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June 22, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

The cook, some murderers, a PM and the ISI

So did the ISI get the cook too? This is no idle question, believe me. The recent spate of attacks on Christians and their churches has made it very relevant indeed. In June alone, there has been: Priest killed on his bed in Mathura. Pastor found dead in Punjab. Five bomb blasts on one day (June 8) in churches in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. In June alone.

Faced with all this, the BJP's JP Mathur says there are "clear indications of ISI involvement" in these crimes. Clearly they are so clear that Mathur did not care to specify what those indications were. His colleague Venkaiah Naidu speaks of a "deep-rooted conspiracy" to "create misunderstandings among the different religious communities and to destabilise the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre."

Yes, it's that evil Pakistani agency again, the root of all that's dark and dismal in our country. And just by the way, out to get the BJP as well. So says the BJP, anyway. So when the only witness to that Mathura priest's murder, his cook Vijay Ekka, dies in police custody -- well, by golly, who else can we ignorant suckers blame but the big bad boys of the ISI?

Actually, there's an easy rule to apply to grumpy claims of conspiracies by malign foreign agencies. This is it: look for the simple explanation.

For example, Giriraj Kishore of the VHP said recently that "[Christians] pretend to be harmless when they're actively against Hinduism. [They] claim they are a declining populace when actually they are growing." For example again, there are pamphlets circulated by what Outlook magazine calls "fringe Hindu groups." One says "Aryans have a right to slay anyone who's a danger to their lives. A war against Christianity has been initiated by Aryavarta. The criminals must vacate Bharatmata."

In a time when such rhetoric floats about unchallenged, there is a series of violent attacks on the very people the rhetoric is designed to rouse public sentiment against: Christians. So what or who is responsible for these assaults? Those the Kishores and the pamphlets aim to rouse? Or Pakistan and its ISI?

That's right: the BJP chooses the ISI. Yet the simple explanation is: you spray kerosene around, you're going to have a fire. That is, even if we are to believe that nobody from the BJP and its friends actually murdered that priest and bombed those churches, the climate they have built with their incessant insinuations and accusations can only lead to crimes like these.

It's called incitement.

And then the cook dies in police custody. Naturally, the police of Nahrauli police station in UP, where Ekka was, have their usual explanation handy: he committed suicide. Now in case you haven't heard the police telling you so, suicides happen in their custody with astonishing frequency in India -- a frequency perhaps matched only by allegations of the ISI's "involvement" in Indian crimes. Which only raises the question again: did the ISI get Ekka too? Did it infiltrate that police station and goad Ekka into suicide? Is this just another angle of that "deep-rooted conspiracy" that Naidu mutters on about?

Or must we look for the simpler explanation once more: Ekka alive was infinitely more inconvenient than Ekka dead?

Christian leaders who went to see Prime Minister Vajpayee to express concern about these attacks got a "patient hearing" from him. After that, he told them three things: one, that "all minorities are safe in India"; two, that his government is "watching" the situation; three, they need not conclude that every attack is "anti-Christian" -- some may be random criminal acts.

Now I'm quite willing to believe, with the prime minister, that not all these attacks are "anti-Christian" (the cook's death, for one). But the unvarnished truth is that there are ever more of them, all over the country. The Statesman tells us there were five such assaults in 1998, seven in 1999 and 14 so far in 2000. Outlook lists 11 between April and June alone, from Jalandhar to Bangalore, from Ahmedabad to Katiguda in Orissa. Hate-ridden pamphlets are freely circulated. And the witness to a priest's murder is not only arrested and illegally detained, but is tortured and dies in the clutches of the police. (One police officer told Siddharth Varadarajan of The Times of India that Ekka died "because the interrogating officer miscalculated the degree of third-degree.")

In such a climate, it is no surprise that Christians are terrified and would like a PM to do something? But it is also just a little hard to sell them the idea that they are actually "safe in India."

Besides, if they are "safe", what is Vajpayee's government "watching"? And if it is "watching", why is it not doing anything? Or is watching a mere excuse for inaction? After all, nobody has been punished for any of these attacks, let alone the innumerable riots and massacres that we Indians endure. There does not even seem to be the desire to put an end to this constant bloodshed.

And since there isn't -- and this is our real tragedy -- it's hardly just the minorities: Indians of every stripe feel a greater measure of insecurity. (After all, what do you think when you hear a police officer saying another police officer "miscalculated the degree of third-degree"? What does that mean for the next time the police chooses to interrogate you about something?)

Take Bihar, where the massacres and counter-massacres go on and on. Last Friday night, 34 Biharis were slaughtered in that state's Aurangabad district. Every time blood spills like this, Vajpayee and his party blame the Laloo/Rabri show, on the way it has led Bihar unerringly into utterly criminalised politics.

Which is exactly right. Yet when Vajpayee and his party got the chance to turn the state around, in the last elections there, what did we find? They offered Bihar candidates running for office from jail, men accused of assaults and rapes and murders, men canvassing for votes while surrounded by gun-carrying thugs. There was no way to distinguish the BJP variety of criminal aspirants to office from any other party's variety. So is it any wonder that the state voted to retain the thugs they at least know: Laloo's and Rabri's?

Much more frightening, is it any wonder that the slaughter in Bihar continues? That Bihar becomes even more lawless than it already is?

Of course, maybe the ISI is to blame for that too. Maybe they are responsible even for the crimes of the candidates the BJP offered the people of Bihar in the last assembly elections. I await pronouncements on this particular matter from Messrs Mathur and Naidu.

But whatever they say, the truth is that all this -- attacks on Christians, carnage in Bihar, pick your own -- is the price of merely "watching" the situation. Of winking at third-degree, miscalculated or not. Of pronouncing elaborate theories about "deep-rooted conspiracies" with "ISI involvement"; of empty pronouncements that we are all actually "safe in India."

Of all that, instead of swift and exemplary punishment of criminals.

After the assaults on Christians in 1998-99, one of the country's most eminent lawyers returned to the government his brief in the Sardar Sarovar (Narmada) case. Explaining this striking protest, Fali Nariman wrote: "If the minorities feel insecure, it is the duty of the government to make them secure. It's a matter of how *they* feel, not how the government says they should feel. That's what civilised governance is all about."

The curious thing is, you can change "the minorities" to "Indians" in Nariman's words and they will still hold true. We are burdened with a government that has no interest in civilised governance. Perhaps we must blame the ISI for that too.

Dilip D'Souza

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