Sunday, August 31, 2008

Three Questions for the Wandering Indian

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Three Questions for the Wandering Indian

This has become a three-question tour: Can rising India cross the hurdles without collapsing into a painful hobble? Where are the roots and branches of Muslim Terrorism? Is Pakistan a failed state and what does this mean for the war in Afghanistan?

To jaded Delhi eyes, the sky is much more vast in Canada. That could only be an illusion, right? Wrong. The horizon is not limited by claustrophobic cement, concrete, stone; the vision is not trapped by the tensions of road-crawl, or blocked by the arrogance of bullies who believe that a steering wheel has lifted them out of the demands of common decency. It is not distance that makes Canada seem like a frontier, although it takes a while to ingest that London is only a midway point between Delhi and Toronto. This frontier is not merely the boundary wall of the familiar; it is also the gateway to new space.

I am in the pretty urban village of Waterloo, obviously within British-Canada, for French Canadians are unlikely to institutionalise the memory of Napoleon’s defeat. But the tensions of the 19th century have thinned to inconsequence. Waterloo is the home of CIGI, the think-tank started by one of the creators of the ubiquitous Blackberry, which is my host. Billionaires in Canada do not believe that the only duty of money is to make more money. Money can also seed ideas, shape policy and perspective with the help of gardeners gathered from the finest academic and diplomatic nurseries in the world.

This has become a three-question tour: Can rising India cross the hurdles without collapsing into a painful hobble? Where are the roots and branches of Muslim terrorism? Is Pakistan a failed state and what does this mean for the war in Afghanistan? Canada has lost nearly a hundred soldiers already to the Taliban, with no end to the war in sight; the voter, if not the government, is beginning to flinch just a little.

I suggest a little adjustment in the focal lens, and the India story becomes much clearer. India may be growing at 9% or thereabouts each year, but every Indian is not growing at that impressive pace. Perhaps 20% of India is growing at that much-touted rate, but nearly 80% can choose a number from the lower single digits. The imbalance is both demographic and geographic. The result is virulent social conflict, the worst stream being an epidemic called Naxalism.

There are many tributaries, including caste and communal tensions. Moreover, aspiration is the right of every youth in a free society, and India is indisputably free. That is the core strength of modern India. But aspiration is also the parent of frustration. Until we manage these contradictions, instead of fooling ourselves with silly World Bank mantras like the trickle-down theory, which is such a solace to limp minds like that of finance minister P. Chidambaram, the India story will always seem vulnerable to sudden, even if temporary, descent into chaos. If it is any consolation, China has worse problems lurking behind the propaganda and dictatorship, but that is very poor consolation.

At least the phrase is becoming, gradually, more accurate: it is Muslim terrorism, rather than Islamic terrorism. As I have argued before, Islam does not permit terrorism, even during the worst phases of war. An increasing number of American and Canadian intellectuals and decision-makers have also begun to realise that war-mongering is not the only appropriate response to the problem. A simultaneous battle has to be fought, with equal vigour, in the minds of the young. At the core of this debate is a question: where lies justice? If the armies of some Western nations have travelled thousands of miles merely to impose forms of neo-imperialism, then the war will continue. If they have gone to induce the emergence of modern, equitable societies and nations –– although the job would be far easier in the hands of men who build schools than generals –– then the battle for the mind can be won. The 21st century has given us all that we could ask for, but it forgot to give us peace. Peace cannot come without understanding.

Understanding is impossible without dialogue. Dialogue can only be possible between equals, or it becomes a monologue. The world will not move forward on an axis of evil; that axis can only push it into reverse direction. An axis of good is perhaps equally sentimental. The world will move towards peace only on an axis of equals. This is the first principle of democracy, a point often forgotten by democracy’s drum-beaters.

It is counterproductive to dismiss Pakistan as a failed state, or underestimate the Pakistani’s desire to protect the cohesion of his nation. But the moment has come for clarity: Pakistan must reject theocracy as a failed idea. That is the real battle corroding the vitals of Pakistan. There is an enormous danger for not merely Pakistan, but the whole of South Asia, in the increasing appropriation of nationalism by theocrats, since they have positioned themselves in the forefront of the war against the foreign presence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the question that theocrats raised in order to chip away at Pervez Musharraf’s credibility: why was Pakistan fighting America’s war against fellow-Muslims? The non-theocrats, to use a clumsy term, consist of both democrats and autocrats in Pakistan. But both the civilians and the generals are being pushed into the American corner by a combination of events and an absence of real options. The fog of this war is intellectual, and more Pakistani politicians are dying in friendly fire than anyone might want to count. The boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan is notional in many respects, and this is not only because more Pashtuns live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. There is no real dividing line on the battlefield where the Taliban is conducting operations against the NATO alliance. In fact, a rational assessment would indicate that the intellectual and political battle has to be fought far more vigorously in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, because it is the Pakistani street that will determine the outcome to a far great degree than the Afghan village.

One would have to be a substantial fool to suggest that these answers are comprehensive. But if they take a crucial debate a step or two forward, then the purpose will have been met. It is not only the sky that is vast in Canada. The mind is also more open than one finds upon travelling a little to the south of this country. Canadians, by and large, have a more intelligent view of the world than the neocon ideologues who have shaped the imperial policies of Washington in the last eight years. But Canada does itself, and its cause, an injustice when it sends only troops to Afghanistan. Guns may pacify the present, but it is only butter that buys the future.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

1953, a Lesson in Krisis Management

1953, a Lesson in Krisis Management
By M J Akbar

On August 8, while the same politicians spluttered in Delhi and spleened in Srinagar, Farooq and Omar Abdullah chose to ignore the 55th anniversary of a seminal event in the history of Jammu and Kashmir. On the evening of August 8, 1953, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, using the powers of the Sadar-i-Riyasat Dr Karan Singh, dismissed the government of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, authentic hero of the freedom of India and patriarch of a dynasty that has lasted three generations.

The trigger was an intelligence report, sent by the IB officer in charge of Kashmir, B N Mullik, that Abdullah had left for Gulmarg that morning to make secret contact with a representative from Pakistan. The authenticity of this claim remains in doubt, even if time has made its veracity irrelevant. But for Nehru it was part of a pattern that he could not ignore. Abdullah's unhappiness with Delhi, and Delhi's disenchantment with Abdullah had become a public fact. Abdullah was certain that India was not secular enough; Delhi was equally sure that Abdullah was not Indian enough.

The suspicion had become septic during an agitation in Jammu that summer, spearheaded by the Jana Sangh (predecessor of the BJP). The Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookerjea, a Bengali stalwart of the freedom movement and member of the first Nehru Cabinet after 1947. One of the four points on the Jana Sangh's first manifesto, released on October 21, 1951, was full integration of J&K into India. At its second annual session, in December 1952, Mookerjea announced a popular agitation for the abolition of Article 370, which gave the state specific rights.

