It’s a measure of the cynical and populist politics of our time that Rahul Gandhi’s remark about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) looking for recruits among riot-affected Muslim youths of Muzaffarnagar should be met with so much hostility and scorn. Ironically, some of that animosity has originated from the Muslim community, which was the intended subject of Rahul’s empathy. Rahul could be criticised on many counts—for framing it clumsily or inadequately, for not speaking about the all-consuming horrors of terrorism, for not warning Pakistan about fishing in troubled waters. The real question, however, is whether Rahul has got the essence of the history of communal violence wrong.
Excluding Kashmir and the Northeast, which have their own unique reasons for militancy, the history of terrorism in India is the history of competitive communalism. The single biggest reason for the radicalisation of scores of Muslim youths has been the organised mob violence of the Sangh parivar. Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism have had a long history of interplay, with violence begetting violence. But two events—the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat—have been watersheds. Fired by a misplaced idea of retributive justice, some Muslim youths yoked themselves to the ideology of pan-Islamic jehad.
For mainstream politicians and parties, a thorough-going engagement with the genesis of terror does not go beyond platitudes. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Rahul’s comments have provoked the wrath not only of the whole political spectrum, but also that of human rights activists and some prominent Muslim clerics.
A few months ago, when Shakeel Ahmed, a Congress general secretary, quoted from a National Investigating Agency (NIA) document that the Indian Mujahideen (IM) was formed in response to the 2002 Gujarat riots, he was condemned by all quarters. But it will be a pity if the discourse on the root causes of terror, kickstarted perhaps unwittingly by Rahul, dies down. Instead of paying lip service to a discussion on the interplay between Hindutva extremism and homegrown Islamic terrorism, civil society and the political class must engage with it on a fuller, deeper scale.
For political parties, the engagement with the subject of terror does not go beyond platitudes. Is it any surprise then that Rahul's comments elicited such wrath?
Over the past four years, our investigative agencies have arrested more than 100 IM members. This hasn’t halted its activities; new waves of recruits have filled the ranks. Recent blasts in Hyderabad, Bodh Gaya and Patna are evidence of the epidemic dimensions homegrown terror is taking. It goes without saying that, since most of these cases are sub judice, we must not reach any conclusions before the trials are completed. But the fact also remains that terror bombings have become an almost daily occurrence. Who is plotting these attacks, procuring explosive material and making and planting the bombs? What are the motives? What are the bombers trying to achieve? These questions are too relevant to the future of our democracy to be left to the courts alone to adjudicate on. Society in general and the political class in particular must confront them and seek out answers.
Of late, the media has widely covered the arrest and revelations made by IM operative Mohammed Ahmed Zarar, better known as Yasin Bhatkal. One telling detail, though, has not been told: a recurring theme in his interrogation report running into 160-odd pages (of which the writer has a copy) is the spectre of communal riots and the excesses of rabid Hindutva organisations. Sample this, quoted verbatim from the NIA report, with its rather curious reference to slingshots:
“In or around beginning of 2007 Udupi, during the communal riots, Muslims were victimised by different Hindu organisations like Sri Rama Sene, Bajrang Dal etc who were very active and aggressive during the communal clashes.
“When I returned to India (from Dubai), I decided to protect Muslim community during the period of riots. I had brought some samples of gulail (slingshots) from Dubai, I wanted to distribute 1,000 gulails among Muslims for their protection. To execute this plan, I went to Mumbai and near Arab Tabela contacted many people for preparing die-cast for gulail. Many of them demanded exorbitant money. Finally, one Rajubhai agreed to manufacture 1,000 dies for Rs 18,000.
“Initially, the die was made of propylene, which was tested but not found to be robust. Later on, it was prepared in nylon, assembled by me and packed in cartons and handed over to Abu Bawa (his friend) for the distribution. But it was not distributed properly and my plan of defending ourselves by gulail failed.”
Soon, the slingshots were replaced by bombs. If the NIA and other anti-terror organisations are to be believed, between 2007-2013, Yasin was involved in half-a-dozen major terror strikes. The agencies believe the IM’s most elaborate bombing plots were designed for Surat and Ahmedabad, in retaliation for the 2002 riots. (Caveat: These cases are all being tried and it would be wrong to prejudge anyone’s guilt.)
But successive governments, both BJP- and Congress-led, have failed to make the connection. They have dealt with terrorism only within the narrow framework of internal security: more laws, more weaponry, more funds and powers for investigators. The theme song has been to blame Pakistan. No doubt Pakistan has been the principal sponsor of terror in India, but even the Samjhauta Express blasts—which eventually turned out to be the handiwork of Hindutva radicals—was first pinned on Pakistan. The uncomfortable yet telling phenomenon of so many Muslim youths—from Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and other states—willingly joining the ranks of terror outfits is also hardly ever taken into account.
Between 2004-08, until the IM was busted, every blast was immediately blamed on the Muslims. Dozens of the community’s youths were picked up, tortured, jailed. Eventually, the investigating agencies themselves admitted that these boys had no connection with the IM and hadn’t carried out the blasts. The most guilty of such wrongful arrests and farcical prosecutions have been the Delhi police special cell, the Hyderabad police and the Maharashtra anti-terror squad. Innocent Muslims were framed, while Islamic terror remains a hard and present reality.
