Appears in: Selected Papers: "International Seminar on Counter-Terrorism Strategies for the 21st Century: Asian and Pacific Perspectives." Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, August 26, 1999.

The Columbia University Desk Encyclopedia defines TERRORISM as follows:

The term is usually applied to organized acts or threats of violence designed to intimidate opponents or to publicize grievances. It frequently involves bombing, kidnapping, plane hijacking, the taking of hostages, and assassination.

The term dates back to the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in 1793-94. But, as the author of this contribution to the encyclopedia declares, with marked understatement, the phenomenon "has taken on added meaning in the 20th century." Examples of terrorist organizations mentioned at the time of publication in 1983 were the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Red Brigades of Italy. Clearly, much more water has passed over the dam since those "simpler" days!

Viewed from a slightly different perspective, it might be argued that terrorism is a particular genre of violence whose emergence has been coterminous with the rise of the modern state and its techno-economic concomitant, the Industrial Revolution. The massive, socially disruptive impact which these ramifying political and economic structures had on the lives of everyone whom they encompassed, and the unprecedented power which the wealth they produced placed in the hands of the elites who controlled them, made it inevitable that among the individuals and groups who saw themselves as in some sense dis-privileged victims of the system would be a few who concluded that resort to desperate measures was the only means through which their perceived disabilities could be made visible and redressed. As the scale of modern state systems continued to increase, and become increasingly internally socially differentiated, as well as politically differentiated from one another, so also did the scale of social conflict associated with them correspondingly increase. Wars achieved megadeath proportions. Revolutions encompassed entire continents. Riots, strikes, and other such forms of organized violence became endemic means by which socio-cultural groups of various demographic proportions within the corpus of individual states, and across their borders, expressed their collectively perceived grievances against the state and against one another. Within the ambit of these manifold forms of organized violence, terrorism, as defined by the Columbia Encyclopedia, became and remains a method of choice through which small groups of individuals, or individuals per se, could lash out at real or imagined institutionalized enemies allegedly responsible for their group's suffering, deprivation or duress. Terrorism allows blows to be struck at purported adversaries in highly personalized, highly visible, highly dramatic forms. Terrorism gets people's attention!

Clearly, the principal milieus that have spawned terrorism are ethnically structured communities whose collective identities are based upon socio-religious, socio-cultural and social-class variables. The ideologies that drive such groups stress the injustice and oppression being inflicted on them by the elites who control the state, or by some other more favored group within the corpus of the state. These ideologies endeavor to mobilize the group into a political force capable of achieving enough power to improve their lot, both materially and symbolically, either within the system or by gaining freedom from it. Terrorism is a spin-off from the ranks of an ethnically structured community that is in political conflict with some other group in the state, or with the state writ large, by members of the group who have come to believe that only the most extreme measures will lead to any recognition and redress of their group's grievances. 

During the 19th century, terrorism became a common manifestation among groups that defined their separate identity in class-terms and employed Marxist or other socialist doctrines as their ideological rationale. The Paris Commune is a striking example, as is the Haymarket riot that erupted in Chicago. Socio-cultural ethnicity as well frequently became the basis for resistance to state authority perceived to be in the hands of rival, hostile ethnic communities. The Turkish pogroms against the Armenians at the turn of the century come to mind. As do the ethnic rivalries within the Austro-Hungarian empire which resulted in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and ultimately to World War I.. One should remember that it was a Serb who fired the shots, an indicator of how little things have changed in the Balkans in the past century. In India, Bengali terrorism and the Gaddar Movement in the Punjab directed against the British Raj are apt instances. In the 20th century, further growth in the scale and capacity for technologically sophisticated violence by and within the modern state upped the ante further. The Holocaust is the worst manifestation of systematic, ethnically-driven state terrorism waged against an entire population ever known. Pol Pot's Cambodia and Stalin's Russia are probably the most pervasive manifestations of systematic class-driven state terrorism waged against entire classes (the Kulaks in Russia and the educated urban population in Cambodia.) so far experienced.. One need not comment on the technological progress achieved by smaller-scale terrorist formations. Lockerbee, the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and the recent exploits of Osama bin-Laden in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam provide all the testimony required!

