Jamia and Shaheen Bagh shootings: It's deeply worrying that the word 'terrorist' is absent from popular discourse
The absence of the word 'terrorist' in the Jamia shooter's story isn't because there ought to be any confusion about the term
Terrorism is not just a political problem; it is also psychological
Pretending this primal rage does not exist - or, worse, valourising it - threatens the foundations of India
The time has come for Indians to open their eyes, and examine the image before them
Editor's note: This piece, originally published after the Jamia shooting, is being re-posted following Saturday's firing at Shaheen Bagh.
Late one sweltering summer evening in 1897, Walter Rand's horse-drawn carriage pulled out of Government House in Pune, where the city's colonial élite were celebrating the Empress' Diamond Jubilee, and headed down what is now Senapati Bapat Marg. Thousands had gathered to watch the illuminations; the hills around the city had been lit up with giant bonfires. Although Rand's military escort trotted alongside the carriage, the colonial civil servant had no reason to fear anything but a bad hangover.
That night, though, death was waiting: The Chapekar brothers, Damodar, Balakrishna and Vasudev, each armed with a sword and a pistol. "He had made himself an enemy of our religion," a confessional statement to the police reads.
Imperial authorities had, for months, used military power to wage war against the plague that had ravaged Pune — a campaign that included entry into homes without warrants, strip searches and, in some accounts, the destruction of Hindu religious idols. The Chapekar brothers sought revenge: They were proud Hindus, and proud terrorists.
"Koi Hindu media nahi hain yahaan," wrote the shooter on his Facebook page in the minutes before he opened fire on protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia on Thursday. "M yha akela hindu hu (sic)," he continued and posted a series of emojis of flexed biceps. There are pictures of him holding up a shotgun and swords, marching to the tunes of a pop song dedicated to Maharana Pratap.
He poses with Deepak Sharma, prosecuted under the National Security Act for inciting violence against Afghan students in 2018; cheers on perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence; proclaims his membership of the Bajrang Dal. Then, there's the announcement of imminent martyrdom: "Mere antim yatra par… mujhe bhagwa mein le jaye… aur jai Shri Ram ke nare ho (Cloak me in saffron for my final journey, and chant the glory of Shri Ram)".
The word 'terrorist' has been conspicuous by its absence in the Jamia shooter's story (as well as that of the man who fired at Shaheen Bagh). This isn't because there ought to be any confusion about the term: The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act lucidly defines a terrorist as someone who acts "with intent to strike terror, or likely to strike terror in the people, or any section of the people in India".
Last year, the BJP leadership asserted that Hindus could never be terrorists — a claim millions of believers endorse. Ideologues who assert that the acquittal of suspects for the bombing of the Samjhauta Express show that there is no such thing as Hindutva terrorism will elide over the conviction of Bhavesh Patel, Devendra Gupta and Sunil Joshi for bombing the Ajmer Sharif shrine.
This culture of denial has several serious consequences. It has legitimised a culture of incitement to violence, most recently demonstrated in the vile language used by Minister of State Anurag Thakur, and Bharatiya Janata Party MP Parvesh Verma. It has enabled a culture of using terror to kill political opponents, and entire communities.
Perhaps most important of all: The denial has opened the gates to hell, laying the foundations for an India where blood-cults pass for political beliefs, and civil war between ethnic and religious groups looms as a real possibility.
The Left has, of course, been complicit in building this culture denial: Claims that there was a deep, dark plot behind the Jaish-e-Mohammad's attack on Parliament House, popularised by Arundhati Roy, haven't stilled despite the lack of evidence to stand them up on; Batla House conspiracy theories have become something of a cottage industry; the Congress leader Digvijay Singh endorsed a book alleging, with a conspicuous lack of evidence, that the attacks of 26 November, 2008 were part of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh plot.
For some on the Left, these mythologies are a comforting from the reality that some Muslims are terrorists; indeed, all discussion of Islamism and jihadism are held to be fictions authored to legitimise communal violence against Muslims.
Hindu nationalists have their own variations on this theme: Hinduism itself, it is argued — if that word can be used to describe a tautology — is inherently secular; Hindu violence, where it exists, is a response to jihadi provocation; these particular terrorists are agents provocateurs, or mentally ill, or innocents framed by the: Someone else or something else is always to blame.
