Thursday, June 29, 2006

Terror's Street Theatre

In an article in Hindustan Times
published on June 28, I have argued that executing captured terrorists-- and doing so in a staged manner-- is a dismal reality of the war on terror. My view is that terrorism challenges liberal democracy in a fundamental way, and that the latter have yet to come up with a reasonable response. Failing that, we are compelled to take recourse to time-tested techniques of torture and summary execution of the enemy.

(For some debate on the issue see

Was the Nagpur encounter of June 1 that led to the killing of three Lashkar-e-Tayyeba ter rorists staged? All the signs seem to suggest that it was: a terrorist ‘strike’ at 4 a.m., an hour of the day in a small town when any movement occasions suspicion; a gunbattle with no eyewitnesses in which all the bad guys get killed and the only bullets to hit the police strike their bulletproof vests; terrorists’ grenades fail to explode and their bodies are removed before the media arrive; finally, a diary providing their names and addresses is fortuitously found.

As for the media, the less said the better. In sharp contrast to the scepticism over the last such major event — the Ansal Plaza incident in New Delhi in 2002 — they seemed determined not to see anything that the police did not want them to see. The questions that have been raised since follow from investigations by a team associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and other civil rights groups, led by B.G. Kolse-Patil, a retired judge of the Mumbai High Court, and Suresh Khairnar. The report has a number of details, including the numbers of bullets fired and the angle of their entry into the police vehicles, that indicate that the police version of the encounter is not easy to believe. Unlike the aim of the factfinding mission, ours is not to berate the police or seek a Supreme Court inquiry. It is to draw cautionary lessons about the war against terrorism, which looks to be getting worse, before it gets better.

No tears need to be shed for the execution of terrorists, who had almost certainly come from Pakistan to kill innocents anyway. It was quite likely that their target was the RSS headquarters, and that they had been arrested earlier and interrogated by the intelligence authorities. The aim of the execution was to send a macabre message to their handlers, and to eliminate ruthless killers whose detention could endanger the police personnel who dealt with them, or lead to more terrorist actions to secure their release, as in the case of the IC814 hijack.

There also seems to be another peculiarly Indian need for staging such events. When terrorist conspiracies are quietly terminated, as indeed many are, people tend to get complacent, and the reaction to a major strike can be destabilising. Staging such a grisly theatrical is , in a sense, inoculation to reduce the virulence that may result from an actual terrorist strike later.

The more vicious a war, the greater are the chances of summary execution. This has been a harsh reality ever since men began to fight each other. In our era of due process and habeas corpus for criminals, such summary executions seem like a hapless response to the increasing ferocity of terrorist violence. They reveal the disturbing ways in which the war against terrorism is undermining the very values on which our society is based, and the rule of law that anchors the democratic system. This is not something that is happening to India alone, as is evident from the furious controversies over secret rendition and Guantanamo. As for summary executions, Israel, which has done away with the death penalty, has little hesitation in assassinating terrorists often with collateral deaths of innocents. In recent years, the US seems to be following suit.

In this country, summary executions began first as a response to Naxal violence (hence the major concern of the PUCL/PUDR) and subsequently terrorism. Till the end of 1985, the State’s response was to arrest, interrogate and try those accused of terrorist crimes. In Punjab in 1985-86, it became clear that jailed terrorists were passing names of police personnel, judges and interrogators to their compatriots, leading to the killing of the latters’ family members. The Punjab Police decided that the only way to deal with the situation was to apply the old adage ‘dead men don’t talk’. In fact, jailed terrorists like Roshan Lal Bairagi, Manbir Singh Chehru, Aroor Singh and Tarsem Lal Kohar allegedly escaped in the autumn of 1986, never to be heard of again.

But the big impulse for the current policy came from the 1999 IC814 hijack. The arrest of Masood Azhar in February 1993 led to four abortive efforts by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen to use hostages, Indian and foreign, to obtain his release. In one botched operation, Mohammed Saeed Umar Sheikh was captured. The IC814 hijack unfortunately succeeded and the two along with a small-time Kashmiri militant were released. Both since went on to conduct even more vicious terrorist acts, against India and other countries as well.

In Pakistan, there are dark whispers that many terrorists killed in encounters in India were ‘purchased’ from Afghan warlords after the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. This seems far-fetched. The more obvious answer is that those executed are indeed bad guys on terrorist missions to India caught by the authorities. They are almost certainly all Pakistani because, were they Indian, their relatives would have come up to claim their remains since their photos were widely disseminated.

There was a time when Pakistan may have made a claim, but no longer. In the case of Intekhab Ahmed Zia, the operative killed with Talwinder Singh Parmar in 1992, probably in a similar execution, Pakistan made a play about the former being a hospital administrator. But the Indian government revealed some uncomfortable details about him and Islamabad quietly shelved its complaints.

Crime and punishment in today’s democratic societies usually follow set lines: the primary accusation, investigation, framing of charges and trial and, finally, punishment (with the notion of rehabilitation built into it). At each stage there is a generous provision for the accused to defend himself. Terrorism has short-circuited the process because of the absolute and pre-emptive nature of its violence and its breaking of the taboo against deliberate civilian targeting. The secrecy that surrounds terrorist planning and its speed of execution makes detection and prevention difficult. The new breed of terrorists with a terrible determination to die while carrying out their act make the cycle of justice even more difficult to fulfil. Unlike anarchists of the 19th century who fought monarchical despotism, the enemy of the terrorist is the liberal democratic State, the most free and compassionate organisation of human society, at least till now.

But this State is finding it difficult to come up with a coherent and workable response to terrorism and as a result, torture, indefinite imprisonment and executions have reemerged as the harsh instruments of war. An example is the US. On one hand, it uses torture to get a confession from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, almost certainly guilty of planning 9/11. On the other, neither he nor anyone else, has yet been charged. While the only guilt of many in Guantanamo may have been to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, military tribunals to conduct summary trials are yet to begin functioning. The question that the US and other liberal democracies face are common — can you maintain your ‘no torture’ high ground, or trial-before-punishment regime in the face of 9/11, December 13, 7/7 and Barcelona?

There was little debate in India in responding to terrorist violence. Third-degree had always formed the major instrument of police investigations and tens of thousands of under-trials, many accused of minor crimes, have been indefinitely imprisoned in our jails. But summary and even staged executions are the new dismal reality of our war against terrorism. Good men will suggest many longer term and humane alternatives to follow. But in the midst of a war, the compulsion to take the short path is overwhelming.

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