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