We have hoped against hope that it is not true. We have tried to convince ourselves that this must be a grand conspiracy of racial profiling — you know, White Man hunts for Brown victim. Happily unmindful of how bigoted and quick to conclusion we are when terror hits the home turf, we have wondered whether the British police are shooting darts at soft targets.
But now, we are almost out of argument and standing eyeball to eyeball with a horrible, inescapable truth.The man who rammed a burning car into the airport at Glasgow was almost certainly an Indian. And no, he doesn’t have a long, flowing beard, he doesn’t wear a skullcap, he didn’t study Urdu or Arabic at a madrasa and he’s not even from Kashmir. Kafeel Ahmed is an aeronautical engineer who went to school and college in Bangalore, before moving westwards to Ireland and Britain. His brother and cousin, both doctors, both also from Bangalore, have been taken into custody as well. The city that was famous for being the software capital of a world flattened by globalisation is now internationally known for other reasons. And if doctors and engineers were our most successful intellectual export, it is from their ranks that a new network of fundamentalists appears to have been drawn.
Glasgow may be several thousand miles away, but the lessons it has brought home are devastating and undeniable. The Indian connection to the terror plot in Britain has shifted the ground beneath our feet. It has taken away the comforting certainties that we had taken for granted as a modern, secular democracy.
We all know the story about what a battle-weary President Bush asked Manmohan Singh in Washington two years ago. How was it, he wanted to know, that in a country with 150 million Muslims, not one had been linked with al-Qaeda? For years now, we have worn this singular fact as our badge of honour.
<b1>We have boasted about how the pan-Islamic radicalism that seems to besiege other countries is unknown to India. We argue that even the insurgency in Kashmir is born from political alienation, not religious identity. Kashmiri separatists have readily conceded that Muslims in the rest of India are mostly indifferent to their cause. We have looked across the border at our neighbour, with a mixture of pity and contempt, and felt suitably superior about how our democracy compares to its theocracy. Even this week, as India watched Pakistan’s military use gunfire to drag out clerics, militants and so-called students from inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, most of us were happy to caricature the conflict as a country caught in the grip of mad mullahs.
But what about looking inwards? Can we confront the fact that Political Islam may be growing roots in our own backyard? Are we brave enough to consider the possibility that the assimilation of the Indian Muslim has not been as successful as we like to believe?
For too long now, any discussion on the state of India’s largest minority has been entangled in extremities. On the one side is the intolerance and prejudice of the Right, and at the other end is the patronising, politically correct blindness of the Left. There is the indisputable fact that ordinary Muslims in India live on the margins of development and economic wellness. Then, there are the ‘secular’ politicians who play self-appointed benefactors with one eye constantly on elections. There is the unforgettable blemish of the administration-aided riots in Gujarat. And finally, there are the fatwa-happy fanatics — the maulvis and preachers who drag their own people down the hellhole of hatred and are never condemned as strongly as they should be.
It’s time to ask ourselves a blunt question: what exactly is this strange cocktail of contradictions breeding?
Fixated as we are with the developments in Britain, most of us have hardly noticed the irony of the timing. In just four days, it will be one year since bombs ripped through the city of Mumbai, leaving 200 people dead. The warning signs were written in black and white even then, but perhaps we chose to look away. The government was quick to blame Pakistan, but as the investigations unfolded, it was clear that we also had to confront an enemy within. Take your mind back to those who were arrested. The list of the main accused included a doctor, an engineer, a software professional and a journalist. Suddenly, you felt that the man who lived down the road from you was somebody you never knew at all. The questions the blasts raised were so disturbing that they were never answered at all.
But can we afford to ignore these questions this time around as well? What was an Indian engineer from Bangalore doing partnering an Iraq-born doctor on a suicide mission? Why did he care enough to call a meeting of Muslims on World Chechnya Day in a city where most people don’t know what the dispute between Russia and the Chechens is about? If the doctors being investigated by British authorities are really part of a global terror module, have we underestimated the response of India’s Muslims to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
This week, an emotional Prime Minister met some of us at his house and argued that terrorism had no nationality or religion. He warned against the labelling and stereotyping of communities and said that after he had heard the mother of the arrested doctors break down on national television, he lay awake all night.
The Prime Minister’s empathy and liberalism is laudable. But the fact is that if three Indian citizens are actually found guilty in this terror plot, we cannot afford to disown their nationality. For too long now, our instinctive need to protect India’s minorities from the onslaught of the Right has prevented us from looking at this issue honestly. We hesitate to use the word Islam and Terrorism in the same sentence. But we can no longer allow political correctness to obfuscate the debate. It may help to know that even the conservative clerics of the Jama Masjid in Delhi recently took the initiative to debate why radicalism had permeated their religion.
If anything, we can learn from Britain, which may have increased its vigil and tightened its immigration laws, but continues to make efforts to build bridges across communities.
We must first be able to look honestly at fundamentalism in our own backyard, if we are to have any hope of weeding it out.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7