Terrorism has become a major issue in the current election campaign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone in a very undesirable and divisive manner when he addressed a rally in Wardha, Maharashtra (April 1) where he alluded to the Samjhauta Express bombing case verdict delivered by special judge Jagdeep Singh on March 20 in Panchkula, Haryana.
It may be recalled that in February 2007 a terrorist attack took place on the Samjhauta Express that runs from Delhi to Lahore in Pakistan and back. The attack on the train occurred near the town of Panipat, about 80 km outside Delhi and 68 passengers were killed – most of them Pakistani citizens. At the time the finger of suspicion pointed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) based in Pakistan and a group called Abhinav Bharat deemed to be a Hindu right wing organization formed in 2006 in Pune.
The Samjhauta terror attack was a complex case with many opaque elements embedded in it, including allegations about the involvement of a serving Indian army officer. Hence the Indian investigating agencies proceeded with due caution. On its part, the USA arrived at a preliminary determination that one of the suspects was a Pakistani citizen and an LeT operative and moved the UN to have him designated as a terrorist.
The prime Indian accused was a Swami Aseemanand, who had links with the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ), the ideological fount of the Hindu nationalists, and consequently the Samjhauta case acquired very complex political overtones. At the time the Congress led UPA was in power and the fact that the Abhinav Bharat with its Hindu affiliation had been accused led to the use of phrases such as "Hindu terror" and "saffron terror". This turn of phrase mirrored the Islamic terror formulation and was contested by the BJP which was then in the opposition.
Given the complexity of the case and its religious contour, the Samjhauta investigation was handed over to the central NIA (National Investigating Agency) who filed a charge-sheet in June 2011. Predictably the case moved slowly through the judicial labyrinth and eight years later, on March 20, a special NIA court acquitted all the four accused, including Swami Aseemanand.
In his observation about the case, the judge noted with “deep pain and anguish” that such “a dastardly act of violence remained unpunished for want of credible and admissible evidence.” In related comments, that indicted the NIA for its inadequate efforts in pursuing the case to ensure that the guilty were brought to book, the judge pointedly added that “valuable pieces of evidence remained untapped.”
It is against this backdrop that PM Modi alluded to the Samjhauta verdict at his Wardha rally in a selective manner and stoked the majority Hindu sentiment, in what can only be described as a cynical and opportunistic manner. Accusing the Congress party of coining the term "Hindu terror", Modi added: “How can the Congress be forgiven for insulting the Hindus in front of the world? Weren’t you hurt when you heard the word ‘Hindu terror’? How can a community known for peace, brotherhood and harmony be linked with terrorism? In the thousand years of history, not a single incident shows an act of Hindu terrorism.”
The electoral objective was very clear – to project the BJP as the guardian of Hindu pride and integrity and tar the Congress with the pro-Muslim, hence anti-national, brush. This assertion is not only counter-factual but dangerous demagoguery that can irreparably damage the social fabric of a nation as diverse as India.
The facts merit recall. Asia has experienced many types of terrorism over the last seven decades and these have been perpetrated by adherents of all the major religious faiths – namely Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist in the main. No single religion has a monopoly over terrorism even if there has been a focus on Islamic jihadi terror post 9/11 at the global level. The kind of terrorism that Sri Lanka experienced apropos the LTTE, or for that matter the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic are all variations of the terror trajectory.
Thus the Modi claim that terrorism cannot be linked with the Hindu community does not bear scrutiny and this is further borne out by more recent developments in India. As recently as in 2017, when PM Modi was at the national helm, the NIA had ensured the conviction of three in number ex RSS members who had been accused in the 2007 Ajmer dargah bombings.
Furthermore, in December last the Maharashtra ATS (Anti Terrorism Squad) charged 12 individuals near Mumbai under the current anti-terror laws. At the time it was reported that the accused had drawn their motivation of establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu nation) as elucidated in one of their publications and were planning a terror attack.
It must be reiterated that terrorism is terrorism – whoever be the perpetrator and religion is secondary. One would expect that a nation like India that has been subject to a variety of terror attacks will give the investigation and judicial prosecution process the highest priority and that the Prime Minister of the country will not exploit this for electoral gain.
India has been urging Pakistan to act decisively in relation to the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and more recently Pulwama. Prosecuting the Samjhauta case in an objective manner so that justice is accorded to the victims and the guilty are appropriately punished will be testimony to India’s commitment to the rule of law. This will also be the benchmark that Pakistan will be expected to emulate.
PM Modi should apply the necessary corrective to his Wardha address and the manner in which he has framed the terrorism challenge. It must not be reduced to an untruthful and dangerous binary that pits the Hindu against the Muslim citizen. They are both Indians whose citizenship, as derived from the Constitution, is uniform and indivisible.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi)