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Rajesh Singh asked: What is the difference between insurgency and terrorism?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: Insurgents, by and large, target the security forces and the state apparatus. They work to mobilise the people, acquire popular support and eventually overthrow the government. Insurgents, in Mao Tse-tung’s famous formulation, are the fish and the people are the water in which these fish swim. In contrast, the common people are the targets of terrorist violence today, although this was not the case when terrorism first emerged in the modern era. When terrorism came to be first employed as a strategy in the late 19th century, the targets were symbols of political authority—kings, emperors, viceroys, political leaders, government officials, etc. Further, these attacks were intended to serve as ‘propaganda by deed’, meaning advertisement for the cause. And these attacks were carried out only as the final resort and mainly against autocratic rulers and governments. In contrast, ‘there are no innocents’ is the motto of contemporary terrorists who moreover target democracies in the first resort. And, unlike 19th century terrorists who proudly proclaimed that they are indeed terrorists, terrorists today cloak themselves in the garb of freedom fighters and holy warriors.

    Be that as it may, both insurgents and terrorists engage in violence in order to attain certain political or increasingly politico-religious objectives-national liberation and independence, establishing a communist system of government or an Islamic form of government, restoration of the Caliphate, etc.

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