Sunday, September 28, 2008

Is it really Muslims whose credibility is at stake?

Is it really Muslims whose credibility is at stake?
By M J Akbar

There is nothing more subversive than the alternative narrative. A parallel version of the Godhra incident and riots sabotaged the re-election of the NDA government four years ago. A subaltern variation of the police operation at Batla House, near the Jamia Milia Islamia University on 19 September, is undermining the credibility of the Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi government today. It cannot undermine the credibility of home minister Shivraj Patil because he has none.

The first doubts began to circulate even while Patil, wearing a very self-satisfied expression on his face, began to congratulate himself in front of television cameras for delivering bullet-justice to two young men living in a small apartment of this building. He had, he said, personally supervised the encounter, presumably without taking any break whatsoever for fresh laundry.

Ironically, doubt needs the support of evidence. If it is mere partisan belligerence, it will last no longer than a puff of acrid smoke. Some things did not quite add up in the official story. It was, to use a phrase familiar from the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, the dog that did not bark that raised the first question. You rarely slip on hard concrete; it is generally the banana skin that turns a measured tread into a painful fall. The Rashomon effect, where the same event induces sharply different perspectives, can make for intriguing fiction; in real life, it can rip up communication lines carefully planted by a government trying to sell a fable.

The first question, followed by two photographs, began to dilute the triumphalism of the Delhi police even during the early phase of its self-glorification. The authorities noted, with satisfaction, that two 'terrorists' had been killed. They added that two had escaped from the rented urban cage where they lived, which was all they could afford. The deaths were explicable; the escape was not. The building had only one entrance, and hence only one exit. It was surrounded by policemen. How could the two escape?

When the murmur became a buzz, the police attempted damage control with a weak suggestion. The two could have escaped through the roof, hopping across rooftops. But it was daytime. The roofline was surely as closely monitored as the roadline. Neighbourhood eyes were tense and alert. Had anyone seen this acrobatic, even melodramatic, form of flight?


Two pictures propped up two ends of a growing conviction of foul play. One showed Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma, who lost his life, walking towards something, presumably the car that would take him to hospital, supported by two colleagues (one in a tie, the other in a T-shirt). His gunshot wound was obvious. There was a heavy patch of blood on the upper part of one arm, and only a faint discoloring on the lower front of his bush shirt, near the abdomen. Police had said that Sharma had died from a bullet in the stomach. The picture proved that the bullet had not hit the stomach, and that Sharma was able to come down four flights albeit with help. A bullet in the stomach would have left him a stretcher case, and caused far more blood loss, particularly through the exit wound.

The official story changed. The self-acclamation had been blared over media, the change was released discreetly, through a plant that said that he died of a heart attack caused by blood loss.
The questions multiplied: was Sharma hit by what is known in military parlance as 'friendly fire'?
The police would have been far more comfortable about their theories if some intrepid photographer had not snapped Sharma. The second picture, however, was part of their public relations offensive. It showed three suspects, Zia ur Rahman, Saqib Nishad and Mohammad Shakeel. As is usual in the case of suspects being put on display, their faces were covered with cloth: the police are gracious enough to disguise the identity of suspects for they cannot be deemed guilty until a court has passed judgment. But there was significant departure from normal practice. These three had been shrouded by Arab-style headdresses (made famous by Yasser Arafat, and now a staple of Arab identity in countless TV images) instead of the anonymous black cloth used by police.

Who had decided that these three suspects should be given an "Arab" identity? Was this a not-so-subliminal message to even the densest in the audience about the nature of the "enemy", that the headdress was a signature of "Islamic terrorism"? Did this brilliant idea emerge from the home minister, now the hands-on commander, or did it emerge from somewhere lower down the food chain?

Indian Muslims did not need to open a political dictionary to gauge the meaning of this forced symbolism? They knew that it was an attempt to stigmatize the whole community and link terrorism in India with an international conspiracy, with an implied hint at Osama bin Laden, the most famous Arab terrorist.

