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Why the Congress won't make Antulay say sorry

By T V R Shenoy
December 27, 2008 09:32 IST
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Love means never having to say you're sorry.

That line from Love Story -- the 1970 original, not any later Hindi drama -- is running through my head as I watch A R Antulay grinning gleefully as Parliament erupts. Senior members of the Union Cabinet may squirm in embarrassment but the minority affairs minister -- a post that should never have been created -- is loving every precious second of screen time.

It is, of course, not just the publicity that Antulay loves.

His party also loves the prospect of bashing 'Hindu terrorism' and loves even more the prospect of winning Muslim votes in the general election. If that makes poor Pranab Mukherjee's task that much harder, well, that is just too bad!

Why should the wider international community take India's accusations against Pakistan seriously? Islamabad has stridently refused to accept that the tragedy in Mumbai was the handiwork of Pakistanis, and now here is a minister in New Delhi hinting that Mumbai Anti Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare's death anyhow might have been linked to his investigation of the Malegaon blast.

Any day now I expect a Pakistani spokesman to say that everything that happened in Mumbai was a vast cover-up plotted by 'Hindu militants.' Or will they be beaten to the punch by one of India's own home-grown secularists?

I am not joking. There is no dearth of people in Pakistan, and in the larger Islamic community, who sincerely believe that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington were a 'vast Jewish conspiracy.'

If you can swallow that, you can accept much the same of the Mumbai tragedy as well. And if the 'secularists' can ask questions about the death of Inspector M C Sharma in the Batla House encounter in New Delhi what stops them from insinuations about Karkare's death?

One would love to believe that Antulay's statement was simply the view of a single individual, not that of the Union Cabinet nor that of the Congress. But the studied silence of the Treasury front benches and the evasions of the party spokesmen makes one wonder. I grant you that poor Dr Manmohan Singh dare not drop a minister, or even criticise him, without Sonia Gandhi's approval. But as long as the minority affairs minister sits at the Cabinet table doesn't it indicate that the Congress boss takes him seriously?

If the Congress takes Antulay seriously, so should we. In that spirit, let us examine his allegations. The thrust of his charge was that Karkare was too good an officer to rush to the Cama Hospital when the Taj hotel appeared to be the main target of the terrorist strikes.

There is a simple explanation. The records indicate that the attack on the Taj hotel was reported to the Police Control Room a full 13 minutes after Karkare was killed.

I cannot help wondering, however, if Antulay -- backed by all those Muslim leaders who are now speaking out -- actually thought through their accusations. Forget the fact that the report did not reach the ATS chief when he was still alive, and examine the allegation on its merits.

Everyone agreed that Karkare was utterly unflinching in carrying out his duties and could not be deflected from his path.

There is no way that he would have been diverted from the Taj hotel -- if he were still alive, that is -- barring clear orders from a higher authority. There is a Congress-led ministry in New Delhi and a Congress-led ministry in Mumbai. Was Antulay suggesting that someone in Delhi or Mumbai, a superior authority that Karkare would obey, led him astray to his ultimate death? There is no way on earth Karkare would have listened to such a suggestion from anyone but a superior officer or a minister.

Carrying Antulay's speculation to its logical end, why would anyone in power want Karkare's death? The minority affairs minister himself says that the police officer was investigating the Malegaon case up to the very day of his death. On the afternoon of November 26 -- the attacks began that same evening -- a court had refused to send Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, one of the accused in the Malegaon case, to police custody, preferring to keep her in judicial custody. Karkare himself admitted that this was a setback. So was Karkare killed to cover up the fact that the case against Sadhvi Pragya -- by extension the whole edifice raised against 'Hindu militancy' -- was flimsy?

Of course not, that would be silly! I believe that Karkare's death was caused by Pakistani terrorists. I believe that he happened to be at the Cama Hospital because he had heard news of a shoot-out there. I believe that this happened at a time when even the Police Control Room, leave alone the ATS chief out in the field, had not heard about the attacks at the Taj hotel.

I am simply pointing out that Antulay's allegations, when taken to their logical conclusion, point the 'needle of suspicion' to some strange quarters. Karkare was constitutionally incapable of being led astray by 'Hindu communal forces' -- not in power either in Delhi or in Mumbai anyhow -- so who led him to his death if we take the minority affairs minister's comments seriously?

Mercifully, there is nothing that stipulates that we must treat every offering by politicians with gravity. The new chief minister of Maharashtra was quick to dismiss Antulay's allegations even if the Congress 'high command' does not. But the minority affairs minister would do well to remember that stupid conspiracy theories can run both ways -- and that, carried to the bitter end, his own allegations could leave his party very sorry.

I am happy to note that the inability to say sorry is not shared by all UPA ministers. E Ahamed, the minister of state for external affairs, did not name the Jewish victims at Nariman House in his December 9 speech to the United Nations Security Council. Taken to task in Parliament by the Leader of the Opposition, the minister was quick to apologise, admitting it was his duty to 'defend every Indian or any foreigner who is in India.' But then E Ahamed is not a Congressman!

What can you say about Antulay? That he was sacked as chief minister by Indira Gandhi. And retained as a Union minister by Sonia Gandhi. And that love of votes means the Congress never will make him say sorry.

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T V R Shenoy