Events since the unravelling of the Malegaon terror cell illustrate the double-standards, deceit and denial that characterise India’s public discourse on terrorism.
The Indian Mujahideen (IM) warned the citizens of Mumbai through e-mail in September that for all the deadly attacks they faced in future, the city’s Anti-Terrorism squad alone would be responsible. In the e-mail, the Islamist terror group charged the ATS with perpetrating atrocities on Muslims in Mumbai. Politicians of the Islamic right-wing — and not a few well-meaning liberals — joined the chorus, charging the police with running a communal witch-hunt.
The ATS is again facing a barrage of invectives — this time led by Hindutva groups which were cheering it on the successful counter-terrorist campaign against the IM. Last month, ATS investigators held Gujarat-based Hindutva activist Pragnya Singh Thakur and four other key members of a Hindutva terror cell for executing the September 29 bombing outside the Students Islamic Movement of India’s old office in Malegaon. Six Muslims died in the bombings, which the police believe were a reprisal for the IM attacks.
Events since then have offered not a little into the double standards, deceit and denial that characterise India’s public discourse on terrorism. Bharatiya Janata Party president Rajnath Singh proclaimed that there was no evidence against Pragnya, echoing almost verbatim the assertions by Islamist leaders after the arrests of IM suspects. The party spokesperson, Ravi Shankar Prasad, railed against what he described as “Hindu-bashing by pseudo-secularists” — a formulation near-identical to that of Muslim neoconservatives who claim that the police’s counter-terrorism campaign is a plot against Islam. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray went one step further claiming that Hindus were being framed for acts of terror by Islamist conspirators — again, a carbon copy of assertions made earlier in the context of Islamist terror cells. And borrowing the tactics used by some jihadists’ families, Pragnya’s father appeared before the media to proclaim her innocence in an emotional speech.
ATS chief Hemant Karkare and his subordinates ought to be taking pride in a job well done. And Indians, whatever their political beliefs, ought to be very worried.
It is unclear just why anyone should seem surprised at the news that Hindutva groups can spawn terrorism: Mahatma Gandhi’s murderers and their motives are too well known to need recounting here.
Pragnya Thakur’s cell is the first Hindutva terror group known to have possessed and deployed significant bomb-making skills but elements of the movement she represented have long been known to be preparing for a war — at least since 2003. Underlying the turn to terror was a simple political objective: to persuade their audience that the Bajrang Dal and its sister organisations could, unlike the supposedly effete secular state, protect the frontiers of the Hindu faith from what was claimed to be an Islamic assault.
From 2006, it became clear, Hindutva groups were seeking to acquire serious terror capabilities. That summer, Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse of the Bajrang Dal were killed in a bomb-making accident in the Maharashtra town of Nanded. Investigators found that Kondwar and Phanse were responsible for bombing a Parbhani mosque in April 2006, almost three months before the Mumbai serial bombings. Bajrang Dal operatives linked to the Nanded cell, the police discovered, were also responsible for the bombing of mosques at Purna and Jalna in April 2003, in which 18 people were injured.
Few people took these warning signs seriously. But from the outset, the Maharashtra police — who knew better than most that what eventually flowered into the Lashkar-e-Taiba in India began with a handful of untrained men staging parades in a Mumbai slum —made clear their concern about Hindutva terrorism. In a 2006 interview to the magazine Communalism Combat, the former ATS chief K.P. Raghuvanshi noted that the Nanded incident could have “frightening repercussions.” He acidly observed that the “bombs were not being manufactured for a puja.”
Just this June, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti operatives were held for the bombing of the Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane, to protest the staging of a satire on the Mahabharata, Amhi Pachpute. One of those arrested by the ATS, Mangesh Nikam, was facing trial on charges of bombing the home of a Ratnagiri family that had converted to Christianity and was out on bail.
In October, Bajrang Dal-linked Rajiv Mishra and Bhupinder Singh were killed in a bomb-making accident in Kanpur. Uttar Pradesh police sources said there was little to show that the group had links with the terror cells in Maharashtra — a proposition buttressed by forensic reports which said the explosive device they were constructing was in essence a large firecracker.
Unless checked, though, these groups will eventually acquire more sophisticated capabilities. In September 2006, the police seized a 195-kg cocktail of military grade explosives from an Ahmednagar scrap dealer. Shankar Shelke, investigators later found, retrieved the material — more than enough to execute all terror strikes across India since 1993 — from a decommissioned Indian Army ordinance which had sold it as scrap. From Shelke’s telephone records, the investigators established the existence of a huge underground market for high-grade explosives — in the main industrial users who found legally available ammonium nitrate-based slurry explosives a nuisance to store and use.
