Scenes of horrific violence, conducted with cruel and deliberate premeditation, elicit anger and indignation. Mumbai’s 48-hour ordeal of terror, covered in real-time by the country’s numerous news channels, unleashed spasms of rage across the country. The fury is only likely to intensify when security operations are concluded and a true measure obtained of the horror that was unleashed on Mumbai that fateful night of November 26. And calls for vengeance will for long continue to reverberate.
More than all the serial bombings that India has seen, the siege of Mumbai poses, in terms of its continuing ramifications, a clear danger to every value on which the country rests: openness, diversity and tolerance. The Prime Minister in his first address to the nation after the crisis began, seemingly sounded the retreat from his party’s longstanding insistence that it would not countenance any fresh abridgment of civil rights to combat terrorism. Several media commentators have joined in with calls for extraordinary legislative measures and the empowerment of the security agencies.
An alternative mode of seeing is illustrated in the life and death of Hemant Karkare. The chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad in the Maharashtra Police, the highest ranking Indian official to fall to terrorism in many years, was among the first to engage the armed desperadoes as they began to cut a swathe of destruction through Mumbai. He was cut down, along with several trusted colleagues, by the lethal firepower that the terror-ring managed to smuggle onto Indian shores. He leaves as an abiding legacy, the sterling sense of duty he displayed in his final hours.
The last month of his life, Karkare was engaged in the high-profile investigation of a network involving a supposed sadhvi, the self-proclaimed head of a religious foundation, a serving army officer and sundry others, which had allegedly carried out a string of bomb attacks in various parts of the country. He had earned the bitter ire of the principal national opposition party and its allies, which accused him of leading a politically motivated investigation and inflicting thoroughly unconscionable indignities on persons of the true faith.
There was grim irony then, in seeing the same political dignitaries jostling to offer tribute to the fallen officer, in a cynical effort to leverage his death for maximum advantage.
Once the shock and horror subside, the reality the nation confronts is of a terrorist threat that has climbed to an entirely new dimension: from stealth attacks carried out by faceless protagonists, to frontal operations carried out by individuals who do not hesitate to show themselves in full public view.
Reflexively, the security and intelligence community in India has held out the dire warning to Pakistan, that it would be expected in the days ahead, to prove its innocence, or risk a painful retribution. This threatens the faltering and tenuous Pakistani state which is evidently losing control of the many fanatical groupings that have flourished on its territory under a variety of patrons, including the superpower that is today sworn to their destruction. To challenge the Pakistani state to mortal combat would risk destroying the last potential buffer that stands between the entire South Asian region and a descent into anarchy.
At the same time, there is much that India needs to address in the fundamentals of its approach to terrorism. Late October, the Hyderabad police released four Muslim youth who had been held in custody, tortured and humiliated, for suspected complicity in the bombing of the Mecca Masjid in the city in May 2007. They had been arrested, it turned out, merely on a whim.
Around the same time, an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation established that officers of the Special Cell in the Delhi Police had conspired with the Intelligence Bureau, to implicate two Kashmiri youths in a terrorism plot. The two had in fact, been police informers who had fallen out of favour after an internal power struggle in the police force. Again, the two were held in custody for a needlessly long period of time and tortured, after incriminating evidence was planted on them.
The bare fact is that since terrorism became a consuming concern all over the world, India has consistently failed the test of evolving an approach that is even remotely likely to command the allegiance of the larger public. Where a broad public consensus is a vital component of a successful engagement, India’s approach has stigmatised one community, undermined social solidarity and created new wellsprings of resentment from which terrorism gains nourishment.
At the same time, a discourse that is patently antithetical to democratic policy dialogue has been promoted on the grounds that terrorism trumps all other concerns. Whatever may be the culpability of agencies and non-state actors based in Pakistan, India needs to ensure that domestic concord holds. That cannot be achieved by shutting off all critical voices in civil society and insulating the security and intelligence agencies from scrutiny. To suppress the democratic debate at home is to hand victory by default to alien forces of terrorism.