, even when the victims are overwhelmingly from the minority groups. In particular, he notes that one example of Hindu atrocity is “balanced” with an example of Muslim atrocity. (Pandey is talking specifically about the 1977 Bhagalpur riots where the casualties were overwhelmingly on the Muslim side. His deeply felt article is worth reading.)

    This type of subtle bias goes unnoticed. Most of us who get our news from the Indian press unwittingly subscribe to this bias. It is probably why Mr. Dhume feels justified in removing communal violence from his definition of terrorism: if indeed, both parties are “equally” responsible for the violence, then one can argue that it is not “terrorism” where the violence is inflicted by one side. We need to remind ourselves that when communal violence – or whatever name you want to give it – occurs, it does not follow that both parties are “equally” responsible. Indeed, given the pattern of communal violence – by now, documented extensively – it is nothing but terrorism, as you correctly note.

    Thanks for the article.


  7. Dilip – A life lost is a life lost. Cause of 1984 riots/ LeT sponsored terrorist attach in nov 2008 is immaterial – both of them need to be taken seriously.

    Though I have few questions.
    1. In all these riots except 1984 sikh riots which was congress attacking the sikhs, it was a clash of religions – people of both the religions got killed. But yet the reference is as if it is an hindu terrorism. why is that?
    2. As much as 1984 congress sikh riots was disturbing so was LeT’s mumbai attack. But yet you seem to be sympathetic more to one set of act than other. In short you are doing the same mistake that you are blaming the others.

    Even in this article you have said”Dhume ends by suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is “out of touch with the dominant ethos” of India. Maybe so, but what ethos is that, really? One that asks us to be ostriches about one kind of violence, but only one kind, in this country?” Rahul gandhi has said he feels bigger threat by hindu radical groups when asked about LeT. If he just said he feels threatened by hindu radical groups for India that would have been different.

    But by implying hindu groups are bigger threat than LeT – he is the one who is toeing the ethos that you blame others of – ostriches about one kind of violence.

    Is that your kind of ethos as well, Dilip?

    Ps: I do feel there is a difference between two people fighting and one bullying another. Terrorism is of later category. Again as I said since I am from Madras, I dont know the ground realities. I do see people belonging to both the religions die in these riots. There are differences between riots and terrorism – one dont need to brandish riots as terrorism to sensitize people or bring justice.
    Ps1: In case you agree with Rahul’s line, Our last religious riot was in 2002. Even when Babri Masjid verdict, there werent any issues. On the other hand, the terrorist attacks havent stopped. If at all, there is a growth trend – it is the LeT terror attack.


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