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Liberals are compromising the war against jihadi terror

By Praveen Swami

If Akbaruddin Owaisi, who had been arrested and subsequently released on bail for making a hate speech in December 2012, is to be believed, there would have been no jihadi terrorism in India if the Babri Masjid had not been demolished or Muslims massacred or raped in Gujarat.

Many Muslim organisations, including Owaisi’s Majlis Ittehad-e-Muslimeen, allege that many Muslim youths are being routinely arrested and tortured even though they are later discharged for want of evidence, and this is a theory that the Indian liberal elite has been willing to buy.

Earlier this month, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) decided not to charge charge three suspects in the Bangalore jihad case registered late last year: among them, defence scientist Aijaz Ahmad Mirza and journalist Mati-ur-Rahman Siddiqui. The fate of the three men has been widely read as part of a police-led persecution of Muslims. Indians liberals have tended to agree.

The facts, however, suggest the need for a more nuanced reading of these instances of Muslims who are released for want of evidence.  In fact, the liberal elite assumption that these are really instances of discriminatory police attitudes is imposing serious costs on India’s ability to frame a serious response to jihadi terrorism.

Let’s test the assumptions against the facts in the Bangalore case. Focused on the release of Mirza and Siddiqui, media accounts have mostly skimmed over the fact that 12 of the 15 alleged Bangalore jihad conspirators held have actually been charged. The NIA’s charge-sheet outlines perhaps the most ambitious jihadist project since 26/11, and the first Indian case involving online self-radicalisation.

In 2011-2012, it alleges, Bangalore residents Abdul Hakeem Jamadar and Zafar Iqbal Sholapur visited Pakistan, drawn by online jihadist literature to join the jihad in Afghanistan.  In Karachi, though, fugitive jihad organiser Farhatullah Ghauri persuaded them to fight against India.  The two men, the NIA says, were then introduced to operatives of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and the Lashkar, who trained them in “intelligence, cyber-crime, handling and shooting of weapons”.

The NIA alleges that the Bangalore jihad cell plotted to assassinate a string of figures associated with the Hindu-right wing, as well as journalists and police officers. Its members, the NIA says, also planned to conduct armed robberies to fund its jihadist plans, and conduct espionage for Pakistan.

No evidence was found to link Aijaz Mirza, Siddiqui and Yusuf Nalaband to this plot - but was it unreasonable to hold them on suspicion? The men shared the very room from where Shoaib Mirza is alleged to have used his laptop to stitch together the plot. Jamadar and Sholapur are alleged to have been tasked with conducting intelligence operations; Aijaz Mirza had access to sensitive information. Siddiqui visited jihadist websites.

It is true this writer and every other journalist covering national security issues also does this regularly - but then, no terrorist plot is being planned from my room. Put together, these surely constitute questions for investigation.

Policemen stand guard at the site of a blast in front of Mecca Masjid, the main mosque in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad May 18, 2007. File image. Reuters

The claim that the police targeted Muslims for the Mecca Masjid bombing has been repeated so often as to become received truth. File image. Reuters

The NIA and the Bangalore Police did the right thing: they arrested suspects, examined the evidence, and decided not to prosecute men against whom there was none.  They did not fabricate evidence or coerce confessions.

Incarceration indeed caused harm to three men, as it would to any innocent caught up in the criminal justice system. Mirza has given a heart-wrenching account of the hardship caused to his family.  However, the harm caused to him has to be read against the possible harm to the community caused by the investigators’  failure to arrest - which in this case, might have been several deaths.  This is precisely why police forces across the world are allowed, by law, to arrest suspects during investigation. No demand of pre-arrest certitude is made in other kinds of cases, notably last year’s Delhi rape-murder: the suspects were held long before forensic evidence became available.

Eyes wide shut: So, why are élite liberals so reluctant to maintain an open mind on the NIA case? For one, they argue that investigations are driven by anti-Muslim bias. It is simply untrue, though, to argue - as Siddiqui has done - that the police would not have carried out the arrests “if I was not a Muslim”. Last year, in June, Lokender Sharma and Devender Gupta were granted bail  in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blasts case because  the NIA failed to file a charge- sheet against them in the prescribed time. Bharat Rateshwar, accused in the Mecca Masjid bombing, was also granted bail for the same reason. There are several similar cases from the NIA’s north-east investigations.

Police forces across the world face this dilemma.  In the United Kingdom, over two-thirds of suspects arrested in terrorism investigations were let off without being charged; only 14 percent of those arrested, or less than 50 percent of those charged, were eventually convicted.