Since the end of World War II, the lines between nations and the ethnically structured social formations within them sharpened further, due to the demise of colonialism and the emergence of Third World states. In this new world, nationalism and sub-nationalisms became and continue to be the principal ideological raw material for crafting ethno-social and ethno-religious mobilization. The mere fact that so many of the new non-Western states came into being as multi-cultural entities, after having emerged in the first place as manifestations of national self-assertion that saw itself as culturally and "racially" distinct from the West, added great impetus to the nationalist and sub-nationalist mode of political mobilization. Even class-specific ideologies such as (and most particularly) Marxism found themselves being reworked or 'parochialized' into essentially nationalistic doctrines designed to advance the self-assertive aspirations of some particular nationality or configuration of sub-nationalities. The North Vietnamese utilization of Marxism is certainly a classic instance of this process as is, for that matter, Maoist China. In this plethora of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic social environments, fraught with such widespread potential for inter-cultural/inter-ethnic conflict, it is small wonder that terrorism in many different forms and guises has proved to be such a flourishing political enterprise.

In the light of this brief overview of the social-historical context of terrorism, it might be useful to try an identify the contemporary scope and types of the ‘minority groups' in whose cultural soil ethnic conflict and, within it, terrorism tends to gestate. Joseph E. Schwartzberg (Asian Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 1995) has prepared a body of data which show that 40 percent of the world's inhabited area contains countries where racial, linguistic or racial minorities "constitute local majorities within the countries they inhabit." (p. 71) Their concentration in particular portions of the larger whole, of course, makes them ripe for political mobilization should the right set of circumstances present itself. On linguistic grounds alone, Schwartzberg claims to have identified 321 linguistic minorities with a half-million or more members who are either territorially dispersed or territorially concentrated. Of these, he says, 291 are territorially concentrated and are, therefore, the most ripe for ethnically structured political mobilization. In South Asia, Schwartzberg identifies a total of 50 linguistic minorities, only two of which are linguistically dispersed. This means that 48 either are ripe for ethnically structured political mobilization or have already been so mobilized. Twelve of these 48 groups number above 10 million; nine range between 2.5 and 10 million; 27 range between .5 and 2.5 million. Noteworthy, of course, in the context of today's news, is that Kashmiris are one of the demographically high-end cultural-linguistic groups who have been the objects of political mobilization on ethno-cultural and ethno-religious grounds for over 50 years, and are now approaching some kind of climax in their quest for a separate political/cultural/linguistic identity, caught between the competing hegemonic aspirations of India and Pakistan.

Being one of the most pluralistic societies in the world, India has had its share of ethno-cultural and ethno-religious mobilization and conflict, and therefore of various manifestations of terrorism. Perhaps one should point out, at the same time, however, that the scope and proportions of terrorism, and the forms of ethnic conflict which spawn it have been far less virulent than might have been predicted at the outset of the attainment of Indian independence due to the fact that India adopted a system of democratic government which has proved to be flexible enough to absorb, accommodate and reconcile many of the manifestations of pluralistically driven social conflict it has encountered. The linguistic reorganization of the Indian states in the 1950s, potentially a major source of civil unrest and terrorism, was skillfully managed by the simple procedure of allowing it to happen and then ratifying it in constitutional terms. The threatened secession of Tamilnadu in the 1960s was defused by granting a higher order of political, cultural and linguistic identity-differentiation to the state's predominantly Tamil population.

