A matter of time

First posted Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2014

NB: This article was written for an edited volume on contemporary terrorism, more specifically, terror in the name of Hindutva. I disagree with the habit of approaching terrorism with a prefix, but nevertheless wrote it, in order precisely to make my point more explicitly. It was completed more than a year ago and the book (to which it was a contribution) is more than overdue. I understand that the current political atmosphere has motivated the publishers to re-think the project, and have no idea if they will ever publish it.  After consulting with the editor of the proposed volume, therefore, I have decided to post it on SACW and my blog. It is posted here in commemoration of Hiroshima Day, 2014: Dilip

This essay owes an intellectual debt to Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism. See her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (1948) 2004, New York; esp., Part 3, sections 3 and 4; ‘Totalitarianism in Power’; and ‘Ideology and Terror’. The master quotes are from Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority; Pittsburgh, (1969); 2008. p 21; and Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt; (1956), New York, 1991, p. 3

A matter of time

The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives. In advance its shadow falls over the actions of men. War is not only one of the ordeals – the greatest – of which morality lives; it renders morality derisory. The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means – politics – is henceforth enjoined as the very exercise of reason – Emmanuel Levinas

Once crime was solitary as a cry of protest; now it is as universal as science. Yesterday it was put on trial; today it determines the law – Albert Camus


This essay derives its inspiration from the need to engage with and understand the phenomenon of totalitarianism, which appears to me to be a central feature of terror and terrorism. My argument is not restricted to India, nor to a specific religious provenance of Indian communal politics. (Communalism refers to the assumption that shared membership of a community automatically results in a shared political interest). Rather, the relevance of totalitarianism is itself evidence of India’s assimilation into a globalised reality. The sub-division of communally inspired violence along denominational categories is self-defeating, for it follows the habitual practice of analyzing communal phenomena through a communal lens – in other words, taking as given precisely those terms and usages that require analysis.

In a recent article, the Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy describes his conversations with Indian and Pakistani generals on nuclear matters. Senior officers on both sides evinced delight and enthusiasm at acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The place these weapons held in their mental universe was inhabited by passions of honour and glory – values that Hoodbhoy rightly describes as Neolithic. When the Pokharan tests took place, India’s Home Minister L.K. Advani advised Pakistan to give up its claim on Kashmir because the ‘geo-strategic’ context had decisively changed in India’s favour. He too was delighted, as if an atavistic yearning had been consummated. Maybe it had to do with myths about virility. Hoodbhoy recounts such appreciative comments emanating from various senior and respected analysts. I remember the leader M.L. Khurana, Union Minister in the third Vajpayee government, saying that if Pakistan wanted a fight it could “name the time and place” – comments more suitably emanating from the precincts of a wrestler’s gymnasium than the mouth of a cabinet minister.  Some years prior to that, an Indian defence minister (M.S. Yadav) declared that nuclear war would only affect the cities – presumably this was meant to allay our fears. What could be more terrifying than the prospect of mass nuclear death? Yet that is what the leaders of the world’s largest democracy seem to contemplate with equanimity. When we speak of terror and terrorism therefore, it is wise to begin with the terrorism not of so-called radicals, but of the so-called mainstream….

Download a PDF of the full article here