By this time Abdullah had begun to openly flirt with ambivalence. While he had little sympathy for Pakistan, he began to crouch and leap towards the idea of independence, an option promoted by America without the camouflage of subtlety. In his biography of Nehru, S Gopal, referring to Volume 5 of The Papers of Adlai Stevenson (edited by W Johnson) notes that "some Indian leaders believed that it was Mrs Loy Henderson, wife of the United States Ambassador, and some CIA agents who encouraged Abdullah to think in these terms".

In the summer of 1950, Abdullah was confident enough to drop broad hints to Sir Owen Dixon, the United Nations representative and publicly rebuke Delhi for giving advice outside defence, external affairs and communications. When Nehru protested, Abdullah sent a letter, dated July 10, 1950, that was a rap on the knuckles rather than a gentle hint: "I have several times stated that we acceded to India because we saw there two bright stars of hope and aspiration, namely Gandhiji and yourself, and despite our having so many affinities with Pakistan we did not join it, because we thought our programme will not fit with their policy. If, however, we are driven to the conclusion that we cannot build our state on our own lines, suited to our genius, what answer can I give to my people and how am I to face them?"

Nehru's debilitating patience was tested further when Abdullah, in a speech at Ranbirsinghpura on April 10, 1952, dismissed full integration into India as "unrealistic, childish and savouring of lunacy". He personalized Kashmir's accession, saying that if anything happened to Nehru, Kashmiris would have to "provide for all eventualities". Although Abdullah tried to make amends in Delhi and at the Madras Congress session by dismissing the idea of independence as foolish, the nuances of doublespeak (a practice that still flourishes among Kashmiri politicians, and which we have been witness to in the last few weeks with increasing intemperance) increased apprehension. Nehru wrote to Maulana Azad on March 1, 1953, "My fear is that Sheikh Sahib, in his present frame of mind, is likely to do something or take some step, which might make things worse..."

America seemed comfortable with what would be worse for India. Between May 1 and 3,Abdullah met Adlai Stevenson (Democratic candidate against Eisenhower and later to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations), their dialogue ending with a seven-hour conversation at which no one else was present. Rumours of American support for independent Kashmir became rampant, and have still not quite died. (Conferences are still frequently held in Washington offering "solutions" that are akin to independence; one such coincided with the present crisis.) On July 13, 1953, Abdullah went a stage further, saying in public, "Kashmir should have the sympathy of both India and Pakistan...It is not necessary for our State to become an appendage of either India or Pakistan."

In that fateful summer of 1953, Jammu became the epicentre of a full-blown agitation in collaboration with the Akali Dal, led by Master Tara Singh. Nehru had added some fuel to this fire by conceding a psychologically provocative demand in what has come to be known as the Delhi Agreement, signed in 1952, by which J&K was granted its own flag. The agitation had a powerful slogan: Ek Desh mein do Vidhaan, Ek Desh mein do Nishaan, Ek Desh mein do Pradhaan, nahin challengey nahin challengey. On May 8, 1953, Mookerjea tried to cross the Madhopur bridge on the Jammu border in order to lead the agitation in Jammu. Abdullah ordered his arrest. On June 23, 1953, he died while still under detention in Abdullah's jail.

The decision to remove Sheikh Abdullah from office had been made at least a week before August 8, on July 31, at a closed-door meeting between Nehru, Mullik and D W Mehra, deputy director of IB, amidst reports that Abdullah was preparing to dismiss what was considered the "pro- India" section of his Cabinet, including his deputy Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. Mullik describes Nehru as "being nearly overwhelmed by emotion...we realized that he was on the point of uprooting a plant which he had nursed with great care".

There were few contemporaries for whom Nehru had greater affection or admiration. If Sardar Patel brought the rest of the princely states (barring Hyderabad) into the Union of India, then it was the political-personal friendship of Nehru and Abdullah that brought Kashmir to India.Kashmir was not simply the geographical frontier of secular India, it was also its ideological frontier —in Abdullah's words, the "stabilizing force for India".

Nehru began the process of assimilation with geography. There were two pre-Partition routes linking Srinagar to its south, one via Murree, Rawalpindi and Lahore, and the second through Sialkot. Neither would be available to India after Partition. There was a miserable third option, a dirt track via Gurdaspur vulnerable to weather. Gurdaspur was a Muslim-majority district and the whole of it could have easily gone to Pakistan. Before Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India to map partition, Nehru lobbied hard with Mountbatten to keep this dirt tract within India.

When the Radcliffe Award was announced on August 16,Gurdaspur had been split along the line of the Ravi, and Nehru had achieved his purpose. Pakistan has consistently claimed that this was done because of the "personal" influence that Nehru had on the Mountbattens. The road link proved vital when war broke out over Kashmir within six weeks of Partition. It is ironic that the first country to blockade supplies to Srinagar was Pakistan, in early October 1947, as a prelude to hostilities. The official excuse was communal disturbances.

Keeping Kashmir in India proved more difficult than its accession: against the war-energy of Pakistan, international pressure and domestic turmoil. Nehru had made one mistake, when taking, under Mountbatten's advice, the Kashmir issue to the United Nations. He was not going to make another. Friendship with Abdullah became irrelevant. There could be no compromise with the security of India. Sixty people died in the disturbances that followed Abdullah's dismissal, but a potential threat to Indian unity had been averted.

Five and a half decades later, a successor government of the Congress seems impotent as allies like Mehbooba Mufti brazenly threaten to open links with Pakistan, friends proclaim nationalism in Delhi and duplicity in the valley, and pro-Pakistan leaders like Geelani are "liberated" by crowds with utter contempt for authority.

Appeared in Times of India, August 17, 2008

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Soiled Past

Byline by M J Akbar: A Soiled Past

The only discipline that Musharraf needs to restore his credibility is silence. Given the garrulous ex-dictator's penchant for shooting from the lip with a silver gun, this might be asking for too much. But nothing will serve Musharraf better than a spell of silence while Zardari hogs the national microphone and Sharif waits with growing impatience for Zardari to self-destruct. There is evidence.

Reputation is a comparative virtue. The most fortunate phase of a President or Prime Minister's tenure is the start, not because he begins with fresh energy, but because he is lucky enough to be compared to his predecessor. The past is always soiled goods.

Almost every political career ends in either crisis or confusion. The successor is permitted a brief interlude as knight-in-shining-armour. Within a year the lustre is coated with the zinc of familiarity. Personal limitations begin to edge into the headlines. Compromise and compulsion, inevitable in governance, add a patina of grime to the image, soon to be followed by the rather more pungent malodour of corruption. The longer you are in power, the more putrid it becomes. Some overlords putrefy faster than others, but rot they all do.