If the purpose of the UPA government's officialdom was to intensify fear of Muslims among non-Muslims, then it succeeded. Indian Muslims are used to being fearful - of riots, police prejudice and arbitrary authority. They have learnt to temper their response with realism. They believed in the government of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, if only because they reassured themselves that they had been primarily responsible, through intense electoral mobilization, in adding the crucial 20 odd seats to the Congress that enabled it to become the largest single party in the last general elections. That perception has been shifting slowly, almost reluctantly, because Muslims had no other national political anchor. The Jamia incident has become a wake-up call. The growing perception is that the UPA government has deliberately killed innocent men to satiate the demand for action against terrorism.

Is that the truth? I have no idea, because the truth is privy only to those who control the guns - on either side of the divide. But this much I do know. In public life, perception becomes the operative truth.

Appeared in Times of India - September 28, 2008


Knaur said...

It cannot undermine the credibility of home minister Shivraj Patil because he has none - >> One of the rare points in the article, that I actually agree with.

There was a heavy patch of blood on the upper part of one arm, and only a faint discoloring on the lower front of his bush shirt, near the abdomen. Police had said that Sharma had died from a bullet in the stomach.The picture proved that the bullet had not hit the stomach - >> Lower front of the abdomen is not stomach? Akbar was able to see the intensity of discolouring from the shoddily released pics , water colour perhaps? Dunno what am missing here.

They knew that it was an attempt to stigmatize the whole community and link terrorism in India with an international conspiracy, with an implied hint at Osama bin Laden, the most famous Arab terrorist - >> Its all a conspiracy, everyone from the home minister to the lower level cops are involved, prejudiced against Islam,spreading malice to hurt the image of Moslems in India, giving em Arab type scarves rather than black clothes to hide their face to imply they are related to Osama Bin Laden. *rolls eyes*

Indian Muslims are used to being fearful - of riots, police prejudice and arbitrary authority. They have learnt to temper their response with realism - >>Some realism, there was a blast yesterday for ****'s sake

In public life, perception becomes the operative truth - >> And of course, in these days of sublimial messaging, anti-Islamic govt., and perceived truths, innocent Moslems are demonised while in reality, as everyone knows the Martians are the real culprits

Anonymous said...

I am utterly dissappointed at this article from Mr.Akbar. Over the years, I have admired him for his wit, his non-partisan approach while conducting political analyses. However,it is but unfortunate for our country when emminent and independent intellectuals like Mr.Akbar subscribe to ludicrous conclusions like the one that the current Delhi encounter was a fake one. Of course, I do not want to deny Mr.Akbar his freedom of expression. And I am aware that in a vibrant democracy views from two diametrically opposite positions do have their place. But what Mr.Akbar says here is in essence no different to the strong belief in the muslim world that 9/11 was a conspiracy hatched by the CIA/Zionists. In India now, there is no logic, no argument, no evidence that can ever convince our muslims brothers that they too need to do some self-introspection in face of the recent upsurge in terrorist activity. And when citizens like myself believe that people like Mr.Akbar would talk as Indians first and Muslims second, they get dissappointed. We get from him the same version, albeit more polished in its approach, as the one being heard amongst those indians who follow Islam - that it is all a part of a conspiracy, that they have their "doubts", that they are victimized and marginalized. Take for ex. this arab headscarf thing. If this was an alleged attempt to paint all the muslims with an "arabic" paint, then what do indians such as myself see ? We see the families of our muslim friends switch to the arabic style burqas to the traditional indian styled ones. It is evident even to a donkey that arabization of muslims across the world is being promoted, so that they can real feel as part of the "ummah". Why doesnt Mr.Akbar, using the same "rational" approach he uses in this article, ask if these headscarves were with the alleged terrorists when they were arrested ? If we are to believe that this whole encounter was fake, why cannot we believe that actually this piece of cloth was obtained from the arrested men themselves ? To owe the truth, the whole debate about the headscarf reminds me of how for years some people (inspired by the erstwhile Soviet Union propaganda) still believe that the americans never went to the moon. Of course, everything the police and the politicians say is never true. Every indian knows that. But till what length with some people in our country go to tell that all anti-terror activity is just a disguised form on anti-muslim activity ? Because they dont want to accept the fact that while not all muslims are terrorists, a large proportion (but not all) of terror activities across the world finds its roots in Islamic terrorism. If we want to a solve a problem, let us at least admit its existence. If we deny it, or worse, try to accuse others of falsifying everything, we are speedily moving towards an abyss out of which there will be not exit.

