'If terror indeed has no religion, no partisan affiliations, and if the government, media and all right-minded people in this country truly believe that, let us not call one blast a "terrorist incident" and dismiss another one as a mere "cylinder blast" just because it is politically convenient,' argues Shehzad Poonawalla.
If only Rajendra Kasawa, the main accused in the Jhabua blast which has seen about 90 people killed and over 150 injured, was named Rafiq, what would have been our collective reaction?
This blunt question needs to be asked of all institutions of our democracy, including the media and particularly the investigating agencies. My question is neither rhetorical nor hypothetical, hear me out.
The Burdwan blast that took place on October 2, 2014, in West Bengal saw two casualties and left one person injured according to news reports, but within days the probe was handed over to the National Investigation Agency that is tasked with the job of investigating cases related to terror. So what was it that warranted the transfer of the Burdwan case to the NIA, but does not warrant the same treatment for Jhabua?
Was it the fact that the identity of the two alleged suspects who were killed in the blast and a few others who were later arrested was Muslim? One of the bodies allegedly found at the blast site in Burdwan belonged to one Karim Sheikh and another one was Shakeel Ahmed, as per the NIA. The NIA's claims were dismissed by Karim Sheikh's father Jamshed and landlord Mohammad Hassan Choudhary.
As per published, uncontested, reports by those who have keenly followed the Burdwan case, the NIA did not conduct DNA tests to identify those bodies, so how did the agency establish the identities of these unknown persons and how did it connect the dots to the larger case of Islamic jihad against India?
These basic loopholes notwithstanding, it did not prevent several leading media groups to claim and repeat the NIA's line as gospel, that the Burdwan plot was the brainchild of the Indian Mujahideen and even Al Qaeda. It may have well been a terror attack and this will ultimately be determined by a court of law. But it is the hypocrisy of the media and agencies at display that bothers a citizen like me.
As per news reports, '69 detonators and a large number of gelatin sticks' were recovered from the home of the brother of the main accused in the Jhabua blast, who is also on the run. As per intelligence reports quoted in the media, Kasawa has been involved in the business of illegal possession and transportation of explosives since the 1980s.
In the past, Muslims who were suspected to be in possession of such explosives, detonators and gelatin sticks were immediately booked and charge-sheeted under terror laws for being part of a larger conspiracy involving groups like the Indian Mujahideen, and rightly so. The media too wasted no time in labelling such criminals as 'terrorists,' again rightly so.
But in the Jhabua case, no such terror law is being invoked despite the fact that 100 lives were lost. What evidence do the agencies have at this prima facie stage to rule out all terror links?
If the Intelligence Bureau was watching the accused for years, does it not indicate a potential terror angle as the IB usually does not waste its time on petty domestic crimes? And why is the media being so selective and coy in using the 'terror' tag, when it liberally uses it in cases when Muslims are accused?
The Indian media is no different from its Western cousins, for whom a white man killing scores of people with a gun is a mere 'gunman' or never a terrorist even if he slaughters dozens of innocent kids.
As of now the Madhya Pradesh government has only invoked sections of the Explosives Act and section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) against Kasawa and an Special Investigation Team has been formed to probe the incident, which has failed, not surprisingly one may add, to nab the culprits since September 12.
If it was a mere case of accidental explosion or a 'cylinder blast,' as Prime Minister Modi described it in his tweet on September 12 at 1.10 pm, why are the accused on the run?
Isn't this behaviour exactly the kind you would expect from terror fugitives? Can it not be alleged, as some commentators have rightly done, that the government of the day is trying to shield the accused?
On what basis has the Madhya Pradesh government, and indeed the central government as gauged from the PM's tweet, ruled out potential terror links that the Jhabua accused may very well have, even before investigating the case to its logical end?
Mind you, even the Burdwan blast was first thought to be a case of a 'cylinder explosion.'
Till the time it was not clear that Kasawa was the accused, the media was happy to infer that the Jhabua blast could have had potential terror links with SIMI suspects who were arrested with explosives in 2014. Now that there is no Muslim accused involved, perhaps we can all believe it was a 'cylinder blast'?
What about the potential linkages with the several cases of 'right-wing' terror attacks (I will desist from calling it Hindu terror as I believe there is nothing Hindu about killing innocent people just like there is nothing Islamic when some extremist act is labelled as one of Islamic jihad) from Malegaon, the Ajmer dargah and the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad to the Samjhauta Express, that have deeper links which trace back to people and right-wing groups operating from Madhya Pradesh? How has the state police ruled out this potential angle without even looking at it seriously?
This doubt gains traction because the Supreme Court has recently issued notices to the Centre, the NIA and the BJP government in Maharashtra seeking their response to a petition challenging Special Public Prosecutor Rohini Salian's removal in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case after allegations surfaced that she was being pressured to 'go soft' on the right-wing accused who are ideologically close to the current ruling dispensation and have been publicly defended by some top BJP leaders.
Back in October 2014, the central government had handed over the probe to the NIA after BJP leaders in Bengal had demanded the same. On October 6, 2014, through its national secretary Siddharth Nath Singh, the BJP had demanded to know, 'Why the West Bengal government was not handing over the investigation (into the Burdwan blast) to the NIA?' It further added that 'the delay was raising serious questions of a cover-up.' Don't the exact same questions arise in the context of the Jhabua blast?
Why is no BJP leader showing the same eagerness for the Jhabua probe to be handed over to the NIA?
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval himself visited the Burdwan blast site in Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal where two people died, giving his personal attention to the case. Such proactive behaviour is welcome, but is the death of 100 people less important when it takes place within a state ruled by the BJP government, which has appointed him as NSA?
If terror indeed has no religion, no partisan affiliations, and if the government, media and all right-minded people in this country truly believe that, let us not call one blast a 'terrorist incident' and dismiss another one as a mere 'cylinder blast' just because it is politically convenient.
Terror attacks don't discriminate among its victims. Why should we discriminate among the accused?
Shehzad Poonawalla is a lawyer-activist and founder-member of the governing body of the think-tank PolicySamvad.