At the same time, there have been and remain instances of ethnic discontent, punctuated by terrorism, which have so far proved to be comparatively intractable. Assam in India's northeast frontier region is one such instance. Here, an admixture of ethno-religious and ethno-cultural cleavage has so far resisted every effort by the Indian state to find a solution acceptable to all parties. Assami tribals are ethno-linguistically distinct from the heartland's predominantly Hindu population; they are mostly Christian (and some are animistic) due to the success which Christian missionaries had in converting these tribes dating back to the Raj; and have a measure of cultural ties that reach across the Burmese border. They have resisted accepting the principal premise which the Indian government employs as justification for any group's incorporation into the Indian Union – viz., that India as a secular state does not distinguish between minority and majority rights.

Sikhs are another community that has attempted to stand somewhat apart as a separate nationality within the corpus of Indian society. In their case, the principal basis is ethno-religious (viz., the Sikh religion), and secondarily ethno-linguistic (viz., the distinctiveness of the Punjabi language.) The terrorism of recent years associated with the demand for a separate Sikh nation (Khalistan) is a byproduct of these ethno-religious/ethno-linguistic preoccupations (as well as internal cultural cleavages within the Sikh community itself which cannot be gone into here), in their militant forms which if successful could lead to separate nationhood. However, thus far, this extreme militancy has not been shared by a majority of Sikhs. Therefore, despite the efforts of the community's fanatics, their overseas supporters in the West, and in Pakistan, as well as attempts by some of the established Indian political parties to manipulate factions within the Sikh community to their advantage, this movement has proved to be, while highly lethal and politically disruptive, limited in its results. One reason is because Sikhs are comparatively prosperous and well-off within their own province (Punjab is one of the most economically advanced provinces in the country), and are widely dispersed around the country in business, the professions and government service. Another is because the historical and doctrinal affinities between Sikhism and Hinduism are considerable (the community was founded by a Hindu saint, Guru Nanak), from a religious standpoint they exceed the doctrinal things that divide them.

The divide between Islam and Hinduism is obviously the largest scale and most pronounced ethno-religious cleavage that has beset India throughout its modern history, as wide as, and far more lethal, than the doctrinal cleavage that occurred between Hinduism and Buddhism two thousand years ago.. Almost from the moment that the interplay between the British Raj and the emerging Indian middle-classes started the process of evolution toward representative political institutions for the country, this schism emerged. Its genesis lay in two things: (1) No two religions could have been more apposite than Hinduism and Islam. (2) The fact that prior to the dawning of modern political institutions in India, Muslims had been a politically dominant minority ruling over a politically subordinated and culturally beleaguered demographic majority for nearly a thousand years.

Early in the game, Muslim leaders, such as Sayid Ahmad Khan, foresaw that open polities would reverse this centuries-old juxtaposition of power. Hindus would eventually be able to achieve political superiority in the modern, democratic state by the sheer weight of their numbers at the ballot box. The history of the so-called Separatist Movement which led ineluctably to the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state grew out of this original, elemental fear of doctrinal and political inundation in a sea of Hinduism and Hindu voters. Negotiations between the British, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League prior to Independence, and between the Congress and the League afterward, were always fundamentally preoccupied with how previous Muslim political dominance and religious integrity, which enabled Indian Muslim elites to acquire a considerable measure of ethno-religious self-consciousness and cultural sophistication, could be balanced against the political dominance that the Hindu community would inevitably enjoy once an open polity was fully established. Failure to resolve these issues was the reason why communal violence between the two communities persisted and escalated through time, why in the end only a two-nation solution to the communities' socio-religious and political differences could be achieved, and why, following independence, the ethno-religious antipathies between the two states almost immediately eventuated in a permanent state of war between them – a condition that, once the Cold War commenced, both the United States and the Soviet Union avidly cultivated and exploited in pursuit of their global strategic objectives.

