Terror is the emotion of “extreme fear” caused by the threat or use of violence. It is also an instrument to cause fear, “a weapon of the impotent, the disenfranchised and the unorganized in the face of profound grievance”. Causing extreme fear using the instrument of terror is ages old.

But only in recent times has terrorism been defined: “The use of violence or the threat of violence to harm or intimidate civilians for political purposes” or “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against people or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives”.

Terrorists strike at innocent people to kill them and destroy property, with the intention of causing fear and maximum damage to soft targets, according to their own warped political-religious “principles”. Terrorism is a global issue.

There can be no disagreement with erstwhile UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who said, “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, is unacceptable and can never be justified”.

In the definitions of terrorism there is a significant common point, namely the assumption that the words “violence” and “force” pertain to physical violence and physical force. This is only natural, since the most visible and experienced outcomes of terrorist attacks are physical, through deaths, injuries and damages.

But there are other kinds of violence, and those not inflicted by terrorists. So it is well to examine “violence” in greater detail.

Violence always begins in the mind, and is the result of a conflict of interests. It may take verbal, economic or physical form, involving certain groups, or individuals who may be of any age, of any sexual, caste-religious or political orientation, inside homes or in the street.

Reactions to violence may be immediate or delayed, and may range from fearful silence, to verbal protest, or physical resistance or retaliation.

Delayed reactive violence by the physically, financially, economically or socially disadvantaged may be directed at a different target from the person/s who inflicted the violence. For example, the social and physical violence that Jews were historically subjected to in Europe over centuries, resulted in the formation of the Israeli nation, which now inflicts systemic violence on the occupants of the land “given” (by a third party) to form Israel.

At the individual level, violence on children often produces violent adults. Patriarchy within families across the social spectrum has similar results, with violence of various sorts performed against girls and women within and outside the home. When a victim of violence is unable or unwilling to use violence against the perpetrator or against a different target, he/she nurses a deep grievance, which may manifest as hate or scheming to cause harm to others.

The psychological effect of the extreme violence of prolonged armed conflict on children and its effects on society in their later years is unimaginably grave. It is known that many persons who have experienced violence in childhood against themselves or their parents become violent adults both within and outside home.

The awful physical, social and economic violence against Dalits that the oppressor castes have been inflicting for many generations and continue to do are a similar matter deserving serious concern.

Violence of any sort, whether at the interpersonal level within or outside the family, or at a social level, most often breeds more violence of some sort, which then gets amplified in recurrent spirals of escalation.

Most acts of violence are not even observed, far less are reported, very few are punished, and some are even implicitly condoned by the political power structure. Frustration due to inability to react to these acts of violence may build up in the survivors’ individual and social psyche, and lead to the formation of groups “dedicated” to the cause of violence against others.

Sometimes there is an identifiable cause for violence, like economic or political or cultural (religion, caste, custom, language, ethnicity, etc.) oppression or suppression. At other times violence is a way of life, with the target or victim being chosen at random or deliberately chosen, as in communal violence.

States assign to themselves the right to commit violence through the use of its force-instruments, and their criminal justice system. However, this right is circumscribed by the need for due legal process to protect people’s right to life and liberty.

Economic violence

The WTO Agreements drafted by economically powerful states have resulted in a raw deal for those that are economically disadvantaged. Their implications are viewed as legalized economic oppression of the weak by the powerful with the consent of the weak, who are signatories.

It can be argued that the economically weak states should never have signed the WTO Agreements if it was not in their best interests. This would be a valid argument if the people who represent the weak countries in international fora actually represented the interests of the poor within their own country.

It is known that in practice, especially within poor countries, powerful and wealthy persons represent their countries in international fora and sign agreements and treaties. Even though they represent the people, as in a democracy, they fail to represent the best interests of the poor.

The poor cannot represent their own economic interests simply because, being poor and illiterate or just about literate, they may not understand the issues and their effects, and cannot argue their cause with the power structure.

Thus the need for good government, social justice, universal education, upliftment of the poor, etc. – all of which are in our Constitution, but appear antithetical to the philosophy of the promoters of competition, market forces and trickle-down economics.

