Arresting meaning – The shifting sands of ‘Extremism’ on the road to Indian Independence’

Image Description: Image of a Quit India protest 

Often debates about politics can get obscured by semantics. One of the words susceptible to creating this dilemma is branding something to be ‘extremist’ in nature. Usage of the word encompasses a broad spectrum, serving as a pejorative that could be foisted just as easily onto ISIS as it could to Extinction Rebellion, depending on your politics. This particular contrast is quite frivolous and evidently outlandish; few people would draw an equivalence between the two – even if the same word could be applied to them. Yet the obfuscating power of a word like ‘extreme’ is worthy of consideration because labelling a movement or ideology in this way has significant political implications, not least by determining the spectrum of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ opinion.

When classifying beliefs as extremist, it is worth interrogating who determines such action to be ‘radical’ in the first place. Movements and ideologies tend to fall under the umbrella of ‘extremism’ due to an association with violence or civil unrest, with media outlets and government bodies providing judgements which are disseminated widely, carrying great weight.

That said, Judith Butler notes that definitions of ‘violence’ determined by the state have a tendency to exclude their own conduct. This inconsistent state arbitration of what goes beyond the pale and what’s permissible is particularly evident when examining British rule in India.

The obfuscating power of a word like ‘extreme’ is worthy of consideration, because labelling a movement in this way has significant political implications.

In 1919, the British state killed 379 innocent civilians in Amritsar who were celebrating the festival of Vaisakhi, mistakenly fearing an insurrection; an event now known as the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. General Dyer, who made the order, was exempt from any jail sentence given his military standing. Contrast this outcome with the nonviolent protesting of prominent Indian freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, who was consequently bludgeoned to death by the state as a result. His death is simply one of the many examples which expose such a stark discrepancy.

Here we see how the state monopoly on violence expunges charges of extremism. Disproportionate violence against innocent civilians is a hallmark of ‘extremist’ ideology. Although extreme, deplorable and gratuitously immoral, no critical commentator has thought to describe the actions of General Dyer as ‘extremist’. To all intents and purposes colonial ideology seems to be ‘extremist’, especially if one looks to its historic repression of civil liberties and human rights abuses. This makes salient the separation between extreme and ‘extremism’: the latter term is not applied to those in power.

The justification for this separation might be that definitionally state actors cannot exist on the margins, and that by definition it is the margins where extremism resides. Yet in making such a separation we risk moderating the behaviour of the state simply by virtue of its standing, rather than its behaviour.

Definitions of ‘violence’ determined by the state have a tendency to exclude their own conduct.

This terminological tension over how we define ‘extremism’ is a conflict in its own right, with the framing of any issue inevitably influencing its appeal and perceptions of how actionable demands can seem. Often the state will adopt an expansive definition of violence if it discredits actors they don’t like, as in the case of Lajpat Rai’s killing. Butler articulates this when she notes that ‘when states or institutions do this, they seek to rename nonviolent practices as violent, conducting a political war, as it were, at the level of public semantics’.

More importantly, these examples expose the obvious truth that a state monopoly on violence does not confer any kind of moral monopoly. Indeed, the designation of non-state violence as ‘extremist’ unsurprisingly does much to service the state’s own agenda, which is once again demonstrated by the example of the British in India.

In archetypal ‘divide and rule’ fashion, the British Government controversially decided in 1905 to partition Bengal on what effectively were religious lines. This provoked much anger, and as Priyamvada Gopal notes, did much to create ‘the emergence of the figure of the ‘Extremist’ whose militant agitational tactics were the counterfoil to the more traditional petitioning mode of the ‘Moderate’,’ the effect of which was to create a fissure within the independence movement. Indeed by 1907 at the Surat Conference, the INC, India’s leading party, saw its members physically fighting one another because of disagreements on how to proceed.

A state monopoly on violence does not confer any kind of moral monopoly.

These instances show how state policymaking in the past has deliberately facilitated the growth of ‘extremist’ factions which then allow the state to discredit any calls for change. With this in mind, it’s one thing to criticise extreme actions, but in doing so are we scrutinising the right people? Who should we be holding accountable the most? One might justifiably consider this a false dichotomy, yet an overarching point emerges from these examples; often extreme movements are themselves a product of extreme state mismanagement. Recent rioting in the US fits this mould perfectly, where the violence witnessed during protests against police brutality comes after state inertia in implementing practical reforms (police body cameras, the removal of qualified immunity for officers etc) that can address civilian concerns and allay further unrest.

Regardless of how we choose to frame extremism, what is less contestable and far clearer is the unique ability of the state in addressing the concerns raised by groups that are considered extremist. More than any other non-state actor, it is the state which has shown its ability (for better or for worse) to shift the goalposts, respond to public concerns, and place itself above the law. Most critiques of extremism must therefore also include critiques of the state, and a recognition of the role it can play in resolving such issues.


  • Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire
  • Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence

Aditya Dabral is a committed member at the newly formed Oxford Forum for Questioning ‘Extremism’ (OFQE). The OFQE offers an accessible interdisciplinary platform for the discussion of ‘extremist’ ideologies with a view to suggesting strategies for conflict resolution. You can find out about their events, panel discussions and debates at

Image credit