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The Antulay conspiracy

AR Antulay’s irresponsible claims about Hemant Karkare’s death has discredited all those who want to ask serious and genuine questions about the police force and the way it functions, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 21, 2008 17:17 IST

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by explaining why AR Antulay is wrong when he says that a conspiracy led to the death of Bombay Anti-Terrorist Squad chief Hemant Karkare and two other officers. If you’re the sort of person who reads this column, then you’ll know that this conspiracy theory is utter rubbish. (But if you do have the odd lingering doubt, then I can refer you to an excellent piece on the subject by my colleague Sujata Anandan in Friday’s HT)

Most conspiracy theories can be divided into three categories. The first consists of those that are merely absurd. For instance, many people believe that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax with the footage of Neil Armstrong landing on lunar soil faked in a Hollywood studio. Some trashy American tabloids made millions by suggesting, for over a decade after his death, that Elvis Presley was still alive. More recently, it has been suggested that the man they executed in Baghdad was Saddam Hussein’s double. The real Saddam is alive and well and living in South America. Similarly, it used to be suggested that the man the South African government released from prison was not really Nelson Mandela. (Which would explain why he looked nothing like the photographs of the young Mandela.)

According to this theory, the real Mandela died in jail and a more accommodating double was asked to play the role.

Then there’s the kind of conspiracy theory that is spread by interested parties or by people with their own axes to grind. The most notable of these theories is the view espoused by many fascists about Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews. According to assorted anti-Semites and neo-Nazis (and these days, Arab extremists) the Holocaust never really happened. The Jews were not killed. The whole story was Jewish propaganda.

Arab fundamentalists have taken this a step further. It is now routine to say, on the Arab main street, that poor Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with 9/11. It was done by Mossad so that the peace-loving hermits of al-Qaeda would get a bad name. Another version of the theory casts the Americans as villains, eagerly murdering their own people only so that they had an excuse to defame blameless Islamic organisations.

<b1>Now, various Pakistani TV channels are following the Arab example. In the aftermath of the Bombay attacks, they insisted that we had engineered them ourselves only to ensure that Pakistan gets a bad reputation. (As though Pakistan needs any help from us on that score.)

Other versions of this theory had those all-purpose villains, the evil geniuses of Mossad, arriving in India to help the perfidious R&AW organise terror attacks against our own civilians.

Some of this theorising stems from a guilty conscience. At some level, the fascists must know that Hitler did kill the Jews. Even those who blame Mossad for 9/11 must be aware of the identities of the Arab perpetrators. And all Pakistanis are not stupid enough to believe that we would attack ourselves. (Though, if they get so panic-stricken when a man pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee calls up Asif Zardari and gives him a tongue-lashing, I’m not so sure about IQ levels in the higher echelons of the Pakistani government.)

But many conspiracy theories spread by interested parties emerge from wishful thinking. The people who believe that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu palace and that Fatehpur Sikri was a Hindu city are incapable of accepting that Muslims could ever have done anything good or built anything beautiful. That quality is reserved for Hindus.

There is also a complete reluctance on the part of many communities to believe that their members could be involved in terrorism. For much of the 1980s, many otherwise intelligent Sikhs kept insisting that no Sikhs were involved in acts of violence and terrorism. It was all done by others and blamed on the Sikhs, they said.

Many Muslims have reacted the same way over the last decade. They deny that any Muslims played any role in terrorist incidents and claim that all those accused were framed by the police. When you point out that yes, some people were probably framed, but that it is quite impossible that no Muslim has ever been correctly accused, they refuse to listen.

One other area where conspiracy theories flourish is assassinations. Many members of the Sangh Parivar claimed that Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had been murdered in the Soviet Union after signing the Tashkent Agreement in 1966. Other disaffected members of the Parivar say that the true killers of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, their former leader who was murdered in a train, have never been apprehended.

The Congress is not immune to this disease. For months after Sanjay Gandhi’s death, many of his supporters refused to believe that a man on the cusp of achieving great power could throw his life away in such a pointless manner. He must have been murdered, they claimed.

The trouble with conspiracy theories that emanate from interested parties is that they are hardly ever based on any solid evidence. For this kind of theorist, motive alone is evidence enough.

But there’s a third category of conspiracy theory and that is the one that is the most problematic.

Whether we like it or not, there are conspiracies, cover-ups, abuses of power by authorities and unexplained assassinations. Just as it is quite wrong to say that everything that happens is caused by a secret conspiracy, it is as foolish to claim that nothing is ever the result of a conspiracy.

Take the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Even though there were many unexplained factors — the exact motive of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin; the convenient shooting of Oswald in custody; the inconsistencies of the forensic evidence, etc. — those who smelt a conspiracy were denounced and referred to the report of the Warren Commission that concluded that Oswald had acted alone.

We know now that the conspiracy theorists were right to be suspicious. Even those who still believe that Oswald was the killer now concede that they may have been a larger conspiracy behind the assassination.

While on the subject of JFK, what about the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe? In the 70s, many writers suggested that she was having a clandestine affair with JFK and had to be bumped off. These suggestions were pooh-poohed by know-it-alls. In fact, we now have proof that Monroe was definitely having an affair with JFK. And while the evidence that friends of the Kennedys bumped her off is less than conclusive, there is a certainly a good case to be made.

That’s the problem with dismissing conspiracy theories. Once you say that all such theories are humbug, you effectively deny people the right to be curious, to ask questions and to refuse to believe what they are told by their governments.

The hallmark of an intelligent democracy is skepticism. All politicians lie. It is our duty to constantly question them, to not accept everything we are told and to find out the truth.

That’s why I’m so annoyed by A.R. Antulay’s irresponsible claims about Hemant Karkare’s death. By making such absurd allegations, Antulay has discredited all those who want to ask serious and genuine questions about the police force and the way it functions.

The truth is that many encounters are bogus, that many cases are concocted, and many innocent people go to jail unjustly. A free society is one that questions the official version and fights for justice in every case.

But when an influential figure like Antulay reduces the process of genuine inquiry to political grandstanding, he makes it difficult for anybody to ever again ask the questions that need to be asked. Antulay’s rhetoric is aimed at pleasing his Muslim constituency. But in fact, he has damaged the credibility of every Muslim who feels that his community is being unfairly targeted. Now, genuine doubts will be lumped with Antulay’s nonsense.

That’s Antulay’s real crime. Not that he’s been irresponsible (which of course he has been); but that he has damaged the credentials of everybody who wants to be responsible.

If there’s one thing that the conspiracy theorists are right about, it is this: all politicians lie when it suits them.

As Antulay has just demonstrated.