This cycle is true of both dictator and democrat. The former has only one advantage; he can postpone accountability. Over the last decade, the three leaders of India and Pakistan, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Pervez Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh, have shared one thing: a personal reputation for probity even if the environment around them is full of stench. Dr Singh kept his own attire clean even though his ministers were raking it in with all the unrestrained confidence of politicians who know they won't be re-elected so why bother? But Dr Singh's reputation slipped when he authorised the cash-and-carry purchase of MPs in order to save his strategic alliance with the United States. Vajpayee and Singh have had to live by legal deadlines.

Musharraf's line went dead only when he was unable to manage the contradictions that eventually sabotaged his grip on power.

Is resurrection possible for a dictator? Always possible. Time is a great restorative. All you have to do is await that moment when your successor has made an even bigger mess than you left behind.

I should imagine that the currently-reviled ex-dictator of Pakistan should be back in some demand within a year or so, given the pace at which his tormentors, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, have begun to torment each other. Having set aside Musharraf, they have begun the far more vicious process of trying to eliminate each other. This is a power-play in which there can be only one victor. Musharraf was the semi-finals. Islamabad is not a big enough town to find space for both Zardari and Sharif.

The final resolution of this conflict will only come after another general election. In the meantime, the two will try to maximise their control over the instruments and institutions of state. Sharif has his sights on the Supreme Court, which has become the only reserve bank of credibility in a nation where the Constitution has been amenable to the doctrine of necessity — in simpler words, where the judiciary has legalised events rather than law being the determinant of fact. Zardari is more audacious, seeking the supreme office in the land, that of the President, since he is surely convinced that he will not get office through a popular vote. Even time has not been able to eliminate the reek of corruption and worse that clings to his reputation.

The only discipline that Musharraf needs to restore his credibility is silence. Given the garrulous ex-dictator's penchant for shooting from the lip with a silver gun, this might be asking for too much. But nothing will serve Musharraf better than a spell of silence while Zardari hogs the national microphone and Sharif waits with growing impatience for Zardari to self-destruct. There is evidence. Consider the famous press conference at which the two announced their common determination to see Musharraf out of the President's office. Sharif held his peace while Zardari barked out Musharraf's name with all the finesse of an extra in a B-grade western.

Sharif's strategy is surely to permit Zardari enough rope to entangle himself in inextricable knots. Or, to alter the metaphor, perhaps play Zardari like a steer on a lasso, except of course that Sharif will never pull the steer into the comfort zone of the pen. His ideal scenario would be to let Zardari flex his muscles till the audience has withered and the goodwill inherited from Benazir Bhutto has dribbled away through the porous loopholes of inflation and dynastic greed.

Sharif's ideal moment, the point at which he would hope to strike, would be when the PPP had become much weaker and Musharraf had not yet been lifted by the bounce of nostalgia. There will come a time when people will remember the stability and economic growth of the best of Musharraf's tenure. Sharif may dislike Zardari, but he hates Musharraf who ousted him in a coup and kept him in prison or exile for eight years. It would of course be an extreme irony if Musharraf the dictator were suddenly revived by the elixir of democracy. Nothing in Pakistan's colourful political past can offer a reliable clue to its future dynamic. But right now there is little appetite for military dictatorship.

However, the traditional parties, with their combination of cupidity and family zamindari are being drained of life as well. There was one similar moment, more than four decades ago, when the nation had tired of Field Marshal Ayub Khan's authoritarian rule but was totally apathetic to the jaded variations of the Muslim League.

A young politician called Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto recognised this opportunity, shrugged off his association with Ayub Khan's failed regime and opened up new space with a party built on an egalitarian economic programme. Four decades later, another Pakistani politician will have to add an important new dimension to such an economic policy: internal democracy within the party. This is the combination that the young in Pakistan want.

This new party will not need a sword as its symbol, as Bhutto offered. It might be a much better idea to suggest a broom, or, if it wants to be modern, a vacuum cleaner — the better to clean the septic cobwebs that have snared the Pakistani nation and soured its economic horizon. There is so much to clean from the past in order to find the way towards a new future.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fasadi, not Jihadi

By M J Akbar
(Sunday Column in Times of India)

It is safe to assume that the Indian Mujahideen, which prides itself on being a terrorist organization, killed innocents in Gujarat, uses a logo displaying guns on either side of the Holy Book, sends threatening email signed by a split personality (both "Al Arbi" and "Al Hindi"), would like to be judged by Quranic law.

I presume they would not suggest the application of Sharia to non-Muslims. We Indians are unique in many ways: include among them the depressing fact that we have had terrorists from four major faiths - Muslims in Kashmir, Christians in Nagaland, Sikhs in Punjab and Hindus in Assam’s ULFA. Terror has been a constant weapon of Maoists and Naxalites, none of them waving a green banner.

The Quran makes a very clear distinction between legitimate war, a jihad, and illegitimate violence that spreads havoc among the innocent, a fasad. A fasadi is one who "spreads mischief through the land". The Quranic word entered our language and is used commonly for a communal riot. The Urdu-English dictionary in my office lists some of its meanings as "disturbance, trouble, outbreak of rebellion, dissension, mischief...."

It appears in the Quran, in Verse 32 of Surah 5, in the context of the first murder, when Cain killed Abel, his brother, who had done no harm. The verse is a powerful indictment of anyone who kills innocents: "That if anyone slew a person (through fasad) it would be as if he slew the whole people. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people." An innocent’s death kills something in the whole community; protecting an innocent individual is akin to saving the whole. The worst mischief is, in the words of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, "treason against the state, combined with treason against Allah, as shown by overt crimes." For this crime, "four alternative punishments are mentioned, any one of which is to be applied according to circumstances, viz., execution, crucifixion, maiming or exile". I have used Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation and notes because they are accepted internationally. The message is supplemented by other verses (as for instance Surah 30:41).

It is instructive to note how the two most Islamic states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, one Sunni and the other Shia, punish Muslim terrorists. Saudi toughness is now exemplary to those who believe in tough methods. On Tuesday, August 5, Iran executed Yaghoob Mirnehad in the city of Zahedan because he was found guilty of involvement in Jundallah, an armed group operating along the Iran-Pakistan border along Baluchistan. Afzal Guru would not stand much of a chance in either Saudi Arabia or Iran.

