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Language and Power

by Ejaz Haider
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Rakesh Bakshi—AFP

The term ‘terrorism’ is supposed to evoke a negative response. But its placement in language is more than that; it is about setting a context and wielding power

On Feb. 14, a local Kashmiri boy, Adil Dar, rammed a vehicle rigged with explosives into a bus, part of a convoy carrying personnel from India’s Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary outfit. The aftermath of the flash-and-bang saw more than 40 CRPF soldiers killed and dozens injured.

As if on cue, the Indian media and officialdom began pointing a finger at Pakistan. Dar, a boy who lived barely at a 20-minute distance from where he attacked the convoy, was declared a “terrorist,” just like every Kashmiri who picks up the gun to fight India’s state repression in Kashmir.

Since that day, India has been promising a befitting response to Pakistan, making the attack an India-Pakistan issue and, as is Delhi’s wont, steering it away from the basic question, i.e., Kashmiris right of self-determination and India’s denial to them of that inalienable right, a peremptory norm. [NB: What options India can exercise militarily is of course a separate topic and one that is outside the scope of this article.]

This is about words, the narrative, the control, and the exercise of power, power over.

India’s policy is, of course, deliberate. It is in line with (a) India’s perceived strategic interest and (b) the narrative pushed by the world’s powerful states since the events of 9/11. Language is not just important, it’s crucial. The words we use inform others of the positions we take. The Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter, once described language as “a highly ambiguous business.” It is. And yet, states, since the 19th century, have employed words, symbols, imagery to cut through the context, the ambiguities, and the ironies of the language to try and give specific politico-strategic meanings to certain words.

Terrorism is one such word. It is supposed to evoke a response, a negative one for anyone who is branded such. But its placement in the language is more than that. It is about setting a context and wielding power.

Robin T. Lakoff, a linguistics professor who wrote the book The Language War, says, “…making meaning is a defining activity of Homo sapiensit is more than just a cognitive exercise, since those who get to superimpose a meaning on events control the future of their society. And since so much of our cognitive capacity is achieved via language, control of language—the determination of what words mean, who can use what forms of language to what effects in which settings—is power. Hence the struggles I am discussing…are not tussles over ‘mere words,’ or ‘just semantics’—they are battles.”

Terror was introduced to the political lexicon by France’s revolutionary government. On Sept. 5, 1793, it decided that the enemies of the revolution must be guillotined to induce terror, the cleansing being the path to a new morality. Maximilien de Robespierre justified the Reign of Terror at a speech at the National Convention in 1794 by saying that “Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” It was the state employing terror and justifying it.

But after thousands were guillotined, Robespierre was overthrown, executed and declared a terrorist. The meaning changed with the political context. Since then, there has been an attempt to use the term for attacks against a state, not by the states, an attempt to justify violence by the state but condemn it when it is directed against a state.

For instance, the attempt to make this distinction can be seen in a 2004 compilation of essays on Just War theory by Michael Walzer (Arguing about War) where he justifies—or at least tries to understand—direct killing of civilians in the essay titled, “Emergency Ethics,” and then follows it up with the essay captioned: Terrorism: A Critique of Excuses. It is ironic, to put it charitably, but in line with the way states have sought to develop what David Kennedy called Lawfare, the attempt to develop jurisprudence that serves the interests of the state.

But irony has a habit of being bittersweet. The Cold War saw a bipolar world, stability at the center and instability on the periphery. This was also the period which saw a number of destabilizing civil wars, many of which were part of freedom struggles against foreign oppression, domination or occupation. This is what United Nations General Assembly’s resolution, A/RES/37/43 of Dec. 3, 1982 states:

“1.   Calls upon all States to implement fully and faithfully the resolutions of the United Nations regarding the exercise of the right to self-determination and independence by peoples under colonial and foreign domination;

“2.   Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle;…”. (italics mine.)

Equally, political narratives notwithstanding, there have been constant and feverish attempts by states, especially the dominant ones, to try and cross the definitional hurdle, to somehow define terrorism with legal clarity, if not with mathematical precision. Predictably, that has come to naught. Research indicates that scholars, states, organizations etc have come up with more than 250 definitions of terrorism. The United Nations has spent over two decades trying to figure out a definition which can surmount the political interests of states and get a consensus on a narrower, more precise definition. It has been an exercise in futility.

