Terrorism’s saffron fault line

  0 comments   |     by Latha Jishnu

COLOURS have strong associations and tend to be coded in our psyche. They are linked, sometimes inexorably, to our politics, culture and social biases. The way we respond to people, events and situations is prompted by the colour coding embedded in us, however subtly these triggers might work. Often our responses symbolise rank prejudice.

Right-wing demagogue Bal Thackeray who founded the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, a party known for its lumpen politics and close association with the BJP, used to profess a fanatical hatred of all things green because he claimed the colour represented “them”, the way he usually referred to Pakistan. At one time Thackeray even ordered his minions to stop the renovation of a suburban railway station in Mumbai because it was being painted green!

Once he also criticised his BJP ally for having a green and saffron party flag; Shiv Sena, he boasted, had only saffron in its flag as a truly Hindu party. Saffron, or kesariya, one of the defining colours of the Indian flag, was chosen after much debate to denote “renunciation or disinterestedness”. But given its recent history of being identified with Hindu resurgence, it is unlikely that many Indians can tell the difference.

India can hardly rail against Pakistan given its own lacklustre record in countering saffron terror.

Saffron now carries the indelible imprint of BJP’s aggressive brand of religious-political chauvinism, particularly in the wake of the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat when sword-wielding killers sported saffron headbands, stoles and pennants. It has thus become the default term for anything to do with Hindu supremacist politics and actions although the BJP has vigorously denounced this usage, especially in relation to terrorism.

In 2010, Congress Home Minister P. Chidambaram described the series of blasts set off by fanatical Hindu outfits in Malegaon, Ajmer Sharif, at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid and on the Samjhauta Express as “saffron terror”. Initially, investigators had assumed these blasts were the handiwork of jihadists and had arrested several Muslim men until the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) headed by a conscientious officer named Hemant Karkare stumbled, rather fortuitously, on the truth.

Karkare found the terrorist network consisted of Hindus who fitted a certain saffron profile: cadres from the RSS, the ideological fount of the BJP, ex-army officers and followers of V. D. Savarkar, the controversial leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. Karkare, unfortunately, was killed by a more lethal set of terrorists who unleashed the horrific Mumbai attack, allegedly masterminded by Pakistani Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

But Karkare, although he met with hostility from senior BJP leaders, pursued the cases of saffron terror starting with the Malegaon blasts. As a precaution he got Rohini Salian, a public prosecutor with a formidable reputation for fairness and integrity, as special prosecutor to handle these cases.

It is Salian’s recent revelation that has let the cat out of the bag. Salian told the Indian Express that she had come under pressure from the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the nodal agency handling terrorism, to go soft on the Malegaon blast case soon after Modi came to power in Delhi in May 2014. Salian’s stunning disclosure that the NIA had told her she should not try to get favourable verdicts for the state against the accused could not have come at a worse time. It coincided with a setback in late June for India at the UN Security Council when China blocked India’s demand for action against Pakistan for releasing Lakhvi from jail.

Diplomatic commentators have noted that India is hardly in a position to rail against its neighbour’s lukewarm response to the Lakhvi case given its own lacklustre record on pursuing cases of saffron terror. What Salian’s interview has done is to focus the spotlight on how many such cases are being undermined. For instance, in the case of the blasts at the Ajmer dargah in 2007 which killed three people and injured 17, all key witnesses have retracted their statements recorded before the ATS and a judicial magistrate. This occurred in June 2014 within weeks of the BJP being sworn in. In the Mecca Masjid blasts, the accused have been given bail but the NIA has not challenged this, allegedly at the behest of the government.

So brazen is the BJP about protecting its own that Randhir Singh, a key prosecution witness in the Ajmer case who turned hostile recently, has been made agriculture minister in the BJP government in Jharkhand — a classic example of how saffron will be the undoing of democratic values.

India has suffered grievously from terrorist acts, and Modi has made the global fight against terrorism a key plank of his foreign policy — just recently he was beating this drum in the five Central Asian states that he visited and in the Russian city of Ufa. However, a marked disinclination to pursue, nay, protect, terrorists of a certain stripe would destroy the credibility India enjoys. You cannot afford to throw stones if you live in a glass house.

There is also the larger issue of strategic concerns that the current regime ignores as it jousts with its familiar demons. Modi has made the Chinese action at the UN a public issue, presumably to play to his domestic gallery. First, there was a missive to Chinese President Xi from Delhi to tell him how hurt the Indian people were, and then it was raised on the sidelines of the SCO and BRICS summits in Ufa. This has only betrayed India’s gauche handling of the issue at a time when the situation in Afghanistan is of paramount concern for the big powers. It is doubtful if China alone among the veto-holding members had blocked India’s move against Pakistan since it is well known that none of the permanent members of the Security Council would have wanted action against Pakistan at this juncture.

The Chinese have politely but firmly told India how it should handle terrorism. Hinting that the kind of grandstanding that Modi has been indulging in was not productive, Beijing has suggested the issue should be discussed in the India-China joint mechanism on terrorism. It also emphasised that its stand was based on “facts” and in the spirit of “objectiveness and fairness”.

Can India make the same claim? To fight terrorism it should be colour blind.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.


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