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India Terror Arrests Shock Nation

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MANPREET ROMANA / AFP / Getty

Security forces outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, April 2006, after the explosions

Having suffered a dozen lethal terror attacks this year, Indians have almost stopped reacting to terror incidents with shock and horror. But recent news of the arrest of 10 people linked with two relatively small terror attacks earlier this year has created a national furor, and is likely to skew political parties' calculations ahead of next year's general elections.

The arrests by the Anti-Terrorist Squad of Maharashtra police have shocked India for two reasons. The nine accused are all Hindu right-wingers, confirming, for the first time, suspicions raised by political and security analysts that the Hindu extremist fringe has been organizing for terror attacks. Second, among the accused are a serving lieutenant colonel and a retired major of the army, an institution so far considered impervious to communal elements. (Click here to read about recent bomb blasts in North East India.)

For years, Indian security and investigation agencies have had a trite, almost comically knee-jerk explanation for terror attacks — they have been blamed on Islamist fundamentalists aided by "foreign elements," meaning mostly Pakistan and China. Even where the majority of victims have been Muslims — such as the May 2007 blast at Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, the attack on an Indo-Pak train in February 2007 and the April 2006 twin blasts at New Delhi's Jama Masjid — the first murmurs of suspicion have named Islamist groups. Investigation trails in these cases have led nowhere, yet no one has dared ask if non-Muslims, or more specifically, Hindu fundamentalists, could be responsible. The recent arrests point to either the security forces' inefficiency, or an implicit anti-Muslim bias, or both.

The 10 people arrested by the Maharashtra police have been charged with murder and conspiracy in a bomb blast during the month of Ramadan. The blast at a hotel near a mosque killed four people in Malegaon city near Mumbai. Among the accused is a Hindu nun with links to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and its various sister organizations. The investigation is already uncovering a seemingly larger network of Hindu extremist activity in western India's urban centers of Nagpur, Indore and Pune that could help unravel unsolved terror strikes. "Let us not forget history," says political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. "Mahatma Gandhi's assassin was a Hindu extremist."

Cases have been building before this week. Rangarajan cites a blast in the central Indian city of Kanpur in August as one, in which two people associated with a Hindu right-wing organization were killed while making explosives. In June, the Hindu nationalist political party Shiv Sena got much flak for calling for the creation of Hindu "suicide squads". "Islamic terrorism is on the rise in India and in order to counter Islamic terrorism, we should match it with Hindu terrorism," an unsigned editorial in the Shiv Sena's official newspaper said. Hindu right-wing organizations have been blamed for virulent anti-Christian violence in two states in recent months, and many critics would label the 2002 Gujarat riots and the tearing down of the Babri Masjid in 1992 — which first propelled the BJP to national prominence — as acts of Hindu extremist violence as well. Hindu right-wing parties have used Islamist terrorism to play upon the majority community's resentment at a sense of persecution by the minority Muslim community. "One hopes the arrests will cause some introspection," says Rangarajan, "Maybe [Hindu right-wing leaders] will give up their politics of violent communal polarization."

For the moment, however, political leaders are busy culling votes. Writing in the weekly magazine Outlook, Congress party member Abhishek Manu Singhvi pounced immediately, writing, "[The BJP] claims to be a mainstream political party — with its direct members and associates directly linked to terrorism. It gives us homilies on terror and calls us soft on terror, while allowing its own philosophy to preach terror and its own activists to commit terror." The BJP has hinted at a conspiracy by the ruling government to frame the accused for political gains. "A terrorist is a terrorist irrespective of his religion or caste. The BJP objects to the term 'Hindu terrorists'. By condemning the majority, one seeks to gain the minority vote," BJP vice president Yashwant Sinha said at a press conference in New Delhi on October 24, after the first set of arrests.

Whether the charges against the accused will stand in a court of law remains to be seen. What is clear is that India now faces a dangerous epidemic of violent communalization, which threatens to polarize the polity and destroy the secular character of the state.

Click here for pictures of floods in the state of Bihar.