Friday, March 12, 2010

Ron Smith: The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

Recent controversy surrounding the depiction in certain South Auckland Sikh temples of the killers of Indira Gandhi as heroes raises a number of thorny questions. When is political assassination justified, if it ever is? Was the 1984 killing of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi justified? Was it ‘terrorism’? Should we have a view about the honouring of such people?

The answer to the first question seems clear. Most people seem to agree with seventeenth-century political philosopher John Locke, that tyrants may be killed in the interests of mankind. Most people can also supply a list of such ‘tyrants’ for the Twentieth Century. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Papa Doc Duvallier, Idi Amin, tend to top such lists, not only because of what they did but because there seemed to be no other way of dealing with what was an atrocious situation. Of course, what links all these examples is that none of the tyrants actually was assassinated.

On the other hand, it is not evident that political leaders who have been killed by their political opponents have always met Locke’s criteria. This would seem to apply to US Civil War President Lincoln, as well as Mrs Gandhi. In both these cases (and too many others in recent times) we are not dealing with a ‘tyrant’ but with a broadly democratic leader with whom there is some political disagreement. In Mrs Gandhi’s case the issue was political independence for the Sikh-dominated Indian state of Punjab and, particularly, her government’s response to Sikh terrorism. Amongst other things, this entailed raids by Indian security forces on the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar, where large caches of weapons were found.

It is being taken here that, in the general case, there is no more justification for political murder than any other kind of murder and that Locke’s intuition about tyrants represents a special case, where the general rule is overridden. There is also a practical (consequential) point. In the case of highly personalised and autocratic rule of the kind exemplified by Stalin and Hitler, it is plausible to imagine that killing such a ruler could bring about a radical change in policy. On the other hand, the killing of democratic leaders is likely to bring no change. This was the outcome in the Indian case, where Indira Gandhi’s successor, Rajiv Gandhi, continued with the same policies as his mother.

On the general point, St Thomas Aquinas may be seen to have had the matter right six hundred years ago. Arguing against any dispensation for murder on political grounds, he observed that:

'Good kings would be likely to be slain more often than tyrants, for the rule of good kings was harder on evil doers and evil men were more likely than good men to resort to such a desperate measure as tyrannicide'.

Whether the killing of Indira Gandhi is properly characterised as terrorism is another matter. The UN definition of terrorism (which is also the New Zealand definition) talks of ‘acts of violence … committed against civilians … with the purpose of compelling a government … or population … to do or abstain from doing any act’. Taking Mrs Gandhi to have been a civilian at the material time, her killing was thus also an act of terrorism.

More generally, it is clear that Sikh activists have engaged in a considerable amount of terrorism down through the years, including the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Canada to India, in which 329 people were killed. In the modern world we cannot continue to waive this aside by uttering some variation on, ‘your terrorist is my freedom fighter/hero/martyr’. As someone once said of roses, ‘a terrorist is a terrorist, is a terrorist’. The UN has also made it plain that the ‘criminal activity’ of terrorism is never justified, ‘whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious, or other nature that may be invoked to justify (it)’.

Whatever continuing attachment Sikh nationalists may have to an independent homeland in Punjab, it cannot be pursued by political assassination and terrorism and the glorification of those who do these things is much to be regretted.

1 comment:

Brian Arrandale said...

Is Political Assassination justified?

Dr Smith in asking this question of the Public would no doubt get the answer “No” it is not acceptable in a civilized democratic society. Although the question is two pronged, as there would be little doubt among our senior citizens that such Twentieth Century “Tyrants” like Hitler, Stalin etc it would be totally acceptable.

But how do you define “A Tryant”, certainly the German nation at least in the early thirties, welcomed Hitler when he re-invigorated Germany beset as was with super inflation and the loss of its colonies.

The Revolution in France in 1792 saw “Madam Guillotine” remove the heads of the “Aristo’s, and even the Revolution’s greatest and bloodiest leader Robespierre fell victim. (Yet France still manages to produce 246 varieties of cheese!)

John Wilkes Booth assassination of President Lincoln at the end of the U.S. Civil War was regarded by the defeated Southern States as justifiable, yet ironically Lincoln was the only leader who could have healed the huge breach that the Civil War had made between North & South. It was not until the late 1930’s that the South finally recovered.

Our Political leaders either left, right or centre will continue to invoke hatred or admiration depending whatever they do. Assassination as such, is a form of revenge; and reminds us all that if you want revenge “always dig two graves”.

As we cannot hold our Political leaders accountable in law for their actions while in power or after; then perhaps the British method of getting rid of “used Politicians” by pushing up into a House of Lords might be a better and somewhat cleaner way!

Brian Arrandale