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Encountering the truth

So, why can’t we accept that we don’t know enough about this much-hyped encounter without being boxed into categories? Since when did public debate in India become an improvised version of George Bush’s you-are-with-us-or against-us diktat after 9/11? And more pertinently, who is the ‘us’? Barkha Dutt examines...

india Updated: Oct 03, 2008 21:17 IST

A Wednesday may as well have been a Saturday. Or so goes the cynical and not–altogether-funny joke in newsrooms across Delhi, in nervous anticipation of the weekly terror call. Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher’s opus on terror may have been set against an innocuous Wednesday afternoon in Bombay. But the bombs in Ahmedabad and Delhi (twice over) went off on a Saturday evening in a chillingly repetitive pattern. And suitably, it was a Saturday when the police declared that they had cracked not just one, but the entire series of serial blasts this year.

So, why are we not comforted by the fact that the ‘masterminds’ have been killed or caught and their modules broken? It’s because we don’t know yet if the right men have been caught. Our eyes glaze over as investigators connect the dots to suggest a common hand in blasts separated by geography and months. We now know the names and faces of the bombers. But ask us to tell the difference between Atif, Touqeer, Bashr and Saif, and watch us flounder. These may be the men who plundered our sense of well-being, but our minds are lost in a maze of detail that we can neither comprehend nor contest.

We try to rewind feverishly to 24-hours after Varanasi, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. Hadn’t similar Machiavellian masterminds been paraded for the cameras back then? Could it be possible that a 13-member squad of terrorists successfully exploded bombs and killed people in major cities and then settled into a regular life in Delhi, straddling university programmes and management schools in between planning the next assault?

The truth is that the Delhi encounter that led the police to India’s ‘serial bombers’ is still steeped in far too many unsolved mysteries. But, sadly, the opposite is not true either. If we don’t know whether the cops have the right men, we certainly don’t know whether they are innocent either.

Yet, not for the first time, the terror debate has been ensnared by a horrifically polarised and politicised discourse. The overweening political corre-ctness of liberal protests has declared innocence with as much alacrity as the police announced guilt.

And so, we are back again to the game of predictable label tagging. Those who are questioning the police are being branded as ‘anti-national’. And if you dare argue that the police may have a point — after all they lost one of their own men — the dissenters dismiss you as unquestioning parasites of the state who feed off sarkari handouts. The two major political parties have also found their preferred places along this axis. The BJP believes that for the Jamia Millia Islamia University to provide the arrested men legal aid is an act of sedition. The Congress — pussyfooting as always — has still not taken a clear position on whether the Students Islamic Movement of India is dangerous enough to remain a banned outfit. And as the two slug it out over the encounter, continuing attacks on Christian minorities shame us on the global stage. This only propels another round of your-wrong-makes-my-wrong-right-brand of political abuse.

Both sides reflect a twisted sort of intellectual fundamentalism — and both are equally dangerous to the increasingly fragile amity between Hindus and Muslims.

There is also a definite degree of denial about the vulnerability of the Indian Muslim to radical orthodoxy. For so long, we have believed that our secular democracy has kept us safe from the influences of global jehad. But think Glasgow, and you can no longer argue that no Indian Muslim has ever been implicated in a global terror attack. Think about the Mumbai blasts and you confront homegrown terror that has an educated, urbane face and cannot be hidden away behind the usual finger-pointing at Pakistan.

Conservative religiosity — even fanaticism — is certainly not equivalent to terrorism. Yet, the self-appointed spokespeople of Indian Muslims do their people no justice when they go on TV and rationalise Osama bin Laden’s hatred for america or pronounce 9/11 to be the handiwork of the international Jewish mafia. Indian Muslims are not a monolith and none of us can or should speak on their behalf with exactitude.

So, why can’t we accept that we don’t know enough about this much-hyped encounter without being boxed into categories? Since when did public debate in India become an improvised version of George Bush’s you-are-with-us-or against-us diktat after 9/11? And more pertinently, who is the ‘us’? Why must we be asked to take sides in this battle of extremes? In this fight between the establishment and anti-establishment, I would wager that most commonsensical Indians want a much more transparent investigation and a higher certainty of truth. We can certainly believe that the State sometimes does lie or pretends to know the truth when it doesn’t have a toss of evidence. But at other times, and in other ways, we can also empathise with the pressure on soldiers and cops to fight a battle that they are not empowered to win. It’s the reason the funeral of Inspector M.C. Sharma evoked the emotion that it did; he became symbolic of the ordinary person’s fight against the hidden hand of terror. And yet, when we watched a young boy called Zeeshan break down on camera and proclaim his innocence with detailed accounts of where he was on the day of the encounter, we were confused all over again.

And actually, that’s how it should be. Our confusion is healthy because it speaks to our basic need for a State that acts with firmness but honesty. At the moment, the choice is being positioned as mutually exclusive. That is why the polarisations are so insidious. This is not the India we want.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV