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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The importance of being Asif Ibrahim

The new IB chief's track record has made it impossible for the government to ignore his claim. But for all that, there is more at stake, writes Firdaus Ahmed. 

17 December 2012 - The dust has settled after the announcement that Asif Ibrahim is to be the next IB chief. The controversial issue was not so much on Ibrahim pipping at least three of his seniors to the post, but the fact that he is Muslim. It can be surmised that there could have been little difference between the professional records of his competitors. Professionalism implies being apolitical. Therefore, on the factor, political amenability, all four would have scored similarly.

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But there are two other things worth noting. One, this is a signal of the government's politics. The choice aptly symbolizes - and is meant to, we can be sure of that - a secular democratic India, though it is not quite India's 'Obama moment'. This is therefore a refreshing move of the Congress that has otherwise been perpetually on the brink of losing its political moorings. In effect, it is among the opening gambits for the forthcoming national polls that with Narendra Modi exercising his bid for a national role, will surely compel the grand old party to return to its ideological roots.
Whatever the clinching reason, Asif Ibrahim can hardly be envied. The Muslim community, or more appropriately the multiple communities across India that collectively comprise India's largest minority, has been enthused by the news. He, like it or otherwise, has the weight of their expectations riding on his shoulders, and that is the second noteworthy thing.
The IB, with internal security as remit, has been at odds with India's minority over at least a decade and half. The phenomenon of 'home grown' terrorism has placed Muslims at its cross hairs. The refrain in Muslim drawing rooms is that the terror stereotype has been deliberately foisted on it as a grand design of right wing extremist formations, with the media either unwittingly co-opted or barefacedly complicit. The IB, and its fellow organisations, such as ATS at state level and NIA at the Union, have at best gingerly faced up to the real face of 'home grown'.

Insofar as political motivation finds expression in policing action or intelligence reports, it is seen as ideological penetration of majoritarian extremists of the institutions of state and contamination of professionalism by a virulent strain of the otherwise unexceptionable conservative politics, cultural nationalism.
News reports have cryptically referred to Ibrahim's take on this that could do with some deconstruction. The venerable The Hindu writes, 'To his credit, Mr. Ibrahim was the first one to have a clear sense of the whole Indian Mujahideen movement within the organization.' Outlook has this to say: 'At a time none of us were aware of the Indian Mujahideen, I remember Ibrahim telling us, "Don't look to Pakistan after every terror attack. Look within too."'
While not self-evident, these observations suggest that Ibrahim subscribes to the dominant view that IM is the key source of 'home grown' terror. This has perhaps made him amenable to the government. However, the converse is also possible. Ibrahim may well be a skeptic on the intelligence agency-facilitated and media-generated 'IM' discourse.
There are other sources of such terror, some unexamined to the degree warranted, such as majoritarian extremists masquerading their handiwork as Muslim perpetrated. Clues to that effect have not been taken to their logical conclusion with a degree of professional rectitude; this has allowed the reputation of intelligence agencies and the police to come under a cloud in the minority perspective.
Ibrahim, with a reputation as a thorough professional, will no doubt have to contend with, at a minimum with some selective spring-cleaning, and at a maximum, detoxification. As he proceeds with this, insinuations raised on his nomination will get more strident. Since politics is set to get messier, he will be on a tight rope without a safety net.
The moot question is why the government thinks it necessary to entrust this task to a Muslim officer. The professional instinct of his contenders could equally have been relied on to undertake this. A cynical view in the Muslim commentary on the promotion has been that the government does not really want to reset the professionalism of the intelligence agencies. Entrusting the top job to a Muslim therefore can be its alibi, even while catching it votes: a case of accounting for two birds with one stone.
The unfortunate fact, however, is that officers like Hemant Karkare are getting scarcer. More disturbingly, the check on the motivated stereotype of the suspect Muslim has been marginalised to a narrow left-liberal circle. Even the Congress scion, Rahul Gandhi, cannot openly admit to the graver danger. Wikileaks informs of his venting his reservations instead to the American ambassador once over lunch.
It remains to be seen if two years hence Ibrahim's achievement goes beyond only reaching the pinnacle, or more significantly, once there making the necessary and well overdue difference. Assuming that there would be a government change by then, it is important to act now on this front, lest after another five years, and that too under the opposition's ascendant candidate, it becomes wholly impossible.
Firdaus Ahmed 
17 Dec 2012

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