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Explained: Political binaries that came to inform Indian politics after 9/11

The binary choice from President George W Bush — 'with us or against us' — came to inform several subtexts in domestic politics. 9/11 also fanned an aggressive nationalism, and the yearning for a 'strong' leader.

Written by Ravish Tiwari | New Delhi |
Updated: September 16, 2021 7:15:23 am
Indian politics after 9/11 attacks, 9/11 attacks, September 11 attacks, Indian dead in 9/11 attacks, Indian politics 9/11 attacks, Indian ExpressL K Advani's 'Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar' pitch did not succeed in 2009. Five years later, Narendra Modi leveraged the image of a strong, decisive leader to spectacular effect. (Express Archive)

One hundred and seventeen Indian nationals or persons of Indian origin were killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the years that followed, the long shadow of the attacks touched the lives of a very large number of people in this country, and left a prominent signature on its domestic politics.

The 9/11 attacks lent global credibility to the concerns long expressed by India about cross-border (transnational) terror. The attacks made it easier for the Indian state to jettison the remnants of its Cold War mindset, and to be unapologetic about moving closer to the US.

Internally, the political fault lines that emerged as part of the complex social consequences of the attacks have continued to shape Indian politics in direct and indirect ways.

Some of the most commonly articulated binaries of the last two decades — secularism/ pseudo-secularism (alleged vote-bank politics), jihadist terror/radical Hindutva, national/ anti-national — have been informed by assumptions born out of global Islamophobia, and the clamour around the world for ‘strong’ or ‘tough’ government policy post-9/11.

The insecurity and anxieties triggered by Islamist terrorism fed into a reactionary jingoistic nationalism, and made the Hindutva rhetoric of the BJP more appealing to more people. They helped boost politicians such as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who would use this launchpad to spectacular effect, and eventually reshape domestic politics.

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The most overt imprint of 9/11 was seen in the enactment and use of anti-terror laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Act (GUJCOCA), and National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act, and amendments in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) over the last two decades.

POTA, India’s version of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, was passed in March 2002, in the aftermath of the attacks in the US and on Parliament on December 13, 2001. The Congress and its allies, who were critical of the harsh provisions of the Bill, ensured its defeat in Rajya Sabha where they were in a majority — the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee then took the rare step of getting the Bill passed in a joint sitting of Parliament. The law was repealed within months of the Congress-led UPA coming to power in 2004.

Meanwhile, the government of then Chief Minister Modi had introduced the GUJCOC Bill in the Assembly in 2003, drawing from POTA and the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), 1999. But President A P J Abdul Kalam withheld his assent, and his successors Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee sent the Bill back to the Gujarat Assembly.

It wasn’t until 2019, with Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP’s own man, in Rashtrapati Bhavan, that the law — with some key changes — came into force. Amit Shah, who had piloted the Bill in Gujarat as junior home minister after it was rejected by the President in 2009, is now Union Home Minister.

Through this period, the BJP underlined the seeming binary of its own muscular nationalism and patriotism, versus the alleged political appeasement of Muslims by the Congress, which, it was suggested, extended to a softness of approach towards Islamist terror.

So, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi referred to “maut ke saudagar” during the Gujarat election campaign of 2007, Modi hit back with barbs on the delay in hanging Afzal Guru, who had been convicted under POTA for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack case. “Soniaben, if you cannot hang Afzal, hand him over to Gujarat. We will hang him,” Modi taunted her, turning his provincial election campaign into virtually a national ideological battle.

Battered politically by a string of corruption scandals, the UPA government did hang Afzal Guru less than a year before the 2014 elections — but the BJP had by then seized the initiative on the ‘national security’ issue.

Earlier, worried about the political fallout from the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, the UPA government had amended the UAPA and constituted the NIA, drawing from the same POTA provisions that it had repealed in 2004. Only months before the 26/11 attacks, the Union Home Ministry had filed an affidavit in the Gujarat High Court justifying the refusal to grant consent to the GUJCOC Bill.

Amitabh Mattoo writes on 9/11 attacks |America’s failure of imagination

The current government has used the laws enacted by the UPA after the repeal of POTA to prosecute 16 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. The judicial deference towards the executive that is built into these laws has meant there is little reprieve to the accused irrespective of their age, gender, or medical condition.

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The Hindutva politics of the Ram Temple and the political counter to the alleged appeasement of minorities, which propelled the BJP under Vajpayee and L K Advani, had its limitations — these were exposed in 2004 Lok Sabha elections that followed the political polarisation after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The series of terror attacks across the country during the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments added to the national anxiety. The global post-9/11 Islamophobia had an India chapter; there was also a feeling that governments needed to be tougher on terror.

In his autobiography My Country, My Life, released ahead of the elections of 2008, Advani wrote: “No faith condones the killing of innocent persons and therefore, terrorists have no religion. Nevertheless, it is also an irrefutable fact that one of the most virulent forms of terrorism in our times seeks the cover of Islam… The ideological basis of terrorism in India has been unmistakably anti-national in its intent and pan-Islamic in its appeal.”

Advani painted the repeal of POTA as emasculation of India’s fight against terrorism, done for the alleged political appeasement of Muslims. As home minister, Advani had leveraged the provisions of POTA to ban over two dozen organisations in the country, including SIMI. “I was deeply disappointed over the Congress party’s proclivity to view POTA through the prism of vote-bank politics,” Advani wrote in his book. “Together with its allies, it had conducted a contemptible campaign to project POTA as ‘anti-Muslim’. But what filled me with agony was when the Congress-led UPA government repealed POTA in September 2004, and even advertised this blatant legislative disarming of India’s battle against terrorism to be one of its proud achievements.”

He went on to caution “all patriotic Indians to think about the grave security implications of such short-sighted and expedient policies, which have made India ‘a soft state’.”

Unlike the Ram Temple, which tapped into Hindu religious sentiments for a political purpose, the subtext of terrorism sought to use national security to burnish the BJP’s ideological politics. Advani’s campaign slogan for his 2009 prime ministerial bid was “Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar”. It did not bring Advani the electoral success he had hoped for — but five years later, his political protégé Modi would successfully tap into the yearning for a strong/hard government to unseat the flailing UPA with a historic majority.

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The simplistic binary choice formulated by President George W Bush — “with us or against us” — came to inform several subtexts in domestic politics in the years after 9/11. The seeming preference for a decisive, centralised government that would hand out instant justice without wasting time in deliberation has entered the popular psyche.

Arvind Kejriwal caught the nation’s imagination by promising swift retribution against allegedly corrupt people through his Lokpal agitation. The with-me-or-against-me political choice he offered came wrapped in nationalistic symbolism — and as Kejriwal now tries to expand the footprint of the Aam Aadmi Party, he is seeking to follow the Hindu nationalistic arch of the BJP.

Prime Minister Modi’s demonetisation decision of 2016, taken with limited consultation, can be framed within the paradigm of the strong, decisive leader. The surgical strikes across the LoC were intended to be a decisive repudiation of the image of the ‘soft state’ that Advani lamented. Whether India is soft or hard in its response to the Chinese on the LAC in Ladakh, however, remains an open question — one that the opposition has not been able to spin enough to corner the government.

The dissent against the GST, the triple talaq law, the dilution of Article 370, the ban on cow slaughter, and the laws against inter-religious marriages, have all been presented by the BJP and government in terms of national/anti-national binaries.

(Ravish Tiwari is political editor and chief of political bureau)

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