Message from Mumbai

Until recently we only needed to worry about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the agency responsible for funding, training, arming and showing the terror path to a small number of Indian Muslims.

Now we also need to think of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (currently in control of large parts of Iraq and Syria) and the newly launched chapter of the Al Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent (AQIS).

First thing on Friday morning, many Muslims from Mumbai, me included, received a text message from businessman and social activist, Farid Batatawala. Here it is with a few spellings corrected: “Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al Qaeda leader) is a big shaitan (devil), and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (leader of the ISIS, self-proclaimed Caliph of all Muslims) is a follower of that shaitan. They are all agents of America and Israel. Because they want to sell their arms, America and Israel are both trying to disturb the peace in India. But inshallah India will become a superpower within few years”.

Other Muslim organisations and individuals have been as prompt in condemning Al Qaeda’s intrusion into India, without any reference to the conspiracy theory. The President of the All-India Muslim Majlise Mushawarat, Dr Zafrul Islam Khan, has declared that “Indian Muslims would fight Al Qaeda if it tried to enter India” while the Khudai Khidmatgar has called upon them to “chase away any dubious character trying to spread Al Qaeda ideas.” And Maulana Daryabadi, general secretary, All-India Ulema Council has commented that “secular Hindus” are more than sufficient allies for India’s minorities. The ISIS and Al Qaeda are part of the problem, not the solution, for Indian Muslims.

Nonetheless, perhaps we should all be chanting inshallah now. With a multitude of “jihadi” extremists hallucinating about a new Caliphate, Islamic State and Sharia law on one hand and the increasingly belligerent crusaders for a “Hindu Rashtra” on the other, it looks like India could do with some divine intervention from Ishwar-Allah.

It is highly doubtful whether the multiple entrants in competitive criminality will, in itself, lead to a significant surge in the number of Muslim youth ready to be recruited for killing innocents, or dying, in the name of Islam. But that’s no good reason for complacency. In the war for control of limited toxic territory, none can rule out attempts at “spectacular terror” to “outshine” rival seekers of foot soldiers. Were such a heinous crime to be successfully executed, the communal cauldron could boil over which, in turn, could create future potential recruits.

To break this vicious cycle, I believe the country has something to learn from two retired IPS officers from the Maharashtra cadre. No doubt there are many, many other serving and retired officers in khaki of whom secular India should be proud of. My reason for naming just two of them is because of what I have learnt from them through personal engagement over the years these lessons have a direct bearing on the issue at hand.

Julio Ribeiro

Julio Ribeiro, who was earlier police commissioner, Mumbai, was handpicked by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and deputed as DGP Punjab to tackle the Khalistani challenge in the state in the 1980s. To this day, Ribeiro attributes his success in dealing with the extremist menace in Punjab to a simple policy: Never confuse the terrorists with the community whose cause they claim to be championing. The greatest challenge in fighting terrorism lies in winning over the trust of the community and thus isolating the terrorists. It’s evident from the experience of other countries, which also tells us that a bullets-alone approach is never the answer to terrorism.

Satish Sahney was made police commissioner of Mumbai (it was Bombay then) in November 1993. Below the surface calm then lay a wounded metropolis: because of the December 1992-93 Shiv Sena led anti-Muslim pogrom followed by the serial bomb blasts engineered by Dawood Ibrahim and his accomplices in March 1993. As was widely acknowledged at the time, partisan police conduct during the communal carnage had led to a complete breakdown of communication between the city’s Muslims and the law-enforcement machinery.

Given this very unhappy state of affairs, Sahney single-mindedly embarked on the task of damage repair. Over several months in 1994, he along with a dozen or more of his top officers were often to be found inside a Muslim mohalla, seated among a large gathering of Muslim men and women. Mostly they listened, as account after painful account was narrated, from mohalla after mohalla, about how the police did nothing or acted in blatant communal fashion when Muslims turned to them for security.

There was anger, there was anguish, there was shouting and screaming, there was sobbing and crying. At times the meeting continued for several hours. In the process there was healing too. Sahney’s “this should never have happened, never will” approach helped re-establish communication between Muslims and the police.

Perhaps there is something the Indian police could learn from this. But I recall one such meeting with Sahney and his officers from which the Muslim community too has something to learn. In the midst of a meeting, a journalist-activist (incidentally a non-Muslim) alleged that over 70-80 per cent of Bombay’s police force was communal. This was hotly denied by some of the police officers present and an argument erupted. Minutes later, the meeting was brought back to order with a telling comment from the soft-spoken Sahney. “It is not a question of numbers. For me, as police commissioner of the city and for the police force under me, it should be a matter of great shame if even one police man or woman is communal.” Call it “zero tolerance” policy.

With a multitude of “jihadi” extremists hallucinating about a new Caliphate, Islamic State and Sharia law on one hand and the increasingly belligerent crusaders for a “Hindu Rashtra” on the other, it looks like India could do with some divine intervention from Ishwar-Allah

For Muslims, the takeaway from Sahney’s comment should be this: It is not a question of how many Muslim youth have taken to terrorism. Since it is oft reiterated that Islam strictly prohibits the killing of even one innocent person, it should be a matter of great shame for all maulanas, muftis and maulvis if even one Muslim is involved in a terror act. Who would pretend there is none?

If the police were to listen to voices such as that of Ribeiro and Sahney, if Muslims were to adapt the latter’s “zero tolerance” policy to their own context, India would be better placed to face the growing terror threat.

 (This article was first published in The Asian Age on September 8, 2014)





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