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Monday, July 20, 2009

Troubling Aspects Of The Bomb Blasts

By Firdaus Ahmed

16 September, 2008

If you have lost something on a dark night on a road lit by streetlights, it wouldn’t do if you only look for it under the light of the streetlights. This is what is currently happening with the bomb blast investigations. The usual suspects have been lined up – SIMI, HUJI, Lashkar e Tayyaba etc. There is no doubt that these outfits require to be under the scanner constantly. Investigations do serve the purpose of forcing these terrorist groups onto the backfoot. They also defuse any anger in the majority community that the provocative blasts and accompanying commentary in the form of incendiary emails is designed to stimulate. With investigation agencies seen as pursuing the perpetrators with vigour, any impulse of retaliation against the minority with mob frenzy is degraded. However, there are some troubling aspects, presently unnoticed, that need to be in the public discourse.

First is the choice of ‘al Arabi’ as the nom de guerre of the mastermind behind the emails. It can be expected that the person sending the emails is Muslim and is likely well versed with Islamic thinking. However, his choice of al Arabi is not the most apposite one. Wikipedia informs us Ibn al Arabi (July 28, 1165-November 10, 1240) was an Arab Sufi Muslim mystic and philosopher. Noted historian and Professor at Fletcher’s School of Law and Diplomacy at Tuft’s University, Ayesha Jalal, in her recently published book ‘Partisans of Allah’ says that because of his belief that the sacred was immanent in the world, he preached respect for other human beings irrespective of their specific religious traditions. His school of thought popularised his main ideas under the concept ‘wahdut al wujud’ – literally, ‘the unity of creation’, that perceived ‘Many as One, and One as Many’. This was in contrast with the opposed school ‘wahdut al shuhud’ (‘unity of appearances’), the adherents of which led by the known icon of fundamentalists, ibn Taymiyya, charged al Arabi of pantheism amounting to ‘shirk’ or the sin of association with God. His position was also attacked by Sirhandi, a medieval Islamic theologian who opposed Akbar’s policy of religious synthesis. He criticised al Arabi for rejecting the difference between Islam and infidelity (kufr) and thereby suggesting the status of infidels might be equivalent to that of believers.

Clearly, anyone so passionate as to let of bomb attacks in the name of religion would not subscribe to al Arabi’s vision. He would certainly not be using his name but would likely use that of his detractors. Therefore, the use of the al Arabi in the email id is a clue that investigation agencies need to look at. Deciding on the email id would not have been a job the perpetrators would have done without some thought since the public, who they wish to influence, would associate their deeds with this name. Clearly, not having been thought up by one who knows his Islam, it begs the question as to who else could have coined it.

Such an error has a notable precedence. The name ‘Al Faran’ of the terrorist group in Kashmir in the mid Nineties, that had held four foreigners hostage and later killed, turned out not to exist as a word in any language - Arabic or of Turkic origin. This put the incident into cloud, a suspicion reinforced by the extraordinary coincidence that the only foreigner who managed to escape was picked up by a helicopter of the Adviser to Governor then overhead the mountainous and forested fastness! While this episode may have been an intelligence operation by the state, the technique of influencing perceptions through action is not the provenance of the state alone. Non state actors are in it too as terrorism itself testifies.

Even the content of the email is worth attention. These are elaborate – the latest one being thirteen pages long - and virtually amount to a manifesto of hate. It has been commented by no less a terrorism watcher than the knowledgeable Praveen Swami that the writing is in the tradition of prose used in Lashkar propaganda pamphlets. This is a pointer to the origins of the email. Surely, then the originator would not then be operating under a mistaken email id. Instead, it brings to fore the possibility that the content of the email, though having a likeness to Islamist writings, could have been drafted by one familiar with these. This can be done by anyone literate and interested enough. Anyone in a creative writing class can replicate such an email after a few visit to the numerous hate sites of every community that exist on the world wide web.

Two other aspects of the emails provide us clues on the likelihood that they may have been designed to mislead. The first is from its previous email that preceded the Ahmedabad blasts. In it the terrorists refer to themselves as terrorists. This is not how terrorists would perceive themselves. They would instead believe themselves to be ghazis and would project themselves accordingly. In the same email, they have gone out of their way to warn off the likes of Lashkar from claiming the blasts and making it a point to mention that they have an indigenous origin. This is exactly how an impersonator group may like to wish the act to be perceived – one perpetrated by an Indian terrorist group. Therefore the selection of the name Indian Mujahedeen. Thus making the linkage explicit.

