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Our terror, their terror

It is not my case that the Hindus accused of violence are guilty — they are innocent until the police can prove otherwise in a court of law. But the BJP cannot take the line that when the cops arrest so-called Muslim terrorists, they are never to be challenged, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2008 16:19 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

Shortly before LK Advani spoke at the HT Summit on Friday, I was chatting to Ajit Doval. Though he is not yet a household name, Doval is a former director of the Intelligence Bureau who was close to Advani when the latter was Home Minister and he will probably be National Security Advisor if the BJP comes to power.

As Advani has — by his own admission — been reluctant to say very much about the allegations of terrorism against various militant Hindus, I asked Doval how he viewed the arrests and the claims made by the Anti Terror Squad (ATS).

Doval’s response was that the term ‘Hindu terror’ worried him. There were, he said, two dimensions to any battle against terror. The first was law and order. You should treat all terrorists as murderers regardless of their religions, ethnic origins or whatever.

But the second one had to do with their cause. You always avoided, he said, any nomenclature that helped terrorists broaden their constituencies. So, in the 1980s, you never ever used the phrase ‘Sikh terrorists’ no matter how many bombs exploded. And in the 21st century, care was taken to refer to ‘Jehadi terrorists’. If you said ‘Muslim terrorists’, you suggested, however subliminally, that the terrorists represented all Muslims — which of course, they do not.

It was a perceptive point and one that Advani also made in his speech at the Summit. Though he refused to be drawn further on the subject — despite an excellent question from an IBN7 correspondent — Advani said that he was unhappy with the phrase ‘Hindu terrorists’.

I have no real problem with Advani and Doval’s position. The bombers do not represent Hindus, and yes, there is a danger that Hindus may subliminally feel that the terrorism was conducted on their behalf if we refer to those accused of the killings as Hindu terrorists.

But listening to Doval, I got to thinking about the extent to which the allegations of ‘Hindu terror’ have changed all the rules.

I have always been suspicious of the claims advanced by various police forces about their successes in the fight against terror. One simple fact should illustrate why I believe my skepticism is well-founded: the police keep changing their minds about who is behind the blasts — and yet, each time they claim to have cracked a case, they advance these claims with an air of certitude.

Take the Samjhauta Express bombing. When it took place, we were assured with great authority that the bombers were jehadis, acting under instructions from Pakistani terror outfits. Now, we are being told that they were the Hindus who the ATS has in custody.

To go from blaming Pakistani jehadis to pinning the blasts on militant Hindus is a 180-degree about-turn. Yet our security services show no embarrassment about the complete shift in stance.

Or, take the example of the last spate of bombings. Four different police forces have arrested four different ‘masterminds’. Men who were described as being in the Osama bin Laden league are suddenly not talked about at all.

All this is indisputable. And if you enter the more controversial area of encounters, the police come off even worse. Nobody seriously disputes that many of the people killed in so-called encounters have actually been shot in custody. The dispute is over whether they were ever terrorists to begin with. Once a suspect is dead, the police don’t have to bother with evidence. They make whatever claims they like and when you challenge these, they resort to the obviously bogus explanation: “If he was not a terrorist, then why was he firing at the police?”(Which, of course, he wasn’t….)

There’s more. None of us doubts that torture is routinely used to extract information from suspects. And, by and large, this practice has widespread public support.

Consequently, when any of the suspects or their lawyers or human rights organisations protest about torture, we pay no attention. Of course, the police are going to use third degree methods, we say. It’s a question of saving lives.

Such is the attitude of many of India’s politicians — and especially those in the BJP — that to raise even the most obvious questions about claims advanced by the police, is to act in an ‘anti-national manner’. How dare we demoralise our security forces, we are told.

I know this from personal experience. Every time I have raised questions about encounter-killings or excessive claims made by police forces, I have been roundly condemned.

The most notorious instance was the famous Ansal Plaza encounter where the police took two suspects to the parking lot of a shopping mall and shot them. Then they announced that they had foiled a terrorist strike. Advani was Home Minister (and Doval was number two in IB) and he congratulated the police and associated himself with that ‘triumph in the war against terror’.

When the HT queried the police version, even those BJP leaders who should have known better called us anti-national and questioned my patriotism.

We do not know yet whether the recent Batla House encounter was conducted in the way the police claim it was. But given that there were legitimate questions to be raised, and given that the police have a record of lying, it was entirely understandable for people to ask for explanations. But even then, those who raised questions were called unpatriotic.

I was reminded of all this while listening to Advani and Doval because the Sangh Parivar has now conducted a 180 degree about-turn on the police version of terrorist arrests. Worse still, the BJP now says that the Anti Terror Squad frames innocent suspects.

To recognise how astonishing the BJP’s about-turn is, think of it this way. Suppose those accused of terrorism were not Hindus but Muslims. Suppose it wasn’t a sadhvi but an imam.

How would the BJP have reacted?

First, it would have emphasised the ‘jehadi conspiracy against India’ angle to make Hindus insecure. Then, it would have condemned those of us who questioned the arrests as traitors.

Assume now that Muslim organisations had banded together to attack the police in the way that the Sangh Parivar and assorted sadhvis and sants recently did. We would have been told how shameful it was that Muslim leaders had ‘communalised’ the situation. The BJP would have suggested that the Muslim leadership actually approved of the terrorism. And it would have been said that the spectacle of mullahs and politicians coming together to question the institutions of a secular state demonstrated that Muslims had no real loyalty to India.

And yet, the way in which the BJP has responded to the arrests goes far, far beyond anything that Muslim organisations have done or said.

If it was anti-national to question the Ansal Plaza encounter, then, by that same yardstick, Rajnath Singh is a traitor for running down our anti-terrorist squads.

Even Advani, who clearly recognises that there is a double-standard involved, has written to the Prime Minister complaining about the torture of one of the suspects. But if a Muslim politician had demanded that the Delhi police do not torture a Muslim blast suspect, the BJP would have vilified him.

It is not my case that the Hindus accused of violence are guilty — they are innocent until the police can prove otherwise in a court of law. But the BJP cannot take the line that when the cops arrest so-called Muslim terrorists, they are never to be challenged.

It’s only when they arrest Hindus that we can accuse them of framing the suspects!

That shameful double-standard exposes the hypocrisy and prejudice at the root of the BJP’s approach to terror. The party is not really on the side of the police at all. All that sanctimonious nonsense about how it is ‘unpatriotic to question our brave security forces’ is quickly forgotten the moment Hindus are arrested.

We can now see what the BJP’s message to the police really is: arrest all the Muslims you want; we will back you unthinkingly. But if you dare arrest a Hindu for terrorist violence, we will attack you from the highest platforms.

So yes, Advani and Doval are right. We should not use the phrase ‘Hindu terrorists’. But that’s because we shouldn’t communalise terror. Not because no Hindus are terrorists. Or because all Muslims are.

And one more thing: now that the entire Sangh Parivar says it is our patriotic duty to claim that the police tell lies, frame innocent people and fabricate cases, can all of us who were called anti-national for merely raising a few questions get an apology please?

It’s the least Rajnath Singh can do.

First Published: Nov 22, 2008 21:36 IST