Don’t Tell Me That It’s ‘Lack Of Education And Opportunity’ That Creates Terrorists

Mohammad Rafi Bhat
  • Look closely and you will see that Rafi Bhat was only putting ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ into action

The first time I was acquainted with the human story in Kashmir was when my aunt, the wife of a Border Security Force (BSF) doctor, had narrated accounts of their stay in Kashmir in the turbulent 1990s. I was young, but I particularly remember her saying that boxes of walnuts were left untouched in the clean kitchens of Pandit households, which gave it that eerie feeling of abandonment and attachment. An almost haunted existence which showed that people had been uprooted.

Years later, while reading for my Masters, I decided to work on a term paper on social movements and chose Kashmir as my topic. Yes, I was there understanding the roots of a violent secessionist and Islamist movement as a social movement led by hapless people! Books and papers I read, told me that the exodus of the Pandits and the terrorism in Kashmir could be easily traced down to ownership patterns of resources, allocation of government jobs, back-breaking poverty of Kashmiri Muslims and of course, lack of education. Call it the insincere engagement of a graduate student or just the lack of alternative narratives, I went with the belief that the exodus of Pandits was a new manifestation of dialectical materialism and that the perpetuation of terrorism till date was the product of lack of education and employment for Kashmiri Muslims.

This noise since the Shopian encounter reminded me of that naivete I had and the way in which the narrative has withstood time. A 32-year-old professor of sociology is one of the dead militants in Shopian, screams headlines. And after that, it is the cacophony of voices surprised with the fact that an educated and well-to-do man from the valley chose to pick up the gun. The noise, of course, would have been much dimmed had the same man spoken to his students about the necessity of armed resistance in Kashmir or had justified the killing of civilians and Indian security personnel on his social media pages. His education and erudition would not have been a problem if he had shouted ‘India Go Back’ or ‘Chheenke lenge Azaadi’, but became a problem when he picked up the gun to probably put his life where his words were. Just the same way how professors romanticising Naxalism in classes across the nation are not the problem, but the PhD in African Studies trotting a gun in Malkangiri, is.

Are acts of terrorism really committed by people who literally have nothing to lose? It would make sense to understand it thus if we see terrorism as a nihilist pursuit. But, terrorism in fact is political, militantly political, with a clear modus operandi, strategies and set-in-stone objectives. That is why reducing terrorism to be the refuge of the poor, the uneducated and the unemployed is insincere considering that rabid Islamist or Naxal ideologies are not merely romantic. Assuming that they are such would lead to the understanding that it is easy to brainwash people and hence lack of education could be a factor. But, in both cases, the ideologies have transcended mere romanticism and have become a legitimate intellectual pursuit. That is why the indignation is no longer reserved for those who speak, propagate and facilitate but for only those who act. Education is no longer a barrier for extremism, but perhaps an enabler to give the intellectual heft and normalisation that an extremist ideology demands.


But, even if we leave that aspect aside, the existence of the ‘educated terrorist’ is not new. The hue and cry signifying some sort of state induced moral decay follows wilful ignorance of numerous studies on education and extremist behaviour. In fact, just a cursory look at some of the most infamous terrorists would show that education has little to do with preventing Islamist radicalisation and may in fact propel it further. Osama Bin Laden was a chemical engineer. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, has a PhD in Islamic Studies. The mastermind of 9/11, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and the Camp Chapman suicide bomber, Humam-Khalil Al-Balawi, were both medical doctors. The Pakistani origin ‘Times Square’ bomber, Faisal Shehzad, had an MBA and the assassin of Daniel Pearl, Omar Saeed Sheikh, was studying Statistics at London School of Economics.

A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2002 found a positive correlation between participation in the Hezbollah and secondary or higher education. The data set used the details of Hezbollah terrorists who were killed in the 1980s and the 1990s and showed that this assertion would not stand even three decades back. In 2006, researchers Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey studied the profile of 75 terrorists behind some of the most gruesome terrorist attacks and found that most of them were college-educated and often in technical subjects like engineering. In 2009, sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog undertook a study on a sample set of 404 terrorists. They found that 20 per cent of the recruits were engineers. If the sample had reflected the working age population in their respective countries, it would be less than 4 per cent.

In 2016, at the peak of the ISIS devastation, a World Bank study based on leaked internal records of the IS found that recruits to the group were highly educated and relatively wealthy with suicide bombers being the best off among the lot. Less than 15 per cent of the 3800+ recruits covered in the sample had dropped out before high school. The report concluded that ‘neither inequality nor poverty was a driver for recruitment in violent extremism’.

The surprise reserved for the ‘militant professor’ seems to present the same old stereotype that the economically oppressed and educationally alienated people pick up guns. Like the poor Naxals in Jharkhand or the Fidayeen in Kashmir. But, the truth is any form of violent extremist movement is likely to draw more people who are educated as they are the ones who can bring in the expertise and the effort to help sustain interest in the cause. Education and wealth brings in the privilege which allows people to move away from concerns of mere economic subsistence and allows them to be fully devoted and committed to any militantly extremist cause. Look at the case of Kobad Ghandy and Anuradha Ghandy. Both were from extremely privileged backgrounds and highly educated and went on to lead the armed Maoist struggle in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.


Islamist terrorism and Naxal activities in India are both extremely complex pursuits and require a high level of intelligence rather than indoctrinated foot-soldiers. The Islamist movement in Kashmir is no different than what is happening globally. Impoverishment or lack of awareness has nothing to do with such politics. In fact, a heightened sense of awareness and an intellectual legitimisation of the goals could be propelling more educated youth towards terrorist activities. Look closely and you will see that Rafi Bhat was only putting ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ into action. If education is no deterrent to the former, then it will certainly not be to the latter.

As a report in the Economist in early 2010 had put it, “The Sword is mightier with the Pen”. Do not be surprised by it.

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