Geetha Madhavan, a Chennai-based lawyer, is the first woman in Asia to be awarded a doctorate for her research on international terrorism. An outspoken lobbyist for legal measures to counter terror, she feels that India needs to implement stringent anti-terror laws with immediate effect, and strengthen its maritime security as well, which could otherwise be exploited by terrorists. A founder member of a non-partisan organisation called Centre for Security Analysis, she also believes that people should be made aware of issues involved with terror so that they do not react to attacks emotionally. In an exclusive meeting with Deputy Managing Editor od Sify News K Sreedevi, Geeta Madhavan argues for a special anti-terror force as well as a strict legal system to counter acts of terrorism. Excerpts:
Why have we not managed to legally define terrorism so far?
Every terrorist group has managed to justify its act and come up with its own definition of terrorism. Hence the concept as a whole is confusing. The government and agencies working towards promoting awareness on terrorism fail to reach out to the common people. The common people are so unaware of the complexities and they are just moved by what they read or see in the media at an emotional level. I wish we could reach out to people through vernacular medium or television to make them understand that there are far greater issues than emotional ones when it comes to terror attacks.
How would you define terrorism?
There is no need to define terrorism. A working definition is enough. It is an identifiable creature today. Any organisation that seeks to do an act to threaten or intimidate or an act of violence against any civilian is terrorist.
How do you distinguish between a freedom fighter and terrorist?
I get very angry with this question. Please don’t insult our freedom fighters. There are two main factors that distinguish the two. A freedom fighter is fighting against the regime and targets only the symbols of the regime, whereas the terrorist uses his ideology and targets anyone. A terrorist will bomb public places with people of no connection to the issue, kidnap a busload of children, incite violence merely for the sake of intimidation and fear and rarely against authority. Self-determination is another big issue that has lot of misconception. The concept of self-determination has got mixed up territorial control. In India, we have the concept of self-determination very well ingrained in our system where we are a federation of Sates. Over the years, the lines have blurred badly owing to various self-interests with politicians and organisations carrying out their own personal agenda.
Do draconian laws check terrorism? Has the US Homeland Security Act really prevented further attacks on US soil?
I have always been advocating a law against terrorism much to the displeasure of human rights activists. If there is a lacuna in the terrorist law, it is in the enforcement and the misuse of it and not in the enactment of the law. So we have to enact a law, which reduces the misuse, and sensitise the people about its enforcement, and ensures that the political parties do not misuse it for their advantage. The only solution that I see towards this objective is to centralise the law and set up centralised police machinery to deal with the terror acts under it. And just like the defence budget, have a special allocation to counter-terrorism in the government budget. It is mandatory to have a special force tackle this problem. You cannot expect the already over-burdened ordinary police force to carry out counter-terror activities. This is the same problem that the US is facing. When they started Homeland Security, they expected the local police officer in a small US town to double up as homeland security guard along with his regular policing job, because of budget constraints. And they failed miserably. So, a centralised authority for homeland security could be a plausible solution. There are enough possibilities for misuse of the law but we need to put appropriate checks and balances. But in the event of its possible misuse, we cannot do away with the entire Act.
Will just a simple enactment of law curb terrorism?
This is another argument that I often hear. I hear from many that England and a few other countries have enacted a law against terrorism but this has not stopped terror attacks in these places. Let me tell you one thing: the law is to put parameters as to what can be done and what cannot be done. Just because we have an Indian Penal Code, it does not put an end to murders and crime in the country. Because of human nature and violence being a part of life, terrorism will continue to happen. That is why I often say terrorism can only be countered and not curbed. Once the parameters are drawn, it becomes easy to distinguish between the right and wrong.
What are the ways to tackle terrorist activities?
There are two levels at which a terrorist organisation acts within a country. One is when it takes money from common people through charities and educational trusts to fund its acts. Instead of spending our time in picking and framing the individual donor, it is better to exert pressure on the organisation which is collecting public money through stricter surveillance. This will cut off their money flow. The second level is to act against public interest creating terror and panic. That is why I insist on a law against terrorism. The terrorist law should not be treated as a political issue but a social one, for the benefit of the society.
How does that hold against the notion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s warrior?
It is sad because that definition went out of fashion some 20 years ago. Any ideological organisation fighting a regime becomes a terrorist outfit on the day it starts attacking civilians. It is terrorising society and does not matter whose cause it is advocating. It is necessary to sensitise the enforcement agencies and educate the people against such wrong ideas.
