The Centre wants to fight terrorists, but not terrorists whom the Gujarat police have found. Activism and political partisanship have eclipsed everything else, writes Ashok Malik.india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:12 IST
Better intelligence and a purposeful Union home minister have contributed to India escaping a major terrorist assault since the horror of 26/11. Nevertheless, as the bombing of the Sheetla Ghat in Varanasi indicated, the threat is perennial. The Varanasi attack may have killed just one person — tragically, a one-year-old child — but was calculated to cause panic and trigger a stampede that may have claimed many more lives. It was a reminder that Indian Mujahideen (IM), the organisation behind the bombing, is alive and kicking.
India's astonishingly poor record in terms of terrorist convictions remains a critical gap. Between the Parliament attack on December 13, 2001 and the trial of Ajmal Kasab for Mumbai 2008, there have been zero convictions for acts of terrorism in India. This is embarrassing for a country that is among the biggest victims of Islamist terror.
In this context, the history of IM is instructive. An offshoot of the Students' Islamic Movement of India (Simi), IM first came into the public gaze in 2008, after the Ahmedabad bombings. Subsequently, the Gujarat police busted the IM network, made crucial arrests and linked key IM cells and operatives to a series of hitherto unsolved terror bombings in Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipur and other cities.
If the past two years have been relatively calm, the steps taken by the Union government after 26/11 deserve credit. Even so, the Gujarat police also merits special mention for a crippling blow to the IM matrix, one from which it's still only beginning to recover.
About 60 IM members — street troops, religious motivators, explosive technicians — were brought to trial in an Ahmedabad court. In February 2010, just as the case was gathering momentum, the accused filed a petition before the Supreme Court asking for their trial to be moved to another state, alleging they would not get justice in Gujarat. In an unorthodox decision, the apex court issued an ex parte order — without hearing the Gujarat government — and stayed the trial.
That is where the matter rests. The trial of terrorists who bombed a series of Indian cities between 2005 and 2008 is still frozen, in a legal and political limbo.
It's here that one needs to consider the congruence of political partisanship, civil society hyper-activism and terrorism. Nobody is suggesting that political parties or civil society activists are necessarily backing terror groups. Yet, by giving them ideas, by creating precedents and mechanisms for misuse, they are derailing the process of justice.
The IM accused have deftly exploited the demonisation of Narendra Modi and Gujarat in sections of the media and among so-called activists who have made an industry of Modi phobia. Despite being accused of perjury and manufacture of documents, these activists have sought to convey the impression that justice can't be done in Gujarat, that Muslims who seek fair play (or need to prove their innocence) require to have their cases moved outside the state, to have these monitored by the Supreme Court and, when all else fails, go to the United Nations (UN).
Unable to defeat Modi politically in Gujarat, the Congress has lent its shoulder to such dangerous practices. As long as they are affecting an individual politician, it is one thing. However, as is now apparent, the entire edifice of India's most robust challenge to IM has also been put at risk.
It is worth asking where this excessive and mind-numbing focus on Modi is headed. Whether one likes his politics or doesn't, believes he is India's best chief minister or isn't, considers him a future prime minister or too much of a hot potato for BJP allies, the fact remains that he needs to be viewed through a conventional political prism and not one of a fevered imagination.
Consider examples. One, it has been clear for a long time that there is no legal case against Modi for the 2002 violence and he is not guilty of acts of deliberate commission. With even the Supreme Court appointed Special Investigative Team (SIT) said to have to come to the same conclusion, Modi haters — who range from Mumbai-based celebrities to a retired police officer still settling bureaucratic scores — have begun to denounce the SIT and are approaching the UN Human Rights Commission.
Two, the WikiLeaks cables reveal that western intelligence agencies believe the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba threat to Modi is clear and present and did not die out with the elimination of Ishrat Jehan and her accomplices. Jehan, a Mumbai student who fell into Lashkar's grip, was killed in an encounter with the Gujarat police in 2004. Modi's opponents insist she was innocent and the Laskhar plot a concoction. Perhaps now they will argue Modi wrote the WikiLeaks cables.
How long can this continue? If any other Indian politician was found to be mentioned as a Lashkar target in the cables, it would have had the media engrossed. Not with Modi; it's almost as if he's fair game. As for the Union government, it wants to fight terrorists — but not terrorists whom the Gujarat police have found. It's so cynical; those 60 Indian Mujahideen men in Ahmedabad must be laughing.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.