By Tanvi Jha; Image of former FARC rebels in 2020 by Luis Eduardo Noriega A/EPA
The debate on the definition of terrorism is a difficult one. The classic saying “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” rings too true in International Politics. However, the lines appear to become even blurrier when certain political ideologies become involved. One such example is the difference between a terrorist attack and a revolution in the name of Communism. Depending on who you speak with, the vision of a Communist revolution, involving the overthrowing of an existing government system, can intersect with some scholars’ definition of terrorism. Thus, the question arises whether basic differences can be made between them, or if they are synonymous, differentiated only by perspective.
In many developing countries, there are countless left-wing terrorist groups motivated by some interpretation of Communism. One such group are the Maoists (Communist Party of India) of India (not to be confused with the official political party, the Communist Party of India). The Maoist Communist Party of India has been designated as a terrorist organization under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act since 2009, thus officially noted in the country as a terrorist organization. Their cause was inspired by Mao’s form of Communism and motivated to pushback against the unscrupulous exploitation of forest land, displacement of tribal populations, and the increased mining of minerals. Their activities are most prominent in Chota Nagpur and Odisha. The violence by this terrorist group has been justified by some as the result of the Indian government’s unwillingness to compromise. However, the opposing side of the debate note that the terrorist cell has often interfered with local elections and used firepower to sway election results. Furthermore, many younger tribal members have begun leaning more towards an urban lifestyle, aspiring for higher education and employment opportunities. These youths are especially harder for the group to reach, ideologically.
From the group’s point of view, they are attempting to use a Maoist-Communism ideology to ensure the preservation of regional, tribal culture from the government’s industrializing forces, and that the violence being used is due to the Indian government’s refusal to cooperation. Thus, this group sees themselves as revolutionary freedom fighters for a marginalized community. On the other hand, the Indian government views their violence as a form of terrorism, believing that the group goes against aspects of the democratic institutions of the country. This rhetoric was enforced when the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, assigned a budget during his term to combat the group specifically, and in November 2021, 26 Naxals were killed in an encounter with the Maharashtra police. This leads to questions of whether the Maoist group can be considered a large-scale terrorist organization, or a small revolutionary, freedom-fighting group, attempting to preserve the rights of marginalized communities and land. A lot of it may simply depend on how locals perceive the group or how the groups actions have benefitted the communities they claim to fight for. Another question that arises is whether groups are perceived differently depending on where they fall on the political spectrum. If one assumes that it is not a terrorist group, could it be viewed as revolution? Are their ideologies oriented towards the creation of a Communist autonomous body? Do governments (like the Indian government) assign the label of terrorism to groups that are rooted in ideologies outside of their, supposed, democratic structures?
Taking another case study, from the other side of the world, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC) of Colombia began as a Communist group, one that was connected to Soviet ideas of communist movements. The group originated in the committees for resistance during the La Violencia civil war. FARC was, recently, removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations in November 2021, after years of bloodshed; the US stated that many of the group’s former leaders have turned to conventional politics. This was meant to accompany the fragile peace deal made between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels back in 2016. Proceeding this agreement was the five-decade long conflict, with the US-back Colombian forces fighting against the drug trade-funded FARC insurgents. Under this new deal, 13,000 FARC rebels agreed to lay down their arms and return to investing in government work in neglected, rural areas of the country. The US added FARC to its international terrorist organizations list when the group, at the height of its power, planted landmines in different parts of the country, kidnapped politicians, launched large attacks on regional capitals, and commanded thousands of armed fighters. Their main goal was to defend the peasant farmers back in 1964, in the name of Marxism; support the redistribution of wealth to the poor; and oppose the influence of multi-national corporations and foreign governments (specifically the US). Their violent terrorist activities have resulted in 260,000 casualties over the years. Given the death toll of their activities, do they deserve to no longer be defined as terrorists, given that they now rely on typical government processes to support their ideology? Is FARC, as an organization, no longer a terrorist group, but a revolutionary political party? Or is it simply a left-winged political entity within Colombia? For an organization that committed so much violence on a country and its political structures, can it easily lose its label as a terrorist group because the US agreed to take it off a list?
Taking these two examples of left-wing terrorist groups, both of which are Communist-driven, one might wonder whether the labelling of “terrorism” simply depends on what is a violent group’s political ideology. Furthermore, the interpretation of terms like revolution, freedom fighting, and terrorism differs depending on who is asked and who is instigating the violence. In these two examples, the groups were beginning by fighting for marginalized communities that they believed were vulnerable to government policies or neglect. Hence, the perception of groups and their activities plays a large role in how violent-acting groups are categorized, while circumstances factor into how terrorists and revolutionaries are differentiated. Scholars continue to ponder over what the thin line is between the two terms: revolution and terrorism. Depending on the definition revered, historical revolutions, such as the French or American revolution, can be defined as terrorism. However, it is a malleable difference, changing as per the political state of the world with the rise and fall of different political entities.