When a fasadi calls himself a jihadi, it is an attempt to gain legitimacy among Muslims. The intermittent use of Quranic verses by the Indian Mujahideen is designed to reinforce the impression of Quranic sanction. Even a cursory examination shows how this terrorist group has snatched text out of context. Take the deliberately provocative quotation in one of their emails: "We are guiltless of you and whatever you worship besides Allah: we have rejected you and there has arisen between us and you enmity and hatred forever - unless you believe in Allah and Him alone." The idea clearly is to establish a Quranic sanction for hatred and enmity between Hindus and Muslims. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to reach this conclusion.

They have arbitrarily plucked out lines from a much longer verse about the great patriarch Abraham, who left home after his father began to worship many gods instead of the One Allah. But the "hatred" is for apostasy, not the person. Where the Indian Mujahideen have put a full stop, there is only a colon in the original. Abraham also says that he will pray for his father. He does not threaten to murder his father in the name of Allah, which the Indian Mujahideen seem to believe is their wanton right.

The Quran insists that that while there are differences among faiths, it is up to Allah, and not man, to be the judge. For man, there is a clear principle (Surah 2:256): "La iqra fi al deen (Let there be no compulsion in religion)." (This instruction, incidentally, comes just after Ayat ul Kursi, a magnificent evocation to the power of Allah and his protection of man.) A second principle is equally unambiguous: "Lakum deen-e kum wal ya deen (Your religion for you and my religion for me)." It was not an accident that Ottoman Sultans gave shelter to Spanish Jews after they were driven out by the Catholic Inquisition.

Every jihad is a war fought by a Muslim, but every war fought by a Muslim is not a jihad. Yusuf Ali explains in his note on Surah 9:20: "It may require fighting in Allah’s cause, as a form of self-sacrifice. But its (jihad’s) essence consists in a true and sincere Faith, which so fixes its gaze on Allah, that all selfish or worldly motives seem paltry and fade away...Mere brutal fighting is opposed to the whole spirit of jihad, while the sincere scholar’s pen or preacher’s voice or wealthy man’s contributions may be the most valuable forms of jihad." The Jihad-e-Akbar, or the greater jihad is a struggle to cleanse oneself; war is only the Jihad-e-Asghar, or the lesser jihad.

However, if jihad were only an internal struggle for purification, we would not be discussing it. Islam sanctions war, but with very strict rules. The call for a jihad cannot be given by a maverick. The killing of innocents, women and children is strictly forbidden. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, laid down the rules when he sent the first armies out to battle: a jihadi could not betray a trust, misappropriate booty, mutilate a body, kill the old, women or children; he could not even destroy trees or slaughter an animal except for food. Terrorism has no place in jihad. There is one justification, in Islamic law, for jihad: when a nation becomes a Dar ul Harb (House of War) rather than a Dar ul Islam (House of Islam). Can India be declared a Dar ul Harb?

A Big 19th Century Question has seeped into the 21st.

The collapse of the Mughals from around 1720 witnessed the rise of regional powers, and substantial Muslim populations began living under the rule of Marathas and Rajputs. In 1803, the British broke through Maratha resistance and reached Delhi, where the wobbly Mughals became a protected species. That year, Shah Abdul Aziz, heir of Shah Waliullah and the most respected theologian of his time, declared India a Dar ul Harb because British law would prevail over the law of Islam. This inspired a jihad by his disciples (principally Ahmad Saeed Barelvi and his successors) that lasted till the last quarter of the century; 1857 was only one episode in a long war.

The interesting point is that there had never been a similar fatwa against any Hindu ruler of India, and the Barelvis sought and received help from the Marathas. Muslims never considered living under Hindu rulers a cause for jihad because Hindu rulers respected their right to practise their faith as they wished.

As late as in 1871, Sir William Hunter, the famous ICS officer, was attempting to answer the question, "Are the Indian Mussalmans bound by their Religion to rebel against the Queen?" He recorded the considered views of a number of alim. The answer, in essence, was that if a Muslim was permitted to live by his own law, the Raj could be considered a House of Islam. Muslim personal law was incorporated into the Raj code. Free India, through Constitutional statute and practice, permits Indian Muslims full rights to the exercise of their faith. You may not be able to hear the amplified azaan in London or Washington, but you can in Delhi.

Aberrations like riots do not change this fundamental reality. If that were so, Pakistani Shias would be entitled to declare a jihad against Pakistan since they have repeatedly suffered from communal violence.

Justice and equality are the heart and soul of the Quran, and the Holy Book knows what justice would do to a fasadi.

Appeared in Times of India, August 10, 2008

There are no Role Models

There are no Role Models
By M J Akbar
(Leader Article in TOI)

Bollywood is the clearest mirror of popular perceptions, reflecting part of the truth even as it shapes other parts. Truth, after all, is a set of fragments, some contradictory, some complementary. When and how did the Indian Muslim become an indelible part of the Bollywood underworld. The arc of decline from the misty world of Nawabs in Mere Mehboob to the sentimental glitz of goons in Maqbool is a trajectory of shifting role models among Muslim youth.

Villains change on screen as necessarily as they shift outside the cinema hall. The three stereotype villains of the Fifties all belonged to upper Hindu castes. There was the violent, exploitative Thakur, whether in a classic like the Dilip Kumar-Vyjanthimala Madhumati or a potboiler like the Dharmendra-Jayalalitha Izzat. The scheming Brahmin, Narada, was a constant of mythologicals. The Bania moneylender, epitomised in Mother India , was the worst, leering at women and extracting wealth out of famine. These were not single-dimensional images: there was also the noble, patriotic, generous Thakur syndrome, for instance. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of Sholay was the armless Thakur, turned impotent in the line of duty.

Eventually, happy-go-lucky vagrants destroyed the evil Gabbar Singh. By 1976 the saviour had become a variation of the emerging audience. As befits the new corporate age, crime became more professional and sophisticated, and space between smuggling, business and politics narrowed. Gradually, the Muslim became the primary face among the foot soldiers of the underworld. A role model must merge contemporary compulsions and aspirations. The model for young Muslims in the 1940s was obviously Jinnah. They were oblivious of the traumatic potential of partition, and were charred by the killing hot winds of 1947 and the Fifties.

Nehru, rather than Gandhi (who they had rejected), became the new model as he began, gently, to restore their self-confidence and nurture some degree of security. But the security was partial, and Nehru did little to reverse the marginalisation of Muslims from the economy. The Sixties were the decade of despair. Desperation discovered a strange role model: Haji Mastan.

