NEW DELHI: Who is a Terrorist?

Is it the non-state, or also the state? Is it the freedom fighter, or the military? Is it the Palestinian stone thrower or the Israeli soldier? Is it the provocateur or the provoked? Is it the Osama bin Laden when he worked for the CIA, or is it the Osama bin Laden when he worked against the CIA? Or is it both?

The United Nations has been unable to define terrorism till date, as it has not been able to resolve these questions. The heated debate amidst member nations within the world whether this can indeed by cast in a black and white mould, or whether the greys within are sufficient to merit debate, understanding and a holistic approach to the issue.

Complicating is the political misuse of terrorism by super powers like the United States for its own ends. Osama bin Laden was fine so long as he was using the same tactics to fight the Russians, but became bad and a terrorist the moment he turned the gun on the U.S and its allies. The Taliban can be divided into shades of good and bad, with the ‘good’ being those who are willing to talk to the U.S. and the ‘bad’ clearly taking a more absolutist position. The violence thus is graded, and hence the definition of ‘terrorism’ further complicated by the very governments that claim to be waging a war on terror.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has since a few months made this a pet issue, criticising the UN for being unable to define terrorism, and insisting this is necessary as “once we have that definition, we will know who helps to promote terrorism and who are the victims.” And as he said in London recently, the world will then know “who are with us, and who are against.”

But then who is the us? Is it the United States changing regimes, bombarding sovereign nations in West Asia, killing thousands in ‘collateral damage’ through targeted strikes and drone attacks in Afghanistan; arresting and torturing prisoners without evidence; waging propaganda wars against nations that do not have the resources to defend themselves?

Or is it Israel, imprisoning an entire people, taking away their territory and bombing them for days and weeks with impunity?

The Islamic State is a terrorist organisation. As is the al Qaeda. In the books at least. But is the Taliban that is killing with impunity in Afghanistan terrorist, or just militant? Is there a good, and a bad within? How is that defined? And who defines it? Pakistan, Washington or Kabul? Or indeed India that has always maintained, without many listening, that there is no good or bad Taliban, it is all bad. Just as there is no good or bad terrorist. But then why has the government of India itself differentiated between the one and the other, talking to some, hanging others over the years?

The South Africans struggling against apartheid were dubbed terrorists once? And became freedom fighters as the struggle gained momentum. Many in struggles across the world, in South Africa, India, Latin America were dubbed terrorists, but regarded by their people as freedom fighters. Bhagat Singh was killed as a terrorist. So are not Palestinians fighting for their home freedom fighters? And Israel the terrorist?

So the second question that the United Nations continues to grapple with, centre around the conditions that create terrorism? And this is where the rights narrative that has managed to emerge from the backwaters into the mainstream, well almost, in most countries is acting as a major pressure group.And the pressure is growing on the world that along with non-state terrorism, state terrorism should also be recognised and included in forthcoming definitions and conventions. The argument of the groups, fairly united on the issue across the world, is that state terror in itself breeds terrorism through brutal military action, demonisation, arrests and tortures. And that the mass scale violation of human rights by hard and aggressives states provides the ground for recruits for the non-state terror players in what then turns into a vicious circle. With the non-state actors using the world then as the arena to wreck vengeance on.

The state-ist approach of a ‘terrorist is a terrorist’ is countered by rights organisations, public intellectuals and several opposition parties in the world as well with the counter narrative that an individual is not born a terrorist, and becomes one because of the environment he lives in. The western think tanks and strategic experts have for long been writing about the US wars in West Asia as a primary reason for growing terrorism, with the ‘war against terror’ doing exactly the opposite by moving the al Qaeda into the far more vicious Islamic State.

And three and perhaps as significant is the politicisation of terrorism. Reports that the US intelligence agencies had created the al Qaeda through the initial patronage of Osama bin Laden, is now supported by the fact that the same agencies were well aware of the birth of the Islamic State through the US and Nato intervention in Syria to oust the Assad regime.

Significantly the current face off between Russia and the US in Syria is further complicated by the different definitions the two have for terrorism. "If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a UN briefing. The U.S. however, in a bid to justify its decision to oust President Bashar al Assad from Syria is refusing to admit till date that Nusra, a direct offshoot of al Qaeda, is a terrorist group. And Washington refers to it as the Khorasan group with experts pointing out that this is an unreal difference created by the Pentagon. The consequence of this approach is inaction, with Syria maintaining for long that the arms being supplied by the Americans to these groups had gone into the creation of the Islamic State.

Russia has intensified its attack on the Islamic State and claims it is playing no politics, but needs to contain the organisation for the security of its own people. The US-led coalition spent a whole year pretending they were striking ISIL targets," Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee said recently, "but where are the results of these strikes?"

And then the million dollar question: is military action the only answer? Or do governments have to work on creating social-economic-political conditions where terrorism cannot thrive? Ironically a reluctance by governments running democracies to discuss these issues ---wars, conflict, immigrants,, minorities, tolerance, inclusiveness, justice et al---threadbare ensures that a final definition, resolution and a combined, united approach to tackle terrorism continues to defy the world.