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The Balancing Act

The Indian Muslim community has now been infected with the global virus. But for Muslims to accept that, Hindus and the state itself, both need to adopt a more balance attitude to the problem, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 28, 2008 15:18 IST

Some of you who remember the 1993 serial blasts in Bombay may remember this little footnote. According to some accounts, after the bombs had gone off and panic had spread throughout the city, the Memons (the alleged bombers) and their associates drove through Worli firing automatic weapons from their cars.

Their intention was not to add to the already massive death toll but to deepen the panic. They believed that Hindus would realize that the bombs had been planted to avenge the deaths of Muslims in the riots and that further communal clashes were now inevitable.

More than the bombs and their deadly toll, this was their real agenda: a war between the communities.

In the event, their hopes were dashed. Bombay remained calm. It was Sharad Pawar’s finest hour. As Chief Minister, he ensured that there were no reprisals, even announcing, falsely, that a bomb had gone off in the Muslim locality of Masjid to confuse those who looked for a communal motive behind the carnage.

Most of us have forgotten the first Bombay blasts except perhaps in the context of Sanjay Dutt’s trial. But we should never forget what the real agenda behind those bombs was: communal warfare. A city can crawl or limp back to life after bomb blasts — as Delhi has done over the last week — but a Hindu-Muslim war will destroy the very basis of
our society.

I thought of the Bombay blasts when I heard the well-meaning secularists come up with their explanation for the recent spate of bombings: Muslims had a bad deal in India; their young people were frustrated; they had turned to violence as a last resort; just look at profile of the bombers: they were all well-educated and either middle class or on the fringes of the middle class etc.

Almost all of this is misguided rubbish. Yes, some terrorism is intended to wreak revenge. The Bombay blasts, we now know, were carried out by Muslim members of the underworld to take revenge for the carnage of the riots after many Muslims assailed the likes of Dawood Ibrahim for failing to defend them. The perpetrators were Muslims. The agenda was communal. But the bombers were not religious fanatics who dreamt of eternal jihad. They were criminals who turned to terrorism for a specific purpose.

So, if we were to say (which hardly anybody did at the time) that the 1993 terrorism emerged out of a sense of grievance, then that would be justified.

But, judging by what we know of today’s bombers, they are not criminals but are religious fanatics on the global pattern. They have perverted Islam to justify a campaign of mass murder just as their colleagues have in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, England etc.

Like all bombers everywhere, they include alleged grievances in their e-mails (Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are staples of the terrorist lexicon) but if these grievances were to vanish, they would simply find new ones.

That they are educated and middle class is no surprise either. That’s also the global pattern. Omar Sheikh charged in the Daniel Pearl murder, went to a British public school. Many of the Saudis involved in 9/11 came from well-off families. The London bombers were British-born and British-educated.

These are not people at the bottom of the social pyramid looking for justice. They are among the more fortunate members of their communities.

But even, if the well-meaning secularists are right and the terrorists have genuine grievances, so what?

It still does not justify a single terrorist act. It does not justify a single death. And it would be a huge error to take grievances seriously only when they are expressed through murder.

There’s only one answer to terrorism and that is to stamp it out. No society can survive if it negotiates with terrorists or addresses their agendas.

In the aftermath of these blasts, India faces two challenges. The first is simple enough but seemingly impossible for our law enforcement agencies to manage: track down the perpetrators and smash their network.

The second one is more complicated. All of us — not just the government — have to ensure that the Memons and others like them do not win in the long-run, and damage the foundations of our society.

This terrorism must not be allowed to drive on even bigger wedge between India’s Hindus and Muslims. Some of this is up to the Muslim community. From what I remember of the 1980s, Muslims are reacting as many Sikhs did then: arguing that the stories of terrorism are made up and that it is all a conspiracy against their community.

There are parallels for this. I remember hosting a TV discussion in the early 1990s in which a prominent Sikh intellectual suggested that police officers impersonated Sikhs and staged terror attacks. Others claimed that the Punjab agitation was being manipulated by R&AW. Similarly, polls tell us that many (or most) Arabs refuse to believe that 9/11 was an Al Qaeda strike. Either the Americans did it themselves or the Israelis were behind it, they claim.

India’s Muslims must be wary of falling into the trap of denial. I am prepared to concede that some of those arrested for terrorist attacks could be innocent. I am prepared also to admit that the police do concoct cases.

But can every arrested person be innocent? Can every e-mail from the Indian Majahidden be a fake?

Surely not. There is a genuine problem. And Muslims need to recognise that. The Indian Muslim community has now been infected with the global virus.

But for Muslims to accept that, Hindus and the state itself, both need to adopt a more balanced attitude to the problem.

We could start with the police. So many different police forces now claim to have arrested so many different masterminds for the same crime that I’m beginning to get very confused. Besides, do Indian terrorist networks have no ordinary terrorists? Why is it that every person who is arrested or killed is “the brain behind the blasts” or “the mastermind”? Obviously, we are not being told the whole truth.

Then, there’s the issue of encounters. For better or worse, rightly or wrongly, the Indian middle class does not mind if terrorists are bumped off in fake encounters. But we do mind if innocent people are killed and we are then told that deadly terrorists have been eliminated.

The problem with India’s police forces is that they no longer feel obliged to convince us of the need to kill anyone. There are many mysteries surrounding the recent Jamia encounter. And given that a much decorated policeman died, surely we have a right to know exactly what happened? But the police is less than forthcoming and questions remain.

Then, there’s the issue of religious sensitivity. Some level of communal profiling and some amount of brutality are probably inevitable in this situation. But even so, the police have an obligation to not hurl anti-Muslim abuse at suspects or to play the terrorist game and communalise the investigations. But there are so many stories of police insensitivity that with each arrest, Muslim outrage increases.

And finally, the obligation is on us, as a society, to behave with maturity and balance? Have we been so rattled by the terrorists that we’ve thrown our liberal values out of the window? Even in America, after 9/11, suspected terrorists found legal representation. But in India, lawyers associations are ganging up to force lawyers to boycott terror suspects.

Not only does this increase Muslim alienation but it also shames us as a liberal democracy.

Similarly, the Vice Chancellor of Jamia is within his rights to offer legal representation to his students. For the BJP to declare that he is supporting terrorism is plain silly. What happened to the presumption of innocence? These boys may well be terrorists. But they have to be convicted first. And till then, they are entitled to lawyers and legal aid.

Each time we compromise on our values and sacrifice our sense of justice, we move from being the world’s largest democracy to becoming the kind of mobocracy that these religious fanatics want to create.

Allow them to make us more like they are — and they have already won.