The essence of the ideological mind is its blinding certainty in the virtue of the cause that guides it — a belief that excludes even the smallest shadow of doubt that self-criticism might introduce, and is immune to revision by evidence. Everyone loves a terrorist — as long as he's their own, good terrorist.
In 2008, Hindutva leader BL Sharma 'Prem' held a meeting with key members of the group responsible for the Ajmer Sharif bombing, and other alleged Hindutva terror attacks. "It has been a year since I sent some three lakh letters, distributed 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat but these Brahmins and Banias have not done anything," he said. "It is not that physical power is the only way to make a difference," he concluded, "but to awaken people mentally, I believe that you have to set fire to society."
From 2003, hardliners disenchanted with the RSS began drifting away from democratic politics to a new cult of the bomb. In August 2004, 18 people were injured in the bombings of mosques at Purna and Jalna. In the summer of 2006, Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse of the Bajrang Dal were killed in a bomb-making accident in Nanded.
Then in June 2008, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti operatives were held for the bombing of the Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane. Later, in October, Bajrang Dal-linked Rajiv Mishra and Bhupinder Singh were killed while making a bomb in Kanpur.
Former Maharashtra director-general of police KP Raghuvanshi said in an interview that the Nanded incident could have "frightening repercussions". He was right: The Jamia shooting is not significant only for what it is, but what it portends.
These impulses are, it must be acknowledged, embedded in our freedom movement, a kind of dark counter-narrative to the official story of independence. From 1906 to 1917, colonial records document 210 "revolutionary outrages", as well as another 101 attempted acts, involving some thousand terrorists in Bengal alone. There were another 189 incidents from 1930 to 1934 — claiming the lives of nine British officials, including an Inspector-General of Police.
Early in the last century, Aurobindo Ghose and his lieutenant, Jatindranath Banerji, began popularising the idea of a violent revolution against the British. But, with a population disarmed by law, insurgency was impossible, making targeted terrorism the only viable option.
For many, though, the creation of a masculine Hindu nationalism was key to this process.Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who went on to play a key role in the Hindu Mahasabha, set up Abhinav Bharat in May 1904, to begin this project. In one manifesto, Savarkar's organisation promised to "shed upon the earth the life-blood of the enemies who destroy religion". Later, the radical-Right journal Yugantar argued that the murder of foreigners in India was "not a sin but a yagna".
Part of the problem is that the word 'terrorism' has become a term of moral judgment — not a noun that describes a particular political tactic. Ill-educated Indians thus outrage when Bhagat Singh is described as a terrorist. However, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, to which he belonged, candidly argued that "the revolution is not complete with terrorism".
Terrorism, the HRSA argued, "instils fear in the hearts of the oppressors, it brings hopes of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses, it gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering". The bomb was "the most convincing proof of a nation's hunger for freedom".
In spite of his admiration for the politics of the revolutionary Semeno Azharkovich Ter-Petrossian, the historian Eric Hobsbawm could, similarly, describe him as "a brave and tough Armenian terrorist".
To understand terrorism, context is key. Born in affluence to a Chinchwad Brahmin clan, the Chapekar brothers grew up in a time when their grandfather's poor business choices bankrupted their family. Their father, Hari Vinayak, was forced to work as a kirtan singer, taking his sons along to play instruments. The brothers gave dignity to their circumstance by casting their grandfather as a defiant defender of Hinduism and its Sanskrit heritage.
The Jamia shooter, for his part, found agency and meaning in a dark ideological fantasy — the dignity denied to him in everyday life, where he was just an anonymous part of a semi-educated, prospect-less youth cohort with no prospect of entry into the earthly, capitalist paradise that sprang up around it. Terrorism is not just a political problem: It is also psychological.
Pretending this primal rage does not exist — or, worse, valourising it — threatens the foundations of India: It is an act of treason more fundamental than that of the terrorist himself. Irrespective of what one may think of the ideology of a Narendra Dabholkar or Gauri Lankesh, or the actions of purported cow-smugglers, no nation-state can survive where the law is replaced by a blood-cults and the bomb.
The time has come for Indians to open their eyes, and examine the image before them: In the mirror, the Jamia shooter is what we have become.
An earlier version of this article mentioned Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's association with the RSS, one he did not maintain. That section of the piece has been amended.
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