Now for a war on error
If Muslim-perpetrated terror creates Islamophobia; smart counter-insurgency should be able to purge it (by eliminating terrorism). Abusive counter-terrorism on the other hand fuels more terror and, therefore, more Islamophobia. Muslims clearly have more at stake in the war on terror than others do.
When coordinated explosions ripped Delhi on September 13, 2008, people, regardless of their faith, retreated into their shells in fear. Five days later, when police shot dead two suspected terrorists — at Delhi’s Batla House on September 19 — one section of the people erupted in anger and protests, while another had fear struck even deeper. Home-grown terror had hit home. The confusion that followed made matters worse.
The war on terror looked different to some Muslims who found themselves under constant surveillance because of their religion. They grappled with a widespread sense that in the eyes of the police, if you were a Muslim, you could be a potential terrorist.
My gut reaction was not of doubt but relief. With two of those responsible killed, a chain of wanton terror acts would finally end, I hoped. Then came the voices of dissent, which were worth listening to.
There are always two sides to a story. In this case, there were three: the police, residents of the Batla House locality, who jumped to the conclusion that those killed could not have been terrorists; and civil society groups who felt there was a thing or two shady about the killings.
I was asked to write a piece for the “Beyond the News” column. My brief was to try and understand, and then analyze, why some people doubted the encounter. Fair enough for a newspaper to do so. There were many things I needed to find out. I had to be careful in making the right deductions and not get swayed one way or the other. The piece I finally wrote was headlined, ‘Why they hate us’. ‘They’ stood for the terrorists. ‘Us’ meant you and me.
Terrorists do not kill or maim, I wrote, simply because they are crazy. They are not. If some of their causes are legitimate and are not inimical to our nation and constitutional means of redressal are available, then addressing these causes should naturally be a part of the terror-prevention strategy. However, this is not to suggest that terrorists should be left alone to kill people at will.
However, in my mind, one thing was abundantly clear. If people doubted the very shootout in which a police officer got killed, then there is something wrong either about the killings or about how people viewed police forces.
It ought to be an acute lack of credibility. And this is one of the reasons: counter-terrorism efforts have largely not been respectful of human rights.
India does not have a rights-respecting police force. The Indian government should take major steps to overhaul a policing system that facilitates and even encourages human rights violations, Human Rights Watch had said in a report released in August 2009, which has been acknowledged by the government. See here. (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/07/29/india-overhaul-abusive-failing-police-system)
It is dangerous for the police not to respect human rights. If counter-insurgency is seen to be harassing, there is a danger of people identifying more with the insurgency than with the government.
Nobody has a greater duty to follow the law than those who make or enforce it. As a thumb rule, lack of trust in the police undermines all efforts of the police themselves. And we should naturally support all efforts of the police to keep us safe from terrorists.
On September 8, 2009, the Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate, S.P. Tamang, had found that the June 2004 killing of Ishrat Jahan, a young girl suspected to be a terrorist, was a case of ‘fake encounter’.
Tamang, in a 243-page hand-written report, concluded that the then ‘encounter specialist’ of Gujarat police, D.G. Vanzara, among others, killed the teenager in cold blood.
Privately, police officers I know by dint of my profession have occasionally admitted that most of the time, they get the wrong guys. An intelligence officer I trust once told me that some of the key people they arrested in the aftermath of Mumbai train blasts turned out be innocents. Tracking terrorists down after all is a difficult job, he said. He however said that was not the case with the young boys killed at Batla House in Jamia Nagar, who were indeed terrorists.
Incidents such as ‘fake encounters’ do not serve to enhance the image of police in the eyes of the public. The failure of the police to police itself creates impunity. This impunity erodes people’s trust in them.
Sometimes however, the police unfairly get the flak when terrorists get away because of want of evidence. As poet Robert Frost once said, a jury consists of twelve persons who decide who has a better lawyer.
However, considering there have always been more misses than hits, I for one would vouch for an independent probe every time police open fire and somebody is wounded or killed.
Defeating terror requires the cooperation of the people. They are less likely to cooperate — or may even sympathise with terrorists — if counter-terror is seen as abusive. Therefore, it is essential for any security force to be subject to the law. This has to do with not just human rights alone, but is smart counter-insurgency strategy too.
The war on terror is necessary and legitimate. But let’s have a war on errors in fighting terror too.