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The human bomb

Persistent poverty, lack of opportunities for work with dignity, inequality, injustice and persecution can help explain the increasing occurrence of suicide bombers, says DEVAKI JAIN.


Poverty often drives children to become child soldiers or join guerilla groups.

AS news pours in of more people, especially young persons, making what in military parlance during the Kargil war was called the "supreme sacrifice" — of killing themselves for a larger cause, while they kill others — it seems important for those who have the skills of understanding of the larger economic issues of deprivation and inequality, to examine the phenomenon in greater depth. This will help all of us make a more thoughtful and more far reaching response, than mere shock, alarm or disgust.

Most, if not all, endeavours of human beings seem to be related to the compelling, categorical imperative, of wanting to stay alive. When we see pictures, or hear of the stark negotiations that the poorest and most deprived make in order to eat and live, such as women selling their own bodies, or parents selling their children; others negotiating the ugliest transactions just to be allowed to live such as those who will reveal secrets and hidden places in order that they won't be shot; or the universal anxiety of parents, especially mothers, that the worst that could happen to them is for a child to die. When one sees these transactions, "running for their lives", one recognises that this is in fact "the supreme sacrifice".

However, history also applauds heroism in those who "sacrifice their lives" for a larger cause. All soldiers in the frontline of all battles in history who have died for their country, defending their borders or their religion or other causes are held in awe and respect as they "died in fighting for a just cause", martyrs to be canonised. At another level, there are those who have "offered satyagraha," faced bullets as non-violent protest, fasted unto death for a cause. These persons have also volunteered to die as do the soldiers for a larger cause.

Thus there is a "voluntariness" in the person who goes to the front and might die in battle. There is a voluntariness in those who will go on a hunger strike or a fast for a cause, as is being done in the Narmada Valley. So the offer to die is heroic, because the compulsive desire is to live. In movies, we see the ultimate threat is when the gun is held to the head. Then the victim offers all the cash and jewellery in return to the robber, or reveals secrets, or commits heinous crimes to avoid death through the gun held to the head.

The phenomenon of the human bomb takes this willingness to sacrifice life for a cause to another level, or does it? These human bombs are also making the "supreme sacrifice", for a cause, namely dying. I first heard about this kind of protest — self-immolation in Tamil Nadu. Tamils would burn themselves out of anguish or anger. Self-immolation was also seen in the North, to protest against the Mandal Commission.

It was when Dhanu garlanded Rajiv Gandhi, killing him and herself in Sriperumbudur that brought the phenomenon of a human bomb into perspective. She was making the supreme sacrifice of her life. However, she was not only taking her own life, but she was also taking the life of another in that process. I suppose that is the difference between self-immolation, fast unto death, being killed in war, suicide, and the human bomb. In the case of the human bombs the sacrifice of one's life is for a cause, but in the process, others are also killed for the cause. When Bhagat Singh and Jatin Das killed Colonel Sanders, their English adversary, knowing that this would mean that they would be hanged and went to the hanging joyfully, were they also human bombs? They were "killing" themselves, may be after a time gap, as it were.

Can one view the whole phenomenon in the context of anger, a perception that this was the only option to hurt the enemy; an analysis that life was not worth living under these conditions, a retaliation born out of assumption that what the "other" was doing, was also a form of human bombing, that is killing, persecuting, but with a velvet glove or an invisible bomb?

Take the notion of martyrdom. Christ was a martyr, sacrificed for a cause. Bhagat Singh was a martyr, who sacrificed himself. Joan of Arc was a martyr, she was killed by others, because she stood for a cause. So martyrs are those who are killed by others as also those who kill themselves for a cause, as they become martyrs for upholding the cause. The new crop of those whose passion drives them to become human bombs, perhaps imagine that they would be canonised by those for whom they are fighting.

Another possible explanation could be the "cheapness of life" in countries with large masses of people living close to death. One of the most striking features of the poor is their proximity to death. Death of a child, of the aged and of oneself is a possibility on any given day. The official figures of mortality and of life expectation do not indicate this reality. A lot can be explained by this closeness to death — fearfulness and fearlessness, choices or the lack of them.

When I was part of a group for the Graca Machel Study team set up in the UN to study the impact of armed conflict on children, we found that poverty drives children into becoming child soldiers and entering guerrilla groups like the Tamil tigers who, in turn specialise in human bomb attacks. Is this fearlessness cultivated because of proximity to death? To take two steps back, a representative of the Al Qaeda said on television: "Thousands of our young people are willing to die, as thousands of Americans want to live." Certainly this is not driven by poverty. Life can be cheap in these circumstances, where death is a daily possibility for different reasons for different individuals in a family.

There is a sense of acceptance of death in the religions of the East, which seems to be an invisible but subconscious presence. I remember a boatman on the banks of the Ganga near Rajghat, where I was staying with Achyut Patwardhan in 1956, reflecting on the peace of death and the peace of the Ganga in the early morning. Death seemed so near on the banks of the Ganga, as if death was as common and natural as life. Then death is not an end, but only a punctuation.

The fear of death which is the most haunting tangible fear in comfortable societies which have the basic security of food, health care, livelihood, clean and low population environments, does not seem to be as much of a consciousness, in the non-Anglo Saxon, non-European.

Thus one can argue that persistent poverty, especially lack of opportunities for what is called work with dignity; inequality perpetuated and enlarged by the effect of visual media; intensification of anger at the inequality; injustice and invasive persecution; accompanied by the carelessness about losing lives in a space where "losing-life" is not such a unique happening, can explain the increasing occurrence of human bombs.

This phenomenon could also be a reason for the larger prevalence of the human bomb in Asia, starting with West Asia. The men who killed themselves while flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, were human bombs, stating what is being expressed by the Palestinians today in West Asia. It is explaining the circumstances, that not only have propelled them, but continue to propel others, like Wafa Idris, who was least like an Islamic fundamentalist or congenital terrorist, to get into a bus with a bomb on her back.

It is such introspection that will help us understand and respond to the phenomenon. "Careless attitude" will increase if inequalities are further exacerbated by fundamentalist and "exclusivity" abuses by those who hold economic and political power. Such arrogance, couched in civilisational and religious talks, will add to the "labour force", the armies and contingents which will make the offer of supreme sacrifice, who will throw away their lives as human bombs, because life is not worth living; as uncontrolled criminals, as unruly mobs, as looters and protesters around every street corner, as obstructionists to all peaceful initiatives, as worshippers of death through violence.

The writer is a development economist and formerly Director, Institute of Social Studies Trust.

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