Are Vigilantes Terrorists?
Instruments of organized violence
Observations indicate that instances of vigilante groups taking the law into their own hands for various reasons connected with faith are on the increase. At the same time, terrorism is a subject of daily reportage. Both these matters affect everybody directly or indirectly, and bear discussion.
A vigilante is “a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate”. Vigilantes bypass the state’s legal justice system by taking measures against whomever they believe are violators of established law, as they understand it.
This sometimes extends beyond the illegal enforcement of established law, to imposing self-proclaimed laws, rules, morals and norms, and punishing people deemed to violate them, or deemed to cause insult or harm to chosen ideas or icons, which they hold to be sacred or inviolable.
Usually, it is persons hailing from the numerical majority of a population who try to enforce a moral code.
Persons or groups who profess a certain idea, or claim to “protect” a certain entity, and act against the law-and-justice framework by attacking whosoever they deem has opposed their idea or ideology, are also vigilantes.
Vigilantes often treat their targets as different, inferior or unwanted, “others” who deserve to be hated and killed.
Vigilantes strike fear among their chosen targets, and are not concerned that their activities are illegal. If states are unable or unwilling to prevent such activities, vigilantes enjoy the freedom to operate.
Sometimes a government or powerful social-political lobby may clandestinely support or tacitly approve of vigilante acts, because they find them aligned, convenient, even beneficial, to furthering their political interests.
Vigilantism is not at all recent in origin. Two examples should suffice: starting in 12th century France, groups within the Catholic church conducted a Holy Inquisition to combat religious deviation and heresy. Heretics and witches were burned at the stake. In the 17th century, Galileo was indicted for arguing that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun.
In colonized America, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group, targeted African-Americans as well as Jews, immigrants, leftists, homosexuals, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. The KKK used physical assault including lynching against politically active Blacks and their allies, even if the latter were Whites.
The KKK also intimidated chosen voters, targeted African-American leaders, and organized opposition to the civil rights movement, including suppressing activists. It later adopted a business model of full-time, paid recruiters to induct members into its fraternity.
Vigilantism is thus an instrument of organized violence, used by a group to further its dogmas, beliefs, ideas and ideals, by targeting groups or individuals to create fear, or injure and kill.
Vigilantism is also used to silence or subjugate opposition. A political aim or agenda is undeniably at the core of vigilantism.
Coming to terror – it is an emotion of extreme fear, caused by the threat or use of violence, or the perception of grave danger. The creation of terror is an instrument used to create extreme and lasting fear in targeted individuals or groups.
The use of terror as an instrument of politics is ages old – terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
A terrorist’s claim of representing or belonging to a particular ethnic, religious, ideological, or political group, whether or not that ethnic, religious, ideological, or political group acknowledges or denies his membership or allegiance, is of no consequence. Terrorism is undeniably terrorism, and a terrorist is a terrorist, due to their actions.
Terrorists are indoctrinated, trained and launched by their mentors, handlers, financiers and sponsors, to attack soft targets and create fear. They strike at people to kill them and destroy property, with the intention of causing maximum damage and spreading fear.
Terrorism is a complex global issue, with social, religious, cultural, economic and political dimensions. As erstwhile UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, is unacceptable and can never be justified”.
The illegal or unconstitutional use of threats, or physical and psychological violence, to punish, or to incite or stoke fear and hate – in present times also by spreading fake news or propaganda on social media – are common to both vigilantism and terrorism.
Also common is the politics-religion agenda.
To enforce their chosen moral code, or to protect a certain entity, idea or custom, vigilante groups target individuals who they believe have violated a declared law.
Often complicit are the police and other agencies of state. Any accusation of tacit support or encouragement of vigilantes by politicians or government agencies for political benefit is hotly refuted by government supporters.
These accusations and counter-accusations are sometimes accentuated by the use of epithets such as “Islamic terrorist”, “Hindu terrorist”, etc.
Often these epithets are objected to by Muslims and Hindus respectively, who assert that it is unfair to the tenets of their faith, and that terrorists are simply terrorists, regardless of their social-religious background, or who or what the terrorists claim to represent.
They fight shy of connecting the religious identity of the vigilantes who killed Akbar Khan (Jaipur, 2018), Alimuddin (Ramgarh, 2017), Mohammad Akhlaq (Dadri, 2015) and many other targeted Muslims.
Significantly, in the run up to the 2019 general elections, PM Modi is reported to have said, “In my culture and in my limited knowledge, no Hindu can ever be a terrorist, and if he is a terrorist, he can never be a Hindu”.
Notwithstanding our PM’s categorical assertion, the reader might like to decide whether vigilantes are indeed terrorists, and if not, whether terrorists and vigilantes are siblings, born from the vicious politics of fear and hate.
S.G.Vombatkere is an Indian Army Veteran, who retired as Additional Director General Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is a member of the National Alliance of People's Movements and the People's Union for Civil Liberties