Ironic, again. The very states that use the language and the symbols to present X as a hero and Y as a terrorist cannot agree on one definition because while they would call Y a terrorist, they would support and fund someone else’s terrorist as a freedom fighter.

That said, there’s some acceptance of basics. If you target civilians, deliberately, the act would be considered terrorism. But militaries, more broadly, security forces, are legitimate targets. Also, under international law, they are hard targets not just when they are formed up for combat, but wherever they might be.

What has happened here, or at least what India is trying to do, is to push the real issue to the back burner: the narrative is not coincidental. It is deliberate and meant to create a context that helps India hold on to Occupied Kashmir and continue to deny Kashmiris their rights and dignity. Hence the invocation of Dar, or before him, Burhan Wani, as ‘terrorists’.

Take the term shaheed (martyr). The cleverer Indians would say, “We can have our positions on Kashmir, but tell us if Dar is a martyr and if you condemn what he did.” Gullible Pakistanis will fall for that, ignoring, to their peril, what the play is. Exhibit: a FaceBook campaign by some women whose placards say, “I am a Pakistani and I condemn the Pulwama terrorist attack.” Great! Where’s the placard that says, “I am so-and-so and I condemn India’s state terrorism against Kashmiris because that can beget a response?”

Here’s the play: language. Creating a context to exercise power over the narrative and, therefore, control the politico-strategic outcome. The basic objective of any war, kinetic or non-kinetic, is to break the enemy’s will to fight. And the will is not a function of symmetry of strength; nations don’t lose in a contest of arms alone. They do when their will to fight collapses. The will is a function of the mind. It’s what makes young Kashmiri boys and girls pelt stones, insert themselves between the Indian security forces and the armed freedom fighters and, more generally, refuse to accept India’s occupation of their homeland.

That is India’s problem. How to destroy the will of the Kashmiris. How to put down Camus’ slave who, one day, decides to rebel, says enough is enough and will settle for nothing less than “All or nothing.”

No security architecture, no power arrangement is interminable. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias’ works, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But the condition is to retain the will and push back against the narrative that seeks to exercise power over the weak.

Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of NewsweekPakistan

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5 comments

Surendra February 21, 2019 - 4:32 pm

My only hope, Ejaz, that your words don’t bite Pakistan on its Western borders and border along with Iran.Pl be patient with them at that time,,those seeking independence. You may argue on stale disputed territories line, but the definitions you so eloquently put forth in your article does not make that kind of distinction

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Srinath February 21, 2019 - 6:23 pm

No amount of arcane explanations and convoluted logic can undo the damage Pakistan has done for itself( in terms of branding as a rogue nation) and the region ( in terms of terrorist attacks). Narrative stems from reality, not from a few pious declarations and articles. Well Kashmir is India’s problem which was not dealt in a democratic spirit. Pakistan too expectedly fished in troubled waters making India’s job difficult. Hopefully there will be a paradigm shift in dealing with the problem. Islamabad’s quest for a new ‘narrative’ (Pakistani intellectuals’ obsession’ for decades) will remain elusive as long as it does not change the reality by getting rid of its cultivated jehadis). It takes more than semantic flights of fantasy such as this article to break of the isolation. A sobering thought: Rght now, three of the four immediate neighbours are accusing Pakistan agencies of fuelling terrorism, following attacks in their countries.

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katu satya March 10, 2019 - 7:35 am

You r absolutely right. But of late, now India has choosen the same path after 2014 which pakistan had choosen in early eightees. The state of pakistan today has reached a level where they cannot show their face anywhere in the world and even cannot disclose their identity or nationality. Same is the case with kashmiris now in India after 14th February. Prime Ministers appeal goes unheard. It appears as if kashmiri nation has burnt all its boats viz a viz India unless some remedial measures are not taken quickly. Look at the following link as well. https://youtu.be/m1h1oIE8IAk

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Dr Shouket February 22, 2019 - 3:08 am

Beautifully written truth

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Shaikh Ghazi February 22, 2019 - 7:52 am

Excellent. Ejaz has given a cogent argument about the atrocities committed by states in the name of terror. He has provided a new angle of discussion that lays threadbare the Indian narrative and our apologists who jump at the first opportunity to condemn the fight for freedom. This is a must read piece.

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