In the disturbed, distraught and fragmented mind of Muslim youth of the Sixties, no one else seemed to be giving Muslims any jobs. Since they had no faith in the white economy, and the white economy seemed to have no faith in them, they turned to the black economy. Haji Mastan was so impressed by the support he seemed to get from the community that he even started a political party. It did not work because crime does not work. What was the alternative? The elite had disappeared on the auction blocks of Lucknow and Hyderabad (pace Mere Mehboob); the professional middle class of the north had migrated to Pakistan in large numbers. Muslims felt deeply betrayed by Congress politicians, with their litany of double standards. The anger sharpened during the politics of Babri masjid: the Congress was responsible for everything, from the opening of the locks in 1948 to laying the foundation stone of the temple in 1989 to indifference while the mosque was destroyed in 1992.

The BJP was the perceived enemy, of course, but the BJP could not be accused of betrayal, because it had never been trusted. In this vacuum, the hysterical mullah, or his counterpart, became the role model of the Seventies and Eighties. There is little point in naming the prominent among them, for they turned irrelevant as quickly as they ascended. The demolition of Babri in 1992, the riots that followed and the bomb blasts of Mumbai in 1993, were a historical watershed. You cannot be disillusioned if you do not entertain illusions, so there was no rise in bitterness against the Congress; but there was sudden disillusionment with the Muslim purveyors of rabid rhetoric. The role model split after Babri. The overwhelming sentiment is for a new Sir Sayyid Ahmad, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, who argued that salvation lay in both English and the English, the emblems of progress and success. This is not a revival of the politics of separation; Indian Muslims know that they are the chief victims of partition. This is a revival of the culture of modern education. I have argued at every public forum, and in my writing, that this thrust will not achieve its full potential until the girl child gets an equal place in the Indian Muslim's quest for modernity.

If gender bias is not eliminated, Indian Muslims cannot enter the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The good news is that girls are being educated in far greater numbers than ever before. But there was another role model lurking in a corner of the consciousness, born out of the belief that those who started riots against Muslims were stopped only because of the 1993 blasts. The anger of the victim justified terrorism. This is a minuscule section, but it exists and has merged its fantasies with the Osama bin Laden phenomenon. This is the wart that could poison the future. It will not be eliminated by arbitrary repression; but it can disappear with the assimilation of the community into economic growth and educational opportunity.

Fifteen years after the watershed moment of 1992, Indian Muslims have reached another crossroads. The overwhelming majority will travel the road towards progress out of nothing more complicated than common sense. But there is a regressive minority within this minority. It needs as never before the leadership of a modern Sir Sayyid. History has offered a role, but there is no one capable of being model.

(Appeared in Times of India, Mumbai - 30 May 2008 )

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Mumbai is the heart of Muslim Terrorism

Why mumbai is the heart of Muslim terrorism
M.J. Akbar
(In Covert : 16-31st August 2008)[Subscribe]

There are only two Mumbai Muslims whose lives have been made the subject of movies that were released commercially. One film was official, financed by the Government of Pakistan. The other was unofficial, and fictionalised, made by the Mumbai film industry. The film on Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a tribute to a stalwart whose admirers will not tolerate a word of criticism against him. The second man evoked a strange kind of fascination because his was the story of unparalleled success against unbelievable odds, a trajectory that could only be measured by the thespian skills of an Amitabh Bachchan. This person was called Mastan Mirza in life, and is near-legendary as Haji Mastan. The first was the ultimate law-abider, a man who refused to break the law even as part of the freedom movement. The second made a fabulous career out of contempt for the law: and within the decline from the sublime to the unfortunate as role models lies the tragedy called the history of Indian Muslims in the second half of the 20th century.

After a public career that saw as many ebbs as flows, Jinnah emerged as the great hero of Indian Muslims by the late Thirties. Pakistanis, naturally, placed him on a heroic pedestal after 1947, while Muslims who remained in the mother-country shrunk from the memory of past adoration. Out of insecurity and trepidation, they shifted their trust to Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru honoured their trust, and initiated the gradual process of restoring their self-confidence. But he could not give them jobs. The thin middle class among Indian Muslims were denied jobs in both the public and the private sectors in the Fifties and Sixties; while their poor were exploited by whoever [including the wealthier Muslims] threw a few crumbs in their way.

Curiously, a now-forgotten, impossibly puritan Congress leader, Morarji Desai, became an improbable source of relief when as Nehru’s Finance Minister he passed the Gold Control Order. No politician should be so foolish as to come between an Indian woman and gold. The age of smuggling began in earnest. The saviour-model of Mumbai’s young Muslims shifted from Nehru to Haji Mastan. The former might have given inspiring speeches, but talk could not compete with nourishing work. The shift was entirely logical and justifiable. If you do not give the young a place in the white economy, where else will he go except the black economy? He is not a saint that he is going to starve to death. Bollywood has tracked the change. Till the Fifties and the Sixties there used to be a movie genre called Muslim social. Today, that might be called Muslim anti-social. By and large, this world was content to live below the surface, expanding its clout in cinema through financing, but unable to break through into respectable space, although Haji Mastan did personally emerge to settle down in Malabar Hill and even start a political party that dreamt of an alliance between Muslims and Dalits. The party flopped. Mastan died in his bed. The most startling aspect of the email sent by the previously little-known, but proudly terrorist, group self-styled the Indian Mujahideen, is that it was written in perfect English. This itself has created suspicions about whether it is real, or a plant. Those who consider these terrorist attacks to be a conspiracy always have enough questions to raise doubts. But, in the absence of concrete proof to the contrary we must assume that these organisations are based in some reality. Certainly the havoc they create is real, and the impact on non-Muslims is sulphurous.

The email destroys the subliminal connect we make between terror and deprivation; this is the work of someone who speaks English and therefore must be educated. He must belong to a widespread organisation, with links in Mumbai, Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Bangalore at the very least, and possibly in Chennai and certain cities of Kerala as well. These members may not be part of a single group; they may be scattered over different work environments. They have organisational skills of high capability, and managerial talent, or they would not have been able to coordinate the different elements of a complex operation so smoothly. I cannot imagine that they would have acquired these skills in legitimate business; they are more comprehensible as part of the management structure of the Mumbai criminal world. The email was traced to Sanpada in Navi Mumbai. Three Wagon Rs and one Maruti 800 were stolen and driven through Surat to Vadodara, where bombs were loaded. 24 unexploded bombs have been found, and there may be more.

