October is a holy time. Durga comes sweeping down from the mountains. Iftaar dinners are in full swing. October is the time of renewal. And this October it is more necessary than ever to ask questions that will renew us all.
There have been 16 major bomb blasts since 2002 and approximately 700 have died so far. The deaths have been meaningless and tragic but by the standards of most Indian calamities, approximately 700 deaths in six years is not a very high figure, not a figure suggesting that we are ‘a nation at war’.
So are we, police personnel, media, government and politicians creating an industry and culture of ‘terrorism’ and then feeding off it for our own purposes? Are these bomb blasts, acts of ‘terrorism’ in all the epochal evil and ideological potency that the word ‘terrorism’ today implies? Or are they simply acts of motivated criminality on which we are imposing our own ideological-political vocabulary. In the frenzy of television news, a crude bomb in a garbage bag acquires the same proportions as an aeroplane crashing into a building. But not every blast in a box is 9/11.
We are all guilty. When 24 hour TV news shows a dead body 60 times in the space of an hour, one death begins to look like a hundred. When the National Security Advisor says in an interview that there will be more bomb blasts, he helps heighten a siege mentality and a culture of fear. When the police fixes a target first (‘This is Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami HuJI’ or ‘This is Indian Mujahideen’) and then proceeds to catch individuals who best fit the profile of their preconceived target, they often lose sight of the real criminal. When politicians convert our society into a lynch mob against Muslims, they forget Tony Blair’s wise words: it is the communities that catch the ‘terrorists’ and the police will never get the ‘terrorist’ if it alienates the community.
In the ‘encounter’ in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, 17-year-old Sajid, 24-year-old Atif and Inspector MC Sharma of Delhi’s Special Cell died. The slain boys had a photo of themselves in their laptop accompanied by the popular teenage caption: ‘India’s Most Wanted’. This was enough evidence, the police claimed, to confirm their ‘terrorist’ credentials. A citizens’ committee which launched a fact-finding mission into the Batla House ‘encounter’ challenged the police version. But instead of answering their questions, the committee members — among them many distinguished academics and lawyers — have been dubbed as ‘anti-national’.
No one doubts the courage of the men in khaki, but is it time to ask if the police are catching the wrong men? In the Delhi Diwali blast case of 2005, one of the Delhi Police’s main accused is Mohammad Rafiq Shah, a Kashmiri student. He continues to be an accused even though there exists an official letter from the Srinagar University’s Vice-Chancellor and sworn affidavits from his teachers that Rafiq was attending class when the blast took place on October 29. The Delhi Police said that Atif masterminded the Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Varanasi blasts. Yet on the same day, the Uttar Pradesh police produced another ‘mastermind’ of the Varanasi blasts, a different man who they said is a member of HuJI.
Then, two days later, the Mumbai Police, not to be outdone, produced not one but five ‘masterminds’ who they said were responsible for “all major blasts since 2005”. Every state police now claims to have the right culprits. With all ‘masterminds’ either dead or in custody, what happens? More blasts in Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Whoever is planting the bombs certainly has no fear that the police will ever catch them.
After September 11, 2001, the ‘global jehadi’ entered our discourse. Before 2001, we had a different name for bomb blasts: we called them ‘organised crime’, carried out by the underworld made up of multi-religious criminal gangs. But after 9/11, whenever a blast took place, the police embarked on a community-specific hunt for the ‘jehadi’. Now the key words of ‘Islamist’ terrorism are ‘sleeper cells’, ‘terror modules’, ‘masterminds’ and ‘global radicalisation’. The words conjure up a ghostly enemy, a sinister fanatical Islamist force, when the reality could just be small gangs of criminal youth from any religion.
Sure, the ideology of the global jehad exists and is growing. But to what extent is the Indian Muslim caught up in it? We have borrowed our language of ‘terrorism’ from America, without trying to analyse if our ‘terror’ realities are different.
If our ‘terrorism’ is of the al-Qaeda variety, why are there no suicide bombers in any of the recent urban blasts? If Islamist radicals can access high-end global explosives such as RDX and inflict mass casualties, then why are they making do with crude bombs of ammonium nitrate, ball bearings and tiffin boxes? Why do bomb blasts sometimes take place in election season? If bombers are being driven by ‘Islamist’ motives, why do they often target masjids? Organised crime knows no religion. Criminal activity is readily available for a price to advance any social, economic or political cause.
Yet after every bomb blast, the police round-up the ‘ideologically indoctrinated’ Alis and Husains, parades them wrapped in tragi-comic ‘Arabic’ scarves and after a 10-day TV drama, the cases fade from view and the police file laughable chargesheets that the courts throw out.
No doubt the police are under enormous pressure to show instant results. Yet, why is it that there has not been a single conviction in any of the blast cases so far? In the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case, the police rounded up Muslim youth and had to let them all off for lack of evidence. In the 2003 Ghatkopar blast case, the eight accused were acquitted by a Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota), court for lack of evidence.
The universally-accepted version is that ‘terrorism’ is being created by vengeance-filled Muslim youth, funded from overseas and guided by fanaticism. This may well be true in some instances. But there may well be other truths about the bombers, other definitions.
The police’s single-minded search for a photocopy ‘kafir-obsessed jehadi’, a search fuelled by the media and by politicians, is leading nowhere. Unless we get our definitions right, we will continue to run like a blind mob after the wrong set of culprits. More bombs will be hurled and more toddlers will die.