After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s denunciation of the authorities at Jamia Millia Islamia University for their decision to extend legal aid to two students arrested for suspected involvement in terrorist conspiracy, it is good to see the party belatedly embrace that civilized republican principle, the presumption of innocence. The arrest of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit for their alleged involvement in the explosions in Malegaon has, after some initial hesitation, spurred the party to affirm their innocence and offer the sadhvi the best legal representation available in the country. The anti-terrorist squad and its investigations of Thakur and Purohit for terrorist activity have been condemned by the spokespersons of the sangh parivar as politically motivated and unsound.
None of this is unreasonable. The accused are entitled to a fair trial and good lawyers are an indispensable part of due process; moreover, the tendency of the Indian police and its investigative agencies to feed newspapers and news channels with unreliable information and spurious breakthroughs in cases that are never resolved, leads to an understandable scepticism about their claims. The BJP is also right in taking exception to the term ‘Hindu terrorism’; even if Thakur and Purohit were to be found guilty, no connection between being Hindu and being terrorist would follow from their guilt. In the event of their conviction, the proper term for their activities would be ‘Hindutva-vadi terror’: to assimilate a large and law-abiding community to the violence of bigots would be unjust.
The BJP is also right in arguing that members of India’s armed forces should not be carelessly implicated by police agencies in something as serious as terrorism. Not because soldiers should be seen to be above the law or be privileged by it, but because the political neutrality of the army is a precious asset and charging an officer with political extremism is a serious business, not to be lightly undertaken. The Indian army is a curious institution, built on pluralist ideas that are colonial rather than republican in their provenance. But in times of sectarian violence, it is often summoned to establish order because unlike the police, it is seen as a secular, apolitical force. So if the BJP’s affirmation of Purohit’s innocence ensures a thorough investigation and a fair trial, the party will have done all Indians a favour.
Equally, L.K. Advani’s condemnation of the ‘narco’ tests administered to the sadhvi (and the colonel) is consistent with the long-held position of human rights activists that forcing suspects to endure potentially dangerous chemical injections to induce legally worthless confessions is both barbaric and illegal. ‘Brain mapping’ and ‘narco testing’ are good examples of the ways in which Indian policemen use pseudo-scientific gimcrackery as a substitute for real police work.
So on these issues, every Indian who believes in the rule of law should endorse the BJP’s criticism of the ATS. The sadhvi’s allegations that she was beaten and tortured in police custody should be taken seriously. Advani’s demand that Thakur and Purohit be investigated by a judicial probe, and not by the ATS, ought to be given fair consideration. The fact that the BJP and its allies were pleased with the rough ‘justice’ meted out to the two men shot by the police in the Batla House ‘encounter’ and subsequently wanted Jamia’s students left indefinitely in police custody, unaided by the university to which they were affiliated, doesn’t in itself invalidate the importance of human rights and due process.
The real difficulty with the sangh parivar’s defence of Pragya Singh Thakur and Shrikant Purohit lies in the reasons its spokespersons adduce for their innocence. Praveen Togadia, the chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, made the Hindutva-vadi case without qualifications: “No Hindu can be a terrorist,” he declared. Asked if he knew the sadhvi, he said, “I do not know Pragya Singh at all. But I know she is not a terrorist.” For Togadia, Thakur’s birth identity was all the evidence he needed to know that the allegations against her were false. He told The Hindu as much: “Hindus will not forget this. They [the police and the Congress] are committing the sin of describing a Hindu, a ‘sadhvi’, as a terrorist… I warn that there will be a political backlash and the government will be swept out.”
Chandan Mitra, MP and editor of The Pioneer, made the same point more circumspectly. “Let the courts pronounce the ‘Hindu terrorists’ guilty,” he wrote in the Economic Times, “and, if so, let the verdicts be executed. But they cannot be pilloried on the basis of specious ‘confessions’, which could well be figments of a beleaguered ATS’s shaky imagination.” Aware that this might seem inconsistent with the sangh parivar’s enthusiasm for pillorying Muslims accused of terrorist conspiracy by anti-terrorist squads elsewhere, Mitra argued that Muslims accused of terrorism were a different matter. Muslims had form in the matter of terrorist conspiracy whereas Hindus didn’t. “Many SIMI and other jihadi terror mongers have already been brought to book and are being tried in courts. The most celebrated of the lot, Afzal Guru, has been found guilty by the Supreme Court and sentenced to death.”
One SIMI member, Yasin Patel, has been successfully prosecuted under a terrorism law. Three others were recently jailed for a year, not for terrorism but for stoking communal hatred. Even if there were to be a string of successful terror prosecutions against the SIMI, are we to understand that Mitra would have the police and the public withhold the presumption of innocence from Muslims in cases of terrorist conspiracy?
This is rather like arguing that once Hindus are convicted of terrorizing and murdering Muslims during the Gujarat pogroms, or slaughtering Sikhs in the Delhi pogrom of 1984, any Hindu accused of communal killing afterwards can be legitimately treated as guilty unless proven innocent, whereas Muslims and Sikhs charged with communal violence ought to continue to be given the benefit of the doubt.
In essence, there is no difference between Mitra’s position and Togadia’s. They both believe that Hindu violence can’t be described as terror because Hindus are victims. Victims can’t be perpetrators. So even if the ATS case against Thakur and Purohit is successfully prosecuted, even if they are guilty of organizing the explosions in Malegaon, they aren’t terrorists because all they’re doing is retaliating against jihadi violence. “Even if for a moment we accept that some Hindus have indulged in copycat acts,” writes Mitra, “it must be borne in mind that the majority of Indians are shocked, outraged, angry and even vengeful because of relentless terrorist depredations. Nearly 10,000 innocent people have died at the hands of bloodthirsty jihadi terrorists over the past 15 years.
“If some people, howsoever misguided, attempt to avenge this because the state fails to provide security or succour should it come as a big surprise? This is not to justify vigilante action, but only try and explain it.”
I’m not sure what form of words would constitute a watertight justification of vigilantism, but that last paragraph comes close. Then, in a remarkable move, Mitra holds out ‘Hindu’ involvement in the Malegaon blasts as a sinister portent: “If the state does not shed its hypocrisy the alleged Malegaon plot may only be the beginning.” So from the illegitimacy of the notion of “Hindu terror” we’ve arrived at the prospect of continuous ‘Hindu’ violence if the State dares to apply to Hindus the police methods it routinely uses against Muslims.
The difference between Indians who respect the republic’s Constitution and the majoritarian Right is this: constitutional democrats speak out against the police treatment of the sadhvi and the colonel because, as citizens of this republic, this nation of laws, they deserve every protection the law has to offer. The sangh parivar demands these protections because Thakur and Purohit are Hindu. This is not a small difference: it’s the difference between a civilized nation and a sectarian country, the difference, if you like, between India and Pakistan.