Terrorism & the Raj

Print edition : March 14, 2008

There is no hope of terrorism being quelled unless the rightful aspirations of people are satisfied.

DOES Britains experience of terrorism during its Raj in India hold any lessons for dealing with it in the present times in various places? Last October, the Oxford Research Group (ORG) said in a report, written by Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, that the United States-led war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda is worse than a failure. It has been a disaster. Far from extinguishing the threat, it has fuelled it.

The report is titled Towards Sustainable Security: Alternative Approaches to the War on Terror. It hit the nail squarely on the head when it remarked that the situation was comparable to the rise of the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980. This is precisely the point which Prof. Robert A. Pape, Director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, made in his definitive work on suicide bombers, Dying to Win (Roots of Suicide Terrorism; Frontline, April 20, 2007).

He holds that the taproot of suicide terrorism is nationalism, and religion is invoked to lend it a halo. At bottom, suicide terrorism is a strategy for national liberation from foreign occupation by a democratic state. A dictatorship would be undeterred. The people in a democratic state that embarks on imperial ventures would be stirred by terrorism, appalled by the violence, yet sorry for the sacrifice by the terrorist.In different ways both Gandhi and the Indian terrorist sought to awaken the British rulers and the British public to the immorality of British rule in India. Terrorism held sway for long but ebbed away eventually. Why? It would be instructive to probe into the causes of its failure. Gandhis preaching of non-violence was one of them.

The other causes were a vibrant political process since 1862, the Indian press, the judiciary, the traditions set by the liberal constitutionalists and, not least, the constitutional reforms introduced progressively by the Raj. Terrorism can only thrive on popular support.

The terrorist reflects popular sentiment and mixes with ease among the people. Once the people saw promise of peaceful change, the Indian terrorist found himself in heroic isolation. A mass upheaval is different from individual terrorism. Gandhi had successfully diverted resentment against foreign rule into non-violent forms of expression.

To be sure, these propositions need qualification. Violence was used, for instance, in the Quit India movement, as K.M. Munshi acknowledged. The press was subjected to curbs; the judiciary played along with the rulers whenever it had to decide a case that touched the roots of the Raj Maharaja Nanda Kumar; Tilak; Bhagat Singh and the Meerut conspiracy case. But the hub of the matter was that the causes cited above snuffed out the raison detre of violent revolt.

The Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian nationalists have no such hope. The ORGs report says: Every aspect of the war on terror has been counterproductive in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the loss of civilian life through mass detentions without trial. In short, it has been a disaster. It says: Western countries simply have to face up to the dangerous mistakes of the past six years and recognise the need for new policies.

September 11 was not a case of Afghan aggression. It was an international crime. The report concludes that ousting Taliban from power in late 2001 had been of direct value to Al Qaeda and militia sympathetic to its violent Islamist ideology were now re-invigorated.

In addition, mass detentions of suspected extremists, torture, prisoner abuse and the extra-ordinary rendition of suspects for questioning in third countries, outside U.S. legal jurisdiction, was a useful propaganda weapon. The U.S. and its allies needed to better understand the roots of Al Qaeda movement and its support base and systematically undercut it through policy changes at every level.

When one reads British reports on terrorism in India, one is struck by the competence of the police officials and the limitations of the policemans outlook. S.B. Chaudharis book Civil Disturbances During the British Rule in India (1765-1857) records with ample evidence the fierce resistance to British rule since 1765, nearly a century before the mutiny of 1857.

James Campbell Ker, ICS, who served in the Criminal Intelligence Department at Shimla and also at the Army headquarters there, was asked to compile a report on revolutionary activities.

Fewer than 100 copies of this Secret and Confidential work, entitled Political Trouble in India 1907-1917, were published. The title page carried the warning The Recipient shall be held responsible for its security. After Independence, the Librarian of the India Office Library lent a copy of the book to the Asiatic Society, Calcutta for reference by Mahadevaprasad Saha. He published it in 1973 (Editions India; Calcutta).

