This article was originally published in The Nation on July 12, 2016
Edhi has left a country behind in which his funeral prayers in absentia were offered jointly with those for Burhan Wani, the slain leader of an internationally designated terrorist organisation.
Many educated and progressive Pakistanis passionately defended Wani for being a ‘freedom fighter’, hence was all right to put him in the same place as Edhi. But for a thinking mind this posed many uncomfortable questions about the shared understanding of a nation about the concepts of ‘freedom struggle’ and ‘terrorism’ that has been worst hit by terrorism and has lost half of its territory to the notion of ‘freedom struggle’ alongside facing a separatist movement even now under the same garb of ‘freedom resistance’.
The thin line between ‘freedom struggle’ and ‘terrorism’ plays out every now and then globally. Needless to say that it almost always goes to the advantage of the terrorists who hide behind the legitimacy of resistance. In recent weeks it had played out in Pakistan with the controversial statement of Imran Khan where by he used the clichéd line of ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ in connection with Osama Ben Laden. It was followed by his party’s leader Naeem ul Haq who called Taliban’s slain leader Mullah Mansour a martyr who in his opinion was fighting against ‘the occupation of his country’.
This creates a basic question of defining terrorism, which seems to be still an unfinished agenda despite fifteen years of fighting terrorism on our own land. Different policy papers that Pakistan has developed over last few years to counter terrorism, including National Internal Security Policy (NISP) and National Action Plan (NAP) reveal that the entire policies have been made without defining the term terrorism.
Looking at the papers produced by the UN’s Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) especially the Global Counter Terrorism Policy one encounters the same gap. Even after more than seventy years of the United Nations, a universally accepted definition of terrorism does not exist. A 2005 paper produced by the Sixth Committee of the UN addresses the question and admits that defining terrorism might lead to “profiling and linking problem with any religious faith”. Agreeably it might be difficult to create consensus around one shared definition because of different interests of different states who invariably indulge in fueling ‘armed resistance’ in other rival states in the name of ‘freedom struggle’.
These dilemmas of states could be better understood looking at the Middle Eastern and South Asian war theaters. Back in late 1960s and early 1970s, Indian state supported, armed, trained and sponsored Mukti Bahini militants, garbed in the notion of ‘national liberation’ against a ‘violent army’. Pakistan, on the other hand, termed it militancy and rebellion (the term ‘terrorism’ perhaps had not entered the commonly used geopolitical lexicon by then). The war theater in Indian Held Kashmir, the difference between the legal status of Kashmir and East Pakistan aside, has both sides switched. The legitimate political resistance of Kashmiri people was tarnished by 1989 through unleashing armed militias who used violence to get political objectives. Again, violence was legitimised under the garb of ‘freedom struggle’ and ‘national liberation’. This time it was the Indian state that disparaged it as terrorism and Pakistan was on the side of the ‘liberation fighters’.
When Afghan militias were fighting Soviet forces in 1980s, they were eulogised as ‘mujahideen’ by the US. When the same groups turned against their former benefactor, they became terrorists. When the Sunni groups were fighting in Syria against a Shia regime hated by world powers, they were resistance fighters. When they turned into ISIS and started hitting Western targets, they became terrorists.
In the Indian context, when Bhagat Singh Shaheed was recently termed a ‘revolutionary terrorist’ by some scholars, it created a ripple even in their parliament. When Burhan Wani was killed last week, he was readily termed a militant (which he was, irrespective of his motivation of using militancy) by Indian media. When TTP’s Umar Naray was killed yesterday in a drone strike, it was rejoicing news for us as a victory against terrorism. But Wani’s was ‘extra judicial killing’ as per our Foreign Office.
These contradictions appear to be defining the difficult terms like terrorism and liberation struggles in an extremely subjective manner. It is terrorism, going by these examples, when it is perpetrated on us; it is freedom struggle when it is in a rival state. But is this a definition following which an all out war against terrorism can be fought? If the answer is in affirmative, there is a huge problem that reflects why the world cannot achieve peace ever.
The problem is with trying to define terrorism and militant resistance movements with the lens of their intent rather than based on their tactics and targets. It should be terrorism when some militia irrespective of its intent kills civilians, noncombatants, which can very well be for the sake of some noble cause. Liberal use of the cliché ‘one man’s terrorist, another man’s freedom fighter’ actually makes us play in the hands of terrorists and strengthens their position whereby they try to legitimise all use of violence.
The connotation of liberation movements or militancy and terrorism might be different in last century or a century before. Since the political and social terms are not static and tend to change with changing times, how far the similar meanings could be given to them in today’s world should be our question.
When Bhagat Singh used violence, how did he choose his targets? Was he blowing up buses or beheading school children? When Che Guerra picked up arms, was he doing it for establishing a religious order in the entire world by force? Or both of them were standing up for the rights of masses and the disenfranchised? Bhagat Singh articulated it beautifully in his prison diaries where he admits that the use of violence could never be an affective way of realising the rights of the powerless classes unless a mass awareness and uprising is activated as a means of peaceful resistance.
Similarly, Wani’s stated objective as per his various writings had been to unfurl the flag of Islam, establish an Islamic state and wage Jihad in Kashmir, Afghanistan and every where else where the forces of ‘Kufr’ were subjugating Muslims. It could be a noble objective for many despite the grey areas like how far women and minorities would be protected in Wani’s world. But to what extent the use of violence is justifiable is another question. That the freedom fighters can not be the terrorists, is a notion propagated by the powers that misleads common people into believing that killing human beings could be useful for a ‘pious’ cause in some circumstances.
However oppressive the regime might be, how so ever violent the Indian army might be, Kashmiris’ struggle would have been much more potent and would resonate with the world if it is a genuine and peaceful political resistance. It is a dangerous position to support if violence is justified where it suits us. More so, equating a humanitarian icon like Edhi sahib with a man who used killer violence for whatever noble objectives, is a fragile balance. There is a need to think about it rather carefully, without emotional jingoism.