Our Keystone Cops
The police will never be able to solve terror cases if it continues to target and implicate members of a particular community after every bomb blast in the country. Sagarika Ghose writes.india Updated: Mar 12, 2013 22:56 IST
When in doubt about a terror investigation, blame the most readily available Muslims. Within days of the Dilsukh Nagar blasts in Hyderabad on February 21, the police announced the suspects were the Indian Mujahideen (IM), that its founder Riyaz Bhatkal was the possible "mastermind", and that 'Imran' and 'Maqbool' had recced the area.
In the same week as the names 'Bhatkal', 'Maqbool' and 'Imran' swirled around in the media, two youths, journalist Muthi-ur Rahman Siddiqui, also once dubbed "mastermind" in a terror conspiracy by the media and DRDO scientist Aijaz Mirza were released after six months in jail.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) admitted it could find no evidence against them. Home minister Sushilkumar Shinde was made to apologise by the BJP for his remarks on saffron terror. But the Opposition did not ask the home minister to apologise for the wrongful arrest of two young men.
Why? Because they are Muslims? Why one set of standards for "saffron" terror and another for "Islamist" terror, when repeated pious declarations are made that terror has no religion?
Across the country scores of young Muslim men are being jailed and tortured for their alleged links to terror. The police are invariably unable to muster clear evidence except vague theories, the cases are thrown out by the courts and the security agencies are forced to let the youths go.
Imran Syed, a Hyderabad student arrested for the Mecca Masjid blasts in 2007, given third degree torture and electric shocks, was accused of spending 10 years training as a terrorist in Pakistan. Since Imran was 22 at the time of his arrest, it would mean that he had run away to Pakistan to become a terrorist at the age of 12! After 18 months in jail, Imran was acquitted.
A caricature narrative is born from a paranoid imagination. Sheer communal prejudice and a copycat "war on terror" mentality on the part of keystone cops busily chasing bearded look-alikes of Osama bin Laden in India's galis and mohallas, is leading to the bizarre phenomenon of hundreds of arrests yet no stoppage to the low intensity blasts in tiffin boxes or on bicycles.
Why have the Andhra Pradesh Police not been able to successfully investigate, bring to trial and secure a conviction in the many blast cases that have taken place in Hyderabad?
Social prejudice and religious discrimination must be separated from terror investigations. The police must resist the temptation to jump the gun, arrest Muslims and announce names of suspected groups within hours of a blast to satisfy the 'patriotic' media.
So far, with the exception of additional sessions judge Vijendar Bhat's scathing denunciation of police conduct in terror cases in February 2011, the courts have not reprimanded investigative agencies strongly enough. It is a positive sign that the NIA has developed a culture of admitting it was wrong.
But generally, there is an inability on the part of the police to be patient about collecting evidence carefully and painstakingly over a period of time.
Who are these 'terrorists' who bomb India's marketplaces without any stated objectives or demands? The Irish Republican Army had a stated objective to throw out English occupation of Ireland.
Al Qaeda is motivated by anti-Americanism; Lashkar is an anti-India outfit, Ulfa aimed for a sovereign Assam. Yet India's mystery 'low intensity' urban marketplace bombers have no stated objective, no demand, no identity, and no negotiating agendas.
They simply bomb in anonymity leaving security experts and police to engage in guesswork about motives such as "revenge-for-Afzal Guru."
When terrorists are anonymous and refuse to indicate why exactly they are repeatedly bombing markets, the police must proceed only on the evidence they are able to collect from the site and through patiently gathered intelligence about other such blasts.
Unless there is a clear separation of community from terrorist, unless a community-specific line of investigation is given up in favour of a hard-headed evidence-specific line of investigation, India's mysterious urban bombers will never be caught.
Without political leadership on the vexed Hindu-Muslim question, as the political class remains trapped in twin mentalities of 'communalism' vs 'appeasement', religious hatred and suspicion are growing by the day in urban India.
An assertive Hindutva nationalism on social media seeks to demonise the Muslim. Muslim victimhood results in a sense of separation from the cultural mainstream and creates further distance between the communities. Ghettoisation in housing and social segregation exists alongside assertive religious identities on both sides.
There is no political leader today with a vision of a modern, forward-looking contract between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims.
No leader today is able to chalk out a vision which mounts a challenge to the undoubted radicalisation of Muslim youth in the global jihad, as well as create an ideological challenge to the radicalisation of Hindu youth in a copycat Hindu extremist war.
In a situation of sharply polarising religious identities, investigative agencies must make a distinction between what is a political opinion and what constitutes evidence in a criminal trial. Books on Islamism or Marxism (as with Binayak Sen) are not evidence of criminality. Muslims, tribals, Marxists, liberals, all have freedom of speech and an exercise of political rights does not translate into evidence in a terrorist trial.
Further, the police must be transparent on why the Muslim youths were caught and must openly state on what basis the youths were implicated. It is only when the cult of secrecy on flawed investigations is broken, that we can make sure that other innocents are not caught and those who are continuing to bomb with impunity are brought to justice.
The rise of Islamic radicalism, and its possible links with terror are concerns, but investigations need to be transparent and not end up as fishing expeditions where a person's faith or political beliefs determine his guilt in a criminal case.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.