Terror strikes, randomly killing people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, unhinge reason. They breed an intolerance of difference and create conditions under which ordinary people are willing to abandon the commonsense of daily coexistence. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist outrage, innocents who have suffered, demand recompense. And those fortunate enough to escape the direct experience of pain, fear that providence may not be so kind the next time around.
Part of the intent of terrorism, is that it creates the conditions in which quack remedies gain a measure of legitimacy. Acceptance comes in part from the seeming simplicity of these remedies, as also from their conformity with an existing template on terrorism.
That template was created in India soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. Though various authors have contributed, none has left as distinct an imprint on this master-narrative as Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s principal spokesman. Yet to become chief minister of Gujarat and with the horrors of February 2002 still a distant glimmer, Modi pronounced the mantra that has seemingly become the catechism for all official investigations: even if all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims.
This is the template that was broken late in October, with potentially shattering political consequences, by the discovery of an elaborate network of terrorism involving the faithful of the Hindutva flock. The plot began to unravel with the arrest of a retired army officer in Pune and a woman from Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, who was once active in the students’ wing of the BJP before she donned the robes of piety and assumed the title of sadhvi. To great consternation all around, the investigations soon identified a lieutenant-colonel working with military intelligence and stationed in Jammu, as a key player in the terror network. And as the investigations progressed into the bombings on September 29 this year, in Malegaon in Maharashtra and Modasa in Gujarat, another saffron-robed religious preacher, normally based at Jammu, was arrested from a village of Kanpur district in Uttar Pradesh.
The Hindutva political fraternity, stung to the quick, reacted with allegations of a frame-up. Modi joined the fray with dark imprecations about a plot to undermine military morale. Propagandists for Hindutva in the media in turn, have sought to draw a distinction between “terrorism” and “vigilantism” – the one born in the stated desire to destroy the nation-state, the other spawned by the growing sense of frustration among the righteous majority, at the State’s failure to safeguard lives and liberties.
What all the sophistry fails to cover up, is that the reflexive belief -- fostered especially over the last seven years -- that those of the Islamic faith alone are responsible for terrorism, has created a cloak of impunity under which every manner of atrocity has flourished. It is conveniently overlooked that places of Islamic reverence have often been targeted in lethal bomb attacks – as with the cemetery adjacent to a mosque in Malegaon in September 2006, on an occasion when the pious gather to pay homage to the dead, and the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad during Friday prayers in May 2007.
These incidents have been easily subsumed within the master-narrative of jihadi terror by invoking the visceral animosity that adherents of Wahhabi Islam supposedly harbour towards the syncretism of sub-continental religious practice. Police investigations, guided by this quack diagnosis, have targeted innocent Muslims by the scores. As recently as November 4, four suspects held for varying lengths of time for supposed involvement in the Mecca Masjid bombings, were acquitted by a Hyderabad court of all charges, including waging war against the State. They narrated sordid stories of torture, forced confessions and finally, of trials that were they not so tragic, could only be described as farcical.
Similar stories of arbitrary arrest and torture have emerged from Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Malegaon, Mumbai, Varanasi and Delhi, to name only a few cities that have witnessed terrorist atrocities in recent years. They were gathered together in written depositions and orally presented before an Independent Peoples’ Tribunal in Hyderabad as recently as August this year.
In few cases have the investigations into jihadi terrorism managed to produce credible evidence that will stand judicial scrutiny. In virtually all of them, the police have brought charges and pressed for conviction almost solely on the basis of confessions obtained in highly questionable circumstances.
These new expediencies in investigation need to be read in the light of the growing clamour from Hindutva political forces, that a law specific to the menace of terrorism needs to be brought in, which would make confessions in police custody admissible as evidence in court. They need to be seen in conjunction with the weak-kneed and amoral response of the editorialists and the liberal fringe in politics: that the Indian people should be prepared for an abridgment of their rights to defeat a far greater enemy of human liberty.
Few have so far paused to question why the Indian people should surrender the freedom of which they have so little. But with the discovery of Hindutva’s terrorism link, there is a possibility, though still remote, of a paradigm shift in perceptions – a shift of potentially far-reaching benefits for all. Needless to say, this is a possibility that will only be realised if the political apologists for Hindutva are subjected to the processes of accountability demanded by the rule of law.