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Blasts, blasts, blah

The terrorist will always win if politicians convert mass murder into an ideological issue. Criminals must be fought through the police and the state, not by politics, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2008 21:16 IST

‘Awesome!’’ shrieked the young lady in front of me as she munched her popcorn. It was the final scene of A Wednesday, and aam admi-turned potential bomber Naseeruddin Shah, was at his histrionic best. ‘If the State simply stands by when we are struck by terror attacks, what do you expect the common man to do? What choice do you leave us but to take up arms and eliminate the terrorist?’ he thundered, exhorting all citizens to take up arms and bomb all those they consider ‘terrorists’. ‘Awesome!’ applauded the lady again. Move over Salwa Judum, the new face of citizen vigilantism is playing out in a theatre near you.

How easy it is to sit in an air-conditioned multiplex, sip a Pepsi and dream of bombing terrorists. Vigilante squads may be a seductive idea, but they are a little out of place in the real world of RDX bombers and hi-tech terrorists who operate in terrifying anonymity. Moreover, as the debate over Salwa Judum has shown, an armed citizenry can become a recipe for chaos and brutal anarchy. And yet, can the public be faulted for endorsing the philosophy of an ‘eye for an eye’? The Indian state looks increasingly like an ageing clown when dealing with agile mass murderers who are massacring the aam aadmi regularly and brazenly.

Take the aftermath of the Delhi serial blasts. A week on, the narrative of the blast investigation has become a caricature, a comedy, if it were not so tragic. Minutes before the blasts, news channels receive identical emails, mails in which every second sentence is embellished with the words, ‘Inshallah!’, so that no one is left in any doubt that an Islamic organisation is responsible for the attack. Soon after the blasts, an unflappable, well-groomed home minister steps out and warns that the attacks are the handiwork of ‘evil’, ‘anti-national’ forces, just in case anyone suggests that decent human beings could take innocent lives.

The Opposition, meanwhile, raises the political pitch, demanding the re-imposition of Pota and the sacking of the home minister, as if to suggest that a mere change in the statute book or a cabinet reshuffle will deter the manic terrorist. A smug-looking police release sketches of alleged ‘terrorists’, almost convinced that this is enough to crack the case. Sleepy retired security officers pontificate on the need to revamp intelligence systems, pouring forth an obscure borrowed language of ‘terror-speak’ that numbs the mind and ties up all original initiative into a tangle of vocabulary. In the midst of it all, a carnivorous news media devours every morsel of information, rarely questioning their so-called ‘sources’ or being a little sceptical of official hand-outs. And so the caricature ritual continues with monotonous regularity, till the next blast, the next terror target and the next murdered two-year-old. In the 11 major blasts since 2001, the police have not been able to get a single proper conviction. Arrests are made of the usual suspects, months later they are let off because of the shocking lack of any proper evidence.

Weaknesses in the law, we are told, is the problem. Possible, but only up to a point. If tougher laws alone could solve the problem, then why was an audacious terror attack carried out on parliament when Pota was in place? If Maharashtra with MCOCA in place still had to endure the trauma of 7/11, is there reason to believe that Gujarat will be spared if it enacts similar anti-terror legislation? Laws can assist investigations, they cannot be a deterrent or a substitute for better intelligence-gathering.

The terrorist will always win if politicians convert mass murder into an ideological issue. Criminals must be fought through the police and the state, not by politics. If the subtext of the revival of Pota remains the minority versus majority, if the idea of a Federal Intelligence Agency remains hostage to the fact that states do not want to give up power to the Centre, then we can never hope to combat motivated killers who exist in every part of the country. And if we remove a home minister without restructuring the entire home ministry, then we are unlikely to find any permanent solution to the problem.

Experts have suggested many concrete steps. Among them, shut down all mobile phone networks the minute a blast takes place; follow the forensic trail rather than fixing a target first; most importantly, learn how to assess and gather forensic evidence. Just who is the ‘terrorist’, what colour of extremist is he, can only be found out through top-class investigation. But can we expect the same police force that botches up the Aarushi Talwar case to suddenly become skilled at investigating the terrorist? Will the same corrupted judiciary, that is being inquired into by the CBI, act responsibly? When senior police officers are transferred every few months, when caste politics becomes the basis for constable recruitments, when public prosecutors and lower court judges are bought off, can we ever hope to bring the killers of children to justice?

The political class resists police and judicial reforms, yet expects the men in khaki to deal with the terrorist. We are reforming the economy without realising that an advanced economy and society needs to be guarded and protected by a reformed police and judiciary. Else, we are all in perpetual danger. A law without a modern police, will become either toothless or at worst blind. As with Tada, the conviction rate will be less than one per cent.

It’s not just the state, civil society, too, needs to reform itself. We are increasingly contemptuous of the law, yet we expect the law to catch up with the terrorist. We need a new partnership, a new social contract. Not the vigilante citizen, who gives way to prejudice and violence, but an alert and law-abiding citizen who demands that the government catch and punish the child-killers. We need a democratic citizen, who must realise that every time he breaks the law, he weakens the law and empowers the terrorist. If that happens, hey, wouldn’t that be really awesome?

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-chief, IBN network