In India, almost all acts of terror are put at the doorstep of the ISI or Islamic radical outfits. How real is the threat of home-grown radicals?
Terrorism has existed from the time the States were being formed. It was never a major issue for the simple reason that war was fought differently in those days. But today, no country can afford to fight a full-scale war. One because of the economic pattern and more so, the fallout of any sophisticated weapon — such as nuclear, biological or radiological — that we use today is not confined to an area, there is always a danger that it will spread to other territories. There is high civilian damage. You can never justify that. Technology doesn’t help you to win a war. That is a fact that everybody knows. So how do you then destabilise the neighbouring country? At this particular point of time of history, it happens to be the Islamic forces. It could be anyone else. Where is the Islamic factor in Sri Lanka? Where is Islam in IRA? There are a few more which are Left wing radicals who want to do away with a repressive government. There is no Islamic factor here too. All these activities are driven by a particular force. It could be Christian or Hindu fundamentalist forces after 30 years. Today, what has happened is that America has driven the Islamic idea to a large extent and especially after 9/11.
How do you react to the oft repeated saying that all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims?
This is all just jargon being bandied about by a few groups. They started off by describing it as a war against terror. But I am opposed to this term. It should be combating terrorism. It’s sad to note that a lot of these are driven by America’s perception of terrorists. If we delineate ourselves from that concept, we can see a difference. Islam is the flavour of the month. But then all terrorist activities are not driven by Islamic forces. Over the years, there has been a tendency of the media and the government to demonise a particular state and make them into huge icons. Twenty-five years ago, it was Carlos, and he was a mastermind of a series of attacks. But if you actually read literature, you realise that he was a KGB agent and that there was a power driving him and he was being used. Similarly, the PLO was fighting for a homeland, which happened to be a Muslim state. It’s all a creation of media, state establishment and others.
What are the main motivators or triggers for people to take to terrorism?
No sweeping statement can be made as each one is different. The basic problem today is marginalisation of a particular community. They fear losing their religion and culture. There is also the gross materialisation of the West, which is being depicted as a devil. This is the most basic of reasons. With Left wings and Naxals, it’s corruption in the society. With organisations as LTTE, it all started off as a reaction against repression in the Sinhala political establishment, it grew into a demand for a separate state, and then mutated into violence being inculcated as a fight for homeland. Marginalisation, be it economical, political or social is one of the basic reasons for terrorism.
Do you think incidents like the release of dreaded terrorists in return for Rubiya Sayeed and for the passengers of IC 814 from Kandahar actually inspire others to perform similar acts?
Kandahar was a blot. It is better to learn from the lessons from that. Copycat acts need not be successful if you have sufficient surveillance and security. For example, there was a spate of hijackings by the PLO in the 70s, but the system came down and now you hardly hear anything like that. It fell off as a popular means after sometime owing to several factors. Now, the series of concerted blasts are being used as a means to scare the society. But we have to accept that our Intelligence and government are doing a good job too. And we, as a society, should support them and abide by the rules. Public doesn’t care until some really bad incidents happen. It is mandatory for the public to abide by laws enforced by our security agencies and co-operate with security personnel, be it in the form of random checks at the railway stations, airports, cinema halls or corporates. You have a duty and responsibility towards the society.
How critical is intelligence (human and technological) to prevent or thwart terror attacks?
There is nothing to beat human intelligence. I think that the great mistake that the US is doing is relying only on technological intelligence and that is why it is not succeeding. It is human intelligence that is imperative. And sharing that intelligence within the internal forces and organisations is critical. I am not asking to share information that is detrimental to the nation’s interest but share what is necessary. We have to strengthen the law towards this.
Given a chance, what would be the first radical step that you would take to check terror in India?
Enact a terrorist law. I won’t even skip a heartbeat before I can do that. I have always been advocating it.
How many other women do you know in this field across the world?
After 9/11, a lot of interest has been generated in the subject. There are people working on human rights areas in the recent years. But not many are working on the legal issues. Most of them have worked in strategic and tactical issues till date. .
In your view, what are the major security threats faced by India?
I feel that maritime threat is the biggest threat to our nation. We have a huge coastline that is left uncovered. We already have maritime problems like human trafficking, narcotics, smuggling, small arms and weapons transport, all happening in the Indian Ocean sector. But thankfully, they have not hit us yet. The pirates are being used by terrorists to transport goods and weapons. Palk Straits is a huge threat. We are also having an uncharted coastline and how much of policing can you do in this? It is imperative that we be on double guard against this looming threat.