Terrorism is not a profession, but an aberration

Dr Geeta Madhavan

Dr Geeta Madhavan’s class is full: just as it was when I was a student myself. She was my first initiation into law: and continues to be the same for many, many aspirants in the field. But here’s what’s different about her. While many may conjure up images of flowing black robes and white bands, Geeta takes on the giants in the field: think nations fighting it out over land, think terrorism and attempts to punish it with legalese, think laws governing the high seas. And voila, you have one of the fewest lawyers in India to dabble with International Law, Law relating to Terrorism and Maritime Law.

What got you into Public International Law?

I always loved History. As a child, my reading tended towards history, as my growing years saw me reading up a lot on the World Wars and the aftermath. Somewhere in the process, it gave way to my love for International Law – given that the field does have a lot to do with history, too. I opted to do Law as my ambition was to pursue a career in the Foreign Services. While I was doing my LLB in Bangalore, I fell in love with Law and developed a special fascination for International Law. I enrolled as an advocate and started my practice in the Madras High Court. I also joined for ML in International Law at the Madras University.

What drew you to terrorism as a topic of choice? Wasn’t it a bit outside the ordinary back then?

While working on my dissertation topic international drug trafficking and control I came across the topic of terrorism. I found it fascinating that terrorism was something that happened far away in Ireland and Palestine and there was no interest here in India.However,the impetusto work on international terrorism was the assassination of erstwhile Prime Minister Mr. Rajeev Gandhi. Although India had been dealing with terrorism in several forms within the country, this tragedy marked entry of international terrorism in India.

What followed immediately after? Did you have a lot of challenges?

Having chosen what most considered an “off-beat path”, my choice did meet quite a few dropped jaws. But my heart was set on the subject of international terrorism. My research took me forward. I received an Award from The Hague Academy of International Law at The Hague, Netherlands for Advanced Doctoral Research in 1997. I was the only Asian to receive it that year and one of the three persons chosen from around the world. It was like a ticket to King Solomon’s mines on international Law!

After years of hard and unstinting work, I received my PhD from the Madras University in the year 2000. My work was regarded as path-breaking and my external examiner actually requested for a standing ovation for viva voce! With the tragedy on September 11, 2001 in the USA, as an expert on international terrorism, television channels, newspapers and magazines interviewed me extensively. Since then, I have been travelling extensively, writing on terrorism and its various aspects and have published numerous articles in books and also written for mainstream newspapers. My articles have also been quoted in the foreign press.

ISIS beheading a teenager Image credit Daily Mail UK

What do you think of the situation as we see it around us? Terrorism has clearly come to stay. Are we doing enough?

In my research, the unique geographical structure of India and its geostrategic importance in the Indian Ocean region drew me to the maritime importance of India. With its long and vulnerable coastline and with enhanced securityat airports, a shift in terrorism to the maritimetheater was inevitable. These fears were proven true by the terrible carnage at Mumbai on 26th November,2008. My work therefore, never ceases as terrorism as a phenomenon has always existed but it is now virulent in all parts of the world and hardly any country is left untouched.

Terrorism is a real threat. It is no longer serving any purpose to decide not to talk about it, or to leave it to policy makers. It is important that we understand the reasons behind frisking at airports, malls and crowded places. It is important that we remain open to our surroundings and keep an eye out for everything that we need to be vigilant about. There is no one size fits all solution to terrorism. It requires constant work, constant effort and a lot of vigilance and intelligence.

Terrorists are constantly jostling for space in the world theatre by unleashing terrible acts of terror. The leaders and harbingers of terrorism use religion, philosophy or ethnicity to appeal to their followers and fringe groups. Terrorism is not a profession, it is an aberration; and terrorism should be recognised and condemned. It is indeed time for the international community to act in concert and debunk the myths as well as unmask and hold up the real frightening and macabre face of terrorism to the world.

What is it about terrorism that makes it such a difficult issue to handle? Why do we shy away from dealing with it as we rightfully should?

There is a myth – that there is no definition of terrorism. The truth is that there are innumerable varied definitions of terrorism– that clearly underline certain common elements. The common denominator in all these are the terms “use of force or threat of use of force” and “non-combatants “or “civilians”. These definitions also list various circumstances where such force or threat of force is used, for example the United Nation’s definition of terrorism alludes to the reasons being: political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or of any other nature.

Secondly, the entirely out of place adage often used : one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. This term was coined in the post-colonial era when countries fought for freedom from their imperial masters. To talk of freedom fighters and terrorists in the same breath is truly reprehensible. A terrorist cannot use any and all means of violence however justified they may claim their cause to be.

A third mistake we often make is to believe that the poorest person of a marginalized section in a society who has used violence and terrorism as the only possible means of getting anything for him or herself. This romantic notion is paraded to make the killings and acts of violence committed by the person more acceptable and forgivable!

There is also a notion that good governance will lead to mitigation of terrorism. Based on this, an argument is made that the State, instead of dealing with domestic terrorism in an appropriate and strong manner; should concentrate on building infrastructures to deal with issues. While it is true that the State should restructure itself to address the core issues that have caused grave discontent, it also true that “soft power” alone cannot deal with terrorism. Good governance is not the panacea for the scourge of domestic terrorism.

Mumbai attacks Image credit India Today

What about laws against terrorism?

It is a myth that all laws seeking to deal with terrorism are against individual rights. It is the fundamental duty if a state to protect its territorial integrity and to secure for its citizens safety and security and in that context a State enacts anti-terror laws. After the spate of hijackings in the 1970s, and especially after 9/11 airport security worldwide was tightened and restrictions placed on passengers. While no one protests these invasions into privacy, there is a strident group that refuses to accept that partial infringement of individual rights is required to ensure safety for all. Similarly, organisations that consistently and vociferously propagate violence or secessions need to be watched and monitored by intelligence agencies. Similarly, proscribing organisations that have clear agendas of terrorism is the prerogative of any State that intends to secure its territory against terrorist attacks.

Terror strikes Paris

Some countries in Europe turning out to be stronghold of terrorism; how/why does this happen?

Europe is emerging as the new theatre for terrorist activity due to two reasons: European countries hold human rights in very high esteem. They are not only are signatories to various international conventions regarding human rights but they have enacted laws in their individual countries upholding human rights. The asylum laws in these countries are to protect those whose human rights are denied in their own countries and whose lives are endangered due to political, religious or ethnic persecutions. The downside of this is that some terrorists take advantage of this and slip in through the cracks and create security risks for the countries. They carry out terrorist activities taking full advantage of this situation. One must also remember capital punishment does not exist in these countries and these subversive elements take full advantage of this.

Are there any difference between terrorism as we see unfold in Europe and threats faced by India?

Terrorism comes in many forms and if there is any difference it is only the actual perpetrators and their justification for perpetrating the terrorist activity. The targets are non combatants (civilians) and the intention of terrorists is always to create fear. India has been dealing with terrorism for six decades and has dealt with a firm hand and within the rule of law despite constant criticism from several European countries. European countries have to straddle human rights with curtailing and countering terrorist activities and find a way to reconcile them both to ensure safety for all.

  • Written byKirthi Jayakumar

    Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, activist and writer based in Chennai. She has worked extensively with grassroots organizations and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative for women’s rights. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on International Law,called A38.



    Comment: Hope this is read by as many as possible, will act as an educative tool for many who has a very wrong notion of terrorism.


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