Blasts Test India’s Counter-Terror Strategy

NEW DELHI – The three bomb explosions, which ripped through a mosque and an adjoining graveyard, killing 30 people in Malegaon in India’s western state of Maharashtra on Sept. 8, have outraged the Indian public. They have also set some tough challenges before the Manmohan Singh government.

Unlike most recent cases of terrorist violence in India, including the July 11 Mumbai bombings in which over 200 were killed, the Malegaon blasts were specifically targeted at Muslims. Their timing, shortly after the Friday prayers on Shab-e-Barat, a day of special religious significance, on which devout Muslims remember their dead, further confirms this.

“That naturally suggests that anti-Muslim groups, probably militant Hindu fanatics, might have been involved,” says K.S. Subramanian, a retired senior police official, former fellow of the prestigious Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi and author of several analytical books on policing. “The government must address this concern and make Muslims feel less insecure, rather than blame Islamic militants and jihadi groups in a knee-jerk manner.”

Immediately after the blasts, Indian officials did seem to be sensitive to such concerns. The police began to look into clues about the bombers and their possible links with a Hindu militant group called Bajrang Dal, which was involved in recent attacks on mosques and in fabricating explosives in towns near Malegaon, all located in the state’s backward Marathwada region.

But now, the Maharashtra police are back to the familiar routine of blaming jihadi groups for the carnage, although they have not identified a single individual or arrested anyone.

The sole reason for this change is the claimed identification by state forensic laboratories of the explosives used in the Malegaon blasts – a combination of high-energy RDX, ammonium nitrate, and petroleum jelly. A similar combination was used in recent bombings in Mumbai and in eastern Varanasi.

Yet only two days ago, the home ministry’s top bureaucrat (home secretary) publicly ruled out the use of RDX in Malegaon, and said the explosives were less sophisticated and attached to two bicycles parked at the site.

The suggestion that RDX is a kind of monopoly of Islamic militant groups, and that others can have no access to it, does not sound credible to many explosives experts. “It can be bought by any organized, reasonably funded group,” said one expert who insisted on anonymity. “Often, corrupt officers in the security forces are the source of explosives and armaments used by militant groups.”

Despite official claims about RDX, not many Muslims can easily rule out the involvement of Hindu militants in the attacks. “The question is, can the government allay their suspicion, acting impartially, and without being seen to be doing so,” says Subramanian.

The Bajrang Dal was involved in violently tearing down the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh in December 1992. In 1999, Dara Singh, an activist of the group, burned alive Australian evangelist Graham Staines and his two young sons in eastern Orissa state.

The Bajrang Dal is fiercely xenophobic and believes in establishing a Hindu state in India. It acts as the storm troopers of militant Hindu-chauvinist organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a cohort of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the BJP’s mentor, the secret-society-modeled Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

In the recent past, especially in the last few months, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP were implicated in many violent activities in the Marathwada region, which lies in Malegaon’s neighborhood.

This past April, Bajrang Dal activists Naresh Rajkondwar and Himanshu Phanse were killed in Nanded while attempting to fabricate a bomb. The incident occurred in the house of a known Bajrang Dal-VHP activist. A second bomb was recovered from the same place.

Earlier in April, the two men detonated a bomb in a mosque in Parbhani, also in Marathwada, injuring 25. In April 2003 and August 2004, Bajrang Dal members carried out bombings at Jalna, Purna, and Parbhani, all in Marathwada.

This history has made large numbers of Muslims in Maharashtra feel insecure and fearful, according to observers. Maharashtra’s Muslims have been subjected to repeated harassment, aggressive interrogation, abuse, and illegal detention in recent years. This has increased their alienation from the Indian government to unprecedented levels.

In general, Indian Muslims are victims of benign neglect by the state, and have inherited social and economic backwardness. They are significantly poorer than other religious groups, and have lower levels of literacy, education, and work participation. Muslims suffer exclusion from government employment, where their representation is 2-4 percent, only a fraction of their share of the Indian population, which is 13.4 percent. Particularly alarming is their underrepresentation in Indian police and intelligence agencies.

No less important is the general lack of civic amenities and schools in villages and towns where Muslims form a large proportion of the population. Studies show that Muslim households are far more likely than, say, Hindu families to suffer from a lack of access to roads, piped drinking water, sanitation, electricity supply, and elementary schools.

The Manmohan Singh government acknowledged this subordinate status of Muslims and set up a high-level committee to document it and recommend remedial measures. The committee is expected to submit its report by the end of October.

However, as important as taking long-term measures of affirmative action to improve the condition of Muslims are steps to address their present insecurities, especially as regards the government’s counter-terrorism operations. These are based on Western models of understanding contemporary terrorism through an Islam-centric or Islamophobic prism.

The Malegaon episode is crucially important here. If its perpetrators are not brought to justice quickly, Muslim alienation will grow and Hindu militants will become even more aggressive.

Already, many families of the Malegaon victims resent the double standards in the government’s relief provision. They are being offered $2,100 each by the central and state governments. By contrast, the families of the Mumbai blast victims are being compensated at the rate of $24,000, including special compensation from the railways and insurance money.

Such double standards will further antagonize Muslims at a time when reaching out to them with an inclusive, secular, and strongly pluralist agenda has become imperative.

Singh has announced a special 15-point plan for improving the conditions of the religious minorities. But he faces a larger challenge – bringing the culprits of recent anti-Muslim violence to book.

One central issue here is what his government will do to secure justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat carnage in which 2,000 Muslims were butchered. Hardly anyone has been prosecuted by the state’s BJP-led government for the killings.

Given this context, Malegaon presents the Singh government with a litmus test: of affirming secular and pluralist principles, or caving in to majoritarianism.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.