Monday, July 24, 2006

Mumbai and the question of terror

Mumbai is a generous city, a city that for all its signs of decay, still manages to accommodate any needy person in search of a livelihood. And as Mumbaikars showed the very day after the serial bombing of their city’s lifeline, it is a courageous city. Both by compulsion and by unswerving commitment to the basic credo of getting on with life, while likewise allowing all others, Mumbai is a city whose rhythms can never be silenced.

Following the July 11 attacks on Mumbai’s suburban transportation system, there was much lament in public forums, that India’s struggle against terrorism had gone seriously adrift. The proposition was advanced, not unheard of before, that force can only be combated by an equal, opposite -- perhaps even a disproportionate -- application of the same principle. And there was some bemoaning of the fact that India’s campaign against terrorism, after its brief victory in the early-1990s in the Punjab theatre, had lost sight of the basics in subsequent challenges: in Kashmir and in the proliferation of affronts that the Indian state has had to face in diverse corners of the country.

The closest perhaps that Mumbai has come to having its spirit broken, was for two weeks in January 1993, when its streets were taken over by rampaging mobs intent on inflicting maximum violence on a vulnerable minority. And just two months later, it was paralysed into silence and submission when a retaliatory sequence of bombings devastated crucial nodes of its daily life.

Since that horrendous outrage, there have been several attacks on civic life in the city that have challenged the common citizen’s loyalty. And yet, with all the provocation, there has been no occasion since when civic peace has been disturbed, when the fabric of inter-community understanding has been in danger of being shredded.

If there is a lesson underlying all this, it is simply that a citizenry committed to peace and determined to preserve the civic responsibilities that make life in a big city possible, is the principal resource that a state can count upon in its struggle against terrorism. It is a curiosity then, that in all the policy deliberations that followed Mumbai’s tragedy, not to mention the advisory opinions that the media so generously proffered, this issue never featured in any significant manner.

As a term, “terrorism” may remain slippery and evasive, though there is little that is vague about the real world manifestations of the threat. India in particular, has suffered enormously from successive, and intimate, encounters with the random and insensate violence of terrorism, designed with deliberate intent, to disrupt the rhythms of daily life for a civilian population and sap public loyalty to the political order. The motives of terrorism could be various: a sense of grievance at real or imagined injustices, a quest for vengeance against palpably real atrocities. But in terms of its long-term calculus, terrorism invariably targets the will of an entire people, to sap their stated and unstated consent in the perpetuation of a political order.

That Mumbai has defied this calculus despite repeated provocation, is a tribute to the resilience of the city and to the vital stakes that all of India has in its well-being. At the very least it would seem, the citizens of Mumbai need recognition for their fortitude -- an example for the whole country – and this can only come through pursuing the perpetrators of July 11 with all the determination and fairness that the law mandates.

Initial signals have not been the most propitious. The principal opposition party, the BJP, has with its allies, made known its determination to put the government on the mat in the monsoon session of Parliament over its alleged softness on terrorism. Reprising a favoured theme – which it has never tired of harping upon since the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) was repealed in the mid-1990s and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in 2004 – it has demanded the enactment of a special category of law in addition to all existing statutes, to deal the modern-day scourge of terrorism.

The Government for its part has responded with a disavowal of any such intent, but in a meeting with chief secretaries from all the states on July 20, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh effectively acknowledged that prevalent practices and procedures had proven woefully inadequate. “It is the primary responsibility of the state to maintain public order and ensure the safety of its people”, said the Prime Minister: “You will have to empower your police forces to discharge their functions at higher levels of efficiency”.

It is not clear that the additional powers sought for the police and security agencies would be achieved through legislation. Some part of the challenge in the Prime Minister’s perception evidently involves the enhancement of operational efficiencies within these forces. But a little consideration would show that there is a strategic challenge beyond these relatively more mundane matters, that still remains to be grappled with.

Media reports of July 14, obviously primed by well-planned leaks, suggested that the union cabinet at its first meeting since the Mumbai atrocities, had been told by top security officials, that Pakistan was directly responsible. The consensus though, was vitiated by two senior ministers. One of the dissenters, according to the media leaks, pointed to the finding by an independent initiative, that the alleged terrorist plot on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, and the June 1 police encounter in which all its intending authors were killed, had in fact been staged. Another senior minister, harked back to a lethal bomb blast in the district headquarters town of Nanded in Mahrashtra, in which two people had been killed, both of them associated with Hindu extremist organisations. The timing of the Nanded blasts, he pointed out, suggested a deep political intent, since it came around the time that BJP leader L.K. Advani was to transit through Maharashtra as part of his cross-country odyssey focusing attention on terrorism.

Since neither of the ministers identified as the dissenters within the union cabinet could have wanted to be associated with an unpopular viewpoint in an especially fraught moment, it is safe to assume that the media leak about their interventions came from other sources. But since dissent has reached the level of the union cabinet on the issue of terrorism – where the unspoken national consensus so far has been to lay all the blame on Pakistan – it is perhaps important to assess how credible the underlying information is.

The inquiry into the Nagpur incident was led by B.G. Kolse Patil, a former judge of the Bombay High Court, and involved twelve other individuals representing five distinct civil liberties and legal advocacy bodies. Its report, completed mid-June and covered rather indifferently by the media, is brief but convincing. It points to numerous lacunae and discrepancies in the official narration of the encounter in which three “jehadi” terrorists were killed, and refers to the unwillingness or inability of the Nagpur police commissioner to meet with the inquiry team and answer certain very basic doubts. It concludes in the light of all the information available, that the encounter was “fake” and requires a “fair probe” in the national interest.

