ISIS to JNU – Ideas must be countered by Ideas

jnuThe Indian Penal Code, formulated under the chairmanship of Thomas Macaulay, has punishments for every human deviancy from oral sex to lack of patriotism.

But to rely exclusively on an 156-year-old guide to governance to contain an idea in this era of viral social media and Internet is a recipe for disaster.

Pre-democratic human civilization is full of examples of tyrants and tyrannical governments trying to counter ideas with force — whether it was the Roman Emperor Nero’s attempts to quash the emerging religion of Christianity using the great fire as an excuse, or the British Raj’s own attempts to suppress the Idea of Swaraj in India.

As the subsequent spread of Christianity and the attainment of Swaraj shows, relying on force to kill ideas has never given great results. Worse, such attempts usually produce the opposite results — giving those ideas an air of credibility.

Even silly ideas that would have died a natural death achieve great circulation because of force-based strategies to counter them.


Today, the biggest threat to India is not a rival country that seeks to conquer it and exploit its resources, but ideas that threaten to dismember and destabilize the country from the inside.

These include the ISIS brand of Islamist propaganda, Maoism and other extreme left ideologies, beliefs about the superiority of certain castes over others, propaganda about certain communities ‘running away’ with government jobs via reservation and so on.

But before we get into the question of how to counter such ideas, we must of course deal with the question of whether it is the business of state to counter ideas at all.


As far as the state is concerned, ideas can be divided into four types — those that promote violence against the state, those that promote violence against fellow citizens, those that non-violently undermine loyalty towards the state, and finally those that do none of these.

Most of the ‘terrorist ideologies’ today, including extremist Islamist ideologies, fit into both the first and second categories as they promote violence both against the state and citizens. Similarly, Maoist ideology promotes violence against the state and often against fellow citizens.

There is also the third category of ideas, which harms the state by undermining the feeling of loyalty and patriotism on which it is based.

There are, for example, certain types of evangelical religions that expressly prohibit its believers from harboring any feelings of loyalty for the state as they believe it will detract from the subject’s devotion to god.

There are also certain left-wing and liberal ideologies that urge people to rise above national identities and see the entire humanity as one. There are also certain ethnic and caste organizations that urge people to be loyal only to those who belong to their ethnic group — even if they are functionaries of the state.


Force, or legally sanctioned violence, is used in many countries including India to counter the first two types of ideas — the ones that promote violence.

Force is, and must be, used to prevent and punish bombings and terror attacks that emanate from ideologies that promote violence, whether in the name of religion, left-wing beliefs or right-wing beliefs.

In fact, the use of intelligent force is very effective in reducing the impact of such violent ideologies. It is because of the use of intelligent force that we are able to foil terrorist plots and hang those that are caught.

However, our follow-up strategy in such situations often fails on two counts.

First, we start believing that we’ve solved the problem when we arrest terrorists and hang them.

To understand why this is a problem, one can compare bombings and shoot-outs to cholera outbreaks, and the legal machinery, such as jails, to our healthcare infrastructure such as hospitals.

A cholera break-out involves two factors — pathogenic bacteria and those who have been infected with the pathogenic bacteria.

Similarly, a terror attack also has two factors — a violent ideology and people who have been infected by the violent ideology.

Our first priority is always dealing with the ‘infected people’, and rightly so.

We use our institutional infrastructure — hospitals or jails, as the case may be — to deal with the infected people.

When a ‘violent outbreak’ of terrorist ideology is detected, we arrest those who have been infected (terrorists) and subject them to our legal machinery in an effort to contain the damage.

This step — whether dealing with cholera or terrorism — often helps us prevent big disasters.

However, the problem is that we then try to carry over our initial strategy to the second-phase of removing the underlying cause — cholera bacteria or violent ideology, without realizing that we need new tools for the purpose.

We cannot eliminate cholera bacteria by using our hospitals, nor can we eliminate terrorist ideology using our courts and jails.

We think imprisoning or hanging a person with the wrong ideology will help in removing it. This strategy, we reason, was helpful in dealing with terrorist violence, so it should help in dealing with the underlying ideology too.

In all this, we forget one simple truth — ideas cannot be countered by force.

Often, when we use force against an idea or ideology, instead of curtailing it, we help it grow. It is like throwing water on a kerosene fire — it just helps the fire reach new places.

The only weapon to counter a set of false ideas is the truth.


Our failure to understand the difference between countering the terrorists and countering the ideology that motivates them can be seen clearly when it comes to sedition — the third type of anti-state ideas.

These are the ideas that do not exhort its followers to commit acts of violence, but merely dilute or extinguish their loyalty to the state.

Though not as dangerous as the first two types, most modern states tend to see them as existential threats and counter them.

However, many states adopt the same two-pronged strategy in countering these ideas as they do in countering violent ideas.

They subject those infected with the ideology to the instruments of force, such as jails, and often ignore the main task — countering such ideas using the truth.

It is still unclear which type of ideology was at play at Jawaharlal Nehru campus during the Afzal Guru protests, but there are no reports of violence against the state or other citizens, and jailing the ‘carriers’ of the ideology is unlikely to be counterproductive.

To counter any ideology, one must wage the battle of ideas. To counter false ideas, one has to exposing the flaws and contradictions contained in them. Force should only be used to contain violence.

As Soctates said — the only theory that doesn’t have any internal contradictions is the truth. Everything short of it will have internal contradictions. Fighting the ideology, not those infected with it, should be the priority.