Terrorism Case Sets Off Politicking, Protests
By Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 24, 2008; A12
MALEGAON, India — Every morning, dozens of Muslim men gather at a tea shop in this western textile town near the spot where a motorcycle bomb exploded in September during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The bomb killed six people, injured 101 and punctured the walls of the shop, whose clock stands frozen at the exact minute the bomb went off.
The men, slurping hot tea, pass around the newspaper to keep up with the ongoing investigation into the blast, which has led to the arrests of 10 Hindus here in Maharashtra state in recent weeks.
"We have always known that Hindu extremists were behind the blast, but we never thought the government would have the courage to arrest Hindus. The suspicion is always on Muslims,” said Ejaz Ahmad, the 32-year-old shop owner, who was injured in the bombing. "Now we feel there is justice.”
But in the rest of the country, the arrests of Hindus in a terrorism case and the use of the new tag "Hindu terror” have sparked enormous controversy. The acrimonious political debate and the street demonstrations in support of the accused threaten to paralyze India’s concerted response to terrorism. The controversy also points to the growing complexities of combating tit-for-tat terrorism in this predominantly Hindu but officially secular nation.
Since May, several Indian cities have been rocked by bombings in crowded public places that killed more than 200 people. Police arrested scores of suspects from an outlawed Muslim student organization and a new Muslim group calling itself the Indian Mujaheddin, which asserted responsibility. But a handful of bombings in mosques and Muslim neighborhoods puzzled them.
Then, in the past month, came the arrests of the 10 Hindus, including a self-styled female saint and an army officer.
Police say that most of the 10 have been associated with or have attended meetings of a little-known group called Abhinav Bharat, or "New India,” which is under scrutiny on suspicion of plotting the Malegaon bombing. At meetings across the country in the past two years, according to police, members of the group have given fiery speeches advocating the creation of a Hindu nation, attacked India’s secular policies and urged Hindus to rise up against the Muslim extremist groups implicated in bomb attacks in India.
"They criticized the government and the police for being soft on terrorism,” said Shailendra Shrivastava, inspector general of police in the central Indian city of Bhopal, where some of the meetings were held. "What we are seeing today is reprisal bombings against Muslims.”
With every bombing this year, Hindu nationalist politicians played to the Hindu vote with denunciations of the growth of Islamist groups. And when the government arrested Muslim suspects, politicians vying for the Muslim vote would visit their families to express sympathy. This brazen appeal along religious lines has come to dominate India’s response to terrorism.
The ruling Congress party government in New Delhi, which had been under criticism for cracking down on Muslim suspects, is now being accused of placating Muslims ahead of crucial six-state elections by going after Hindu extremists.
"It is a great balancing act by the Congress government. To appease the Muslims, they are now arresting Hindus for terrorism,” said Himani Savarkar, 62, a Hindu nationalist and the president of Abhinav Bharat. Savarkar denied that the group had discussed bombs but said it works to "rouse Hindus out of their slumber and become alert to the danger around them from jihadi terrorism.”
Such rhetoric has been part of India’s political landscape for two decades, as Hindu nationalist parties gained center stage with strident appeals to Hindu sentiment. But although scores of Hindu activists have been arrested for rioting, this is the first time any have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
The police got their first lead in the Malegaon case when forensic analysis revealed that the motorcycle was owned by a 36-year-old Hindu holy woman, Pragya Singh. They also claim to have records of telephone conversations that include Singh.
"We have evidence against all the accused for their respective roles in instigation, abetment, providing explosives and funding,” said Ajay Misar, the public prosecutor in the case, citing cellphone call records, bank statements, diaries, laptop data and confessions. "All the evidence will be scrutinized by court, not by political pressure or public opinion.”
But Singh’s attorney, Ganesh Sovani, said police beat his client with "flour-mill conveyor belts” to extract false confessions. "She sold her motorcycle in 2004. How can she be held responsible now? She had no control or knowledge of how and who used her bike,” Sovani said.
Police say that another suspect, Lt. Col. Srikant Prasad Purohit, provided combat training and explosives to Hindu activists and that they have a text message he sent to another accused after Singh’s arrest. The message allegedly reads: "Cat is out of the bag. Singh has sung. Please delete my number.”
Many Indians have expressed shock and embarrassment at the sensational findings unfolding daily on television.
As soon as police, politicians and the news media uttered the term "Hindu terror,” Hindu nationalist groups across India began protesting. "Hindus can never be terrorists,” the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said, adding that terrorists do not have a religion. Others said Hindus were peaceful people and had never invaded any other civilization in history. One columnist suggested that the phrase "Hindu terror” be replaced with "Hindutva terror,” separating the attacks from mainstream Hinduism by using a political term denoting Hindu chauvinism or pride.
"You cannot call it Hindu terrorism. If you must, then call it retributive terrorism,” said Ram Madhav, a spokesman for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the umbrella group for most of the country’s Hindu activists.
At each appearance of the accused before the judge, hundreds of Hindu activists stormed the court chanting, "We are with you,” waving orange flags and showering marigold petals on the vehicles carrying the prisoners. They charged the government with demonizing "Hindu saints, Hindu society and the Indian army.”
"The cases are fabricated. But even if they have done anything, I would say it is a reaction, not an action,” Savarkar said. "We cannot keep showing the other cheek. The Hindus are fed up.” She set up a legal aid fund this month to help Hindus booked in the Malegaon case.
The BJP is running campaign ads on TV accusing the Congress government of smearing the names of soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the nation. On Friday, Purohit, the accused army officer, alleged in court that the police had threatened to kill him if he did not confess.
"His whereabouts are all a matter of record with the military. Every hour of his life is accounted for,” said his attorney, Avinash Bhide. "The media coverage has already tried and proven him guilty.”
In the coming days, hundreds of orange-robed self-styled Hindu saints will march to New Delhi to launch a "Hindu mobilization drive.”
"We have to be cautious,” said Sanjay Nirupam, a Congress leader. "We don’t want to be called an anti-Hindu party. We should isolate the extremist groups but not alienate the entire Hindu community.”
But Fareeda Sheik Liaqat, who lost her 10-year-old daughter in the bombing that Ramadan night in Malegaon, says the naked politicking over terrorism reopens her wounds constantly.
"I do not understand politics, but the person who killed my beautiful girl should be punished,” said Liaqat, 35, as she ran her hand over her daughter’s pink-and-blue Spiderman school bag. "She wanted to be a doctor.”