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Diluting Terror


The consensus on India’s battle to defend itself is breaking down because of brinkmanship, competitive politics and lust for vote banks, writes Ranjit Bhushan
RANJIT BHUSHAN | Issue Dated: September 22, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Terrorism | War against terror | Batla House encounter case | Muslims | Vote bank politics | Indian Mujahideen | Yasin Bhatkal | AFSPA |

Is India’s war on terror getting blunted because the consensus on how to fight and contain it, is getting diluted at the altar of petty politicking – or worse? Last week, UP Samajwadi Party leader Kamal Farooqui was sacked as party secretary after he raised embarrassing questions about the arrest of Indian Mujahideen commander Yasin Bhatkal recently from Nepal. Farooqui was reported to have said ‘Is this arrest based on crime or religion’, inviting outrage from political parties and policy planners, who cite it as yet another example of the delicate and bare agreement on how to contain terror, taking another hit.

In the infamous Batla House encounter case, Congress leader Digvijay Singh had muddied waters considerably when he went down to Azamgarh in UP, from where the alleged terrorists killed at Batla House belonged to, and questioned the findings as well as motives of the investigators. Says BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad: ‘‘When the home minister of the country is certifying that terrorists had been killed in Batla House, Congress leader Digvijay Singh chose to overturn his own party’s statement. Now even the court has confirmed.’’

So has India’s fragile consensus on terror broken down or is there still hope of retrieving it? Well, it depends upon who you are speaking to. Ajai Sahni, from the Institute of Conflict Management, says there was never any consensus on terror in any case in India, save a few situations like Punjab in the early 1990s. (See interview) There are instances which prove that arriving at an agreement is becoming increasingly difficult in an India sharply divided between parties and competing political interests, where any issue, however sensitive, is cannon fodder for parties looking to break fresh ground and seek new supporters.

Last month, Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed created a furor when he said that BJP need to clean up its politics of communalism which had led to a sense of alienation and anger among young Muslim boys feeling the pressure of being put up against the wall, thanks to BJP's saffronised politics. That, in turn had led to the creation of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), currently the preoccupation of Indian security agencies tasked with battling terror in India. Ahmed, who belongs to Bihar’s Darbhanga region, is considered to be in the know: a number of IM operatives have been arrested from his constituency. In fact, several politicians have even questioned the existence of any such entity, making the job for investigators following the treacherous trails, really daunting, caught as they are in a vortex created out of outdated laws and the sophisticated demands of modern policing.

Experts also cite the case of Maoists. There is perpetually a drone about talking ‘to our boys’, to handle them with kid gloves, to assuage their feelings. Fair enough, but where does it leave security forces battling Naxalites in India’s tribal badlands, forces getting killed by sophisticated improved explosive devices (IED) and other state-of-the-art ammunition triggered by Maoists?

In Kashmir, it is fairly commonplace for the state chief minister Omar Abdullah to tweet regularly on the security forces, particularly the Indian Army, fighting militants in the valley, calling for immediate scrapping of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA). He is quite vocal on Kashmir’s ‘independent’ status and is not above issuing warnings to the Indian establishment from time to time.

There is also division within the political parties on questions close to the heart of combating terror – the surrender policy for militants – for instance. Under the Government of India's Rehabilitation Policy, native militants who abjure violence and pledge allegiance to India can surrender by arriving in the country through four recognised border crossings - Poonch-Rawlakote in Jammu region, Uri-Salamabad in Kashmir, Wagah in Amritsar and the International (IGI) Airport in Srinagar. Security experts say that the policy has been turned into an advantage by terrorist groups operating across the LoC. ‘‘Once a militant becomes old, his handlers know he cannot handle operations so the best thing is to return them to India under the rehabilitation scheme. Post-retirement, they become over ground assets,’’ says Shakti Chowdhary, a lawyer who handles a lot of such cases in Jammu and adjoining areas.

In the US, while there may be many differences between the Democrats and Republicans, when it comes to terror, the country stands united. What about India? Experts say that divisions within political parties are so strong that only an outrageous statement – like Kamal Farooqui’s – makes headlines. The rest is taken as a matter of normal course, where all kinds of extremist elements use the democratic space to make their point, however fantastic it may be. That is enough to spark off public debates and acrimony, diluting India’s case as a country which has been a victim of terrorism.

To be sure, the country’s communal politics took a turn for the worse with the Congress lifting the locks of the disputed structure at Ayodhya in the mid-1980s and the saffron upsurge which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. What began with mass explosions in Mumbai in the aftermath of the demolition and the politics of communal mobilisation that followed in the decade thereafter, has led to considerable radicalization among the disenchanted Muslim youth. With a disturbed Middle East, in the first throes of mass public-oriented change, and its fallout the world over, including infusion of the so-called jehadi culture, India will be obliged to watch its back.

Yet, there are divergent views. There are diplomats who feel that the case of consensus on a terror break down in Indian politics is going a bit over the top. ‘‘The case is certainly overstated,’’ says former foreign secretary Salman Haider. (See interview)

Digvijay Singh himself told reporters recently that his demand for an ‘impartial’ probe into the Batla House encounter could not be seen as a disagreement on terror. ‘‘Rather it reflects the many points of view which the Indian democratic system allows,’’ he asserted.

The conventional view is that politicians do pander to their vote bank constituencies but draw a line when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling. ‘‘Look how quickly Mulayam Singh Yadav sacked Farooqui, a trusted lieutenant and how the Congress distanced itself from Shakeel Ahmed’s statement on the Indian Mujahideen,’’ says an observer. Those are signs that the democratic process of taking everyone on board remains in place, even while there can be free and frank expressions of purpose and intent, however much you disagree with it.

Be that as it may, it certainly makes the job of investigators doubly difficult. Every probe has to be thorough as far as evidence is concerned because otherwise it would not stand up in court. In addition, there is the fear of human rights groups and other busybodies pillorying any investigation on the grounds that security forces are anti-minority and that the evidence has been cooked up. ‘‘If people are not willing to even see, let alone believe, proof furnished by the highest courts of land, then we have a problem,’’ points out Ajai Sahni.

Last week, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court issued notice to the Attorney General of India in the case challenging the Uttar Pradesh government's decision to withdraw terror cases against several persons.

Earlier, a two-judge bench of Justices Rajeev Sharma and Mahendra Dayal had stayed the government's order of withdrawing terror cases. Rihai Manch, a UP-based NGO has said that many people had been arrested on trumped up charges which have not admissible in a court of law. The two-member bench had also referred the matter to a larger bench. The SP, in its pre-poll manifesto, had promised to withdraw ‘false’ terror cases against Muslim youths and also offer them compensation. Accordingly, the state government had issued orders to withdraw cases against persons ‘falsely’ accused of indulging in terror activities. A PIL was filed by Ranjana Agnihotri, an advocate, and others, challenging the state government's order in the HC. Some former policemen have said that the decision would demoralise investigators who have a hard time tracking terror with somewhat limited resources. One thing is certain though: The final outcome of this decision could go a long way in restoring some sanity in proceedings linked to India’s own war on terror. 

‘Fight against terror is not Hindu-Muslim’

G Parthasarathy, foreign policy honcho, former diplomat and high commissioner to Pakistan, talks in an interview to Ranjit Bhushan

Is the national consensus on terror breaking down?
Not really. There is broad consensus that there are terror groups. The Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and Indian Mujahideen came from those sections of society who felt disillusioned by India democracy. There was only a minuscule section of the Muslim population which was misguided and disaffected. Instead of dealing with it, for Digvijay Singh to go to Azamgarh and do his apologist act was enough to demoralize the Delhi Police in the Batla House encounter case. It cannot be treated like a Hindu-Muslim thing.

What are the dangers?
The issue of fighting terror is being seen as a communal theme. All the same, mainstream political parties and significant sections of the Muslim leadership have to arrive at a consensus.

What of ongoing communal riots in UP? Does it make for potential boys joining the ranks?
Communal violence plays into the hands of Pakistan. It is enshrined in the two-nation theory. Let us not forget, there have been more Ahmediyas and Shias killed in Pakistan than all communal riots put together in India. Our strength ultimately is not military victory over Pakistan; it has to be our vibrancy and multi-cultural ethos that must prevail as a nation.

Is the level of disagreement agreeable?
Ultimately, everyone realizes and then they pull back from the brink. In the case of Kamal Farooqui, Mulayam immediately removed him as secretary Samajwadi Party. Nonetheless, disaffection of the Muslim youth is a worrying trend.

‘Political discourse is less engaging’

Former foreign secretary Salman Haider talks in an interview to Ranjit Bhushan. Excerpts:

Would you say that in India the national consensus on terror is breaking?
That would be overstating a case. Whatever the differences, and there have been moments when differences have appeared sharp, but there is broad agreement on how to counter terror. Some members of the Muslim community may nurse a sense of revenge and could be aggrieved that their interests had been ignored. In fact, that is the case with Naxalism as well, a section of people nurse grievances and have resorted to violence. I would say that many people these days are resorting to violence for immediate gains. In fact I would go back even further. Since 1947, there is a tendency to deal with conflict situations with violence. So it is not a new thing.

Some contemporary goings in states like UP do not suggest good portents.
a) Well if politicians decide to up the ante, it reduces the space for debate and agreement. It is unfortunate, many aspects of what has happened, but ultimately solutions have to be found.

In the case of Yasin Bhatkal’s arrest, this break down was evident.
There are territorial issues involved in arrests such as these; Nepal seems to have cooperated, you can’t walk into anyone’s territory, you remember the outrage over Delhi Police going into Nepal and making arrests. Of course, I agree that political discourse is becoming less engaging.

‘When was there ever a national consensus on terror?’

Noted security expert Ajai Sahni says vote bank politics ensures internal political divisions continue. Excerpts

Do you believe that the consensus on terror is breaking down?
When was there ever a consensus on terror in India? For brief moments there was consensus like the action in Punjab two decades ago. Otherwise there is no agreement on terror; in fact opposite is the case. Look at the Batla House encounter; you have court evidence which proves that terrorists were killed but people are not willing to look. Some of the public discourse on Batla House is astonishing. Politicians are using this for narrow political gains without an eye on the future. It is like presenting evidence to Pakistan: since they are the judge and jury, all rolled into one, no proof is good enough.

How is this no-consensus on terror inimical to India?
It underpins the capacity of the terrorist to operate. It is clear that in this confused response of doing nothing to neutralize this threat, India’s own vulnerability is exposed. The act of terrorism is not just the explosion which kills innocents. It is a chain of criminality; fake cell phones are bought under assumed identities, material to be used for bombs is procured, illegal funds are diverted, none of these issues are being addressed.

You have the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Well if a 700-strong NIA team has some 60 odd cases registered by it, which includes 37 or so charge sheets and one single conviction, it is not exactly fighting terror, is it? I am pretty sure that some cases from Mumbai blasts would have been settled by now had they been left with the Maharashtra Police but once in the hands of NIA, cases are languishing. It does not bode well for cases to go on endlessly: if gives people ideas, like someone may say `Oh the evidence is cooked’, or something like that.

You mention lack of conviction but there is no conviction anywhere, including robbery cases?
That is precisely my point. If the general law enforcement apparatus is so lax, how can the anti-terror enforcement machinery work well? It cannot operate in isolation. Because enforcement has become weak and selective, the effect is showing in everyday policing. The two things are not detached.


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017