There has to be some explanation for such a smooth operation. We tend to think of crime as primitive activity. Cloaks, dagger and masks are for comic books. Crime is much more than theft. Smuggling is as sophisticated a business, run by economic rules and managed by accountants and experts in purchase, storage, delivery, marketing and price sensitivity as any other business. Its volumes demand a large network of personnel on the soft side. A very small group is slowly distilled into the hard, dark side, to become killers and dons; the majority live in the grey area, and are thankful that they have some sustenance for their families. Their rewards would be significantly less, but they would be more at peace with themselves. They would have normal aspirations, hoping to bring up children who could get an education and find a job outside their nexus. The hard criminal graduates to violence and killing, an occupational hazard. It is from this small pool that the effective terrorist, the planner and the killer, emerges. Support for terrorism doubtless comes from a wider pool, but there is a wide gap between desire and delivery. Once the young are impelled towards violence, it is easy to reroute a core element into mass terrorism, particularly through false lure of pseudo-religion. A seminal moment for Mumbai Muslims came during the riots of 1992 and 1993 after the demolition of the Babri mosque, when Narasimha Rao and Sharad Pawar were presiding over the fate of the nation. To cut a long and grievous story short, those riots stopped only when in March an underworld-terrorist response brought down seven buildings in Mumbai. The message is still heard: the state terror that permits riots against Muslims can only be stopped by counter-terror.

The underworld has a natural contempt for the Indian state, for the daily face of the state is the policeman. It knows that the police is corrupt, it corrupts the police. It knows that India is a nation of crime without punishment. There have been innumerable instances of terrorism, and no one has been caught. The state seems incapable of finding the guilty, and impotent on the rare occasion when guilt is established.

The terrorist’s reasons may vary. There might be a terrible fusion of victimisation and frustration that drives him to believe that the most fitting way in which he can take revenge upon India is by destroying the nation’s peace, both directly and indirectly. The indirect desire is to provoke a communal backlash, and hope for a repeat of a Gujarat-style carnage, which can fuel the next generation of terrorists. It is possible that this is why three BJP-run states were targeted, and it must have been great disappointment that even Narendra Modi did not oblige. Modi managed the consequences with a calm skill he should have shown six years ago.

But the repeated instances of terrorism by Muslim groups are defaming the community, creating a scare within and anger outside. It has almost become ritualistic for Muslim men and women to protest against terror attacks, but the ritual is important because the mass of Muslims genuinely do not want to become trapped by a violent fringe. They know that their future lies in some form of accommodation with the non-Muslim, that terrorism is a disease that will kill the community as easily as it kills the other. The self-inflicted wounds of terrorism are only one of the many injuries on the body politics of Indian Muslims.

And they cannot find the leadership to heal the wounds. Why?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Melody needed Poetry, Sound needs Phonetics

Byline by M J Akbar: Melody needed Poetry, Sound needs Phonetics
How many songs can you remember from the last 21 years? How many songs can you forget from the 21 years previous to Rafi's death? Hamburger versus biryani: if you don't know the difference, you'll never get it.

A child born in the year that Kishore Kumar died would be 21 years in the first week of August, out of college and already well into the most movie-and-music intense phase of his life. And if he had been born on 31 July 1980, the day Mohammad Rafi died, he would most likely be sharing baby duties with his wife. Would either be aware of the age of melody that they had missed?

Temperamentally, Rafi and Kishore were as far apart as men can be, and I am not talking geography, although one came from Lahore and the other from Khandwa. Kishore Kumar came to Bombay to sing, but could not get work because he had not been trained in classical music. His elder brother, Ashok Kumar, already a hit star, advised him to make a bit of money by acting. It would be safe to say that every film Kishore made was an autobiography. He was as mad off-screen as he was zany on-screen. He couldn't keep his limbs still, and his first songs were commissioned as part of patter-and-song comedy. He was the first, and only Hindi film singer with the ability to yodel, but of course yodelling was considered outrageously hilarious in the mores of those times. But the extraordinary timber of his voice seeped silkily through the false-front of ina-mina-dika nonsense-verse. It was only a matter of time before Dev Anand picked him up, and although Teen Deviyan, in which Dev woos three highly forgettable ladies, was a flop, its music was a singular success with the Kishore croon in full flow. [Raj Kapoor owned Mukesh, Dilip Kumar had first rights over Rafi; Dev floated.] Even when he sang in B-grade films like Mr X in Bombay Kishore could lift the music above the movie. When he made Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein, whose music was a superhit, Kishore proved that his range could match that of Rafi. His one song in Guide was incomparable.

Rafi was the gentlest, most respectable person you could meet in Bombay, an artiste of the highest quality without a trace of the airs and arrogance that trail stars. He was grounded in classical music; he could not have sung the superb bhajan, Hari Om otherwise. The repertoire was unmatched, from O duniya ke rakhwale to Apni to har aah ik toofan hai to Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai to Chu lene do naazuk hoton ko kuch aur nahin hain jaam hain yeh to Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe to a thousand I could name and still feel that I had not done justice to Rafi.

Kishore Kumar made his first film, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, for the oddest of reasons in an industry driven by greed and commerce. He hoped that it would flop and he would lose all his money. His logic went thus. He had reached the top income tax bracket and hated the thought of handing out money coldly to a Delhi bureaucrat. He decided that he might as well have fun wasting it on a movie. Unfortunately, the film — starring all three Kumar brothers, Ashok, Kishore and Anup — became a breathtaking superhit. Kishore Kumar was so upset that he gave all the rights of the film to his secretary.

The story has to be true. No one could have made it up, except possibly Kishore Kumar — but why make up something you can do? As it turned out, Kishore Kumar fell in love with the leading lady of his film, the glorious Madhubala, and married her, which turned out to be an expensive proposition as well. Poor rich chap.

Kishore would have been 79 today if he had been alive, about the average age for a top politician, and far better value for Indians. Rafi died of that typical Lahori-Punjabi weakness, good, rich food. Melody ebbed with them, leaving space for the emergence of the age of sound.

I do not mean to disparage contemporary music; some of it is quite attractive, and even good for health, sometimes inducing the only form of exercise I get. And who can ignore the fact that India's growth rate was three per cent in the age of melody and is nine per cent in the age of sound? Dare sniff at that, if you can. It is simply that the two worlds are not only in different time zones, but set against cultural horizons that would not recognise each other. The pecking order of the senses has changed along with sensibilities. The ear has surrendered to the foot. You cannot really sing along with most modern Hindi film songs, but you can dance. The shift began with the arrival of the discotheque as a quasi-sexual sub-culture. It has been raised into a highly lucrative stratosphere by television. The passé singing contest, Antakshari, is dowdy and very Doordarshanish compared to the sexy dance contests on television that are now a staple of small town and middle India. Nautch, a professional art, was once the privilege of the racier section of the elite. Sexy gyrations, meant for display before millions, are now the fantasy of possessive sari-clad middle class mothers for their middle class daughters.

Melody needed poetry; sound needs phonetics. Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Neeraj: it is good that you died natural deaths. These days you would have starved to death before Mumbai cinema commissioned your poetry.

The greats of the Old World add up to an untidy acronym, LAGAMMMMK. I know it sounds like the name of a movie as redone by a numerologist, a la Singh is Kinng. Less glamorously, it stands for [ladies first] Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhonsle, four Ms — Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Hemant Mukherjee, ending with Kishore Kumar. Mukesh and Hemant sang within a much narrower focus than the others on the list, but they were yet superior from the current stars, exceptions apart, who tend to repeat the same song with marginal variations in beat and accompaniment. The difference is between type and stereotype. One has to admit, though, that stereotypes end up with a much larger bank balance.

Perhaps the most authentic indicator is the average life of a hit song. Popular music of the Sixties and Seventies still packs the shelves of shops, and even the Fifties get a healthy look-in. Current hits are like floodtides. They swamp the market and then disappear. They are suddenly everywhere, and suddenly nowhere. How many songs can you remember from the last 21 years? How many songs can you forget from the 21 years previous to Rafi's death? Hamburger versus biryani: if you don't know the difference, you'll never get it.

Is nostalgia the last temptation of the bore? It isn't as if the thought hasn't crossed my mind while I was writing this column. And yet, and yet. Permit me the luxury of pity — pity for those who were born two and three decades ago and have not discovered Rafi and Kishore. They have one advantage though: they still have time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Identity Wars

Byline by M J Akbar: IDENTITY WARS

Identity wars are raging both on and just below the surface of India. A few acres of land for pilgrims to Amarnath is not the real issue. The hyperventilation of Kashmir's valley politicians is even less so. These politicians, whose concern for Jammu is, to put it politely, less than emotional, are merely seeking to fertilise the shrunk seeds of a now arid insurrection. What we are seeing is street wars over rights and possession in a multi-ethnic, multi-polar state that has gone flabby with complacency at the top and corruption from top to bottom. Competing identities, released from any discipline by a democracy where appeasement has become the key to electoral success, are constantly trying to encroach across political and psychological boundaries.

To a certain degree this is inevitable. Competition is an integral part of freedom. But, as always, it is the degree that becomes the problem. Democracy cannot be digested when raw, and turns poisonous when over-ripe.

After 1947, free India realigned itself around language. India has always been a mix of linguistic regions, but there had never been political empowerment around linguistic identity. A linguistic region, Rajasthan or Orissa, might have dozens of principalities; conversely an empire might stretch from Punjab to Bengal and govern in a state language that belonged to no one, Persian or English.

Indians relished the post-feudal-colonial states as a historic gift. We know how possessive they became about language in the South. But even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who share so much linguistic and cultural overlap, have developed completely different politics. Till the early Eighties, they shared the same political mood, but now their regional parties have no influence in the neighbouring province. The formation of smaller states like Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh proves that the Indian polity retains the elasticity to accommodate fresh identity-pressures without injuring the whole.

But two powerful identities could not find political space in modern India, the Dalits and Muslims. The principal reason was that there was neither geographical nor linguistic consolidation in these two communities. In that sense, Dalits and Muslims can be called the two national communities of the country. Kashmir might be Muslim-majority, but Kashmiri Muslims never identified with Muslims in the rest of the country, and Muslims elsewhere returned the dubious compliment. This is why the Jammu agitation does not carry the spark of communal violence that can spread into the Ganga-Jamuna belt. The best that the few acres would elicit from non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims would be a shrug. Similarly, Nagaland might be a Christian-majority state, but the other Indian Christians do not see it as part of any common identity. Indian Christians do not have a specific political space either, but they are too thinly spread. Sikhs, in contrast, are in a consolidated area with a specific language and thus have successfully wrested a state that was denied to them in 1954, when linguistic states were chalked out.

The linguistic realignment of India became an effective bar to the rise of new leaderships, since states are the natural cocoon for emerging leaders. No one sought this deliberately, but even accidents have consequences. Muslims, in any case, were never going to be trusted easily after the creation of Pakistan, and the continuing haemorrhage in Kashmir. If India is determined about anything today, it is about its unity.

Dalits had one advantage; they were above suspicion. And so their first genuine leader, Kanshi Ram, could energise a dormant community through radical slogans that might have provoked violence if it had come from anyone else. Kanshi Ram, a genius, found a brilliant successor in Mayawati. She knitted an amazing coalition that made her Chief Minister of India's most important province and empowered Dalits to an extent that can change the social dynamic of Indian society.

The Congress used to recognise the need for creating for what might be called artificial political space for Muslims. Mrs Indira Gandhi was far more conscious of this than her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. She always tried to keep a Muslim or two in the Congress mix of Chief Ministers. She gave Bihar its only Muslim Chief Minister, Abdul Ghafoor. Her most daring experiment was to make Abdur Rahman Antulay Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1980. Antulay underestimated his opposition and overplayed his hand. Maharashtra is not going to get a Muslim Chief Minister again.

Neither Dalit nor Muslim has been able to grow at the pace of the Indian economy. For Muslims this is especially frustrating because they remember their past as a success story. The Muslim stereotype used to define all the pleasure of high living: great cuisine, a fine dress sense, education, high poetry. Unable to afford their traditional self-image, they are now seeking identity-assertion through visual metaphors of faith: short pyjamas, long beards, rimless caps, spotted male foreheads. For those who might wonder about the last, an increasing number of Muslim men create a dark spot on their foreheads to suggest that they are saying the namaaz so often that a spot has formed. It is a pious fraud, of course, but prevalent nevertheless. (Muslims do not wear rims on their headgear because a rim would prevent the forehead from touching the floor during namaaz.) There is also a new hum around shrines: travel east and west of Delhi and you will see fresh building activity around shrines, mosques and madrasas.

All this is public activity. The Hindu sees it, accepts it, and carries on with his own life and religion. There is an equal upsurge in Hindu religiosity, whether on evangelical television or in the number of Kanwariyas going barefoot to worship Lord Shiva. There may even be an unstated competitiveness, but the Muslim and Hindu tides take care not to flood beyond their own territory.

But there is always a flashpoint lurking in the subconscious, waiting to explode. The trigger is hurt, a grievance that emerges from a perceived sense of injustice. The Hindu who has quietly watched mosque and dargah expand around him, explodes when a few acres are denied to pilgrims on the arduous trek to Amarnath. He has seen Haj Houses sprout around him for Muslims on their way to Mecca. These Haj Houses are not loaned to the community for the two months involved in the two-way journey for Haj; they have become community centres all year round. He asks a question: why should he be denied a place for tired feet on the way to Amarnath?

There is fundamental disconnect at a critical seam: the Muslim sees himself as a victim, the non-Muslim views him as a perpetrator of turbulence and injustice. The image leaps across time, bypassing inconsistencies, ignoring facts. Foolish politicians like Lalu Yadav, who seek the mass by pandering to the extreme, do Muslims great harm. His latest, in which he has the company of Mulayam Singh Yadav, is to offer SIMI a certificate of innocence even while the government of which he is a part goes to the Supreme Court to ban the organisation. If Lalu Yadav has the courage of his convictions then he should resign on this issue. If not, he should keep his garrulous tongue under control. The extremist Muslim, of course, takes comfort in such contradictions, and retreats to his haven convinced that between corruption, complacence and appeasement his excesses will remain unpunished.

