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Loony tunes

At a time when India should have stood united, Antulay’s remarks have pushed the debate along an unfortunate Hindu-Muslim faultline. His comments are designed to pull at our religious equilibrium, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2008 22:25 IST

If there is anything more tragic than India’s Muslims having to vouch for their nationalism in the aftermath of every terrorist strike, it is the insane utterances of some of their self-appointed saviours.

By the time this goes to print, AR Antulay's resignation as Minority Affairs Minister would have most likely been accepted by the Prime Minister. (If it hasn’t, it should be.) But the damage would have been done.

Antulay’s reckless suggestion that a wider conspiracy claimed the life of police officer Hemant Karkare has played right into the hands of fellow loonies on the other side of the border who claim that ‘Hindu Zionists’ plotted the attacks in Bombay. His demands for an independent probe to examine whether the Malegaon investigations may have cost Karkare his life only embarrass India and give Islamabad the wriggle room it is seeking. And worst of all, his comments will only reinforce the nonsense spouted by the small radical fringe within the community. The young conspiracy theorists who come to television talk shows holding posters blaming the CIA/Mossad for the terror attacks will now feel emboldened to manufacture more imaginary enemies.

This is not the first time that Antulay has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Whether it was his complicity in a major corruption scam involving cement licences or his grandstanding promises on bringing the Kohinoor back to India, the former Maharashtra Chief Minister has long had a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon. But his statements this time go well beyond regular political fallibilities. The worry is not so much whether the world will now view the Bombay outrage in a different light. Independent American intelligence points to the same conclusion as the official Indian position on the role of groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. The Russians have spoken about clear links between underworld gangster Dawood Ibrahim and the attacks. And Pakistan’s own newspapers have run hard-hitting stories from inside Kasab’s village with confessional accounts from his parents on their terrorist son.

The embarrassment of a Union Minister speaking out of sync aside, India doesn’t really need to worry about any serious diplomatic fall-out. The real damage of Antulay’s remarks is within and on home turf. With one careless 30-second sound byte he has caricatured the response of the Indian Muslim. He has spawned a pool of other headline hunters who are falling over themselves to issue press releases in agreement. Former IFS officer Syed Shahabuddin is among those who congratulated him for “speaking the unspeakable”. A section of the Urdu press is now arguing that demanding an investigation into the death of an officer probing Hindu radical groups is entirely legitimate. Online polls apparently show that their readers agree. Some Muslim intellectuals have argued that the minister’s remarks have played into an already existing panic among ordinary Muslims and should not be confused with prejudice. They say that fearful minorities who view the police with suspicion saw Karkare as a hero and his abrupt end left them stunned and even more scared.

But frankly all of these rationalisations are just self-destructive and perpetuate the worst sort of stereotypes about us as a people. At a time when India should have stood united, Antulay’s remarks have pushed the debate along an unfortunate Hindu-Muslim faultline. His comments are designed to pull at our religious equilibrium. And as a Muslim politician he has committed that all-too-familiar crime yet again: he is hell bent on keeping his people locked into ghettos (some real, some imaginary) of victimhood.

But why are we all so surprised? Before ten men with guns struck Bombay we saw the blatant politicisation of the terror debate in how both the Batla House encounter and the Malegaon blasts probe were debated by the Congress and the BJP. Both parties made faulty assumptions about votebanks as they constantly calibrated their public positions. Antulay’s remarks are just an extension of the same brand of cynical politics. And those of his cabinet colleagues who are unwilling to take a clear position on his remarks are just as culpable.

If there is one lesson we should have learnt in these past two weeks, it is that the process of law has to settle investigations — however contentious and sensitive they may be — and not politicians. Yes, there may be a genuine cause of mistrust between the people and India’s police force. But the answer to that simply cannot be that political agendas are used to set the course for police action. For Antulay to suggest by innuendo that Karkare’s own men may have led him to his death is outrageous and unacceptable. Scurrilous allegations cannot be confused with the need for genuine police reform. That a Union Minister would dare to do that is frightening.

Antulay’s real betrayal is that he has let down his own people. Yet again, the Indian Muslim has been pushed into a corner of clarifications. Mercifully, groups like Javed Akhtar’s Muslims for Secular Democracy have broken the lazy assumptions of a Muslim monolith by demanding Antulay’s resignation and dismissing his remarks as “ridiculous nonsense”. But is it fair that at a time of national crisis a minister and Member of Parliament should push his own community on the defensive? Does he not owe them better than to stereotype them in the worst possible manner?

AR Antulay owes an apology: to the Congress, to his community and to the country. He can no longer continue as minister. And if he does, it’s a good reason to wear black bands in protest again. Because remember, it is controversies like this one that undo our secularism. Antulay must go.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV