India’s Orwellian drift - Jawed Naqvi - Friday, March 04, 2011

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DURING the early rule of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, someone in his government placed two evidently unusable anti-aircraft guns of Second World War vintage on a visually prominent rampart of Delhi’s 16th-century fort, the Purana Qila.

The idea apparently was to deter airborne terrorists from attacking an approaching national day ceremony, but the subtext was not too hidden either. It became the first step towards a national campaign to instil fear — not unlike what had happened in America — of unknown and eventually unidentifiable terrorists. It was also a way for the government to farm out its growing list of phobias among the people, making them unwitting participants in a series of misadventures under the sobriquet of fight against terror.

Only this week, a Gujarat court controversially sentenced 11 Muslims to death and handed life sentences to another 20 for their alleged role in the death of 58 Hindus in a train inferno blamed on Muslims. Some 60 of the Muslims of Godhra, where the train tragedy occurred on Feb 27, 2002, were discharged last month as conspirators by the same court. They included men the prosecution called the masterminds.

The episode was of a piece with India’s prevailing ‘a-jaw-for-a-tooth’ mindset. A key parliamentary committee this week advocated death penalty for hijackers. What seemed odd was that a communist deputy headed the group. And Sitaram Yechury is no ordinary partisan. He is a politburo member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the country’s largest leftist group.

Several questions arose from the committee’s decision. Take Mr Yechury’s assumption that hijackers fear death, that capital punishment would deter them. In an era of suicide bombers what could be the significance of any decision to flaunt the gallows as retribution for ideologically-driven crimes, leave alone hijacking?

Hitherto the standard test of communist partisans in India was their readiness to listen to reason, their willingness to look for deeper causes of a given malaise, their fabled scientific diligence and a keen eye for humane remedies. There was a time in India when even its bourgeois political class displayed greater sensitivity to commonplace crimes that would be bracketed after a fashion (or expediency?) as acts of terror.

Before Mr Yechury’s advent as a parliamentarian, India was handling its problems with hijackers in a uniquely Indian way — with compassion, even humour.

Dalit Buddhists, Kashmiri Muslims, Sikhs and Brahmins had all hijacked planes in India. Their motives ranged from separatist politics to a laughable quest, if hijacking allows for humour, of seeking the postponement of college exams!

Two hijackers became Congress party leaders, one of them even a minister. Both men in the 1978 incident were Brahmins. In fact, they were brothers. Armed with toy guns they told the pilot they wanted Indira Gandhi freed from prison where she languished briefly after her opponents defeated her in 1977. Should they have been hanged?

A 1993 hijacker, Satish Chandra Pandey, was an admirer of Mr Vajpayee. A stated motive for his hijacking a plane on a cold January morning was to be urged by his hero, Mr Vajpayee, to surrender, which he did. The same year, four students claiming to be armed with explosives took charge of a domestic airliner to demand postponement of their annual university exams. Other passengers overpowered them. It was India’s second hijacking in two weeks and the third that year.

The students demanded that the government allocate Rs50m ($1.6m) to their college to begin a new Master’s programme. Would Mr Yechury want them dead?

On March 27 that year, a former trucker claiming to be a member of India’s governing Congress party took over another domestic airliner with 203 people on board to voice his frustration over the state of affairs in the country. The 37-year-old unemployed hijacker, who called India’s politicians “crooks”, surrendered to the police in Amritsar after failing to get permission for the plane to land in Lahore. Put him before a firing squad?

In January 1994, a lone hijacker, claiming to be a neo-Buddhist Dalit , commandeered an Indian Airlines Bangalore-Madras A-320 Airbus. The hijacker wanted Marathwada University to be renamed after Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Try tinkering with that, Mr Yechury.

I met one officially pampered hijacker in a Srinagar jail, where he was distributing copies of his memoirs to visiting journalists while armed guards at the high security jail offered generous rounds of Pepsi Cola with freshly baked pastries to the guests.

With a little bit of luck and more help from Indian intelligence agencies that are believed to be helping him vis-à-vis one of their mysterious agendas, Hashim Qureshi harbours ambitions to become chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

It would be tempting to look for comparison in Mr Yechury’s approach to any more recent hijacking with the more rightwards-leaning parties of India. The surprising fact is that during the Vajpayee era, which was as right as India has been as yet, there were three occasions when the Bharatiya Janata Party appeared to prefer the standard Indian middle course. It freed seven Sikh hijackers that Indira Gandhi had extradited from Dubai. It chose to save scores of precious lives rather than to allow insane criminals to blow them up, and it welcomed back Hashim Qureshi, a mastermind of the Ganga hijack episode of 1971, from Holland. Which of these would Mr Yechury have sent to the gallows?

The fact is that the near total silence of the parliamentary Left on the increasing militarisation of the Indian state — as also its growing participation in its self-defeating prescriptions on terror — seems akin to the last scene from George Orwell’s satire on communist Russia. The pigs in Animal Farm — depicting the ruling classes in Stalin’s Moscow — were beginning to walk on their hind legs, an act of hero-worshipping those they had sworn never to imitate.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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