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'Are our policies to fight terror right or wrong?'

By Sheela Bhatt
September 15, 2006 15:20 IST
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Madhav Godbole was India's home secretary when the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished on December 6, 1992 and when a series of bomb blasts devastated Mumbai on March 12, 1993.

In his book Unfinished Innings, he has given a frank and meticulous account of what went on in the corridors of power in New Delhi when India's secular ethos was challenged on both these occasions.

Dr Godbole believes the 1993 bomb blasts were a reaction to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Muslim community cannot be blamed for its 'overreaction.'

With a distinguished career behind him, his is the experienced voice with a conscience. He took premature retirement from the Indian Administrative Service soon after the blasts when Rajesh Pilot, then minister of internal security, tried to circumvent his position. Dr Godbole's honourable decision stunned the civil services and political establishment.

Since then he has relentlessly argued, through his columns and books, that secularism is the only option for India -- to survive well and grow. He has written many books, the latest of which is The Holocaust of Indian Partition -- An Inquest.

In an exclusive interview to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt, he discussed Hindu-Muslim relations and the contemporary issue of terrorism.

You were home secretary when the 1993 blasts took place. What were the first reactions? And how did you take up the challenge thrown by it?

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, we certainly expected a lot of tension and large-scale communal violence. We had advised all state governments to be careful and make necessary arrangements to prevent it. We also advised the army to remain on standby and help states whenever they required.

But the kind of blasts that took place in Mumbai in 1993 came as a surprise. We had certainly not expected anything of this magnitude and of this scale. Therefore it was something to sit up and take notice of.

It turned out later that it had links with forces that were based outside India. The network of these forces was much larger, not within the country but outside. They were taking advantage of the situation within India to create problems inside the country and that was a matter of concern for India.

Immediately after the demolition of the Babri Masjid some communal organisations were banned. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad were banned along with one or two Muslim organisations.

You will find in my memoirs the specific reference to my meeting with then prime minister (P V) Narasimha Rao along with then Intelligence Bureau chief V G Vaidya. We had a list of organisations which should have been banned.

Vaidya and I had recommended that the Students Islamic Movement of India and Shiv Sena must be banned. I had said it will make no sense to ban the communal organisations if these two are excluded from the list.

Prime Minister Rao was not inclined to ban these two (organisations) and he asked us to give further thought and come up with a new list. In the final list these two organisations were not included.

After the Babri Masjid demolition it was quite anticipated that there would be communal violence and it was necessary to take notice of the organisations which were likely to create a problem. As you know that the Srikrishna Commission blamed the Shiv Sena for the troubles. Therefore, our anticipation that these two organisations were required to be banned was well justified but unfortunately the government didn't agree.

What were the reasons?

As far as SIMI is concerned, the PM thought it was a students organisation and it wasn't right to ban a student organisation. As for the Shiv Sena, he said it was a political party and we should not ban a political party. This is a political judgement. The job of a civil servant is to advise the political executive but the final decision is of the political executive.

13 years is too long a period. Do you agree that the judgment in the blasts case, which is being delivered quite late, has lost its sting?

That is the problem with these kind of cases in India. In the US, the decision of the 1993 Twin Towers case arrived in less than three years. In most Western cases, the decisions arrive within three years so that it makes an impact also on those who commit these acts that they will meet with very stringent action within the shortest possible time.

In India everything proceeds at a very leisurely pace because of our institutional weaknesses.

Like many analysts do you too believe that the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts were a reaction to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992?

I would say yes. I would say it was an overreaction. It was the reaction to what happened to the Babri Masjid. But I don't blame Muslims, I understand them. In fact, that is what we were expecting if the Babri Majsid was demolished... we had prepared a contingency plan in the home ministry and we had prepared reports to persuade the government to dismiss the Uttar Pradesh government.

All of that was the admission that its implications are much larger than the mere demolition of the structure. Because it represents a major undercutting of the secular quality of the country.

On the night of December 6, 1992 why did the Congress government at the Centre allow the construction of the Ram Lalla temporary temple?

There were such a large crowd in that area. After the imposition of President's rule at 9 pm in the state, central forces could not go in the area without the assistance of the magistrate.

Magistrates are provided by the local administration. We had given instructions to the local administration to send in the armed forces. The local administrator was waiting for the magistrate to come in but the local magistrate refused to come. This is all documented.

If the forces would have gone into the disputed area they would have to resort to firing where thousands -- rather more than a lakh -- of people were present. They wanted to make sure that the forces would not come in till they completed the construction of a temporary temple.

One or two ministers of Rao's Cabinet like (P Rangarajan) Kumaramangalam tried to put pressure on me that when the armed forces are going in they should demolish the temple.

I said it is not their job. I will not do anything which is not within the charter of the security forces. Their charter is to go and take charge of the situation and to make sure that there is no further violence in the region. Beyond that it is not in their charter to demolish any structures. And if you take the law in your hand then later, don't blame them if they go much beyond what you are asking (them) to do. There are set parameters within which security forces have to function and those were my clear guidelines.

As an internal security expert, how do you see the current tension after the recent serial blasts in Mumbai and Malegaon?

