A new variety of terrorism has come out of nowhere to become India’s No. 1 security nightmare, and neither of the two main national parties has any fresh ideas on dealing with the threat. That was very evident in the political reaction to last week’s orgy of violence.
A group called the “Indian Mujahideen” claimed responsibility for the 26 July blasts that killed 49 people in Ahmedabad, the main commercial centre of Gujarat. The little-known group shot to notoriety in November by attacking courts and lawyers’ chambers in three cities in Uttar Pradesh. It struck again in May when nine explosions killed at least 63 people in the tourist city of Jaipur in Rajasthan. The carnage in Ahmedabad came barely a day after seven, low-intensity bombs went off in Bangalore, killing two people. No group has claimed responsibility for the Bangalore attack. The emergence of Indian Mujahideen marks a dangerous turn in the Islamic militancy that threatens the country.
Until now, India’s main challenge was to cope with “imported” operatives and materials, with security agencies pinning most attacks on Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. By comparison, the new organization appears to be more of a homegrown challenge. If it has links to al-Qaeda affiliates overseas then those are yet to be proven.
B. Raman, a former Indian counter-terrorism official, has argued for some time on Rediff.com that disillusionment with the criminal-justice system is feeding the “Indianization” of jihad, or Muslim holy war. A section of Muslim youth, Raman says, perceives judicial outcomes as unfair: While stiff sentences—including the death penalty—have been handed to those behind the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, the perpetrators of the riots that presaged the deadly bombings have gone scot-free. The first group comprises mostly Muslims, the latter is chiefly Hindu. An email purportedly sent by Indian Mujahideen to local media organizations after the Ahmedabad bombings said that the attack was in retaliation for the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which 2,000 people—mostly Muslims—were killed.
In order to check the growth of this brand of violence, it’s imperative to restore citizens’ confidence in the rule of law. That isn’t how the two main parties see their task. One of them wants to help the minority Muslim community socially and economically—by giving its members jobs and bank credit—and the other simply wants more policing power to detect and crush terror cells. Neither strategy will succeed.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which had enacted a badly abused Prevention of Terrorism Act, or Pota, when it was in power from 1998 to 2004, has reiterated its demand that the law be reintroduced. Pota was scrapped by the current Congress party-led government immediately after it came to power four years ago.
Senior leaders of the opposition party also bemoaned this week that Gujarat, which is under their control, hasn’t been allowed by the Central government to enact legislation that would make it easier to tackle organized crime even though similar laws exist in other Indian states. “I demand that there should not be further delay of even a single day to give clearance to this law of Gujarat,” BJP leader L.K. Advani said. The Congress party’s response to BJP’s demand is best described by what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in Parliament in March. “Legal regimes do not prevent terror,” Singh said.
The Congress party has criticized BJP’s tough talk on terror by noting that the latter’s track record has been poor. In 1999, the BJP government had freed three terrorists held in Indian jails in exchange for the release of passengers of an Indian Airlines aircraft, which was hijacked and taken to Afghanistan. In 2001, terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament; in 2002, two gunmen broke into a Hindu temple in Gujarat. In a 12-hour stand-off, 33 people were killed and 70 were injured.
The Congress’ stance that its own counter-terrorism strategy is “multi-faceted” is just gobbledygook, says the BJP, which accuses the ruling party of going “soft” on terror in its bid to mollycoddle the Muslim community.
The BJP is particularly unhappy with the report by the Rajinder Sachar committee, which was instituted by Singh to investigate the social, economic and educational status of Muslims, who make up about 13% of the nation’s population of 1.1 billion. The Sachar panel’s report, which was made public in November 2006, made a number of suggestions to end the community’s backwardness; the BJP said the measures recommended by the panel would divide the country on religious lines.
Caste-based politics have created enough friction and heartburn in India; making religion a reference point for affirmative action might have disastrous consequences.
Security analysts say intelligence agencies know precious little about the “Indian Mujahideen.” It may represent a regrouping of the Student Islamic Movement of India, a banned outfit. The other view is that the “Indian” in the name is a ruse to mask what’s essentially a foreign operation.
Politically, it makes sense to take the threat as a genuine, domestic challenge. Even as the perpetrators of last week’s heinous crime are hunted down and punished, the national parties need to jointly formulate a strategy to stop the rot in democratic institutions. The need for revamping the criminal-justice system isn’t a demand by Muslims alone. Any effort in that direction will enjoy the overwhelming support of citizens. It must be attempted before more innocent lives are lost.
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