Sahas foreword makes an interesting disclosure. On December 10, 1917, the Governor-General set up, with Londons approval, a committee comprising Justice S.A.T. Rowlatt of the High Court in London as President, and Sir Basil Scott, Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Justice Diwan Bahadur C.V. Kumaraswami Sastri of the Madras High Court, and two others as members. Its terms of reference were (1) to investigate and report on the nature and extent of the criminal conspiracies connected with the revolutionary movement in India. (2) to examine and consider the difficulties that have arisen in dealing with such conspiracies and to advise as to the legislation, if any, necessary to enable Government to deal effectively with them.

The last para of the resolution read: The Committee will assemble in Calcutta early in January 1918. It will sit in camera, but will be given full access to all documentary evidence in the possession of Government bearing on the existence and extent of revolutionary conspiracies in India and will supplement this with such other evidence as it may consider necessary.

The committee assembled in due time and submitted its report to the Government of India on April 15, 1918, in three months. Elaborate statements were placed before this committee with documentary evidence by the governments of Bengal, Bombay, Madras, Bihar, Orissa, Central Provinces, United Provinces, Punjab and Burma, as well as the Government of India. In every case, except that of Madras, the Committee was further attended by officials of the government presenting the statement, who gave evidence before it. The sittings of the committee were held in Bengal and Punjab. Non-officials also placed their points of view before the committee.

Rowlatt thanked all who came before the committee, whether official or non-official. The only person he did not thank was James Campbell Ker to whom the committee and its report was most heavily in debt (emphasis added, throughout). It was not possible for him to thank Ker because of the fact that Political Trouble in India was a secret and confidential work and its existence was not supposed to be known to anybody outside the circle of those for whom the book was meant.

Saha wrote: One may wonder at the speed and efficiency of the Committee in finishing its work in such a short time. The secret of this lies in the fact that the Committee took advantage of Kers most detailed work on the subject; quoted chapters and verses from it verbatim or in a somewhat altered form. Thus, on comparing Kers book with the Sedition Committee Report one will very easily find that Political Trouble in India was the real source book for the committee and it alone made possible for it to finish its arduous work in such a record time of three months. In plain words, for all the pretence of an inquiry, the Committee, comprising three senior judges, copied a policemans report.

Terrorism received a spurt when Bengal was partitioned in 1905. It declined in 1917 when the British promised self-government in the famous Montford Declaration of August 20, 1917.

This is not to deny its occurrence in the 19th century after the Mutiny. But as Ker wrote Previous to 1917 criminality in Indian politics was not a general feature though there were some manifestations and some underground preparations for it. The present year, 1917, is witnessing a great burst of non-criminal political agitation, the leaders of which speak and write against criminal methods. We cannot think that political trouble has ceased; far from it, but apparently it has altered its form, and statesmanship rather than good police methods are required to deal with the future developments. This is true of all such situations. Yet, his book suggests reliance on police methods alone.

It is an excellent factual record of revolutionary activities in Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Punjab, United Provinces and Central Provinces (Madhya Pradesh); the literature produced by the movement, the seditious press and activities of revolutionaries in Britain, France, the U.S., Germany and Turkey. The facts are recited, but there is no advice on political moves to quell terrorism.

In 1937, H.W. Hale of the Indian Police, temporarily posted to the Intelligence Bureau, produced his report as a follow-up to Kers. It was entitled Terrorism in India 1917-1936 and suffers from the same blemish which Aneurin Bevan famously ascribed to Harold Wilson in a conversation with the Prime Ministers son all facts and no bloody ideas.

In his preface, the Intelligence Bureaus Director, J.M. Ewart, remarked that in 1917 crimino-political agitation was more or less dormant, while constitutional political activity was at a high pitch. Sir Charles Tegart of the Indian Police Service was Commissioner of Police, Calcutta, for eight years until 1931.

