By Dipankar Gupta
December 1, 2018
One person’s terrorist is often another’s martyr. Is it just a word flipping over, or is there something more profound that separates the two?
Last week, we celebrated Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom day. Barely was that over when, 48 hours later, came the tenth anniversary of Mumbai’s 26/11 tragedy. While in the first case we reverentially remembered a saint and a martyr, in the latter we recalled the horrible memory of the terrorist attack in Mumbai.
For us Indians, Ajmal Kasab, captured alive and wriggling, was justly tried as an unrepentant serial terrorist. His role in the 26/11 massacre filled our TV screens with surround sound effect. Yet many in Pakistan mourned him as a martyr when he was hanged and thought his execution was a “big loss to Muslims”. Hafiz Saeed, of Lashkar-e-Taiba, even led a prayer grieving his death, with thousands in attendance.
Saeed was not alone in pouring kerosene on this fire. The Pakistan wing of Taliban and Al Qaida, not to forget David Headley, all commended Kasab, some even vowed to “complete his mission”. When Nawaz Sharif suggested that Kasab may have had links in Pakistan, it even upset the Press Council in that country.
How could there be such completely different takes on one man? A little reflection tells us that the mere fact of dying for a cause does not distinguish a martyr from a terrorist. In this regard, the more important criterion is whether one will kill for a cause, or not.
A true martyr does not physically attack anybody and, what is more, does not fight back, not even in self defence. Guru Tegh Bahadur fits this definition perfectly. He knew that a violent death awaited him, yet he went ahead to plead the cause of Kashmiris who came to him for help.
Imam Husayn, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, also died without offering any resistance. He too was aware that he was heading towards dangerous terrain but he still felt he had to give peace a chance. This is why, among the Shias, Imam Husayn is considered to be the “Lord of Martyrs”.
Likewise, in the Christian faith, St Sebastian was a true martyr. There he stood in the public square, with folded hands and bended knees, submitting quietly to stoning by a wild mob. Among those who participated in this assault was Saul, who later repented, converted to Christianity, and became St Paul. The Macabee brothers are martyrs for the Jews as they too refused to fight back even as they were tortured for observing their dietary taboos.
A true martyr then does not just die for a cause, but dies without hurting anybody; not even a hand on someone’s collar. A terrorist, on the other hand, starts out to kill for a cause and if death should happen it is passed off as collateral damage. The distinction between martyr and terrorist is dramatically illustrated in the life and thoughts of our very own Shaheed Bhagat Singh.
Many in India know Bhagat Singh as a gun toting romantic figure, but this is not how he would have wanted to be remembered. It is true that Bhagat Singh killed John Saunders, a police officer, to avenge Lala Lajpat Rai’s death. He was on the run after that and successfully evaded the police for months.
Yet, very soon his views on the political necessity of violence changed and he practically asked to be arrested. He did this by bursting a harmless bomb, little more than an elevated fire cracker, in the Assembly. It hurt no one and he waited quietly for the police to take him away.
One gets a clue to this in many of his writings, such as ‘Why I am an Atheist’, or the one he addressed ‘To Young Political Workers’. He never hid the fact that he was briefly a terrorist; but that was a passing phase. He soon realised that those who uphold the ideals of socialism and anti-colonialism “do not throw bombs on innocent people”.
This is light years away from how Al Qaida, or Taliban, trains jihadis. For them, killing for a cause is the first order of business; it is a cherished value in itself. Violence is what puts meat on the bones of their ideology.
Today Bhagat Singh is rightly known as a martyr, not so much for his attack on Saunders as for his peaceful protest in the Assembly and subsequent surrender. He wanted to “make the deaf hear” and this could never be accomplished by “killing some important people”.
This explains why, unlike a terrorist, a martyr never considers an entire community to be the enemy. Bhagat Singh was not against British people but the colonial structure that some of them represented. The enemy, in this case, was not an undifferentiated population for there were innocents too on the other side.
For terrorists the matter is very different. Not only do they see themselves as a homogenous lot of faithful believers, they also see the others as an equally homogenous bunch of faithless “unbelievers”. Therefore, an attack against any one of them is legitimate for it is an attack against all. There are no innocents among those who are not in their ranks.
Hate is much easier to nurture than compassion. This is why a terrorist can never rise to be a martyr.
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.