Yes, it is a certainly a matter of worry. In fact, the alienation of any group, any population in any area shows what kind of problem we can have. The alienation of the people of Jammu and Kashmir is there since long and still continues to some extent. It was so in Punjab.

Imagine, if 12 to 13 per cent of the population of India -- the Muslim population -- if they get the feeling of being alienated what problem it would be for this country.

I had written about it in the context of the Punjab problem. In my new book in the last chapter I have dealt with Partition. In retrospect I have written on what the lessons of Partition are. In that I have talked about the major problems in terms of Muslim education and employment.

There is a need to bring a large chunk of Muslim masses into the mainstream of society, rather than perpetuating the different identity politics amongst Muslims. And if any kind of outside force finds that it has ready material available locally which is ideologically oriented to commit any kind of crime then not much effort will be required by any foreign power or foreign groups. That is what is happening in India now.

It is obvious that after the 1993 Mumbai blasts India has not learnt any lessons.

Yes, it is true. We continue to be a soft State. All over the world countries have passed stringent laws to deal with terrorism, this is one country where we repealed the existing laws from the statute book.

We had the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, TADA, the Supreme Court upheld that TADA is not unconstitutional. The Supreme Court recommended certain amendments, as the government also had in mind to reduce its misuse which was the main complaint against the Act. The idea was not to apply the act for minor crimes. Fair enough. Steps were being taken in that direction and suddenly a bogey was created that this law was anti-Muslim.

Now, in a secular country, with a free judiciary, I can't understand how any law can be against any religion.

Because of the discrimination by police forces... sections of it are communalised.

Yes, but then don't throw away the baby with the bath water. The Act has to be implemented in a manner that no injustice is caused to anybody.

I am 200 per cent with you on that point and there can be no two opinions about it. When I was heading the home ministry I had prepared the required amendments. But then the Congress government at that time felt that to establish secular credentials it was necessary to let TADA go.

You should know that when evidence came out against the misuse of TADA, steps were taken and lately, a number of TADA cases had gone down substantially -- so to generalise on the basis of previous experiences is not right.

For three years there was no law in the statute book to deal with terrorism, then came the Prevention Of Terrorism Act, POTA, with a great deal of difficulty in the joint session of both Houses of Parliament.

Now, as soon as the new government came in they repealed POTA. As a result there is no law to deal with the excesses of terrorism in the country today. I am firmly of the view that the normal provisions of the criminal laws are not adequate to deal with terrorists.

Take the case of Punjab. The judges were not ready to hear the case, witnesses were not coming forward, it was not possible to investigate these cases to put up charge-sheets in a prescribed time limit of 60 or 90 days which is the requirement in normal crime cases.

These kind of cases have to be dealt with on a different footing. You need in-camera hearings, you need to provide protection of witnesses and much more. In the UK, USA and many European countries it is recognised that special laws are needed but in our country we believe that the normal law will take care of terrorism related cases.

I am against any human rights excesses but the human rights of common men are as important as those of the criminals and those who are perpetuating terrorist acts.

What is your opinion on the level of understanding the Bharatiya Janta Party and Congress have of terrorism and related issues?

I don't think both parties have made any difference in the handling of the security situation of the country. It does not make any difference that one is perceived as pro-Hindutva and the other as a secular party.

Ultimately, it is vote bank politics that weighs in the decision-making of the government.

Do you think the 1993 bomb blasts worked as a deterrent at least for some time? Many claimed it ended the circle of violence for some years.

No, I don't think so. You must have seen that some people still ascribe the recent Mumbai blasts to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. There are many other attacks which have followed the 1993 blasts.

The Babri Masjid is so much of an emotive issue. People who are outside would like to take advantage of it. It is a good handle for those who are outside India and interested in creating problems inside India.

Do you think after the Gujarat riots and because of other issues many young Indian Muslims are attracted to the idea of global jihad?

It is difficult to generalise. I will not say that young Muslims are interested in joining groups which are interested in creating problems in India. Recently, in the London blasts, facts came to the notice that there are home grown youngsters who were ready to take part in terror related actions, the same in the US.

We were taking pride that we are different and our Muslim boys are not part of the Al Qaeda network. Somehow, it is time to realise why we are not different any longer.


The basic problem is that perpetuating the identity of a community as a minority is not an answer to the problem. The answer to the problem can be found by making sure that they get the kind of mainstream education that is required for their employment which is a major problem they are facing.

Again, reservation for Muslims on the basis of religion is going to create a lot of problems. The Andhra Pradesh high court has struck down the provision and the Supreme Court has refused to give a stay to the AP judgment.

Identifying the weakest section of Muslims and giving them a special concession is much more necessary than the straightforward announcement that we are reserving 5 per cent seats for Muslims. That will again go to the creamy layer as it is in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Common Muslims will not benefit from it.

How do you see inter-community relations between Hindus and Muslims?

The gap is increasing. And the gap is increasing for no fault of anybody except for these kinds of blasts. When such blasts happen people start wondering whether our policies to fight terror are right or wrong.

At the same time it has to be realised that in a country like India there is no other alternative except to build on secularism. Any weakening of secularism will be a death knell to all that is enshrined in the Constitution.

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Sheela Bhatt