27 APRIL 2016
The Malegaon reminder
On September 8, 2006, three bombs shattered the calm in Malegaon town on the occasion of Shab-e-Baraat, a day when believers are out and about late in the evening. A mosque was attacked, and the intent was immediately clear: to create inter-community tension. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested a group of Muslim men from Malegaon and Mumbai. This week, all nine accused have been acquitted by a special MCOCA court, which said there was not sufficient ground to proceed against them. It is, at one level, evidence of the balance of justice weighing in on the side of the innocent, though how to recompense a person for five years of wrongful confinement in jail is a question the judicial system must grapple with. In fact, one of the nine passed away last year. At another level, events over the intervening decade string together a narrative that this country has still not come to grips with. The questions it frames are best set against the chronology of events after that Shab-e-Baraat evening. As terror attacks hit the Samjhauta Express near Panipat (February 2007), the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad (May 2007), the Ajmer Dargah (October 2007), and then Malegaon once again in September 2008, it eventually became clear that the investigating agencies were on the wrong track in pursuing the accused for these incidents. This was a time when the police had also managed to crack down on the Indian Mujahideen for a series of strikes in cities across the country, but it became evident after Swami Aseemanand’s confession that fringe Hindu groups were at work doing their bit — whether in part-retaliation or only for the larger plan to polarise communities is beside the point. The eventual crackdown on both the Indian Mujahideen and these fringe Hindu groups has helped keep the peace in urban India. But the lack of haste in freeing men who were unfairly charged, and the simultaneous politicisation of cases of “Hindu” and IM terror, pose troubling questions. The most important of question is: how to restore faith in the neutrality of Indian investigation.
The events of the past decade have brought the intelligence agencies into controversies over political interference. India is an exception among mature democracies in that its intelligence agencies function without any external oversight, especially that of the elected legislature. The Malegaon acquittal, and the question of how to make amends for putting innocent men in prison for so long, should compel Parliament to demand oversight. An apolitical oversight would ensure that intelligence agencies do not get carried away by a myopic narrative of terrorism — unwittingly or by direct influence. Groups carrying out terrorist attacks are becoming ever more sophisticated in their operations and more subtle in furthering a divisive agenda. A similar sophistication to deal with the changing nature of the terrorist threat is needed. By the example of best practices elsewhere, parliamentary oversight needs to be part of the updated playbook.
The curious case of Mr. Isa’s visa
The decision to revoke the visa issued to Chinese dissident Uyghur leader Dolkun Isa has averted a bigger diplomatic face-off with Beijing. It has also put an uncomfortable spotlight on the Central government’s handling of such a sensitive issue. There is, first, the question of how Mr. Isa’s application slipped through the cracks of India’s much vaunted ‘e-visa’ system. If, indeed, as the government now claims, the visa approval was inadvertent, then it must be investigated how the system did not flag an application from a person with a Red Notice from Interpol. Second, the episode exposes a failure of coordination between the External Affairs and Home Ministries and the intelligence agencies, which failed to detect and vet applications of all those seeking to attend a high-profile conference in Dharamsala, with participants representing Taiwan and the Tibet and Uyghur regions. While India prides itself on support to groups fighting for freedom of expression around the world, it also has a stringent system of scrutiny for those entering the country. On the other hand, if, as sources in the government were quoted widely as saying, the visa decision was deliberate and meant to be a response to China blocking a proposed United Nations ban on Masood Azhar, then that too must be explained. Was the decision meant to indicate a shift in India’s China policy, as well as in its security policy on Interpol notices? If so, were all concerned government agencies informed of the shift in policy? Equally, if the decision to grant the visa to Mr. Isa and his colleagues of the World Uyghur Congress was a carefully deliberated decision, what prompted the move to revoke it? It has been suggested that the revocation came in response to China’s outraged response. Given the alarm domestically and from Beijing over, for diverse reasons, the issue of the visa and its revocation, the government must face these and other uncomfortable questions.
There is a larger principle, however, that the government appears to be in danger of ignoring. In its efforts at the United Nations to ratify a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, India has often made the case that it refuses, on principle, to encourage separatism or interfere in other countries’ internal matters. This is part of the country’s larger case that all charges of terrorism must be treated equally, that there can be no distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists. Delhi may well protest China’s cover to terrorists based in Pakistan, such as Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar. But it must think carefully before adopting the path that China or Pakistan have. Its moral positions on terrorism, and its refusal to bend its principles regardless of provocations from repeated terror attacks, have benefited its global outreach on crucial issues, including security. To lose this would be a huge setback. An “eye for an eye”, “tit for tat” policy in this regard is unlikely to bring India the justice it demands, however justified that demand is.