An Indian Supreme Court ruling this week underscored the state’s inclination to crush terrorism but condone communalism
India’s Supreme Court delivered a blow against terrorism through its verdict last week on those accused of masterminding the devastating series of blasts in Bombay, which hadn’t yet been renamed Mumbai, on 12 March 1993.
It upheld in one instance the death penalty the trial court had earlier awarded to 12 and commuted to life in prison for the remaining 10 (one had died), which was also the quantum of punishment given to another 23.
For some, though, the judgement underscored the Indian state’s inclination to crush terrorism and yet, ironically, condone communalism.
It is ironical because both terrorism and communalism, despite definitions distinguishing the two, are predicated on harnessing violence in the pursuit of political goals.
The contradictory response of the Indian state is seen in its attitude to the serial bomb blasts and the Bombay riots of 1992-1993, which was sparked off by Muslims taking to the streets after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and backlash from Shiv Sena activists.
Considering the ominous implications of allowing disaffection to roil the Muslims, you would have expected the Indian state to be even-handed in pursuing and punishing those responsible for the riots and blasts. The government set out in earnest to unravel the network behind the serial blasts, compelling the fugitive don Dawood into hiding and arraigning many of his foot-soldiers in the trial court. Subsequently, nearly a 100 were pronounced guilty in the Bombay blasts.
The state did not display similar zeal towards those who fomented the riots. Unlike Dawood and his lieutenants, they weren’t residing in another country, beyond the reach of the Indian state, but constituted the city’s political class, including Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. An estimated 60 per cent of Bombay riot cases were closed forthwith, conviction was secured in three cases, all Muslims, which the Supreme Court subsequently set aside.
The Srikrishna commission recommended the re-opening of cases against Shiv Sena leaders and police officials. Thus, in 2009, Sena leader Madhukar Sarpotdar was sentenced to a year in prison, but he was immediately granted bail and lodged an appeal against the verdict. He died in 2010 and didn’t spend a day in jail. Former police commissioner RD Tyagi, accused of killing eight Muslims, was acquitted and the Congress government did not appeal against the verdict. Another officer, Nikhil Kapse, was convicted but the government secured a stay on the order from the Supreme Court.
Communalism rarely ever seeks to radically transform the state, wishing neither to diminish the powers vested in it nor the territory under its control nor its propensity to favour the class of those who control its levers. Indeed, the only demand Hindu communalists make on the state is that it should favour them over the minorities or remain passive during rioting, hoping to derive advantage from its numerical superiority. This is why the Hindu communalist doesn’t rhetorically attack the state.
Terrorism, whether by secessionists or the ultra Left, seeks to challenge the nature of the state, its ideology, and power. For instance, secessionism employs terror to wrest from the state’s control a slice of territory, effectively undermining its supremacy. The ultra Left wants to alter the structure of the state as it exists, in the hope of ensuring it doesn’t work for the benefit of a few.
In comparison, the Bombay blast masterminds had a limited agenda of punishing the state for facilitating the Hindu communalists in their attacks against Muslims. The state retaliated because its monopoly over coercive power was challenged. Yet the violence of Bal Thackeray’s men was condoned because their ire was directed not against the Indian state, but the Muslims of Bombay.
Obviously, the Indian state’s dichotomous response breeds alienation among Muslims, provoking some of them to employ terror, often at the behest of the ISI, to wreak vengeance against the Indian state. It is a vicious cycle of retribution from which it becomes difficult for the society to emerge, as India quite clearly hasn’t, from the never-ending bombings in its cities.