Observations of economic development as conceived by neoliberal economic reforms indicate that much of the benefits of development do not “trickle down” to the lowest socioeconomic strata. The benefits accumulate in the higher strata of society, and exacerbate economic inequality.

Economic polarization causes frustration and a feeling of alienation and injustice, both for individuals and groups, and results in social unrest and sporadic, unorganized or organized violence.

Increasingly, within most jurisdictions, the economic system operates to limit the options for economically productive activities of the poorest sections. This is economic violence. It leads to small or large groups of people with little or no chance for equity and justice, and no recourse, resorting to violent activities and militancy, because of frustration and deep-seated grievance at the individual or group level.


When there is a conflict of interests, protest may follow. Most people, in their childhood or teens, have protested something which an elder may have done or said, because of perceived or experienced injustice or restriction of a freedom. Thus protest, justified or not, is natural.

Protest is resistance to some form of actual or perceived violence, or loss or infringement of some freedom, which is the power or the right to act, speak or believe as one wants, without hindrance or restraint.

Naturally, freedoms are not absolute – they are circumscribed by cultural, social and legal restrictions. Freedom means different things to different sections of society. In the contemporary context the focus is on freedoms such as freedom from fear, from hate, from repression, from poverty, from illiteracy, from forced “progress”, or freedom to co-exist or be in control of one’s own destiny. Threats to, or denial of, any of these or other freedoms, are a form of violence, and result in protest.

Protest in society may take several forms, such as persuasion, non-cooperation, non-violent intervention, positive action or militancy, in ascending order of intensity. However, it is by no means necessary that protests follow this sequence.

Militancy and terrorism

Protests are usually conducted against centers of power – governments, government agencies, or corporate bodies. People who demand their rights or protest governments’ policies, plans or actions are usually ignored at first, but when the protests become effective or cause embarrassment to the political power structure, governments use physical force even against peaceful, unarmed protesters.

In most circumstances the police are deployed to maintain law and order, because even a peaceful, unarmed protest is monitored. However, one can quote innumerable occasions when police have lathi-charged or opened fire on peaceful protesters. Governments introducing an agent provocateur to trigger violence in a peaceful protest so as to “justify” police action, is not unknown. Such initiation of violence by the state results in escalation in the level and intensity of protests.

Most protests are against state policies, plans, etc. but there are also protests against violence and injustices between sections of the public, with members of one group taking the law into their own hands. However, here again, the finger points at states, which fail to implement the law or uphold constitutional provisions because of small-minded caste or communal politics.

Militants are those “prepared to take aggressive action in support of a political or social cause”. Aggressive action is not necessarily physical – it can be verbal, written or legal to vehemently or forcefully oppose government policies or actions.

Further, economic or environmental causes, which impinge upon the daily life and livelihood of marginalized sections who have no political voice, and live hand-to-mouth, are often involved. For example, the PESA Act and the Forest Rights Act are routinely flouted by governments. Depriving people of residences and livelihoods constitutes economic and social violence against them, and is the primary cause for organized protests, legal battles, and even political and armed militancy.

Naxalites, Maoists, et al, are armed militant groups with a political ideology of overthrowing the state. This is against the Constitution, and unacceptable, but it must be recognized that it is fundamentally organized to oppose social and economic violence by powerful interests or individuals against weak individuals or groups.

This reactive violence inevitably causes harm to individuals, communities and society at large, but it needs to be recognized that states or state-supported agencies, through their economic or environmental violence, are its “first cause”.

The terrorist is in a separate category, disowned by society and used by his mentors, handlers and sponsors to create fear among people by threats, planted news, or real attacks on soft or easy targets, executed singly or in small teams.

In the Indian context militants and terrorists are often indiscriminately clubbed together. Vested interests use this confusion to brand them “Islamic terrorist”, “Hindu terrorist” etc. These epithets are naturally objected to by Muslims and Hindus respectively, who assert that such epithets are unfair to the tenets of their religions, and that terrorists are simply terrorists, regardless of their religious background or what they may claim to represent.

