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02 October, 2008

Why everybody loves a good stereotype

by Antara Dev Sen
The Asian Age
October 2, 2008

"You support terrorists?" my friend was horror-struck.

"We can’t presume they are terrorists," I begin, "there must be a
trial first."

"Rubbish! They are terrorists! And it’s indefensible that Jamia Milia
University is using government money to protect them."

"Everyone is entitled to legal aid and is innocent until proven

"They are guilty. The police nabbed them."

"That’s the police version?"

My friend, a secular and sensitive writer, is mortified. "The terrorists shot an officer dead! But you still won’t believe them?"

"You believe police ‘encounters’?"

"Certainly. You don’t?"

"Maybe, if they’re credible."

"Why won’t you believe the police?"

"It would have been easier to believe the cops if they didn’t offer several versions of the same ‘encounter’, if they could find the bullets that killed Inspector M.C. Sharma and the gun that fired them, or answer the questions locals and activists are throwing at them punching holes in their theories, if fake ‘encounter’ killings like Sohrabuddin’s and his wife’s were not fresh in our minds?"

"A police officer is killed, and you side with the terrorists!"

"No, a life cut short is tragic, especially for the family. But two boys were also killed in the shootout. Terrorists? Prove it. Sharma did have a reputation? Remember his killing ‘terrorists’ in a fake encounter at Ansal Plaza?"

"He faked his own killing, you say?"

With bombs going off every few days and our threat perception spiralling, it’s not easy to root for civil rights. Logic and ethics get all tangled up as fear spooling out of bombed markets and grieving neighbourhoods flood your senses. Where does one draw the line between safeguarding human rights and supporting terrorism? How much of our rationality and morals are we ready to barter for some more security? Would it really buy safety or are we being manipulated into fighting others? battles? Conversely, are we bending over backwards so much to protect civil rights that we can’t see the obvious?

For example, you can’t deny that there is Muslim terrorism in India. We are not immune to the global virus, especially since some neighbours have been diligently breeding it for us. And it is naïve to pretend that all Muslim terrorism in India is retaliation against
discrimination and abuse, or to romanticise the murder of innocents.

But to prop up Muslims as the enemy, or suggest that every Muslim is a potential terrorist, is ridiculous. For decades, we have faced terrorism from non-Muslims, from Punjab to the Northeast to the recent rash of terror across India by Maoists or Hindutva extremists. We have lost one Prime Minister to Sikh killers and one to Hindu terrorists. And lost thousands of lives to Muslim militants, from Jammu and Kashmir to the Mumbai blasts.

Yet the trend today is to equate terrorism with Islam. Take Delhi. Every recent bomb blast has been blamed on Muslims. The attack on the Red Fort in December 2000 and on Parliament in December 2001, the Diwali blasts of October 2005, the serial blasts of September 13, 2008, and the blast last Saturday. Even though 15,000 clerics had
congregated in February at Darul Uloom Deoband, the Muslim seminary in Uttar Pradesh whose alumni include the Taliban, and denounced terrorism as anti-Islam.

We love stereotypes. So while parading the three suspects in the Delhi blasts, middle class kids, two of whom are students of the Jamia Milia Islamia University, instead of the hood to protect their identity, the police wrapped brand new red Palestinian scarves around their heads, revealing only their eyes, like Hamas militants. Manipulating the perception of the Muslim as terrorist, or the terrorist as Muslim, was easy.

Religious profiling has been part of our anti-terrorism drive, and with their socio-political deprivations, Muslims are easy targets. According to the Sachar Committee Report, only 59 per cent of Muslims are literate and their participation in governance is severely limited: only 4 per cent in the IPS, 3 per cent in the IAS, barely 1.8 per cent in the IFS, etc. Marginalised for long, Muslims are now being pushed dangerously close to the edge.

Apart from violating the constitutional guarantee of equality, religious profiling hinders the fight against terror. It diverts attention from those who are tangibly linked to terrorism but do not fit the religious profile. So stereotypes about Muslim terrorists make us ignore State-sponsored Hindu terrorism like in Gujarat, where justice was so beyond reach that the Supreme Court had to transfer the 2002 "riot" cases outside of the state. Or the continuing terror attacks on Christians in Orissa (about 50 killed in Kandhamal this
time), and Karnataka by Hindu extremists. Bajrang Dal activists have been found making bombs, like in Kanpur a month ago. Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad found them making bombs in Nanded in 2006 and also recovered a false beard, moustache and sherwani. This Hindu group had bombed three mosques since 2003. Once free from
stereotypes, the police can efficiently counter terror.

But stereotyping terrorists is easier. We remember the jailing and torture of Iftikhar Gilani, Delhi bureau chief of Kashmir Times, for almost seven months, before intense lobbying by the media and politicians got him released in January 2003. Similarly, Tariq Ahmed Dar, a young Kashmiri model, was jailed for several months in 2006, as a "Pakistani spy". He was released after intervention by the media and top politicians. In August, cops picked up Milan Molla, a tea-shop owner in Kolkata, threatening to brand him a terrorist unless he paid up Rs 150,000. His mother paid part of it with borrowed money, freed him and went public with a complaint. Every year, there are dozens of such cases. Given that young Muslim men are routinely targeted in the name of fighting terrorism, Jamia?s decision to provide legal aid to its students is perhaps essential.

"But would Jamia have provided this support if the boys were accused of rape?" exclaimed my friend. Maybe not. But then, being accused of a crime against an individual is not the same as being charged with a crime against the nation. The loyalty of Indian Muslims is regularly questioned, from India-Pakistan cricket matches to national
politics. In a terrified society, officially branding them anti-national would be easy. To prevent our strained social fabric from falling apart, we need to pursue the truth, not myths, and protect civil rights. That does not make us supporters of terrorism, it helps
us curb it.

Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted

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