Rethinking Terrorism in South Asia: A Case of Pakistan and India

The phenomenon of terrorism has been experiencing an epistemological evolution, with the critical terrorism thinkers challenging the western orthodox derivatives on the issue. A key deficiency in the orthodox imaginaries around terrorism is the utter neglect of the role of the state as an enabler of terrorism. Such statist bias in the orthodox terrorism studies is usually attributed to the Realist assertion of state-centrism. This delineates that, primarily, to maintain the relevance and legitimacy of the state, the orthodox school has evaded scholarship of the state as a probable perpetrator of terror. Consequently, the preliminary epistemological basis of terrorism overwhelmingly emphasises non-state elements, mostly devoid of study regarding terrorism as a political tool of the state. Another vital aspect of the orthodox school is its extra-ordinarily voluminous scholarship on Islamist fundamentalism, which has undoubtedly come at the cost of attaching the required focus on other pressing facets of terrorism, for instance, the far-right extremism, or of even more contemporary relevance, the saffron terrorism. In this regard, this piece seeks to dive into the epistemological basis of terrorism to discover the themes that must now qualify to become the contemporary issues of terrorism studies, with a specific focus on South Asia.

Another vital aspect of the orthodox school is its extra-ordinarily voluminous scholarship on Islamist fundamentalism, which has undoubtedly come at the cost of attaching the required focus on other pressing facets of terrorism, for instance, the far-right extremism, or of even more contemporary relevance, the saffron terrorism.

Interestingly, the etymological basis of terrorism has had little bearing on its epistemological basis. The provenance of the term “terrorism” dates back to the “Reign of Terror” (1793-1794) when the French State employed large-scale outright violence in its attempt to quench civil uprisings during the French Revolution. The French National Convention declared terror to be “the order of the day”, i.e. state’s deliberate use of terror for political ends, which became an infamous dictum for years to come. Over the next two centuries, terrorism was politicised to become a security threat. During the 1970s, terrorism as a security threat became relatively more pronounced after Dawson’s Field hijackings, followed by a couple of other incidents of the sort by Palestinian secular nationalists. However, the phenomenon remained at the peripheries of international security studies. It was not until the 9/11 incident that terrorism was securitised to the extent that it qualified as a major security threat for nation-states.  With terrorism acquiring the status of the “new security threat” to the United States and the international order, research on the issue expanded tremendously. However, “Islamist fundamentalism” and “non-state actors as the perpetrators” remained among the defining themes of this scholarship. Hence, the contextual basis of terrorism as a field of study was already straitened, making its epistemological conceptualisation fraught with deficiencies. As an unfortunate consequence, these deficiencies have translated into pedagogy and policymaking on counterterrorism.

As of now, critical terrorism thinkers seek to expand the scope of terrorism studies to include post-positivist and post-colonial perspectives. However, the research on state-sponsored terrorism still remains limited. It is seen as one of the most dangerous forms of terrorism by critical terrorism thinkers. Regarding the relationship between terrorism and politics, Alex P. Schmid, a prominent critical terrorism thinker, in his research, the “Frameworks for Conceptualising Terrorism”,  discusses terrorism as a political strategy employed by the political parties.  He refers to the political parties acting as fronts for terrorist groups and vice versa, as a testimony of the symbiotic relationship between political parties and terrorism in some countries. However, it is equally pertinent that these ideological contestations of critical terrorism studies be brought into perspective. Henceforth, terrorism as a function of state politics regarding South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, shall be examined.

The contextual basis of terrorism as a field of study was already straitened, making its epistemological conceptualisation fraught with deficiencies. As an unfortunate consequence, these deficiencies have translated into pedagogy and policymaking on counterterrorism.

By and large, state-sponsored terrorism has remained the predominant theme of the South Asian inter-state politics, particularly the India-Pakistan bilateral ties. For over decades, grounded on the premise of Pakistan’s alleged support to the resistance movement in the Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian state has claimed Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism against it. However, this assertion by India gained tremendous traction following the 9/11 incident.  The global strategic environment, increasingly characterised by the fear of Islamist fundamentalism, was tacitly capitalised by India. The Srinagar Legislative Assembly attack in October 2001 and the Indian Parliament attack in December, the same year, were quickly dubbed to be orchestrated by Pakistan. Terrorist attacks on the Indian soil leading to India’s allegations against Pakistan, followed by Pakistan’s rejection of such claims have intermittently taken place. The most recent ones in this list include the 2016 Uri attack and the 2019 Pulwama attack. These two attacks were even followed by India’s so-called surgical strikes against Pakistan, a claim that remains subject to contestations. Also, India has generally remained unable to furnish evidence-based substantive proofs to back its allegations against Pakistan. However, this is not to rule out the dire threat of terrorism that prevailed domestically in Pakistan, following Islamabad’s decision to join the Global War on Terror. Nevertheless, the danger was considerably tapered down with Pakistan’s counterterror offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 followed by Operation Radd-ul-Fasad in 2017.  While the threat of terrorism peaked in 2013, terrorism-related casualties declined to around 86% in the following years.

However, amid the Pakistani state making conscious and effectual efforts to curb the menace of terrorism, another threat within the region has raised its head. Referred to as “saffron terrorism”, it is understood as the violent acts perpetrated by the Hindu nationalists that are usually the members of Hindu nationalist organisations. This issue remains a conveniently ignored subject that has evaded scholarly attention, owing to the terrorism studies’ overwhelming fixation on Islamist terrorism. As a part of his research titled, “The Rise of Hindutva, Saffron Terrorism and South Asian Regional Stability”, Pakistan’s prominent counterterrorism expert Dr Khuram Iqbal, studies the institutionalisation of Hindutva forces as an overarching feature of saffron terror. The deep-rooted and currently expanding institutionalisation of Hindutva forces comes with the Indian State’s deliberate and tacit complacence with them.  The simplest evidence of this argument is that the current ruling party of India is the political face of this organised hyper-nationalist campaign. Hence, the relationship between terrorism and politics, as explained by Schmidt, manifests itself in the dynamics of saffron terrorism. Thus, at this juncture, it becomes quite relevant to rethink the existing imaginaries of terrorism in South Asia with a critical perspective.

Moreover, the lines along which terrorism in South Asia needs to be studied expands further in scope. This refers to the fact that the “state-sponsored cross-border terrorism” has remained and continues to be one of the defining themes of terrorism and security in South Asia. However, while state-sponsored terrorism counts among the leading thematic issues of critical terrorism studies, its focus on extra-territorial terror activities as a state’s political strategy remains limited. As discussed earlier, India has a long history of proclaiming Pakistan to be a perpetrator of terrorism against it. However, these claims flow vice versa as well. Most recently, the state of Pakistan furnished and shared an intelligence-based dossier revealing India’s terror activities in Pakistan with the United Nations Secretary-General. The dossier also revealed the involvement of India’s prime intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the 2016 APS Peshawar attack. Apart from India’s infiltration of RAW spies involved in sponsoring terror activities in Pakistan, India also evidently finances the Baloch ethno-nationalist movement, responsible for conducting terror activities in the province. In this regard, the infamous Doval doctrine, aimed at employing irregular terrorism as an Indian policy towards Pakistan has mainly raised concerns.

Hence, as the security calculus of the South Asia evolves to incorporate a newer form of terrorism, which is poised to be highly detrimental for the region, it is of great pertinence that the requisite amount of scholarly attention is attached to it. This relevance arrives to respond to the need of informing policymaking adequately to mitigate the negative externalities of the threat to a better extent.

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.

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