India’s Terror Politics

September 29, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia on September 29, 2006.

When Islamic terrorists exploded seven bombs in Mumbai on July 11, there was widespread sympathy for India in the West. Yet that sympathy may soon turn to bewilderment — or worse — if Indian political parties continue wooing violent Muslim groups in order to improve their electoral prospects.

Local elections in India are often won or lost on swings of 1% or less, so parties cynically vie for every possible voting bloc, even when they’re headed by those facing criminal charges. Take, for instance, the upcoming polls in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, where 18.5% of the population is Muslim. Among the candidates for the State Assembly in next February’s elections is Abu Salem. He’s currently being tried for his role in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts by Muslim militants that killed 257 people. Far from being shunned, Mr. Salem says he’s already received private feelers of support from several local parties. One, Apna Dal, which mainly represents the north Indian laboring Kurmi caste, has even gone public in offering to make Mr. Salem its candidate. And Haji Qureshi, a state cabinet minister belonging to the mainstream Samajwadi Party, which relies heavily on Muslim support, was quick to defend Mr. Salem’s eligibility on the grounds that he hasn’t actually been convicted as yet.

Mr. Qureshi hasn’t always been so fussy about legal niceties. In February, he offered a $10 million reward for the beheading of the Danish cartoonist whose portrayal of the prophet Muhammad sparked widespread outrage in the Muslim world. Instead of being condemned for this, Mr. Qureshi’s incitement to murder was swiftly backed by the state’s chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who needs every possible Muslim vote to win next February’s elections. That explains why the chief minister also defended the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, a banned outfit accused of masterminding several bomb blasts.

It was a similar story during May’s elections in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where Muslims constitute 25% and 13% of the population respectively. The winning coalitions in both states wooed highly questionable groups. In Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Communist Party (Marxist), two members of the winning coalition, struck an alliance with two extremist groups, Al Umma and the People’s Democratic Party. Police have charged these two groups with planning the February 1998 bomb blasts, which killed 58 people in Coimbatore, one of southern India’s largest cities.

Shortly after winning the election, the DMK‐​led state government dropped six cases against Al Umma sympathizers accused of defacing Hindu temples. It has also provided VIP treatment in jail for Abdul Nasser Mahdani, who is accused of being the mastermind behind the Coimbatore bombings.

The problem is that India’s judicial system is so slow it often seems that criminals are more likely to die of old age than be convicted. The trial of Mr. Salem and 122 others accused of involvement in the 1993 Mumbai blasts is typical. Despite supposedly being heard by a special court with fast‐​track procedures, it has dragged on for 13 years.

One consequence of the judicial meltdown is that criminals enter politics in droves. In the late 1990s, a then‐​election commissioner, T.S. Krishnamurthy, estimated that 40 members of parliament and 700 members of state legislatures faced pending criminal cases. Although no one has since provided a more current figure, all India’s major political parties remain unenthusiastic about judicial reform — perhaps fearing their own legislators would become the first victims.

Chief ministers in many states have turned the police into political tools to harrass political opponents. Yes‐​men are promoted while independent‐​minded officers are often exiled to posts like police training and research. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, opposition leaders have repeatedly been arrested on a succession of charges that did not result in convictions. Not surprising then, that ordinary citizens tend to see the legal process as political theater rather than a justice system.

Having long wooed criminals, it is only a matter of time before more political parties start wooing terrorist outfits too — as shown by the battle for Mr. Salem’s support in Uttar Pradesh. In some constituencies, they may even command enough votes to decide the result. The more India’s politics becomes based on religious and regional affiliations rather than policies, the more terrorists of all stripes will become politically attractive. After all why jail a terrorist who can help you win the next election? Far better to keep him on your side, for fear his followers might otherwise switch to the opposition.

Politics apart, long legal delays can also fuel Hindu‐​Muslim riots. When the law cannot quickly find and convict individual Muslim terrorists, it only encourages Hindu mobs to take the law into their hands and seek vengeance against the Muslim community as a whole. Muslim mobs are then tempted to respond, creating a cycle of violence — as was graphically demonstrated in Gujarat in 2002, when an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims sparked intercommunal riots in which several thousand died.

The solution is to set up an independent police commission, along the same lines as the country’s election commission, which has a reputation for fairness. While state governments must necessarily be in charge of public order, criminal investigation should be the job of a separate, autonomous police force under an independent police commission. That would make it impossible for local politicians to meddle in individual cases for political purposes, and help get criminals out of legislatures and into jails. India also needs more judges and streamlined judicial procedures, as the country has learned firsthand that justice delayed is justice denied.

Finally, India needs a law mandating that criminal cases against elected legislators will be disposed of before dealing with any others. Today, criminals often enter politics to delay cases against them. But if these cases were the first to be heard, and local politicians no longer had the power to interfere with them, criminals would flee politics instead of embracing it as a way to avoid being convicted.

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