This is a moment that demands sagacious leadership. The government is lost in gazing at its navel, or in the manipulation of currency notes, with neither the language to soothe a wound, nor the will to confront an aggressor. An individual can afford the luxury of indifference. A nation cannot.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Band Aid for Cancer

Byline by M J Akbar: Band Aid for Cancer

The most serious instance of comfort food was the formulation he offered to his good friend George W. Bush during the latter's official visit to India. He said that no Indian Muslim was involved in terrorism, and offered as evidence that you could not find any Indian Muslim in Osama's Al Qaeda. President Bush, in his wisdom, picked this up as proof of his theory that democracy was a panacea for all ills. Not only did democracies never go to war against one another, but they also managed to secure Indian Muslims from the temptations of terrorism.
In the general elections of 2004 the irrepressible and sometimes irresponsible Lalu Prasad Yadav used to tow around a maulvi when in campaign mode. Nothing particularly wrong with that. Politicians have this tendency to turn mullahs into best friends at election time. What was the particular competence of this maulvi that attracted Lalu Yadav? Was he a great alim, or scholar, erudite in the finer points of Sharia? Was he a fine economist with specialised knowledge in the intricate problems of rural Bihar?

The reason was less subtle. He was a lookalike of Osama bin Laden. He even handed out autographs signed "Osama".

Lalu Yadav sent out two unmissable signals with his thoughtless pandering. He told non-Muslims that the true role model of all Bihar Muslims, irrespective of what they said in their politically-correct avatar, was a person whose name had become synonymous with terrorism. And he told Muslims, particularly their impressionable young, that Osama was a legitimate role model.

Did Mrs Sonia Gandhi, an ally of Lalu Yadav, question him or even raise the subject? Not a word. Votes were more important, even if they came in the name of Osama bin Laden. Did the subject arise when Mrs Gandhi offered Lalu Yadav a prominent place in Dr Manmohan Singh's Cabinet?


To be fair to Lalu, this travelling Osama was not by his side in the Assembly elections that soon followed the general elections. He had switched over — or, to be more precise, had been purchased by — Ram Vilas Paswan. Did the Congress ask questions this time around? Not a chance. Votes votes votes: that was the only morality. It was all dismissed as a joke, and the laughter was doubtless very hearty in the comfortable drawing rooms of Lutyens' Delhi.

The joke has soured on the killing fields of Malegaon, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and a roster of cities that could enter the list of dread. The dead do not laugh even when there is a comedian as rich in range as Lalu Yadav.

The innocents have been killed and maimed by terrorists who have Osama bin Laden as their inspiration. I could produce a spread of direct and indirect evidence, from the manifesto of Indian Mujahideen to the taped speeches of Mohammad Masood Azhar (released by the BJP during the bargain over the hijacked Indian Airlines) to the honorifics used by "commanders" of the terror groups. A little will suffice. Zakir Naik, a television evangelist who has a devoted following among the terror groups, glorifies Osama as the ultimate Islamic hero. On a different level, Maulana Sufiyan Patanigia, once head of the Lal Masjid seminary in Ahmedabad, and now on a revenge mission after the Gujarat carnage of 2002, is known as the Indian Mullah Omar, while his deputy Suhail Khan delights in the nickname "Chota Osama". The hate literature spawned by the Indian terrorist groups are full of the anti-Hindu venom that is encouraged by organisations like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, with its haven in Pakistan.

Common sense would suggest that those Indian politicians who claim to have some sympathy for Indian Muslims would seek, in their speeches, to create a distance between this deadly extreme fringe and the broad mass of the community, not only because this was wise but primarily because this was true. Instead, such of their ilk who are in the present government in Delhi have indulged in a curious, and inexplicable, dichotomy. On the one side the Lalu Yadavs tout an Osama to fuel the worst kind of sentiment. And, on the other, there is what amounts to a complete denial that is inconsistent with facts. The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, seems to subsist on comfort food, perhaps because the truth is politically indigestible.

The most serious instance of comfort food was the formulation he offered to his good friend George W. Bush during the latter's official visit to India. He said that no Indian Muslim was involved in terrorism, and offered as evidence that you could not find any Indian Muslim in Osama's Al Qaeda. President Bush, in his wisdom, picked this up as proof of his theory that democracy was a panacea for all ills. Not only did democracies never go to war against one another, but they also managed to secure Indian Muslims from the temptations of terrorism.

Dr Singh had clearly not consulted his intelligence agencies when he came to such a conclusion. Even a check with the Mumbai courts might have persuaded him otherwise. Indian nationals have been involved in terrorist conspiracies at least since 1993, after the trauma of the demolition of the Babri mosque and the Congress government's startling indifference to both its loss and the communal havoc that ensued. It is possible that Dr Singh meant well. But self- delusion is not diagnosis. It is perhaps such a frame of mind that takes the government towards a soft view of the guilt of Afzal Guru. Afzal Guru has been convicted for possibly the most outrageous attack on the Indian state. His conviction has been confirmed by the Supreme Court. There are no more legal avenues to traverse.

Look at this situation from the point of view of the veteran or the prospective terrorist. To start with, he knows that in India there is a lot of crime and very little punishment. If the guilty do get caught, it is often fortuitously. For lesser crimes, corruption is the sanctioned solution. For unforgivable crimes like terrorism, there is a pattern. An incident occurs, and lights flare in media. Worthy dignitaries visit the site and trot off to hospital. The Home Minister of India repeats the same inane things he has been saying for four years. And then everyone retreats into the default mode of complacency. What is there to worry about? And when an Afzal Guru is caught and convicted, the state dithers. Perhaps this is why the Indian Mujahideen had the belligerence to taunt the government, through an email (sent before the timers wreaked their damage) that they were Indians and that there was little use in explaining this away with alibis.
The most interesting characteristic about homegrown terrorism is the degree of sophistication it has acquired. The Ahmedabad bombings began with an automobile theft in Navi Mumbai; the cars travelled to Surat and Vadodara to pick up their arsenals before reaching Ahmedabad. The detonators were timed to inflict maximum damage on innocents, with a first, second and third tier of victims. This is a large operation from mastermind to foot soldiers, with a foreign connection but an Indian network. If our policecannot fold in a net, then policing has lost all meaning.

The battle is in India. India is being poisoned with a cancer. And all the government has as an answer is Band Aid.