On 21 May every year India celebrates anti-terrorism day. This is the day on which one of its former prime ministers became victim of terrorist violence in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Rajiv Gandhi, the young leader of India and also the youngest prime minister the country has ever had was on an election campaign, when a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) cadre took the advantage of the crowd and detonated a bomb tied to her waist. The LTTE perceived Rajiv as enemy as he had supported the Sri Lankan government with the signing of Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 which allowed the Indian Peace Keeping Force to counter the Tamil insurgents in the island nation. Like Rajiv, his mother Indira Gandhi, also a former Prime Minister, too had victim of violence for her policies in 1984.
Terrorist assassinations in India and neighbourhood are nothing new. Though suicide bombing as a method to achieve political goals emerged in the South Asian scene later in comparison to its early appearance in other areas like in Middle East, the 1990s and later years witnessed the rapid growth of terrorism and suicide attacks in the region. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), emerged in 1980s, was considered to be the most powerful militant organizations in the world (Al Qaeda was not in news in those days). It introduced many violent tactics such as suicide bombing, introduction of child and women fighters, and using civilian population as a shield against armed operations by Sri Lankan forces. It was the organization which had control of vast swathes of territory in north east of Sri Lanka and ran its own government with its own armed force, navy and air force. Coming back to Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987, signed between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Jayewardene, it was one of the most crucial factor not only in determining relations between the two countries, but also changed the perception of LTTE towards Indian government. The LTTE, majority of which belong to Tamil community and with strong links and sympathies with the people of southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, determined to eliminate the Indian leader as he sent Indian troops to Sri Lankan to suppress the insurgency.
The LTTE used the method of suicide and eliminated many prominent leaders of Sri Lanka and also Tamil leaders belonging to opposition faction to achieve its objectives. One serving President (Premdasa) and serving Foreign Minister (Laxman Kadirgamar) became victim of suicide attacks orchestrated by the LTTE. Another serving President, Chandrika Kumaratunga had a close shave from the attack, but with loss of an eye. The suicide tactic was later adopted by many other terrorist organizations in the world. Prominent among them were Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashar e Toiba and many other militant organizations in South Asia and beyond. Recently, the Taliban has frequently used this technique to eliminate the key players in the peace process in Afghanistan. Last year, one of the key players Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of High Peace Council, was killed by a Taliban cadre in a suicide attack. Many low ranking leaders and officials, favouring peace process, too have been eliminated by the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Wali Karzai a prominent leader in the Southern Afghanistan too became a victim of suicide attacks. Al Qaeda, as revealed from its documents, had plans to eliminate many of the world’s top leaders through suicide attacks.
As India celebrated the anti-terrorism day to mark the death anniversary of one of its prime minister, the main question still remains: how far terrorism has been curbed in the last two decades since the assassination of Rajiv, or rather the reverse has become true? The Indian society has become more radicalized. The rise of Indian Mujahideen (a home grown radicalised organization, drawing support from organizations like Lashkae e Toiba and Harkatul Jihadi Islami) and the rise of Maoist violence in India’s eastern belts indicate that the state has still remained soft to counter menaces like terrorism. Despite India signing bilateral agreements and joint working groups on terrorism with many countries, the menace still remains a challenge to Indian society. The official release to mark the anti-terrorism day also targeted the youth of India to abjure the path of violence, and cultivate the spirit of tolerance and peace. The release stated “The objective behind the observance of anti-terrorism day is to wean away the youth from terrorism and violence cult by highlighting the suffering of the common people and showing how it is prejudicial to the national interest.”
It needs emphasis that unless the root causes of terrorism are addressed, the menace will not be eliminated. Killing few terrorists will not eliminate terrorism and the philosophy behind it. Though there may be need of force to counter the terrorist violence, it is more important to stop the process of radicalization of the society, particularly that of the youth section. In India, the conflict regions like Kashmir, North East, backward regions like Jharkhand and Telengana could not have been violent unless the youth are radicalized. Unless there is support within society, the terrorist ideology cannot survive in vacuum. Hence, in this context it is important not only to address the violence itself, but also the causes of violence. The record of India in this context is a mixed one. Despite hundreds of policies to address the issues of poverty, corruption, maladministration, discrimination, they thrive and appear to push the marginalized people to the brink of violence. And these people become easy recruits for radical organizations.
The anti-terrorism day, hence, will have implications not only for India but also for all those countries and societies with having multi-ethnic and pluralistic character. It is important in this context, and will also largely depend on the vision of state leadership how to craft, in the language of Rajiv’s grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, a national harmonious vision or ‘unity in diversity.’ Perhaps the anti-terrorism day provides the occasion to take terrorism seriously and craft policies to counter it more comprehensively.