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Political playthings

india Updated: Jun 24, 2010 12:28 IST
Ashok Malik

Later this week Home Minister P. Chidambaram visits Pakistan. He is likely to discuss terror investigations with Islamabad and seek help on specific cases, such as those related to the Mumbai attacks of 26/11. In the past few days, there has been a bit of confusion between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Home Ministry on the issue of Muhammad Arif Qasmani and whether or not India should press for his questioning. Who is Arif Qasmani? On June 29, 2009, the United Nations Security Council al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee added him to the list of individuals subjected to “assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo”. The UN document said Qasmani was born in 1944 and lived on Tipu Sultan Road in Karachi. He was described as the “chief coordinator” of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) “dealings with outside organisations”.

In particular, Qasmani was accused of having “worked with LeT to facilitate terrorist attacks… [including] the February 2007 Samjhauta Express bombing in Panipat, India”. The dossier was long. Qasmani was charged with using money received from Dawood Ibrahim to “facilitate the July 2006 train bombing in Mumbai”, and with providing logistical support to al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including helping them escape from Afghanistan after 9/11.

There is zero doubt in New Delhi that Qasmani is a dangerous man. However, will Chidambaram add him to the list of those Indian investigators want to interrogate in the matter of the Samjhauta Express attack? On February 18, 2007, the train that unites India and Pakistan was bombed shortly after it left Delhi and as it was passing Panipat (Haryana), killing about 70 people.

Why then are Indian internal security officials almost underplaying the Qasmani angle? Why is there no guarantee Chidambaram will seek access to Qasmani?

The clues lie in May 2010, when the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) told the media that, “The link between the Mecca Masjid, Samjhauta and Ajmer blasts is that the bombs had the same arming devices.” In recent weeks, authorities in New Delhi as well as the states have linked four terror attacks: Mecca Masjid (Hyderabad, 2007), Ajmer Sharif (2007), Malegaon (Maharashtra, 2008) and the Samjhauta Express. Apparently suitcase locks used for triggering explosions on the Samjhauta train resembled tin bombs used in Hyderabad and Ajmer.

All these attacks have been attributed to Hindu extremist groups. They have been traced to a network that includes Lieutenant Colonel S.P. Purohit, the military intelligence officer believed to be a key organiser of a Hindu militia. If this is true, Hindu terrorism has emerged as a clear and present danger. It may not be as lethal as Islamist terrorism for the moment, but the need to combat it is non-negotiable. If Purohit actually murdered citizens who, as an army officer, he was duty-bound to protect, frankly he is worse than a terrorist.

Yet, if this gang is responsible for the Samjhauta carnage, then what did Qasmani do and why is his name still on that UN sanctions list? Presumably the Security Council acted against him after inputs from various sources, including the Indian government. If so, doesn’t somebody in the CBI, or in the Indian government, need to clarify and perhaps update the UN?

That question disguises a more compelling problem. Despite the efforts of Chidambaram, India’s battle against terrorism remains trapped in the amateurism of state police forces and easy manipulation by politicians. After each terror attack, the police is under intense pressure to ‘do something’. What follows is a flurry of activity and sombre but ultimately empty media leaks. The investigating officer is sometimes more worried about what his home minister in the individual state thinks of him than cracking the conspiracy. As such, the motivations, obsessions and politics of the provincial minister overwhelm India’s battle against terrorism. They influence the course of the investigation.

This has created a ridiculous situation. In 2007, Hyderabad police was quick to blame Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HuJI) for the Mecca Masjid attack and arrested many local Muslim youth. Today, it is Abhinav Bharat that is blamed and the Muslim youth have been declared innocent. In both instances, media leaks have trotted out ‘incontrovertible evidence’, as if the police always has ‘proof’ and jargon to prove anything against anybody. In Rajasthan, the needle of suspicion changed direction when the BJP was voted out in 2008 and the Congress elected.

Without going into who is right and who is wrong — bluntly, it is increasingly impossible to tell — this destroys credibility. It shows India’s internal security apparatus in a very poor light.

Most egregious is the case of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, killed in an encounter in November 2005. The operation that neutralised him involved the police forces of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. It had the concurrence and passive participation of federal agencies. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) had in its possession wire taps that established Sohrabuddin talking to Dawood and agreeing to take delivery of an arms consignment in Kerala.

Nevertheless, today the Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh governments are looking the other way. The IB has been silenced. The CBI is attempting to present Sohrabuddin not as a terror auxiliary but an ordinary criminal running an extortion racket in cahoots with Gujarat police officers and ministers. Like Qasmani, Sohrabuddin has become a political plaything. It’s disturbing.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.