The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Radical protest against Beslan has been remarkably muted

'He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.'

' 'Ecclesiastes', I, 18

The history of Russia is replete with cruelty and violence. From Peter the Great to communist rule, the history of Russia is littered with dead bodies. Peter killed mercilessly to Europeanize Russia and the communists killed the people in whose name they had acquired power. The scope of the violence and the terror was perhaps the same except that communist massacres were more systematic and were invariably carried out in the name of ideology. Shocking and sad as this history is, the killing of innocent children by Chechens in the town of Beslan a few weeks ago somehow adds a new dimension to the history of terror. After the killing of children what further terror, one feels like asking, since forgiveness after such knowledge is not even worth asking for.

Terrorism, ever since the Western world woke up to it, startled and shell-shocked on September 11, 2001, has become a part of public discourse all over the world. In simple terms, three broad strands can be discerned in the response to the growth of terrorism across the globe. One is the response of the fanatic who argues in favour of the use of terror tactics and believes that the loss of a few innocent lives is a small price to pay for the furthering of a political/ideological cause. This will be the stand of Osama bin Laden and his supporters, the extremists in Kashmir, the Chechens, the IRA and so on. Second is the flip side of the first and is articulated best by George Bush and his administration. This argues that the only way to fight terrorism is to obliterate it through counter-terror. If innocent lives are lost in the counter-terror, that is a small price to pay for the larger nobler objective. Thus Afghanistan and Iraq can be bombed ruthlessly in the name of fighting terrorism. This argument is used most forcefully when the US is the victim of terrorism. Thus Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, can actually advise the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, that the latter should negotiate with terrorists and not stall democratic reforms in Russia in the name of combating terrorism. The naked use of counter-terror is the prerogative of the US.

There is a third strand which condemns the actions of the US government very strongly; while it does not condone terrorism, it seeks to contextualize it, the argument being, if you don't understand terrorism and its reasons, you will never be able to eradicate it.

I want to look at the third argument a little more closely since it claims to have more logic to it than the first two. This view was very cogently expressed by Partha Chatterjee who, while condemning the attack on the World Trade Center as 'heinous and barbaric', wrote 'I have become convinced that when the structures of domination in the world are so deeply rooted in the ability to deploy massive and efficient violence, it is neither possible nor justified to insist that those who fight against unfair domination must at all times eschew the use of political violence'I am one of those who argue that we must sympathetically understand the reasons why so many people all over the world are persuaded by such ideologies of fanaticism. However, that is not to say that we must sympathize with or endorse their politics.' This statement states with clarity what many radical intellectuals and groups have expressed in similar ways but may be not with Chatterjee's lucidity. It is a fairly well-known position on the matter and it would be unfair to say that Chatterjee alone holds this view.

The problem with this view arises with its articulation in response to an event. Thus the condemnation of US acts of violence is always stronger than violence perpetrated by terrorists or by people who are allegedly dominated or oppressed. The most appalling expression of this contradiction has been the silence of radical groups and intellectuals in the face of the Chechen killing of children. I am yet to come across any unqualified condemnation of what the Chechens did in Beslan even though taking children as hostages and then killing them is utterly indefensible by any kind of logic. Protests have been muted, nowhere near the outrage expressed over the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If one were to try and contextualize the terror practised by the Chechens, one would have to look at the history of oppression that began under Stalin and was continued by successive Soviet regimes. We would get a cycle like the following: Soviet oppression ' Chechen retaliation through terrorism ' further Soviet repression ' intensification of Chechen terrorism ' greater Soviet repression'. and so on. It is an unending vicious cycle.

As the cycle spirals, as it usually does, even children become mere numbers in the list of those killed in a state-versus-terrorists encounter. We watch horror stuck, helpless, as in the silence bit by bit pieces of our own humanity are eroded away.

Those who have adopted a relativist position on violence are trapped within their own logic. Having taken the view that the use of violence is justified to fight domination, which itself is based on an efficient use of violence, they cannot then qualify the use of that violence by saying that it should not be used against children. That would take away the very basis of terrorist groups who believe that only by randomizing their violence and by making public places their targets they will be able to draw attention to their cause. Terrorists believe that, as innocent people lose their lives, the dominators (read the state) will be forced to sit up and take notice and eventually come to terms. Violence is a necessary path to the negotiating table. The only problem is that it never happens that way: violence has an inherent propensity to escalate.

Are we then condemned to seeing children being carried to their untimely graves by weeping parents' Perhaps we are. Unless we can discard once and for all the advocacy of violence in all spheres of life: violence carried out by powerful states, against their own citizens and against other states, as well as violence used by groups or individuals to further a cause, however noble. This calls for an agenda that will reduce the powers of the state and the claims the latter makes to regulate society and the lives of individuals. It also calls for a radical reorientation of our view of history where we have always privileged one kind of violence over another. Thus imperialist violence is bad, nationalist violence is good, elite violence is bad, subaltern violence good, state violence is bad, terrorist violence is good'

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi ' Mahatma or not ' had a point somewhere.

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