On September 8, 2006, three bombs shattered the calm in > Malegaon town on the occasion of Shab-e-Baraat, a day when believers are out and about late in the evening. A mosque was attacked, and the intent was immediately clear: to create inter-community tension. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested a group of Muslim men from Malegaon and Mumbai. This week, all nine accused have been acquitted by a > special MCOCA court , which said there was not sufficient ground to proceed against them. It is, at one level, evidence of the balance of justice weighing in on the side of the innocent, though how to recompense a person for five years of wrongful confinement in jail is a question the judicial system must grapple with. In fact, one of the nine passed away last year. At another level, events over the intervening decade string together a narrative that this country has still not come to grips with. The questions it frames are best set against the chronology of events after that Shab-e-Baraat evening. As terror attacks hit the Samjhauta Express near Panipat (February 2007), the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad (May 2007), the Ajmer Dargah (October 2007), and then Malegaon once again in September 2008, it eventually became clear that the investigating agencies were on the wrong track in pursuing the accused for these incidents. This was a time when the police had also managed to crack down on the Indian Mujahideen for a series of strikes in cities across the country, but it became evident after Swami Aseemanand’s confession that fringe Hindu groups were at work doing their bit — whether in part-retaliation or only for the larger plan to polarise communities is beside the point. The eventual crackdown on both the Indian Mujahideen and these fringe Hindu groups has helped keep the peace in urban India. But the lack of haste in freeing men who were unfairly charged, and the simultaneous politicisation of cases of “Hindu” and IM terror, pose troubling questions. The most important of them is: how to restore faith in the neutrality of Indian investigation.
The events of the past decade have brought the intelligence agencies into controversies over political interference. India is an exception among mature democracies in that its intelligence agencies function without any external oversight, especially that of the elected legislature. The Malegaon acquittal, and the question of how to make amends for putting innocent men in prison for so long, should compel Parliament to demand oversight. An apolitical oversight would ensure that intelligence agencies do not get carried away by a myopic narrative of terrorism — unwittingly or by direct influence. Groups carrying out terrorist attacks are becoming ever more sophisticated in their operations and more subtle in furthering a divisive agenda. A similar sophistication to deal with the changing nature of the terrorist threat is needed. By the example of best practices elsewhere, parliamentary oversight needs to be part of the updated playbook.