The Thin Red Line

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Illustration: Anand Naorem

I WAS AMONG several who saw him die. His name was Surjit Singh Penta, and the year was 1988. A smartly calibrated siege of the Golden Temple had just ended in the surrender of all the militants holed up inside the Harmandir Sahib, the Temple’s sanctum sanctorum. As they filed out and squatted in the courtyard of the serai on the Temple’s periphery, a sudden commotion broke out. The police spotters had recognised a major militant. But before they could lay hands on him, he had swallowed his cyanide pill, and though the police threw him into a jeep to rush him to hospital, he was dead. Penta’s story deserves telling because it illustrates the pathology of oppression. The young Sikh was a national-level athlete representing Delhi before he became a witness to the brutal Sikh massacres of 1984. By the time he committed suicide a few years later more than 40 killings were attributed to him.

Before he became a terrorist Penta had been terrorised by the state — or its malign absence. That is often the sequence: the state’s excesses, followed by those of the individual. The line between law enforcement and high-handedness is always very thin. In India, dangerously, it is being smudged every day. Are Naxalites victims before they become perpetrators? Are young militants in the north-east and Kashmir brutalised before they become brutal? Is the ordinary citizen meted out insensitivity before he becomes desensitised? What does one say about a country where one turns to the police with trepidation, where no one expects the men in khaki to do the right thing?

While extreme viewpoints have a right to exist in a free society, it goes without saying that no one ought to have any sympathy for the positions of bigoted groups and individuals. The kind who base their existence on perilous ideas of divine rights, exclusion of unbelievers, intolerance, violence, and a preferred way of life to which everyone else must conform. If SIMI is one such organisation, it deserves our criticism and scorn. If it is breaking the law and fomenting hatred, it deserves to be rigorously investigated and brought to justice. But what if it is a target of widespread and growing prejudice? What if the drive against it is misdirected and designed to seed more terror than it aims to suppress? And while steel may cut steel, as the old Hindi saw goes, can prejudice ever neutralise prejudice?

For the seven years since SIMI has been outlawed, state agencies have been insisting that the outfit is an anti-national organisation engaged in conspiracies to destabilise the government through acts of terror; and that it brazenly preaches sedition, being closely linked with Pakistanbased terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tyaba, Hizb-ul- Mujahideen, and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Alleged SIMI activists stand accused of some of the worst terrorist crimes on Indian soil, including bomb blasts that killed 187 people in Mumbai’s local trains two years ago.

BUT A three-month long investigation by TEHELKA — carried out all over the country — reveals that a large majority of these cases are redolent of a chilling and systematic witch-hunt against innocent Muslims. Sadly, the expose shows it is not just the policing and intelligence agencies that are to blame — even the judicial process is often complicit in the terrible miscarriage of justice. Ajit Sahi’s painstaking and remarkable reportage reveals a shocking web of dubious cases being pursued against so-called operatives of SIMI — cases which lack evidence, cases which flagrantly ignore standard procedures of criminal investigation and trial, cases that callously destroy the lives of young men and their families.

The Indian state must tread carefully. The individual tragedies point to a wider psychosis. For the last many years — abetted by global trends — the state’s actions and utterances seem to be deepening a prejudice against Muslims. Catching the mood, Bollywood’s arch villains are now mostly Islamic. India has 160 million Muslims – more than Pakistan, more than any other country save Indonesia. Even if 10,000 are radicalised it’s barely a tree in a forest. To create an atmosphere that blights the entire forest is a mistake. To foster a psychology of siege in an entire community is a disaster. Before it seeks further bans, the state ought to vigorously introspect. William Faulkner wrote that “prejudice is shown to be the most destructive when it is internalised”. TEHELKA’s detailed investigation suggests, alarmingly, that in the shiningstruggling India of today there is a real danger of that. 

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Editor

In a 28-year career as a journalist, Tarun has been an editor with the India Today and The Indian Express groups, and the Managing Editor of Outlook. He is the founder of Tehelka—which has garnered international fame for its aggressive public interest journalism. In 2001, Asia Week listed Tarun as one of Asia’s 50 most powerful communicators, and Business Week declared him among 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia. Tarun’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was hailed by The Sunday Times as ‘an impressive and memorable debut’, and by Le Figaro as a ‘masterpiece’. In 2007, The Guardian, UK, named him among the 20 who constitute India’s new elite.

Tarun’s second novel, The Story of My Assassins was published in 2009 to rave reviews. Pankaj Mishra has said, ‘It sets new and dauntingly high standards for Indian writing in English’, while Altaf Tyrewala has called it ‘an instant classic’. The book’s website is www.taruntejpal.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. If we are to believe in a civilised world and a peaceful India – we need more people like Tarun Tejpal and his fearless team who time and again have dared to show us the mirror.

    We must think, ponder and be brave enough not to fear the other. It is tough but can be done.

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