Earlier this month the British police announced a series of arrests to disrupt a plot to blow up several airliners mid-air. Two weeks later, eight of the 24 initially arrested were formally charged with conspiracy to murder and plotting acts of terrorism, and another three for lesser crimes. It was only at this stage that the police provided information on the case with its spokesman noting that this was not because the police wanted to withhold information, but because “we have now reached the stage where I can give you more details”. At no point was the word jehad used, nor were we regaled by patently-planted police reports naming the alphabet soup of groups responsible for the conspiracy. We knew from the names released that the suspects were Muslims, many of Pakistani origin.
We expand on this seemingly trivial set of details to highlight the contrast with what happened in Mumbai following the train blasts. As is their wont, the police detained hundreds of young Muslims, though according to the Union Home Minister, only six or seven have been formally arrested. But the big round-up, aimed more at showing that they were doing something, rather than serious investigation of the crime, has generated resentment and fear in the Muslim community. Forensic examination and scientific investigation is an unknown commodity here and most police forces lack the skills or personnel to carry them out. Police technique across India is to use the big net to catch suspects and thrash information out of them. Arrests precede investigations, not follow them.
Almost everyone is agreed that the fight against terrorism is one of hearts and minds. Not only will you not win them by clod-hopping investigation that paints an entire community as villains, you will lose many. Some of the anguish was expressed in a convention organised by the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind, India’s premier organisation of Muslim clerics, in New Delhi recently. They will not say so, but the Jamiat is seeking ways to defeat radical ideologies that attract some Muslim youth to terrorism. Other communities, the police and the government should do their best to help them.