Pragnya and her Hindutva terror cell have deep — and for some, discomfiting — roots in history. Abhinav Bharat — the organisation from which the terror cell emerged — was founded in mid-2006. Named after a group set up by the Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in May 1904 to wage war against imperial Britain, Abhinav Bharat’s leading figures believed that terror was needed to counter Islamist terror — a belief they put into practice in Malegaon.
Hindutva terrorism was born at the dawn of the 20th century. Influenced by the dramatic impact of terrorism in imperial Russia, the Hindu nationalist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, became increasingly drawn to violence as a tool to achieve Indian independence. A year after the searing 1905 revolution, which compelled Czar Alexander II to grant basic civil rights, Tilak wrote: “The days of prayer have gone.” “Look to the examples of Ireland, Japan and Russia,” he exhorted his followers, “and follow their methods.”
Tilak’s message proved attractive to many young, upper caste Hindu neoconservatives — often the products of western-style education who had found in their re-imagining of Indian tradition a language with which to oppose British imperialism.
Figures like Savarkar, who went on to lead the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, cast the struggle against Britain as a fight to defend the Hindu faith. In one manifesto, the original Abhinav Bharat’s followers promised to “shed upon the earth the life-blood of the enemies who destroy religion.” Later, the radical right journal Yugantar argued that the murder of foreigners in India was “not a sin but a yagna [ritual sacrifice]” — language that would be entirely familiar to Osama bin-Laden’s jihadist armies today.
Edinburgh-educated Pandurang Bapat was among those who responded to Tilak’s call. In 1908, Bapat is believed to have been given a manual for bomb-making by a Russian chemical engineer. Bapat insisted that his bombs never killed anyone. He was, however, suspected of involvement in the Alipore bomb case — an attack on a British magistrate by Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki which missed its target, and killed two women. “Indian terrorism,” scholar Walter Lacquer has recorded, “was relatively infrequent and on the whole quite ineffective: more often than not, the Indian terrorists managed to kill some innocent bystander rather than their intended victims.”
After the 1909 assassination of William Wylie, Edwin Montague’s political secretary, Hindu right-wing terrorism went into a prolonged period of decline. Bapat shifted focus from seeking the overthrow of the British Raj to education. So did Savarkar’s close associate, Hindutva ideologue B.S. Moonje. In 1937, Moonje founded the Bhonsala Military School in Nashik — an institution to which, ironically enough, two men arrested by the ATS on charges of facilitating the Malegaon bombings were linked.
Historian Eugene D’Souza’s work on pre-Second World War German propaganda shows that the Hindu right-wing continued to worship violence despite its tactical turn from terror. In the build-up to the war, Nazi Germany’s covert services reached out to potential allies. “Many vernacular papers in Bombay and Maharashtra belonging to the Hindu Mahasabha,” D’Souza has recorded, “openly preached National Socialism for India and a Hindu Fuhrer in the mould of Hitler.” Interestingly, the Nazi message also appealed to proto-Islamists. Iranian expatriate Saif Azad’s Salar-e-Hind worked to promote fascism in India, casting Jews as criminals. “Strangely enough,” D’Souza has noted, “the otherwise irreconcilable reactionaries and fanatics among both Hindus and Muslims were attracted to the totalitarian doctrine, though their approach was from two opposite directions.” Once again, Islamist and Hindutva terrorists are locked in a fateful embrace.
In a 2003 article, Pakistani scholar-diplomat Husain Haqqani warned that “the rise of Hindu extremism serves as a catalyst for recruitment by extremist Islamists in South Asia.” Haqqani’s bleak statement is borne out by facts. Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who heads the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was a child of the Partition of India: his hatred for Hindus and India, journalist Zahid Husain has recorded, stemmed from his witnessing the massacre of much of his family on the route from Shimla to Lahore. Not a few of those involved in the Islamist jihad that has claimed thousands of lives in India since 1990 were seduced by violence because of their experience of communal pogroms.
BJP leaders — who often claim to have a special concern for India’s strategic future — must unequivocally denounce the murderers in their ranks. Failing this, they will help to bring the apocalyptic Hindu-Muslim war that groups like the Lashkar hope to precipitate one step closer to realisation.
6 months ago