The claim that the police targeted Muslims for the Mecca Masjid bombing has been repeated so often as to become received truth. Journalist Sagarika Ghose, not unfairly, tells the graphic story of “Imran Syed, a Hyderabad student arrested for the Mecca Masjid blasts in 2007, given third degree torture and electric shocks”.  Kuldip Nayyar accused the police of “tormenting Muslims”, pointing again to the fact that “21 Muslim youth from Hyderabad were wrongly implicated in the Mecca Masjid blast”.

The truth is that 22 Muslim men were indeed arrested, and found innocent during trial. However, anyone who has takes the trouble to read First Information Report 198 filed at the Gopalapuram Police Station in 2007 knows not one of the arrests had anything to do with the Mecca Masjid case.

Police officers driven by malice, or seeking to cover-up their incompetence, could have initiated false prosecutions linking these men to the Mecca Masjid attack.  They did not - and went on to uncover the Hindutva terrorist network now blamed for the attack.

There’s no doubt, of course, India’s overstretched and under-resourced police forces get it wrong plenty of times.  It is worth noting, though, that the sword of incompetence cuts in all directions.  I haven’t, for example, heard any outrage from Delhi-based human rights groups about the case of Hindutva hardliner Pragya Thakur - charged by the Madhya Pradesh Police with having murdered alleged Samjhauta Express bomber Sunil Joshi, and allegedly tortured.  The case was handed over to the NIA in 2011, and is now focused on different suspects. 

Yet, police don’t get it wrong as often as most people assume. Last year, the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, a human rights lobbying group, published an apparently damning study of 16 prosecutions brought by the Delhi Police’s elite counter-terrorism Special Cell, showing that each case ended in acquittal amidst charges of illegal detention, fabricated evidence and torture. The Delhi Police, however, pointed out that they secured convictions in 68 percent of terrorism cases - and, notably, had done so in six of the 16 cases the JTSA flagged.  In the US, with enormously better-resourced police, the figure is around 87 percent

This writer has argued elsewhere that Indian police forces have a poor conviction record for serious crimes, due to poor training, bad forensic resources and human resource shortages. Conviction rates for murder have hovered around 40 percent, and rape at below a third. They’re even more abysmal for kidnapping. There is no reason to believe that conviction rates for terrorism will be higher.

Failing prosecutions, thus, are a cause for concern for everyone - but not evidence that the police are out to get Muslims, or Hindus, or anyone else. It is entirely possible that police officers share the same biases which suffuse our society. Look through the authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal, though, and one fact is evident: a lot more Hindus, Christians and animist tribals are being arrested on terrorism charges than Muslims.

In 2012, 914 Maoists were arrested; less than a tenth of that number were held in cases related to Islamist terrorism.  This isn’t even counting-in arrests in two states where there are mainly Hindu-led insurgencies, Assam and Manipur.

Police, politics, and ideology: The problem isn’t, however, that élite liberals haven’t stumbled on the data. It is, rather, that their ideological blinkers have led them to reject their import. Part of the problem may be that our intellectual life has moved, too easily, from primitive fable to post-modern text, bypassing the stage of evidence-based appraisals altogether.

More important, though, this apparent position of dissent fits well with powerful establishmentarian tendencies. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh is one such pole; his hangers-on include Feroze Mithibhorwala, who alleged that the role of the “CIA, FBI & Mossad in fomenting and planning the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks are proved beyond doubt”. The Congress’ view is that the kinds of Muslims Owaisi represents will be drawn to its ranks by this kind of drivel. Left-liberals who loathe the Hindutva movement - people not unlike me - thus see assaulting the police on jihad-related issues as a defence of secularism.

This is perverse politics, which has had the signal consequence of communalising our national conversation on terrorism.  There is, indeed, a serious national conversation to be had on investigative incompetence, deficits in police capacities and the breakdown of the criminal justice system - crises which gave birth to prison torture and a culture of casual extrajudicial execution. Liberal critiques of India’s struggle to contain jihadi terrorism rarely engage with this challenge.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the problem isn’t deeper: whether the cultural memes inherited by English-medium liberals, including myself, cloud our judgment. The figure of the martyr Christ, rebel against tyrannical power, is profoundly seductive; it is the the unacknowledged foundation-stone for the western human rights movements. Yet, the Romans were right to caution against the seduction of the martyrs’ voice.

There is a real threat to this country of a communal conflict that could tear it apart along its faultlines. Keeping our eyes wide shut to the reality will ensure the secular-liberal state loses.