Anonymous said...

I think this article is totally out of place and ill-timed, miles away from logical reasons and judgment.

Please allow me to explain (All points below appear in the sequence as they appear in your article)

First things first, Godhra train carnage and subsequent retaliation had nothing to do with NDA losing in the general election. We know that Mr. Modi was himself re elected from the same state thereafter. I would not like to write more on this as that would be digressing form the topic.

Now coming to your comments on the Batla encounter.

(1) The escape of terrorists need not be corroborated by the neighbourhood eyes as they were expected to be hostile towards the police and the same was evidenced by the stone throwings they were engaged in.
(2) The investigations are not into how and where the brave inspector got hit by bullets. As we know that blood stain depends on the posture the peron was in. A hit in the stomach would most probably mean that blood oozes down towards the trousers and not show on the shirt. A Post Mortem by specilaised doctors at the most reputed hospital is not to be doubted because of what a writer makes out of a photograph taken from a fair distance (as we could see a lot of other things in the frame)

Now moving on to the observation on the headscarf used.

We have the terrorists issuing threatening mails in the name of the "Allah" challenging the police to prevent the explosions, hinting towards Osama as their hero. If that's the case I dont think it would take any special mental faculties to guess their religion

We have no doubt that "innocent men" holed up inside had unlicensed weapons with which they fired at the police (whether or not the police was hit by their bullets). Even if we were to assume that all other things seized from them were planted by the police; the mere possession and use of unlicensed weapons at the police proves that they were not that innocent (interestingly they claim to be students).

With these thoughts we can safely conclude that the people holed up inside were certainly not as innocent as you claim them to be.

I noticed that best part of the article lies in the last sentence "In public life perception becomes the operative truth". I totally agree with you on this and sincerely feel that there is a lot of introspection that needs to be done by you yourself and other learned men of the Muslim community. The subsequent portion of this post is guided by popular belief and perceptions and not logic and judicial observations.

You are in a very good position to manage the perception that the Non muslims have about their Muslims cousins. Unfortunately, this particular write up of your's is not improving that. If the kids do something wrong it is the responsibility of the elders of the family to tell them what's not right.

Please find why these young, highly educated, well employed men are being attracted towards these acts of terror. We know for sure that even if the succeed for some time and manage to kill few innocent men (some victims are Muslims) one day they will get wiped off either by the police or by their own overseas masters...

We know that all Muslims are not terrorists but then why do all terrorists turn out to be Muslims.

At this stage this might just be a statistical blur but if this continues then what else would is the common man on street expected to believe.

In no country of the world would a man from the minority community expect to become the President, Vice President or Chief Minister. Please refer to the list of Bharat Ratna awardees to see the number of people from the Minority religion.

The expectation from the Muslim community is to participate in Nation building and not get carried away with what US does in Arab. However, "credibilities are at stake" and actions that you take now will decide whether it remains or not.

Anonymous said...

Mr. M J,

1. are you representing yourself in the article as a political editor or a secular Indian or just as a conspiracy-theorist Muslim?

2. perhaps it is time for you to (re)define your credibility before you go and measure that of the PM / home minister


Miracles said...

Dear Anonymous..are the ideas and policies of two of the grandest of Indian emperors Ashoka and Akbar relevant for the content and reach of Indian secularism?