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  May 14, 2002  

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India gives Gujarat pogrom a terrorist spin

By Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI - Faced with widespread disgust at its handling of what many have called a pogrom against Muslims in western Gujarat state, the pro-Hindu Indian government seems intent on blaming ''international terrorism'' for the violence raging there for the past two months.

Consistent with this approach is the move to appoint a tough, trigger-happy policeman as "security adviser" to Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister. Many critics and even allies of India's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), want him removed from his post. This policeman, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, is - perhaps wrongly - credited with having used harsh methods to put down the separatist Sikh (Khalistani) militancy in the northern state of Punjab in the early 1990s.

This appointment is unprecedented in India. Technically, it is the Gujarat government that assigned Gill the job, but the move definitely originated in the Cabinet of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Under India's quasi-federal political set-up, New Delhi can take such a step only under extremely rare conditions.

Gill's assignment gives the lie to the official claim that the Gujarat situation is fast returning to normal barring "minor" incidents - which daily take an average toll of five lives - and that the state's police is fully capable of dealing with it. But even more important, the move suggests a larger game plan: to put a "terrorist" spin on the Gujarat violence, to turn the tables on the minority Muslims, and thus to further the intensely sectarian Hindu-majoritarian agenda of the BJP, which Vajpayee heads and which leads the beleaguered 27-party coalition ruling in New Delhi. The Vajpayee leadership cynically sees advancing that agenda as the best political-electoral option before the BJP.

On Friday, Interior Minister Lal Krishna Advani said ''underworld elements'' in league with Pakistan were planning ''retaliatory actions'' against Gujarat. Simultaneously, police in the national capital said they have discovered plans by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of God), a "jihadist" outfit based in Pakistan, to blow up oil pipelines in Gujarat and to recruit males from among riot-hit Muslims in Gujarat.

In fact, the BJP's original line, duly picked up by New Delhi and Gujarat, was to attribute the so-called "trigger event" of the Gujarat pogrom on February 27 - when 58 people at Godhra town in Gujarat were burned alive - to a "terrorist conspiracy" involving Indian Muslims and the Pakistani secret service.

The Modi government has repeatedly justified the pogrom of the Muslims that followed as a "natural and spontaneous" Hindu reaction to the Godhra incident. But independent inquiries have concluded that there was no causal link between Godhra and the pre-planned, organized, and far-from-spontaneous violence of February 28 onwards - the pogrom would have taken place in the communally-charged climate of Gujarat anyway, long vitiated by Hindu fundamentalists.

Some speculate that the trigger was provided by the raucous campaign to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya town, northern India - where a 16th century mosque once stood - launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant BJP associate.

Independent investigators also agree that the Godhra carnage was a largely spontaneous, if condemnable, over-reaction by criminalized elements in the Muslim community of riot-prone Godhra. The BJP and government ministers made the "conspiracy" charge about Godhra without an iota of evidence. Ten weeks on, India's official agencies - usually quick to obtain telltale "confessions" - have failed to substantiate the charge. There is speculation among the Gujarat police, as reported in the Hindustan Times and The Hindu, that one of Gill's main jobs will be to "unearth" such evidence.

Plans are afoot to launch massive "combing" operations in a number of cities and to impound materials of daily household use such as kerosene, pipes, knives, glass bottles, nails and acid, among others. In the past, such materials have been cited as "evidence" of intent to commit terrorist acts. For instance, after serial bomb explosions in Mumbai in March 1993, hundreds of Muslim suspects were rounded up and detained for years on the strength of such "evidence".

More recently, the Indian government passed a draconian "anti-terrorist" law with few safeguards against human rights abuse. Suspicions that Gill may "unearth" and collect such "evidence" have gained strength because the first demand of the "supercop" upon the government was to loan him the services of a special squad of "anti-terrorist" commandos from Punjab. The Punjab state government has just refused this request. Gill has now called for a contingent of armed policemen. There are already 17,000 special police personnel in Gujarat.

Experienced police officials find it hard to understand what role "anti-terrorist" commandos and even higher numbers of armed police could possibly play in Gujarat, where the violence is perpetrated by organized groups or mobs which selectively target Muslims, with the collusion of the state. A number of reports, including those by the semi-official National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission on Minorities, have noted such collusion.

K S Subramaniam, a former high police official who visited Gujarat as part of a Citizens' Forum inquiry, argues that what Gujarat needs is not more policemen, or tougher or ruthless measures, but a non-partisan, responsible political leadership committed to constitutional secular values, which allows the state apparatus to function in an impartial, professional manner.

Many are concerned that Gill will now promote the strong-arm methods that he became known for in Punjab. These included, as rights groups have documented, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, harassment of the relations of terrorist suspects, and forced "disappearances". Whether Gill's methods controlled the terrorism in Punjab, or whether it was popular disillusionment with separatists who became increasingly criminalized, remains debatable. But what is not in dispute is that Gill's police committed gross human rights violations.

In Gujarat, the "anti-terrorist" card has two dangerous implications: re-victimizing an already victimized minority; and stressing the "Pakistani-terrorist nexus", however dubious. This could have grave military consequences given the troop build-up on the India-Pakistan border, where a million soldiers face one another eyeball-to-eyeball.

The Vajpayee government and the BJP are increasingly adopting desperately partisan Hindu fundamentalist measures to remain in power. Their latest move is to appoint as speaker of the Lower House of Parliament Manohar Joshi, remembered for dismantling an official commission of inquiry into the terrible anti-Muslim violence that convulsed Mumbai after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992.

(Inter Press Service)

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