April 07, 2020
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Nuance Is All

Individual liberty, domestic politics, global terror: the UPA seeks a balanced response

Nuance Is All
Narendra Bisht
Nuance Is All
Those images of a blazing Cherokee jeep being rammed into the main terminal of a Glasgow airport, and a badly charred man being dragged out will haunt the Indian government for some time to come. For, the arrest of Sabeel Ahmed—whose brother Kafeel, now battling for his life with 90 per cent burns, drove that jeep in the UK, and of their cousin, Mohammed Haneef, halfway across the world in Australia—has created a first-of-its-kind situation.

This first instance of Indian citizens being held on foreign soil on terror charges has left the UPA government with a unique problem: to protect its citizens' rights abroad while not seeming soft on terrorism. The Congress, the chief ruling party, is acutely aware that it is being watched closely by all citizens, Muslims or not. It's a crisis that will test both the government's diplomatic skills abroad and its political dexterity at home.

At the outset, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set the tone. Talking to a group of women journalists, he said he had told his UK counterpart, Gordon Brown, that while India would cooperate with Britain in the investigations, he was "worried about the stereotyping of Indians" there. Targeting any community "would create new sets of grievances"—after all, "a terrorist is a terrorist—he has no religion or community". Britain, he stressed, "should not draw hasty conclusions about the guilt of those arrested". Then, striking an emotional chord, he added, "I couldn't sleep after watching the mothers of (those) Indians in custody."

That last remark provoked the BJP to flay the PM for "appeasement of terrorism"—a bit ironical from a party that, while in power, despatched its foreign minister to Kandahar to release hard-core ultras, one of whom went on to found JeM. Still, party veteran L.K. Advani was able to say, "I haven't heard of the PM spending sleepless nights at the plight of Mumbai blast victims, or other terrorist attacks in the past three years," adding "the government has chosen to communalise India's internal security policy." A few days earlier, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi had accused the PM of playing "votebank politics".

Predictably, the Congress retreated: A party functionary said, "I've had lawyers, teachers and government employees telling me how deeply they resented the PM's comments. We had to back off for a while...besides, it's difficult to issue a statement in an evolving situation." But, simultaneously, other Congressmen felt the party hadn't done enough to project the PM's line.

A PMO source, responding to the BJP's criticism, told Outlook: "The PM wasn't condoning terrorism, nor was he making a moral or judicial pronouncement. He was just empathising with a mother, telling her he understood the agony of a parent and, as a Sikh, the trauma of being stereotyped." The PM, he saw it fit to add, often spent "sleepless nights" over similar incidents. Only, he didn't publicise his distress every time—even on this occasion, it was an informal remark.

The security establishment is also acutely aware, government sources say, that events outside were making Indian Muslims feel increasingly vulnerable, and that "such anxieties need to be addressed", that it "would be unfair to label such governmental concern as votebank politics". The government was also aware that empathy would not suffice. Added a source: "There is a larger agenda to empower the Muslims by following up on the Sachar report." Interestingly, the Urdu press responded favourably to the PM's remarks.

Subsequently, the government stepped in officially after the Australian authorities—despite vocal criticism in that country by civil rights groups and lawyers' bodies—cancelled Haneef's visa and placed him in solitary confinement for having given a mobile phone SIM card to his cousin in the UK. Australian high commissioner John McCarthy was summoned to South Block on July 17 and conveyed the government's "concern".

If that was the structured response, the PM used another informal opportunity—a book release function the next day—to stress that the Haneef issue was still top of the mind for his government: He told journalists that Australia "ought to extend all the facilities within the law and the rights he is entitled to". He also added that the Indian high commission in Canberra was helping Haneef's family in arranging legal assistance.

Again, on July 19, Union external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee spoke to his Australian counterpart Alexander Downer, conveying the concern of the Indian government and people. Mukherjee also told Downer to ensure that Haneef be "treated fairly and justly".

Curiously, a July 18 meeting of the consultative committee attached to the mea didn't think it fit to raise the issue, leave alone take a stand on it. One member who did not attend the meeting, Saleem Sherwani of the SP, however, said he intended to form a pressure group for Haneef's release. "I am planning to take a delegation of cross-party MPs to meet the PM, because I strongly feel we all need to come together for an Indian—irrespective of his religious denomination," he told Outlook.

Clearly, in the coming days, the pressure on the government will mount. Senior Congress leader Devendra Dwivedi summed up the government's dilemma: "Unfortunately, terrorism creates atmospherics that can threaten individual liberty. A balance must be struck between preserving national security and ensuring that the constitutional safeguards provided to an accused are preserved." Racial profiling, he said, could only weaken the social fabric. "And yet if a crime is committed, we must ensure the law takes its course."

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