His lecture on Terrorism in India to the Royal Empire Society, London, in 1932 was more perceptive. I dont want any confusion between what is known as the civil disobedience movement and the terrorist movement. They are fundamentally different though both aim at paralysing the Government. Civil disobedience is run by Congress, the most powerful political body in India. It is an all-India movement intended by its authors to be non-violent. It courts publicity; it relies on mass demonstrations and picketing in defiance of the law. Its followers are mostly illiterate (sic). Terrorism has different leaders, though, they have penetrated the Congress machine in Bengal.

He noted that the partition of Bengal in 1905 provided an opportunity to terrorists because the people were alienated. By the end of 1917 the conspiracies were definitely under control.

The constitutional reforms of 1917 were rejected by many. Mr. Gandhis arrest and conviction in 1922 finally convinced them that his programme of non-violence, which they had never believed in or accepted, had failed, and that they must depend on themselves alone. They decided to resume a campaign of violence.

In this venture, the Indian terrorist failed. His heroism was never matched by a sense of realism. Jugantar said in March, 1917: Are not ten thousand sons of Bengal prepared to embrace death to avenge the humiliation of their motherland? The number of Englishmen in the entire country is not more than a lac and half (150,000), and what is the number of English officials in each district? With a firm resolve you can bring English rule to an end in a single day.

Barindra Kumar Ghose and his disciples then started to practise what they had preached in Jugantar. They took a garden in a secluded spot on the outskirts of Calcutta where they collected arms and explosives and manufactured infernal machines, one of their number having been trained in bomb-making in Paris. Thus the foundations were laid of the terrorist group called the Jugantar or New Era. The upshot was the Maniktola bomb case in which Barindras brother Aurobindo Ghose figured as an accused, but was acquitted.

Barindra suffered grievously in the Andamans. His condition there was pathetic. In prison Bhagat Singh realised the folly of recourse to the gun. Jawaharlal Nehrus assessment of the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh in his autobiography is fair.

It is very easy and very fatuous to condemn persons or acts without seeking to understand the springs of action, the cause that underlies them. Bhagat Singh was not previously well known; he did not become popular because of an act of violence, an act of terrorism. Terrorists have flourished in India, off and on, for nearly thirty years, and at no time, except in the early days in Bengal, did any of them attain a fraction of that popularity which came to Bhagat Singh. This is a patent fact which cannot be denied; it has to be admitted. And another fact, which is equally obvious, is that terrorism, in spite of occasional recrudescence, has no longer any real appeal for the youth of India.

Fifteen years stress of non-violence has changed the whole background in India and made the masses much more indifferent to, and even hostile to, the idea of terrorism as a method of political action. Terrorism is a dying thing in India and elsewhere, not because of Government coercion, which can only suppress and bottle up, not eradicate, but because of basic causes and world events. Terrorism usually represents the infancy of a revolutionary urge in a country. That stage passes, and with it passes terrorism as an important phenomenon. Occasional outbursts may continue because of local causes or individual suppressions.

The terrorist succeeds only as part of a movement based on popular support. Indias political and constitutional evolution robbed him of that support.

It was British intransigence and repression that drove some to violence, as even a constitutionalist like Jinnah accepted. He said in the Central Legislative Assembly on September 16, 1924: Was there an Indian for a long time until 1906, who threw a bomb in this country? Now, who are the people who are really the members of these organisations? You have caught some of them. You ought to have some fair idea of it. Why do these educated young men take to bombs? Have you ever thought of it?

Why do these young men, bright youths who have drunk at your own literature and who have imbibed those principles of liberty and freedom, come together in secret organisation in order to assassinate you, the very people who have taught those fine principles? Why? Because they feel that this Government do not respond to their aspirations, to their ideals and to their ambition to secure complete political freedom for their country. . The way to prevent bombs being thrown is to meet the people, respond to their feelings, their sentiments and their legitimate and proper aspirations.

There is no hope of terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine being quelled unless the aspirations of their peoples are satisfied. However belatedly and haltingly, the British moved in this direction in India and terrorism subsided. It refuses to learn from its own experience. Its ally, the U.S., is as insensitive and callous.

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