Vigilantes are those who profess a certain idea or claim to “protect” a certain entity, act outside of the law-and-order framework, and attack whosoever they deem has opposed their idea or ideology. They have untrammeled freedom to operate, and strike fear among their declared targets. However, vigilantes are not categorized as terrorists.

Many leaders, planners and executors of terrorist attacks are educated and even economically well-off individuals, who have adopted a violent political or religious ideology. Thus, although poverty may not be cause for terrorism, an April 2008 Planning Commission of India expert group reported a strong correlation between militancy or extremism, and disaffection with states’ development policies.


While poverty by itself does not cause militancy, economic violence by governments or social groups causes disaffection, often leading to militancy. People who have been displaced for a mega-project lose habitat and livelihood and suffer social dislocation. They and their progeny can never have a kindly attitude towards government/s and corrupt officials, or those who have benefited from their loss.

In fact, they would nurse active animus towards society in general, often finding expression as randomly directed violence.

It is not difficult to understand that poor or marginalized people who are victims of (developmental) economic violence, may respond with physical violence. This is not to justify such reactive violence, just as economic violence inflicted in the name of progress and development cannot be justified. Rather, it is to explain the causes and reasons for the growing levels of violence in society.

Without addressing basic causes, no amount of force of any kind, including jailing activists or killing militants or terrorists, can stop militancy or terrorism. On the other hand, indiscriminate or unrestrained police or military force only further justifies militancy and terrorism to the militants and terrorists themselves.

It is near miraculous that there are so many people’s movements which are non-violent without being passive, being modelled on Gandhian principles. Experience shows that governments are unable to deal with non-violent protest, and that is the reason for infiltrating an agent provocateur, to enable the use of state force.

Successive state and central governments have also used draconian laws (IPC Section 124A; UAPA; NIA Act) against agitating members of the public who are expressing their disaffection towards projects/ policies/ laws, or against those speaking on behalf of protesting groups. Such use of draconian laws and their constitutionality have been challenged in the Supreme Court, and the judicial decisions are awaited.

The power structure

Certainly, terrorism needs to be put down. But this must be done with the firm hand of just governance. Harsh use of the bayonet and bullet, and custodial violence by state agencies, without positive delivery of equity and social justice using the political tools of consultation and consensus, only escalates the spiral of violence and terror. It is no exaggeration that many people live in constant fear of state violence by the police, or the “midnight knock”.

Security forces personnel kill militants or terrorists who in turn kill security forces personnel and sometimes their relatives. Thus, lower-ranking security personnel in the field, are also hapless victims by death or maiming by militant or terrorist attacks, with consequent effects on their families.

Senior ranks of the security forces and the senior politico-bureaucratic community, which form the governmental power structure, are well protected and largely immune from physical harm.

It is time that leaders in high positions realized that political problems can only be solved or resolved by constitutional political means. In the conspicuous absence of good governance, governments misusing state force or prolonging its use against people, irreversibly damage the social-economic-political life of society.

They are causing brutalization of a large section of society, which is trapped in the atmosphere of suspicion, fear, violence and counter-violence. People freely resorting to vigilantism indicates governance failure in the states and centre.

Fraternity, the way forward

Successive top leaders have failed to take statesmanlike steps to rise above petty politics and resolve people’s problems. They have not understood that peoples’ protests are grounded in injustice or economic violence by the state. Using state force as the first step in dealing with people’s problems cannot be justified.

People’s protests countrywide, over decades, indicate discontent with state policies, projects, legislation, etc. and with state agencies themselves flouting laws. Using state force against people’s protests is a proven failure since, rather than dousing the fires of discontent, it has aggravated discontent and spawned militancy and terrorism.

States therefore need to focus on dousing the fires, through honest, pro-people government, which is not an oxymoron, not impossible.

If they acted with sincerity on just one tenet of our Constitution’s Preamble, it would be a great leap towards peace and tranquility in society: “… promote among them all, FRATERNITY, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”.

Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as Additional Director General Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is a member of National Alliance of People's Movements and People's Union for Civil Liberties. His areas of interest are development and strategic issues.

Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR