A litmus test of impartiality

Print edition : October 06, 2006

Fairness of the investigations into the Malegaon blasts will decide whether the Indian state can re-establish its secular credentials and win Muslim hearts.

THE Malegaon bomb attacks have triggered a peculiar contest within the Indian security establishment, which is centred on how to deny the obvious. The obvious in this case is the specific and successful targeting of Muslims in significant-scale violence for the first time in India, which raises uncomfortable questions about the dominant official view or paradigm of terrorism and counter-terrorism. This paradigm holds that terrorism in this country is essentially inspired by Islamic fundamentalism and usually assisted by Pakistani secret agencies.

The dominant view cannot countenance the possibility that Hindutva militants belonging to extremist outfits like the Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad might be the culprits in Malegaon. So it minimises, as it must, vital clues and pointers - including the timing of the explosions after Friday prayers in a crowded mosque, during the Shab-e-Barat observances, which draw huge numbers of pilgrims and beggars into Malegaon; the discovery of bicycles with Hindu names painted on them, on which the bombs were planted; a local history of Hindu-Muslim tension and intense communal polarisation; and, above all, the involvement of Bajrang Dal extremists in bomb fabrication efforts in the Marathwada region, which is adjacent to Malegaon and in many ways similar to the North Maharashtra area in which the town is itself located.

Equally, the dominant paradigm must resort to increasingly convoluted explanations: Islamists executed the Malegaon attacks to provoke a violent reaction and widen the communal divide so as to destabilise India; their general motive is always to spread randomly "mayhem, confusion and fear"; Islamist terrorists have never had any compunctions about killing large numbers of other Muslims, however devout, especially if they do not follow rigid Wahhabi Islam; jehadi terrorists need have no location-specific motive; they are forever willing to kill, even commit suicide, to advance their fanatical cause; they are profoundly irrational, or downright mad, and blinded by hatred; they commit violence, because, well, they are terrorists...

None of this is very convincing. Indeed, the more convoluted the explanation, the less plausible it sounds. Evidence from the world over suggests that jehadi violence as a rule is not "mad" or random. It follows a certain (perverse) rationality. It aims to send a "message" about the vulnerability of a powerful adversary (as happened on 9/11) or register a protest (against the Spanish government's pro-U.S. Iraq policy, as with the 2004 Madrid bombings) or avenge an injustice (Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay), etc.

Even suicide bombers do not act mindlessly or randomly. Chicago University researcher Robert Pape recently looked for analysed patterns in 462 cases of "successful" suicide attacks in his book Dying to Win. He found that about 95 per cent of the attacks were "demand-driven" and not driven by the "supply" of religious fanatics. Most were aimed at foreign occupation forces. Southern Lebanon witnessed a spate of suicide attacks during the post-1982 Israeli occupation, but these stopped after Israel withdrew. Iraq had no suicide attacks until the U.S. invasion of 2003. Since then, fidayeen attacks have become routine. There is no organic link between suicide bombings and Islam. The non-Islamic LTTE is the undisputed global leader in suicide bombings.

The only piece of evidence that favours the dominant view on Malegaon is the alleged discovery of RDX high explosive at the site. This too is a weak piece of evidence and one contested by the Union Home Secretary, no less. Only one of the three forensic laboratories that examined the explosives detected in Malegaon says they contain RDX. But even assuming that RDX was used, it hardly proves that the blasts' executors were jehadis aided by a Pakistani agency. Going by several reports quoting Intelligence Bureau sources, RDX is no longer all that rare or hard to procure domestically.

In any case, we should know better than to rely on purely technology-based evidence, when all the material circumstances and facts point in the opposite direction. Sound political judgment must supplement forensic evidence. And that judgment tells us that Hindutva fanatics can be as capable of causing terrorist violence and mayhem as jehadis.

Ever since the Ayodhya mobilisation in the mid-1980s, Hindutva fanaticism has left a trail of blood through numerous States and cities, Mumbai in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002 being the two ghastliest episodes. The number of people killed in each of these, roughly 2000, greatly exceeds the casualties in any terrorist bombing in this country.

Close to Malegaon, both literally and figuratively, lie Nanded, Parbhani, Purna and Jalna, all in Marathwada, which have over the past three-and-a-half years witnessed bomb attacks (or preparations for attacks) targeted at Muslims and specifically at mosques. The culprits in each case appear to be Hindutva fanatics. There is clinching evidence of this in Nanded, where two Bajrang Dal activists Naresh Rajkondwar and Himanshu Panse were killed on April 6 while attempting to fabricate a bomb along with fellow-extremists Rahul Pande, Yogesh Deshpande, Maruti Wagh and Gururaj Tupttewar.

The incident occurred in the house of a known RSS activist and Bajrang Dal-VHP member. It was investigated by the Secular Citizens' Forum and People's Union of Civil Liberties, Nagpur. There is convincing photographic evidence to show that the Bajrang Dal was indeed running a bomb-fabrication operation. Some of the pictures also showed that the local police tried to cover up Bajrang Dal-VHP involvement by planting fire-crackers - to suggest that the blast was caused by crackers, not bombs - and false beards.

These findings were corroborated by K.P. Raghuvanshi, head of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad. In an interview to Communalism Combat (June 2006), he described the Nanded bomb-fabrication as a "terrorist act" by "Hindus": "It is clear that these bombs were not being manufactured for a puja. They were being manufactured for unlawful ends to wreak violence through terror."

Besides their targets - and a similar culture and history of communal polarisation - Nanded has something in common with Malegaon: in both cases, fake beards and skullcaps of the kind used by Muslims during prayers had been planted. None of this conclusively proves that Hindutva fanatics were responsible for Malegaon, but it does make a powerful case for pursuing that line of investigation. The Maharashtra government seems to be dragging its feet on this, probably encouraged by a section of the security establishment whose Islamophobic prejudices were discussed in this Column (September 8, 2006).

It is of the utmost importance that the police investigate the Malegaon incident and the events leading up to it with scrupulous objectivity and impartiality and make full public disclosure of all relevant facts after completing the investigation. Any slip on their part will generate suspicion that they are shielding a particular group out of communal prejudice.

The Malegaon police force is a classic embodiment of "institutionalised communalism", which has repeatedly clashed with and punished Muslims. Three days after the bombings, it gratuitously got into a confrontation with a Muslim gathering and opened fire. It must be restrained and its criminal investigations must be supplemented with the very best expertise available in the country from among officers with proven secular credentials.

The mood among Maharashtra's Muslims is one of sullenness, despondency and resentment at their harassment by the police. Their pervasive alienation is evident through numerous reports (for instance, Seema Chishti's series in The Indian Express, September 3-7). The Pope's offensive remarks about Islam have further inflamed passions and increased this alienation. The rolling judgment on the Mumbai 1993 bombings, now in progress, has also served as a cruel reminder that the perpetrators of incidents that formed their immediate backdrop - the pogrom of Muslims in December 1992-January 1993 in Mumbai - are yet to be prosecuted.

The People's Tribunal on the Bombay Violence, headed by Justices Daud and Suresh, estimated that 2,000 were killed during the pogrom. The Srikrishna Commission inquired into the violence and recommended the prosecution of numerous individuals. This has not happened.

This default, and many other injustices and iniquities reflected in the exclusion of Muslims and the discrimination against them, will have terrible consequences. Today, Malegaon has become an all-important litmus test. The Indian state must begin to decommunalise its counter-terrorism strategy and reaffirm secularism and pluralism. It must win back the confidence of the Muslim community by proving its secular credentials. Malegaon is the place to do it.

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