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India's War on False Antiterrorism

India's War on False Antiterrorism

J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

It may take fairly long for India to recover fully from the shock and sorrow of Mumbai. The country, however, can congratulate itself on averting a political tragedy on the morrow of the terrorist strike.

The happiness, though, must be diluted for many by the thought of a human rights activist in jail on charges associating him with terrorism. The prospects of Binayak Sen's release are bleaker, ironically, after the rout of "antiterrorist" politics in the battle of the ballot.

Deserving of note, first and foremost, is the way the voters have dashed to the ground a suddenly soaring post-Mumbai hope of the far right. The three days of terror in Mumbai, from the night of November 26, were widely projected as an amazing windfall for India's main opposition. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the far-right "family" ("parivar"), was getting ready to wade through blood to the throne in New Delhi.

The presumptions of the party and the "parivar" were clear. Mumbai happened just on the eve of elections to assemblies in five states: Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. There was no mistaking the importance for the BJP of the state-level contests billed as a "mini general election" or a dress rehearsal for the parliamentary elections due as early as April to May 2009. Mumbai now appeared to assure the party of a national mandate, as the mayhem was supposed to have won a nationwide endorsement of its main election plank.

Against the backdrop of a series of bomb blasts in places including New Delhi and Jaipur, the BJP has been targeting the ruling Congress and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as "soft on terrorism." The BJP has interpreted this as capitulation to "Islamist terror" and insisted that the Muslim constituency of the Congress and its allies were stopping them from combating the threat.

A furious attack on human rights followed as an inevitable sequel to the far right's "antiterrorism." The BJP has been clamoring for revival of a Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), an imitation of George Bush's Patriot Act, introduced by the party-led government in 2002 and removed from the statute book soon after the UPA's assumption of office in 2004. The BJP has been agitating also for abridgment of constitutional rights - such as the right to legal aid or to appeal for commutation of death sentences, if sought by either the accused or the convicted in terrorism cases.

Mumbai seemed to have made redundant the rest of the BJP's manifesto in any of the state elections or the forthcoming parliamentary poll. The party treated the state elections as nearly perfunctory and, according to many reports, was actually preparing for victory rallies. The dominant media got into the act, feeding the delusions of the far right.

On December 8, came the results of the state elections, leaving the BJP in a daze. The Congress swept the polls for the third consecutive time in the State of Delhi, where the BJP had been so confident as to keep a "Vijay Rath" (Victory Chariot, a decorated vehicle for parading the party's winners). The party lost its major stronghold of Rajasthan, even surprising the Congress that was not ready with its replacement for the defeated BJP chief minister.

The BJP retained power in the States of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. But these victories hardly made up for its loss of the popular vote - and its magic-wand issue - in Delhi and Rajasthan. The party may not have been routed, but its terrorism-based tactic was. The big Congress win in the northeastern State of Mizoram made very little difference to the BJP. But it is not concealing its concern over the loss of what seemed its most promising issue in the larger part of the country.

India's democracy has certainly helped to avoid the dreadful consequences of a pro-BJP landslide that the pundits had prophesied. Not for the first time, the common people proved the far right and its friends in the media and elsewhere conspicuously wrong. Domestically, a BJP walkover could have paved the way for the return of draconian laws. Regionally, those who saw Mumbai as India's 9/11, could have pushed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government on to reversing the India-Pakistan peace process and precipitating a conflict between nuclear-armed neighbors.

In a strange twist, however, another variant of "antiterrorism" has won the vote in the tribal State of Chhattisgarh. The BJP victory here has come as depressing news, on the eve of the 60th Human Rights Day, for all those concerned over the fate of Binayak Sen, detained for nearly 19 months now on charges of association with an ultra-left Maoist movement in the forested region.

In a report in these columns on June 3, 2007 ("The Importance of Saving Binayak Sen"), I wrote: "On May 14, 2007, an Indian doctor, a medical missionary of no religious denomination, was taken away by police from his home in a tribal district in the central state of Chhattisgarh. No one has heard from him since then. Binayak Sen had been a heaven-sent healer for the poor of the place for the past 17 years, yet the arrest has not led to protests of the kind that can move powers-that-be."

Fifty-nine-year-old Sen's voice has been heard quite a few times since then, mainly through his friends and family. He was selected for the self-explanatory Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in 2008, though he could not travel abroad to receive the award in person.

A protest is being carried on against his indefinite detention, culminating in a weeklong campaign starting symbolically on December 10. The state election results, however, can spell a setback, it is feared.

Sen, an office-bearer of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), incurred the wrath of the BJP regime in Chhattisgarh for criticizing the Salwa Judum (Peace Mission in the tribal Gondi language), a state-sponsored but nonofficial force with the stated objective of combating the Maoists. India's Supreme Court, subsequently, passed strictures on the state-arming of private citizens, But this failed to help the cause of Sen, who had opposed the idea of setting tribesman against tribesman.

The BJP now claims that it has won a "vote for peace" in Chhattisgarh. This amounts to an insinuation that Sen and other critics of the Salwa Judum are enemies of peace. The best answer to the charge comes in "an appeal for peace in South Bastar," a particularly strife-torn district in the state, issued by Sen from the prison.

Attributing the conflict to "a complete absence of political discourse," he said, "Instead, we have, on the one hand, the Salwa Judum, which the government dishonestly tries to characterize as a 'peoples' response to Maoism' and, on the other, a purely military engagement between the state-based forces and the Maoists, which acts as a proxy to a political discourse. Both parties to this engagement deliberately ignore the fact that a purely military solution, imposed by either party, even if it were possible, would neither be valid nor sustainable."

Issued before the elections, the appeal also asks for steps to ensure "voter rights" in the area. It says: "Widespread displacement and population dislocation have made this a critical issue at this particular time." One can only wonder how big a role this factor played in the BJP's victory in Chhattisgarh.

The larger point is that the lack of laws like the POTA alone is not going to hamper forces like the BJP in their assaults on human rights. Post-Mumbai, India's far right has lost a battle, but not the war.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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