Two things need to be said about the incident on board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Bombay. One of them is self-evident and will, I think, meet with widespread agreement. The second is as self-evident but will, I suspect, be greeted with greater scepticism.
The first is that, no matter what spin the Dutch authorities and the US marshals on board who ordered the plane to be turned back give to the incident, what happened was clearly an instance of racism and religious prejudice.
It is all very well to say that the passengers suspected of terrorism were behaving suspiciously. But what did they actually do?
Judging by what the Dutch police are now saying the men changed seats, called out loudly to each other and attempted to speak on their mobile phones (though how they got a signal at that height is not explained).
Such behaviour can be irritating. But is it suspicious enough to give rise to such paranoia? To have an entire aircraft turned around?
The real reason why the US marshals sprung into action was the ethnic and religious origin of the passengers. Firstly, they were brown. And secondly, they were Muslims.
Imagine for a moment that the passengers in question were white Americans — and God knows we have all come across enough irritating Americans on aeroplanes — would the US marshals have been as suspicious?
Forget about nationality. Suppose the 12 men who called out loudly to each other were white. Would there have been any panic? Would anyone have regarded them as potential terrorists? I think the answers are obvious.
It is the second point I want to make today that I suspect will be a little more controversial.
Imagine for a moment that there had been a terrorist alert on a train in India. Assume now that the police had been called in and had taken 12 Muslims into custody. What do you suppose would have happened next?
I’ll tell you. The Home Secretary of the state in question would have called a press conference to declare that a terrorist cell, possibly linked to the Lashkar or the Jaish, had been apprehended even as it was minutes away from blowing up the Rajdhani/Shatabdi Express.
The men would have been taken to the police station and placed in indefinite custody under one pretext or the other (fortunately, there is no POTA these days but many states have their own versions). Police teams would have fanned out all over India to raid their homes and their offices. Their neighbours would have been questioned. If they owned shops, these would have been shut down.
At some stage, when the interrogation yielded no concrete leads, the men would have been beaten up. Their families would have been threatened. At least one of them would have been broken so completely that he would have signed his name to any confession that the police had produced.
Do you think this is far-fetched? Am I being too harsh on the Indian system?
All right. Just look at our recent history. Forget for a moment about the Islamic terrorist angle because that still provokes strong emotions. Think back instead to the Punjab agitation.
Do you remember a time when every Sikh who drove through Haryana on his way to Delhi was stopped and hassled by the police? When every Sikh who tried to board an aircraft was treated as a potential hijacker and forced to submit to the most humiliating searches?
And that’s just the people who could afford to buy plane tickets and drive their own cars. Poor Sikhs got an even worse deal.
Remember the detenues in Jodhpur jail? Remember the time when every Sikh pilgrim who was caught in the crossfire during the botched military operation that was Bluestar was treated as a potential terrorist and arrested? Remember how many of them protested that they were harmless pilgrims who had come to the Harminder Sahib not realising that the Indian army was on its way to blow up the Akal Takht?
Every family in every village in the Punjab had some story about police brutality during that era. Everybody knows somebody who was arrested falsely during those days. And everybody has heard of some innocent man who died during a police encounter and was later described as a ‘deadly terrorist’.
Fast forward now to the Bombay blasts in 1993. Nobody in his right mind can defend those terrorist acts. Nor can anyone deny that the police had a right to launch a comprehensive investigation into the people who assisted the bombers.
But speak to anybody who lives in Bhendi Bazaar or on Mohammad Ali Road. Listen to their stories of how the Bombay police — clearly communalised during that era — went from house to house dragging out the sons even as the mothers wept and wailed. Hear about the bribes that were extracted from innocent Muslims by corrupt policemen who threatened them with arrest unless they paid up.
Some of this went on under the TADA laws but many of those arrested were actually charged with crimes that they had never committed. Coolies who unloaded the explosives that were used for the Bombay blasts without knowing what was in the packages were picked up and thrown into jail. Hundreds of Muslims who may have had some nodding acquaintance with people who knew somebody who knew one of the bombers were arrested and charged with terrorism.
It is all very well to say that we are a society where the rule of law prevails. But just look at the progress of the Bombay blasts case — and this is before a special court so none of the usual arguments about judicial backlogs apply — where the verdict has still to be announced 13 years after the blasts themselves.
In the interim, witnesses have disappeared, some of the accused have died, whole families have been ruined and lives have been destroyed.
But at least the Bombay police didn’t go around shooting everybody — in those days. Consider how other police forces have handled so-called terrorist threats.
Who can forget the cold-blooded murder of two men in the parking lot of Ansal Plaza by the Delhi police? It is possible that the men were terrorists and I also grant that there is widespread public support for encounters as part of the fight against terrorism. But isn’t there something worrying about a society where policemen can drive two suspects into a public area, shoot them in front of witnesses and then claim they have foiled a terrorist plot to blow up Diwali shoppers? So much for the rule of law.
I could go on. What about the five men who were described as the terrorists responsible for the Chattisinghpura massacre? When the bodies were exhumed after public pressure they were shown to have been innocent civilians who had been murdered by men in uniform.
So, let’s not get too self-righteous about the Dutch or about the US marshals. Yes, of course, they over-reacted. And, yes, there is no doubt that white people would not have been regarded with the same degree of suspicion.
But let’s also recognise that the West (with the possible exception of the US after Guantanamo Bay) does function on the basis of the rule of law. The Indians who had been wrongly detained from the Northwest flight were set free. And it was made clear that they had no terrorist links. When the British police killed an innocent Brazilian on a tube train and tried to lie about the circumstances of the shooting, the media exposed the truth and the government ordered an inquiry, which uncovered the lies.
In India, alas, we are so terrified of terrorism and organised crime that we allow the police to do pretty much what they want. When the HT exposed the Ansal Plaza murders, we were called anti-national and it was suggested that we were on the side of the terrorists. Anybody who raises questions about the behaviour of the authorities in the battle against terrorism is regarded as unpatriotic. Can you think of a single democratic country where there would be no public outrage about the scandal that is the delayed trial in the Bombay blasts case? But in India we choose to gloss over it, claiming that all this is necessary to fight terror.
Only now, as we become victims of the anti-terror paranoia simply because we are brown, do we realise how great the injustice can be. What a shame then that we reserve our indignation for the West — and ignore the blood in our own backyard.