Apr 20, 2010

On political violence

Is it enough to simply say that anyone that confronts the state can be branded a 'terrorist'?
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

In this age of 'terror' it is easy to forget that political violence has been a constant in history virtually since the earliest human settlement, and particularly so in the modern era. The totalitarian discourses of states and corporate media have gotten us believing that there is something uniquely grotesque about 'terrorism' in its current manifestation.

Contemporary non-state political movements that employ violence may be different from those that preceded them in terms of ideology, scope and even goals. But their use of violent methods -- the one feature upon which most of us dwell -- is hardly novel.

The famous anti-imperialist political philosopher and ideologue of the Algerian struggle against French colonialism, Frantz Fanon, wrote in the late 1950s about the imperative of revolutionary violence. A psychologist by training, Fanon insisted that colonised peoples were subject to a deep-seated inferiority complex and that breaking the chains of mental slavery was only possible by matching and even surpassing the violence of the colonizer.

The Algerian war of independence featured the use of urban guerilla tactics and specifically attacks on white settlers (non-combatants). Some commentators assert that the near-eulogizing of violence during the anti-colonial struggle may have forced the French out but left a deep imprint on the minds of Algerians -- hence violence became a distinctive characteristic of post-colonial politics. According to these critics, Fanon was correct in identifying the psychology of violence but erred in his insistence that there is a symbiotic relationship between violence and liberation.

Having said this many contemporaries of Fanon shared his belief that revolutionary violence was a necessity in the face of deeply entrenched cultural and political hegemony. Mao Tse-Tung famously noted that 'revolution grows out of the barrel of a gun'. Guerilla wars were fought against imperialism and ruling classes throughout Asia, African and Latin America throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Throughout this heady period political violence may have been criticized but there was nothing like the consensus that has been concocted in today's world vis a vis 'terrorism'.

This is not to suggest that relatively peaceful anti-colonial movements did not exist, or that such movements were unsuccessful in forcing the colonizers to leave. Gandhi was of course not just the leader of the Indian independence struggle but also distinguished himself as a philosopher of non-violence. His primary contribution was to blur the binary of means and ends; for Gandhi physical liberation meant nothing without spiritual liberation and the latter could only be achieved by renouncing violence in all its various forms.

Gandhi and his ideas still carry great weight in Indian politics, and I would argue that his influence extends to all resistance movements that struggle with questions of means and ends. In recent days debates on revolutionary violence have been reinvigorated by Arundhati Roy who has written about her experiences wandering the jungles of Andhra Pradesh with the infamous Naxalite -- also known as Maoist -- rebels that the Indian prime minister has repeatedly called the country's biggest security threat. By some accounts Naxalites control up to 25 percent of India's landmass and in years to come this figure could go up further.

Roy's writings verge on the celebratory; she personalizes the daily heroism of the rebels, lauds their historic resistance against the predatory corporate mineral companies that seek to pillage India's bauxite and iron and thereby destroy an age-old eco-system that sustains millions of people, and slams the draconian violence of the state. Without mincing her words, Roy argues that the forest people of central India have been forced into a corner, that their resort to violence, even if not justified, cannot be condemned in the same breath as that of their oppressor.

If nothing else one has to salute Roy for writing so candidly about the rebels in the midst of a campaign of unprecedented state propaganda. Gandhians and liberals alike are aghast at her polemic yet the ethical and political questions that she raises cannot simply be dismissed because one objects to her personal politics. Arundhati's writings do not reveal anything new, they simply force us to confront realities that have been trivialized and caricatured to the point of farce in the age of 'terror'.

For us in Pakistan it is vital to move beyond the rhetoric of state and media. Among other things it surely must be admitted that the causes of those who pick up guns are not all the same. Do we simply give the state a mandate to treat the insurgency in Balochistan and the political violence in the Pakhtun areas in the same way? Is it enough to simply say that anyone that confronts the state can be branded a 'terrorist'? Why is it that people do pick up guns? Were they born with a genetic defect that made them weapon magnets?

Mao, Fanon and Gandhi, for all of their disagreements, were all clear that throughout history it has been dominant powers, state and imperialism foremost amongst them, that have killed and maimed subordinate classes and groups at will, that violence is almost always the preserve of the rich and powerful. If society is dehumanized it is those who control it that are primarily responsible.

Thus even when the perennially oppressed rise up and challenge their oppressors, they do so as the weaker party; their violence is the violence of the weak. Does this make it any better or justify it? The answer to this question depends on who is asked. It is worth quoting Gandhi writing on Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1938 here: 'I wish the Arabs had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds'.

When Arundhati asks whether there are other means of resisting the alliance of state and corporate capital 'in the face of overwhelming odds', she is restating an age-old question. That there is no simple answer to this question is beyond doubt. But we live in an age where to even ask this question is tantamount – if I may be allowed to digress into George W. Bush-speak – to 'aiding and abetting the terrorists'. In the name of (re)establishing the 'writ of the state' and the 'rule of law', are we providing a mandate to the already powerful to consolidate their power? 'Revolutionary' violence may not transform society into what the visionaries want, but that does not mean that it will go away because it should. Those who claim to speak in our name would do well to keep their violence to themselves. If they choose not to, then they will ultimately be to blame for the cycle of violence that follows.

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