A Capacity for Farce
By M J Akbar
Byword in India Today
May 30, 2011
The next time Pakistan foreign secretary Salman Basheer wants to rubbish any wish-list of terrorists sent by India's much-vaunted home minister P. Chidambaram, he needn't bother to describe it as "mere literature". Literature belongs to the realm of high art. He can dismiss it as Groucho Marx and ask for the next question at the press conference.
It requires some capacity to convert India's most serious problem into a farce, but the home ministry under Chidambaram has managed to achieve this. If you are in two minds about whether to laugh or cry at the expose that one of the persons on Chidambaram's "Most Wanted" list of fugitives allegedly given sanctuary in Pakistan, Wazhul Kamar Khan, is actually a zari merchant who has been living for years at Wagle Estate in Thane, next-door to Mumbai, some additional information should help make up your mind. The Mumbai police had pointedly told Delhi to remove Wazhul Khan's name, and added two brothers, Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, wanted in terror attacks in Varanasi, Ahmedabad and Pune, to the list. The Bhatkal brothers were not included. Maybe the home ministry likes symmetry, and two additions plus one deletion would have made the figure an untidy 51. Fifty is just so much neater.
Chidambaram has treated this blunder with familiar airy disdain. "I don't think," he said, "we should make a big issue of it. It is possible there could be an error or there could be two people with the same name." That misses the point. It is not India, but Pakistan who can make a big issue of this. Islamabad can ask India to circulate the document to its own policemen, with or without a snigger.
There is a third option apart from laughter or tears: anger. At the top of this "Most Wanted" list is Dawood Ibrahim, principal accused in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. Some Don Quixotes in Delhi even made fanciful noises about picking up Dawood in an American-Abbotabad style operation after Osama bin Laden was killed. But you don't need either the US Seals or Marines to pick up Dawood Ibrahim's brother, Iqbal Kaskar, from Nagpada, in the heart of Mumbai. Nor is it the case that while Dawood might be an international villain, young Iqbal lives in a Gandhian ashram from where he does gaon and dharma seva. Kaskar is just another goon. On Tuesday May 17 evening, at 9.15, he was shot at in Nagpada during an after-dinner walk in the company of his driver-cum-bodyguard Arif Bael (also known as Arif Jewellery and Abu Bakr) by two men in a drive-past motorcycle. Mr Jewellery did not survive.
Question: Why is Dawood's brother, a thriving member of Mumbai's underworld, almost certainly in criminal contact with the Dawood gang, not behind bars? It is as inconceivable that the Mumbai police were unaware of Kaskar as that the ISI had no clue of Osama bin Laden's presence. The ISI saved Osama because of some miscued double game. The Mumbai police protected Dawood's brother and his underworld operations out of nothing more dramatic than sheer greed. Law and order may be a state subject, but who rules in Mumbai? Congress and NCP.
Mumbai has become a well-organised jungle, with defined territories. Literally around the corner from Nagpada is the visible paraphernalia of a modern city: an imposing Mumbai municipality, next-door to a grand building that is headquarters of the country's largest media company, divided from a classic railway station by traffic jams and, just a sniff further, beautiful clubs and greens. The government winks at this coexistence of an urban world at its congested best and an underworld that conspires to erode the vitals of a nation. Why should it be surprised when terror is planned within such labyrinths?
All the sins of matsanyaya (law of the jungle) certainly cannot be laid at the door of Chidambaram. But he replaced Shivraj Patil as home minister in the wake of the ISI-planned terror attacks on Mumbai. Terrorism and its links with Pakistan, including through the Mumbai underworld, were his special remit. Chidambaram's USP was believed to be competence. But two-anda-half years later, a litter of mistakes is snapping at his heels. The mismanagement of Telangana, certainly his worst political misjudgment, began the series of miscalculations that have culminated in the overwhelming victory of Jagan Reddy, and could lead to the collapse of the Congress ministry in the fortress from which the party conquered Delhi. There is a new, if slightly subversive, view gaining ground in the capital: when cowboy Chidambaram draws his six-shooter, his own foot is in trouble.
If it was merely a question of Chidambaram turning into a laughing stock, it would be a personal tragedy. When India becomes a laughing stock in Pakistan, it is a national wound.