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Sukumar Muralidharan | 5 AUGUST, 2015

Where Surveillance Of Citizens Replaces Accountability Of Govt

Government to increase surveillance to curtail Islamic State in India


NEW DELHI: The thirst for vengeance was partly quenched with the July 30 execution of Yakub Memon but despite the din from ill-informed TV news anchors, few bought the argument that justice had been served.

A deep embitterment was in evidence in Memon’s funeral in Mumbai. And further potential for polarisation was signalled by the reaction of a BJP hack now occupying the gubernatorial mansion in Tripura, that the thousands at the event were potential terrorist threats.

A number among the less obtuse raised the possibility that the appearance of justice in the March 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai – for all its vacuity – could potentially acquire some substance. That required a similar resolve in prosecuting two preceding acts of mass violence: the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in December 1992 and the riots that gutted large parts of India, including the western metropolis, through the months that followed.

That was very far from the official intent though. Manifest instead was a resolve to begin a surveillance programme to push back against the supposed trend of radicalisation amongst youth of the minority faith. Social media was identified as a special focus of attention, where intelligence operatives would keep an eye out for early warnings. A range of possible pre-emptive methods would be employed to stop the turn towards radical ideologies.

Community elders would be drafted into the move and expert counselling would be the principal recourse to transform troubled minds. Unspecified “preventive measures” would also be kept in reserve, to neutralise potential threats emerging from the spreading mire of minority disenchantment.

Late in June, there was a public revelation by Special Public Prosecutor Rohini Salian, retained by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), that she had been asked to “go soft” on the Malegaon blasts case of 2008, which involved a serving army intelligence officer, Colonel Shrikant Purohit and various others from a shadowy network that came to be known as the “Hindutva” terror ring. The signals, according to Salian, began to emerge soon after the Narendra Modi government took office in May last year. In June this year, the highly respected prosecution lawyer was taken off the case.

If the signals were not clear yet, Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi, both serving life terms for leading lynch mobs that killed close to a hundred in Ahmedabad’s Naroda Patiya area during the 2002 violence in Gujarat, have been repeatedly granted bail by the High Court, ostensibly on medical grounds.

Unstated institutional biases were officially sanctified when Home Minister Rajnath Singh, soon after the Memon execution, stood up in Parliament and denounced the supposed “Hindutva” terror ring as a bogey created by the preceding Congress-led government. It was a spurious creation that had caused much exultation among the likes of Hafiz Saeed, a luminary of the terror outfits Pakistan had created with special intent to attack India. It had also weakened India’s standing in international councils which were otherwise deeply appreciative of its resolve in combating terror.

The piety that terrorism has no religion is often invoked, usually when misdeeds of those from the majority faith are the conversation. Yet that sentiment is often transformed seamlessly into a dire warning that the minority faith is an unending wellspring of terroristic intentions. For the first decade since the “war on terror” was declared by the US as the foremost global priority, the principal menace in the Indian context was believed to be the Indian Mujahidin (IM), a body of mixed and uncertain parentage, often described as an offspring of Hafiz Sayeed’s Lashkar-e-Tayaba (LeT), which in turn was the spawn of the hostile western neighbour’s intelligence services.

Today, the prime source of danger is believed to be the Islamic State (IS) which controls a vast swathe of territory in the arc of instability between Iraq and Syria. The bloodletting triggered by the US invasion of Iraq has now drawn in Turkey as an active belligerent, though it has directed its fire principally at the Kurdish militias that the west has so far counted on as an ally in the war against IS.

In this maelstrom of confusion, where friend is foe and foe is friend – and even the old maxim of the enemy’s enemy being a friend fails to apply -- the death of the Afghan Taliban’s political leader and spiritual mentor, Mullah Omar, was variously interpreted. There were some dire prognoses that Taliban fighting forces would now be easy quarry, that the rudderless militia would be easily absorbed into the folds of the more powerful IS. There were others who said that the peace process the Taliban had initiated with Afghanistan’s authorities would gain new momentum. Others said the exact opposite.

There was an element of farce in these solemn strategic commentaries, emerging from the fact that Omar had been dead two years before the Taliban and its Pakistani handlers chose to acknowledge it. That this information had eluded the intelligence agencies specialising on Islamic militias was eloquent reflection on their competence and allegiance to fact. Even more ludicrous was their confusion in ascribing authorship over specific events of the last few years, notably the announcement of peace negotiations with Afghanistan and the prompt repudiation of any such intent by the Taliban representative office in the Emirate of Qatar. Depending on the vantage point occupied by the commentator, the avowal of peaceable intent and its disavowal were variously ascribed to Omar’s absence, to his spectral presence, to both and to neither.

Strategic punditry has touched a nadir of inconsistency and absurdity. But there is no doubt about the political intent to press on with confronting violent extremism in one of its many guises.

The Home Minister’s firm declaration that “Hindutva” terror was a distraction from the singular focus of this quest, compels an examination afresh of the circumstances in which the senior Maharashtra policeman Hemant Karkare – an early victim of the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 – uncovered the ring that included Colonel Purohit and a number of associates with known connections to the Hindutva parties and its ideological preceptors.

In great outrage at the exposure of the supposed “Hindutva” terror ring, a former intelligence operative, Colonel R.S.N. Singh, has written about how Purohit’s mission was to infiltrate the IM, follow all available trails to the LeT and gather actionable intelligence about potential threats. “The Colonel”, wrote Singh, “is a legitimate intelligence operative… No intelligence agency issues written orders in pursuance of intelligence operations. The entire system is based on trust and faith. It is yet to be established how much disconnect there is between the legitimate and illegitimate activities of the officer during the course of his duty”.

These are telling locutions from an intelligence operative who has since retirement found his political moorings in the Hindutva right. Singh’s bland and almost casual admission that there are “legitimate and illegitimate” methods pressed into service and the possibility of a “disconnect” between these – which suggests the equal probability of a “connect” – highlights how far out of line the intelligence agencies have stepped in their accountability-free operations. The dividing lines between preventing, pre-empting and provoking terror attacks may indeed have been breached on occasion.

It is in this environment when accountability has gone missing that a new programme of surveillance, with unspecified “preventive measures” held in reserve, is being launched. In a social and political milieu with an existing predisposition to view terrorism as the preserve of one faith, there are ominous possibilities of deeper estrangement inherent here.

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