Malegaon Arrests: Elephant in the Drawing Room?

Malegaon has entered the tangled lexicon of the Indian narrative on terrorism but with some distinctive and disturbing features about it. This is the first time that a serving officer of the Indian Army has been arrested along with eight others alleged to have links with Hindu militant groups. This has caused predictable anxiety across the country and the spotlight has been turned on the secular credentials of the army. However, the matter is still under investigation and shrill emotive certitude must be kept on hold.

Malegaon follows in the bloody wake of other communally tinged events of terrorism and violence in the course of the year, and the national debate has been sharply polarized along Hindu-Muslim lines. The more dastardly acts in Orissa and Karnataka where Christians have been targeted and the purported complicity of the local police can only add to the shame that now attaches to the Indian state.

In relation to comprehensive national security, these events are as serious as the grave fiscal challenge and the plummeting of the stock market that have fixated the nation - but, alas, there appear to be no committed stakeholders in this domain - except for short-term investment in relation to the vote bank! But the Malegaon-related arrests point yet again to the elephant in the drawing room - the synergistic cycle of bi-polar religious zealotry in India that has been ignored for almost 60 years - since Mahatma Gandhi fell victim to the hatred and violence born out of this stubborn malignancy.

Are Colonel Purohit, Sadhvi Pragya Singh and their associates guilty of the Malegaon blasts? The frenzied media coverage - particularly in the audio-visual medium, often marked by hasty judgment - and phrases such as Muslim terrorism and now Hindu terrorism have now become par for the course, since the legal process has not delivered the objective justice that is so imperative.

Robust and equitable democracies are predicated on the adherence to law, its impartial application and the integrity of local governance. Regrettably in relation to the communal violence that has simmered in independent India since its bloody birth in August 1947, fidelity to these tenets has been found wanting due to short-term political expediency focused on transient gains.

Does India have a serious internal security problem today? The answer is a resounding yes. It has been growing since the late 1980's when external support from Pakistan nurtured these trends and exploited the internal communal fissure. The world and the South Asian region have experienced the scourge of terrorism impelled by religious extremism in different ways since 9/11 and its attendant fall-out.

For India, the greater danger is that the fervour of regional religious radicalism, as manifest in its 'jihadi' or militant 'Hindutva' variant, can permeate the subterranean communal lattice. And given the huge diversity that is Indian society, with its myriad caste-ethnicity-religion identities and socio-economic imbalances, the results can be disastrous. It merits recall that in recent modern history, the trauma the Indian sub-continent went through in August-October 1947 empirically marks the highest density of collective violence abetted by religion and politics.

The historical experience in India of Hindu-Muslim communal violence is considerable and to its limited credit, the government of the day has tried to study the complex problem periodically. Since Mahatma Gandhi's assassination in January 1948, the Hindu rightwing and its more militant organisations, including the RSS, have been under scrutiny and subsequently there have been many major commissions that were constituted to examine communal violence in different parts India.

More than six years after the February 2002 carnage in Godhra where a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set ablaze and the pogrom against Muslims that followed, the case is yet to go to judicial trial or reach closure in a meaningful manner.

What follows then is a deep-seated perception among the minorities that the state is either unable or unwilling to be fair and firm in its application of the law when majority transgression of an extreme nature is concerned.

During his Calcutta fast in 1946 to contain the Hindu-Muslim violence, Gandhi perceptively noted that the deeper malaise lay more with the community than the perpetrator. "The conflagration has been caused not by the goonda but by those who have become goondas. It is we who make goondas. Without our sympathy and passive support, the goondas would have no legs to stand upon..."

Substitute the word 'terrorist' in the current context and the message is stark and unambiguous. This is an area that warrants illumination and Gandhian introspection. Terrorism is not religion specific.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at cudayb@gmail.com)


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