Dec 26, 2008

India - A tale of two statements (G.Read)

Neena Vyas

It is ironic that while Parliament was virtually held hostage over Union Minority Minister A.R. Antulay’s statement suggesting a sinister conspiracy that led to the elimination of former chief of Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad Hemant Karkare, another statement by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Jaswant Singh almost went unnoticed. If, as the BJP said, Mr. Antulay had become a hero in Pakistan for suggesting that there was more to it than what met the eye in the manner in which Karkare died, surely, Mr. Singh’s statement justifying the decision to release three hardcore terrorists in exchange for the lives of the passengers aboard the Indian Airlines plane hijacked to Kandahar was quite unbecoming of a leader of a party that has talked non-stop for five years about the need for the Indian state to be “hard on terror.”

Let us be clear. There is no denying that India is still paying the price for the National Democratic Alliance government’s decision to negotiate with the 1999 hijackers and release the terrorists who may well have masterminded some of the most ghastly terror attacks on India since then. The NDA may well claim that it helped to save the lives of 166 passengers on IC-814 from Kathmandu, but can we be sure that many more innocent lives have not been lost as a result of that mistake? It is one thing to make a mistake or be forced to take a wrong decision in trying circumstances. But the statement of Mr. Singh, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha — on a television channel on December 18 — that releasing the terrorists was “the right decision” and “I will do the same thing, if such a situation arises in the future” can only be seen as an open invitation by him to potential hijackers and hostage-takers.

The one right thing that happened during the Mumbai terror attack was that one terrorist was caught alive. Ajmal Amir Iman ‘Kasab’ is the living proof of a Pakistani hand in the conspiracy that resulted in the terror attack. Mr. Singh has not left it to anyone’s imagination what he might do, if in a position of power, in the event of a plane hijack or some hostage situation created by terrorists demanding the release of Ajmal Amir Iman. He has already declared that he would be only too happy to do a repeat performance of 1999: negotiate with the terrorists and then, in order to save innocent lives of hostages, release Ajmal Amir. The party which has not stopped saying “POTA” for the last five years to indicate its support for a tough terror law, should know that many western countries, including the United States and Britain, have a policy of no-negotiation with terrorist hostage-takers. In India, a few years earlier, the United Progressive Alliance government declared a ‘no-negotiation with terrorists’ policy in a situation of a hijack of an airplane or a hostage crisis. Do the NDA and its leaders L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh not agree with that policy? Since terrorism is big on the NDA’s agenda, the country surely has a right to know.

The three terrorists released at the time of the Kandahar hijack — Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Ahmed Zargar — are known to be close to the Taliban. When they were released at Kandahar — they were taken in a special plane accompanied by Mr. Singh who was then India’s External Affairs Minister — they were virtually escorted by the Taliban to Pakistan where they were welcomed as heroes. And yet Mr. Singh tells the nation, weeks after the Mumbai trauma, that he was right in releasing the terrorists, and would do so again in similar circumstances.

The BJP has made much of the Antulay statement, which, at most, demanded an inquiry into the manner in which the ATS chief and other senior officers were killed. On Tuesday, the BJP was not prepared to listen to the Union Home Minister’s statement on the subject, although it had demanded it. The party said it was not satisfied because Mr. Antulay’s head had not rolled. While there is no doubt that Mr. Antulay’s statement was motivated by politics rather than a genuine concern on how and why three senior ATS officers were shot dead at one go within hours of the start of the 60-hour long terrorist drama that was enacted in Mumbai — after all, as a senior Congressmen from Mumbai he could have easily got the information from the Maharashtra government and “satisfied” himself — what is shocking is that Mr. Singh’s remarks amounting to an invitation to terrorists have gone unnoticed.

For the last six days since Mr. Singh gave an interview saying that he would repeat Kandahar which was “not a mistake,” spokespersons of the BJP have not had the time or the inclination to find out exactly what their senior leader had said. Neither Ravi Shankar Prasad nor Shahnawaz Husain, not even Sushma Swaraj, who is the deputy leader of her party in the Rajya Sabha, knew what he had said. Or, more likely, they feigned ignorance. They were busy keeping tabs on Mr. Antulay’s utterances during the day, but had no idea what their own leaders were saying.

What Mr. Antulay said may have been ridiculous and only meant to keep himself on the front pages of newspapers and in the headlines of television channels — it has been many years since he received so much media attention — but what Mr. Singh said is disastrous for a nation that has taken the pledge to fight terror to its death.

Mr. Singh and the BJP must remember that very ordinary people in Mumbai — the constable who took Ajmal Amir Iman alive, the staff of the two hotels that escorted guests to safety risking their own lives, the announcer at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus who asked passengers to vacate the station without panicking — risked their lives and many died, but none tried to save his own skin or make any compromise with the terrorists.

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