Terrorism in India has always had links with religious violence. The blasts and BJP leader Narendra Modi’s election rally in Patna are the latest evidence of a direct connection between the politics of the Hindutva brigade and Islamic jehad. The blasts at the rally, allegedly the handiwork of IM operative Tehsin Akhtar, were designed to kill Modi’s sympathisers—loosely, pro-saffron Hindus—to avenge the killing of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar. Earlier blasts at the Sankatmochan Mandir in Varanasi, Zaveri Bazaar and Opera House in Mumbai, Sarojini Nagar Market in Delhi, at temples in Jaipur, at Lumbini Park and Dilsukhnagar in Hyderabad and on the streets of Ahmedabad were similar in their loose targeting of ‘Hindus’. On the other hand, bombs planted on Samjhauta Express, near Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, and outside mosques in Parbhani and Malegaon were meant to kill Muslims. This tit-for-tat terrorism is nothing but an extension of communal violence.
A few minutes before the synchronised bombs went off at courts in three major cities of Uttar Pradesh in December 2007, the IM e-mailed media groups. (Over the next few years, coinciding with every major strike, it has sent out such e-mails.) In the three-page missive, one-and-a-half pages were devoted to the causes of jehad in India. Here’s a part of it, quoted verbatim:
“I would like to take (sic) your attention towards 1992 massacre, the year when I realised the fact regarding their promises. They demolished our Babri masjid and killed our brothers, children and raped our sisters.... Indian police which always play key role in such massacre has provided arms and full protection to the...Shiv Sena, RSS, VHP etc. This injustice does not stop here; the police officers who were pointed out by the Shri Krishna Commission for their negative role in 1992 massacre were given promotions.... Those who killed (revenge) only 257 people are awarded with capital and life imprisonment punishment. But the most recent massacre which shaken not only India but the whole world was Gujarat Riot, which forced us to take strong stand against this injustice. Such injustice reveals the pathetic condition of Muslims in India...they can kill our brothers, sisters, children and outrage dignity of our sisters at any place and at any time and we can’t resist them.”
The record of investigative agencies shows that, between 2004-08, a handful of Islamic radicals and a small number of Hindutva radicals were engaged in tit-for-tat terrorism. The proponents of one form of extremism rationalised their acts of violence as a just response to the violence committed by the other side. Muslim terrorists carried out the August 2007 Hyderabad blasts because they believed the Mecca Masjid blast was carried out by Hindu extremists (which subsequent NIA and CBI investigations found to be true) and Hindus needed to be punished. As per NIA chargesheets and other records, the Malegaon blast suspects in turn claim that they were deeply disturbed by Islamic terrorism, both in Kashmir and other parts of India, and thus had decided to retaliate. Here is what Swami Aseemanand told a Delhi magistrate, confessing to involvement in the larger conspiracy to carry out terror strikes against Muslims:
“The Muslim terrorists started attacking Hindu temples in 2002. This caused great concern and anger in me. I used to share my concerns about the growing menace of Islamic terrorism with Bharat Riteshwar of Valsad. In March 2006, Pragya Thakur, Sunil Joshi, Bharat Riteshwar and I decided to give a befitting reply to the Sankatmochan blasts. Humne tay kiya ki bomb ka jawab bomb se denge.”
Twenty years before Swami Aseemanand’s arrest, Dr Mohammed Jalees Ansari had narrated to the CBI a strikingly similar story of communal hatred, only it was directed against Hindus. He spoke of how the raw impulse to meet evil with evil, avenge violence with violence, set him on the path of terror. By the time he was arrested, he had planned and executed as many as 53 terror strikes across Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. Convicted in multiple cases, he’s now serving simultaneous sentences in Jaipur Central Jail. On his arrest in 1993, when he was 41, he had told CBI sleuths his story:
“I completed my MBBS from Lokmanya Tilak Medical Collage, Sion, Bombay, in 1981. When I was doing internship in the same college I read in the newspapers about the communal riots in Assam (1982), Meerut (1982/83), Bhiwandi (1984) etc. It had great impact upon my life as I felt that the Muslims had suffered a lot on account of biased attitude of the police and the government alike. I had also heard about indiscriminating firing by the police on the Muslims in the congregation...at Moradabad. In my daily life in Bombay, I had seen that the Shiv Sena members used to harass Muslims and spread a feeling of hatred towards the Muslims. I was very pained to see attitude of the government, particularly the police, which used to be very lenient towards the miscreants. The inflammatory speeches given by Bal Thackeray of Shiv Sena made me feel that Muslims were being reduced to second grade citizens in Bombay. Advani’s Rath Yatra and VHP’s karseva further made me realise that the identity of the Muslims is in danger and I must act quickly. I felt Muslims in this country were no more safe and an underground force should be created to counter the Shiv Sena and the BJP and pressurise the government to check the aggressive activities of the Shiv Sainiks and protect the Muslims.”
Is any more proof needed of the connections I speak of?
From the mid-1980s on, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement has threatened to tear the social fabric asunder. The rath yatra left in its wake a trail of communal riots and bloodshed. None of the principal actors behind the 1992-93 Bombay riots were brought to justice. The CBI cases in the Babri Masjid demolition have been stuck in the quicksand of legal stratagems and deception over 20 years now. The ’02 Gujarat riots and the unprecedented subversion of criminal justice in its aftermath remain a festering sore, and it was in the wake of this that the IM managed to find recruits.
The evidence is clear. If we allow the nation’s founding values—fair play and equal justice, commitment to secularism and protection of the minorities—to recede, ugly passions will prevail.
Political commentators believe that Rahul has scored self-goals by his recent utterances. However, aren’t the missteps of a politician, provided they are well-intentioned and aiming to engage with issues that will eventually make or break the country, preferable over a contrived yearning for infallibility? Isn’t it better to listen again to a politician who believes in counselling the vulnerable victims of the minority community or, for that matter, impressionable members from the majority being wooed by radical groups—as Rahul did in his speech? Isn’t it better than an approach that believes in locking them up in jail on first suspicion—as Modi demanded when he asked Rahul to reveal the names of the Muslim youth being contacted by the ISI?
(The author is founder of the website www.gulail.com)