War, Terror and Leaderless Protests

A while back, I’d written on this blog that the phrase “war on terror” is incorrect since terrorism is not a war (actually I have written two posts on this topic. Here is the second one). A war is a staged human conflict with the aim being a political victory, and wars inevitably end in a political settlement, which in chess terms can be described as “resignation, rather than check mate”.

The issue with terrorism is that it is usually a distributed method. There is no one leader of terror. You might identify one leader and neutralise him, but that is no guarantee that the protests are going to end, since the rest of the “terrorist organisation” (a bit of an oxymoron) will keep the terror going. With a distributed organisation like a terrorist outfit, political settlements are impossible (who do you really settle with), and so the terrorism continues and there is no “victory”.

It is similar with spontaneous leaderless protests that have become the hallmark of the last decade, from Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 to Occupy Wall Street to the recent anti-CAA protests in India. To take a stark example with two protests based in Delhi, the Anna Hazare protest in 2011 was finished in fairly quick order (it started two days after India won the World Cup, and finished two days before the IPL was about to begin), while the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act have been going on for nearly three months now.

The difference between these two Delhi protests is that the first one (2011) had a designated leader (Anna Hazare, and maybe even Arvind Kejriwal or Kiran Bedi). And the protestors effectively followed the leader. And so when the government of the day negotiated a settlement with the leader, the protest effectively got “called off” and ended abruptly.

The Shaheen Bagh protests don’t have a designated leader to negotiate with (at least there are no obvious leaders). The government might try to negotiate with or round up or be violent to a handful of people who it thinks are the leaders, but the nature of the protest means that this is unlikely to have much effect since the rest of the “decentralised organisation” will go on.

In that sense, protests by “decentralised groups” are attritional battles where no negotiation is possible, and the only possible end is that the protestors either get bored or decide that the protest is pointless (that’s pretty much what happened with Occupy). Each member of the protesting group takes an independent decision each day (or night) whether to join the protest or not, and the protest will die down over a period of time (how long it will take depends on the size of the universe of people participating in the protest, overall interest level in the protest and how networked the protest is).

From that point of view, a leadered protest (like the Anna Hazare protest) can end suddenly (so everyone can go watch the IPL). A leaderless protest dies slowly and gradually (stronger network effects among the protestors can actually mean that the protest can die a bit faster, but still gradually).

There are claims on social media and WhatsApp groups that the communal violence in Delhi on Monday and Tuesday was designed in part to intimidate the Shaheen Bagh protestors to stop the protests. Even the violence was “successful” in achieving this objective, the leaderless nature of the protest will mean that it will only end “gradually”, more like a “halal process” rather than with a “jhatka”.

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