Similar ambiguities and concerns surround the Nanded bomb blasts, which did not receive any of the nation-wide coverage that the Nagpur incident did. The few media reports that did emerge, quoted authoritative police sources identifying the deceased as active members of a Hindu extremist organisation, who had been engaged in the fabrication of an explosive device. But interest soon died out and the police, for reasons yet unclear, sought to dissuade any further media coverage on the grounds that it would damage the investigative process.

When public scepticism over the Nagpur incident was acknowledged in the media, it was only to deflect awkward questions. The argument was deployed that the intelligence and security services had acted on credible information that an attack was imminent. Rather than arrest the militant elements and pursue the tedious legal process of prosecution, the agencies decided that a more effective recourse would be to eliminate them. Recent incidents, such as the hijacking of Indian Airlines IC 814 in 1999, when the Indian government was compelled to release three terrorists held for operations in the Kashmir theatre, had shown that detaining jehadi elements and pursuing the process of the law was a high-risk enterprise.

It cannot be a very reassuring thought for most common people, that summary justice will be the norm when the security agencies deal with the risk of terrorism. The policy of shooting first and then suppressing, or when that is impossible, evading the awkward questions, may play well in an environment of overwrought nationalism and hyper-insecurity. But it feeds into a climate of official impunity, makes for very poor long-term efficacy and involves numerous risks to ordinary citizens.

December 13, 2001 was a defining moment in India in this sense. The attack on India’s parliament premises by two car-loads of gun-wielding desperados, marked a transition from a holding operation by the Indian State, to an offensive doctrine of prevention and even pre-emption of terrorism. It enabled a coordination on the terrain of principle and practice between India and other self-proclaimed leaders of the struggle against terrorism, notably the U.S. and Israel. And in the domestic arena, it was to be the test case of the efficacy of a newly crafted anti-terrorism law, POTA.

Nearly five years years after that pivotal event in India’s history, the long-term consequences remain ambivalent at best. Of the four individuals who were arrested shortly afterwards and charged with waging war against the Indian state, three were swiftly convicted and sentenced to death under POTA. One other accused person, a woman, was sentenced to an extended term in prison, the sentence partly moderated by the fact that she had a child of tender years.

In appeal before the Delhi High Court, two of the convictions were quashed. But the prosecution, led by the Special Task Force (STF) of the Delhi Police would have none of it. Choosing its occasion well, it went in appeal to India’s Supreme Court on December 13, 2003. On August 4, 2005, the Supreme Court confirmed the acquittals handed down by the Delhi High Court. It also absolved another of the accused of the charge of conspiracy, instead holding him guilty of the lesser crime of concealing knowledge about the conspiracy. Yet, even as it mitigated the sentence of this individual, effectively knocking out several of the props of the prosecution case, the Supreme Court contrived, in a surviving curiosity of judicial reasoning, to uphold the death sentence on the fourth defendant.

Multiple suspicions arise once it is noted that the only person against whom the charge of involvement in the December 13 conspiracy has stuck, was a surrendered militant, obliged by the terms of his capitulation, to keep regular contact with the anti-insurgency wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. It was an invidious position that he found himself in, subsequent to his 1993 surrender. While having to go the extra distance to prove his fealty to the terms of his surrender, he was also under constant threat of liquidation by his erstwhile confederates in the Kashmir militancy. For a while, the way out of the conundrum was, seemingly, to pay up a sum – determined at the momentary discretion of his handler in the security apparatus – as protection money. The alternative was to enlist as a “special police officer”, or in plain language, a police informer.

When the December 13 case was in appeal in the Delhi High Court, some of India’s most eminent jurists appeared on behalf of the accused. Ram Jethmalani argued that “the evidence discloses total non-application of mind and an unforgivable frivolity of attitude”. He also charged that the police case was “riddled with illegality”, and the evidence disclosed “concoction and fabrication”. In similar vein, senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, contended that his client had “been falsely implicated in the conspiracy case by the investigating agency”, which had “gone out of its way in concocting evidence”.

If this record of manifest ineptitude is the legacy of the December 13 attacks, which had international ramifications and almost brought India and Pakistan to war, then the state-of-play in the prosecution of the worst terrorist atrocity ever on Indian soil, the 1993 Mumbai blasts, does not inspire very much confidence either. In October 2000, the designated judge in Mumbai declared that the hearing of the case had concluded. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was given a limited period of time to present concluding evidence regarding the nature of the explosives used in the attacks, following which the defence lawyers were expected to submit their final pleas. Six years on, the case is effectively frozen in the limbo it was then cast into. Meanwhile, of the 124 accused, ten have died, while over 30 remain still in custody. The rest have obtained bail and by all accounts, are not under any serious encumbrance, since their ranks include some of the affluent and influential. Whether from the viewpoint of the victims or the alleged perpetrators of the 1993 atrocities, the ends of justice clearly, are a long way from being met.

Can it do any good for public confidence that the police and intelligence agencies have come a cropper in two of India’s most significant terrorism trials, despite being empowered with extraordinary statutes? Can it be taken for granted then, that the resolve of the common citizen, an unacknowledged though invaluable resource in the battle against terrorism, will remain as firm as it is now? These questions need to be posed now with a fresh vigour by the public, since to this record of conspicuous failure must be added a story of the deliberate abdication of responsibility in pursuing the guilty of the 1993 communal carnage in Mumbai. In most reasonable assessments, January 1993 was a macabre turning point in that city’s career of cosmopolitanism and civic concord. Mumbai’s people deserve nothing less than full accountability for all the crimes they have suffered, starting from then.


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