The second is that the email heralding the Delhi blasts included a reference for the first time to the two martyrs of the jihad against the Sikhs, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Shah Ismail, in early eighteenth century. There is a whole chapter on these figures in Ayesha Jalal’s book that she launched in India only a month ago. These figures she considers important to development of ‘South Asian’ thinking on Jihad. They however do not figure in the Indian consciousness to the extent described by Jalal. For Jalal, whose origins are in Lahore, they are larger than life figures and therefore merit a chapter in her book. These historical personalities have suddenly found their into Indian milieu, though even Indian history students would find them hard to place. This means that the writers are not Indian Muslims. They could be from the land that takes them more seriously as inspiration. More likely, they have been alighted on by writers of the email in their hasty research to add authenticity to the email so as to make the linkage between the origin and a community more thorough. Since the book has just hit the stands with a splash, it has provided them the material needed, particularly as Jalal says that the duo are a motivation to jihadis who have their camps around the place of their martyrdom at Balakot near Kashmir in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Of course it could be countered that having trained at these camps the Indian Mujahedeen has also been influenced. But then the timing of their entry into an Indian consciousness does raise suspicion enough to include as a clue for investigation agencies to take seriously.

Therefore there is no need to restrict oneself to the usual suspects. There is a case for expansion of the list to include those with a motive. As any Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes' fan would know, possible motives guide investigation. While it is known that disaffected elements in minority have possible motives, such as revenge for perceived past wrongs, inciting majority reprisal etc., there is a case for widening of the list to include covert extremist groups in the majority community.

It does not require one to be overly cynical, but only worldly wise, to know that there exists a covert world. Political scientists studying communalism have revealed how riots were engineered in India in the Sixties through to the Eighties to influence elections. In such riots lasting a few days many people were killed and much property destroyed. Such riots are no longer occurring with their earlier frequency. What is happening now is the increased incidence of bomb blasts. There is no reason to presume that the ones who engineered riots in the earlier era would have any qualms in refraining from blasts. The only difference between blasts and riots is that the former is an incident restricted in time and space. Thus if political power is at stake there is enough incentive to resort to illegitimate methods. Utilitarian reasoning provides the legitimacy in that these are excusable in the ethical framework of ‘wider good for the wider number’. With elections due, there is no reason why a climate of insecurity would not have electoral dividend, especially with the preceding discourse already having created the conditions in which agents of the minority are solely taken as culprits by default. This amounts to no less than a ‘double whammy’!

That this is not overly far fetched is evident from the BJP leader Shrimati Swaraj stating confidently, in wake of the earlier set of blasts that occurred in BJP ruled states, that these could have been the handiwork of Congress agents! It of course does not need much political acumen to alight at who insecurity would serve to assist electorally, particularly with the incumbent riding high on a vote of confidence. It is possible that the central government is aware of some information that is too hot politically to handly; else by now it would have replaced its Home Minister for incompetence. That it has not done so is revealing. So is its case for a new federal agency to probe such cases, since it is possible that, among other reasons, such an agency is the dire need perhaps on account of some sections of state law appartuses being subverted or suborned.

Naivety is not an affordable luxury today for these are not innocent times. In the instant case, the imprint of non-state actors from far right extremist groups of the majority cannot be ruled out. Their showing in riots of the Nineties and in Gujarat shows that they would not be squeamish in resorting to the reprehensible tactics used, such as bombing hospitals to which casualties of their handiwork were evacuated to. Instead consider this: if the minority based terrorist group is to be maligned and by extension the minority, then the more revolting the act the better. In any case, if bombing is to be used as strategy, then there is unlikely to be any pulling of punches. Power over a billion citizens is a prize worth risking much for.

Obviously, there is little concrete evidence to back this. There wouldn’t be, would there; unless it is explicitly looked out for? Not much evidence that will pass the test in a court of law exists on who is behind the blasts despite close to six months of repeated bombings from Jaipur to Delhi. Does this blank not call for a wider arc of suspicion beyond the well worn eight hundred ‘sleeper cells’ thesis? Have questions competently raised by Teesta Setalvad and Ram Punyani on the Kanpur and Nanded blasts on accidental explosions in bomb-making sites of hindu extremist groups been adequately followed up? Can such suspicions continue anymore to be relegated as ‘conspiracy theories’ cooked up by irresponsible netizens?

The effort here has been to increase the arcs of the streetlights to widen the area of search. If investigation agencies are barking up the wrong tree then there is too great a price to be paid in keeping the street ill lit.

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