Kashmir became the permanent abrasive which enabled Pakistan and India to project their ethno-religious/ethno-cultural and regional hegemonic antipathies into the international arena. Three open wars and a persistent pattern of provocation have kept Kashmir alive as a source of confrontation and a threat to world peace. Behind the veneer of this hegemonic struggle have reposed the Kashmiri people themselves who have been prevented from developing the separate ethno-cultural and political identity which it has become increasingly clear in recent years they genuinely desire. As the stalemate between India and Pakistan has continued, while neither state has been able to fully integrate the share of the Kashmiri population under their control into their national systems in a manner satisfying to the Kashmiris themselves, dissent and unrest have escalated on both sides of the Line of Control, which has been increasingly exploited by the occupying governments and by dissident groups within each region. Especially has this been the case on the Indian side where the bulk of the population resides and where the most important urban centers are found. With escalating dissent, especially that emanating from a growing section of more educated and urbane Kashmiris, who want a political identity that distinguishes them from both hegemonic states, has come increased popular resistance and terrorism. The failure of the Indian government in particular to evolve a formula which satisfies Kashmiri sub-nationalism has created an atmosphere of frustration and violence that has opened the way for Pakistan's entry into the fray (as a supporter and trainer of separatist fighters) and which ultimately led to the recent Kargil intervention in which professional terrorists were intermeshed with regular Pakistani military forces.

What are the conclusions to be drawn from the two forms of ethnically structured conflict we have noted for India with respect to their relevance for terrorism? The first was the cases where ethno-social/ethno-cultural/ethno-linguistic mobilization arose, reached critical levels of political confrontation, but in the end were resolved through successful accommodation between the state and the locally concentrated minorities in question. These were the differentiation of Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat along linguistic/cultural lines, and the accommodation of Tamil sub-nationalism. Other solutions of this type could be mentioned if space permitted. The democratic structure of the political system and the secular bona-fides of the existing political leadership proved to be an adequately flexible basis for resolving differences and satisfying group demands. This was also proved to be the case in the long run with the ethno-religious/ethno-cultural demands of the Sikh dissidents, but here mostly because the majority of Sikhs were too securely integrated into the Indian economy and the cultural life of the nation to be willing to carry radical separatism and terrorism to its logical conclusion.

The second form of ethnically structured conflict has proved to be far more intractable. This is the cases where the primary basis of alienation is ethno-religious, where the religion of the dissident group has its doctrinal locus outside the ambit of Hindu civilization, and the territories where the dissident groups reside borders on regions that are not contained within the constitutional purview of the Indian Union. The Christianized Assami tribal peoples and the Islamicized Kashmiris are the principal instances of this type of socio-cultural community. The Indian political apparatus has so far been unable to evolve formulas for resolving these types of ethnic-minority mobilizations. They have consequently lapsed into insurgencies which have provided scope for the perpetuation of terrorism, emanating both from internal and external sources, and have enabled international hegemonic ambitions to intrude into the Subcontinent.

These situations may have something in general to tell us about the circumstances that promote terrorism and provide bases for its exculpation. Where governments possess the political apparatus capable of achieving flexible, accommodative formulas for satisfying the political demands of territorially concentrated ethno-cultural/ethno-linguistic/ethno-religious minorities within their national corpus, dissidence tends to recede and remain below the threshold beyond which the sense of collective frustration and desperation nourishes terrorism. Where such accommodative formulas cannot be evolved within the existing political apparatus, and where changes in the apparatus cannot be achieved that make such accommodation possible, then locally concentrated ethno-cultural/ethno-linguistic/ethno-religious groups in search of a distinctive political identity become a breeding ground for separatism and terrorism. Certainly non-Indian examples of the latter abound. They would include Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and a number of African states. A challenge to the international community, as well as to individual states where ethno-religious restiveness of the second type exists, is to evolve political structures capable of reducing their frequency and virulence.

[Remarks prepared for the Seminar, "Counter Terrorism Strategies for the 21st Century: Asian Perspectives." Convener: Prof. Yonah Alexander, Director, Center for Counter Terrorism Studies. Co-sponsors, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Alexandria, VA, and the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies, Washington, DC. August 26, 1999.]


The Roots And Fruits Of Terrorism

Harold A. Gould,
Visiting Professor of South Asian Studies,
University of Virginia