On Monday in London, five men were convicted for a plot to set off a large improvised bomb. As conspiracies go in our abnormal times, the 2004 conspiracy does not appear shocking or unexpected. What was remarkable was the acquittal, after almost 27 hours of consideration by the jury, of two persons. This is a hallmark of the sophistication of the trial and its verdict. It would have been all too easy, in this era of secret prisons and fake encounters, to railroad these two as well. One of them, Sujah Mahmood, was the brother of the chief accused, Omar Khyam, and lived in the same room as him. The other, Nabeel Hussain, was charged because his debit card was used to pay for the storage unit where the fertiliser to make the bomb was stored.
British justice is not naturally just — we only have to recall the stories of the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four, all convicted of bombings in Britain in the 1970s, to show how justice can be perverted in the mother of democracies as well. All 17, suspected to be Irish Republican Army supporters, did time in prison before their cases were overturned after sustained campaigns and appeals.
The Irish, always ill-treated, were from across the sea. On the other hand, the July 7 bombings and other conspiracies were largely perpetrated by alienated British-born Muslims of Pakistani descent, living in the cities and towns of Britain. The country is tackling the latest threat with great care. It is not something that can, or ought to be, fought merely by a policy of blood and iron.
As it is, the case also highlights the fact that you need neither draconian laws nor an inordinate amount of time to prosecute those accused of terrorist crimes. All it requires is effort and a calculated understanding of why it is necessary to not only do justice, but to show that it is being done, more so when the violent crimes are motivated by a sense of injustice, imagined or otherwise.
These thoughts come to mind when we are confronted with evidence that Indian police officers detained three people, and gunned down one of them, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, claiming that he was plotting to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. To hide this murder, they casually bumped off the other two, including Sohrabuddin’s wife, Kausar Bi. Those who have defended Sohrabuddin’s murder with the viewpoint that he was a criminal and ‘deserved to die’, have nothing to say about why the life of another person, his wife, was cut short. They also don’t realise that the logic of arrogating to themselves the decision as to who should live and die is exactly the one used by terrorists.
One of the defining characteristics of the modern State is that it largely retains the monopoly of organised killing. In democratic countries, this right is exercised through judicial due process. Only the judiciary has the right to order an execution, not the prime minister, president or the army chief, leave alone a police officer.
In certain circumstances, the police and the army are provided special legal sanction to shoot and kill. This is not some casual convention or idiosyncrasy. It is the very root of civilised conduct and is the basis of a modern democratic society. Rogue police and security force officers, encouraged by politicians who cannot think beyond their nose, are breaking this compact by carrying out extra-judicial killings. And its consequences can be horrific.
In the last two years, there have been several major terrorist strikes, including the Mumbai train blasts of 2006. In most of them, the police found that the conspirators and the perpetrators were locals, though the explosives and their fabrication may have been aided by terrorists from Bangladesh or Pakistan.
For several years, security officials have warned that terrorist groups were growing roots in certain Indian Muslim communities, particularly those in western India. Ever since the anti-Muslim pogrom that came in the wake of the Godhra massacre, there have been a string of killings, mainly of Muslims, all allegedly on their way to assassinate Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
On March 2006, four Kashmiri youth, allegedly Lashkar-e-Tayyeba men, were gunned down in the outskirts of Ahmedabad; in June 2004, four ‘terrorists’ were gunned down, including 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan Raza and her fiancé, Javed Sheikh; in January 2003, Sadiq Jamal was shot dead, allegedly while plotting to kill L.K. Advani; in October 2002, Samir Khan Pathan was killed while trying to escape, again after his arrest for a plot to kill Modi.
None of the killings appeared credible then. And now, after the Sohrabuddin revelations, there is need to probe them thoroughly. It does not take much logic to see that acts of injustice provide fertile ground for extremism to flourish. This reasoning is simple, but it does not seem to have impressed those who believe that ruthless use of force, even if it leads to ‘collateral’ casualties among innocents, will help.
Yet, the story did not begin with Modi, but much further back, in the executions of Naxalites in the 1970s, and then in the killing fields of Punjab and Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s. In that sense, responsibility for extra-judicial killings must go all the way up to the central government. Hundreds of people disappeared in Punjab and Kashmir when they were under central rule, and the capital itself has witnessed highly suspicious ‘encounters’, such as the Ansal Plaza incident of 2002. It’s no secret that the ‘encounter killing’ of Pakistani terrorists was sanctioned after the IC-814 hijack succeeded in freeing Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar. All this has been excused in the name of fighting separatism and terrorism. In such a climate, is it any wonder that some police officials have anointed themselves judge and executioner, in the name of desh bhakti or service to the nation?
The issue, as the British realise, is not one of morality and ethics alone. There are sound pragmatic reasons for the State to ensure the rule of law and enforce due process, rather than allow a vicious cycle of terrorism and illegal retribution. The logic is simple. If the State cannot protect me, I need to do it myself, or support someone who can do it for me. The same is true for retribution. If the authorities fail in their duty to punish criminals through due process, people will seek other means to satisfy their thirst for justice.
The US State Department’s annual report on terrorism says that there was a staggering 40 per cent rise in the number of those killed by terrorist violence last year. The overwhelming proportion of the increase comes from Iraq. There is a self-inflicted war against terror being fought in Iraq, and there is another real war being fought in dozens of countries against ruthless and fanatical people who think nothing of snuffing out human lives for their ‘cause’. That war cannot be won by tanks and airplanes, or police measures alone, but by patiently proving that your system and cause is more just and humane.