Who hijacked whom?

Aircraft hijackings took place for a long time in India without anyone pointing the finger to ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. The tendency to see the world through the eyes of George W Bush will always lead us away from the true nature of extremism.

The global hunt for terrorists has spoiled a sumptuous picnic in India. Decades before America's neo-cons reheated Ronald Reagan's "war on terrorism" – then a catchphrase for targeting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and other assorted leftists – and before President George W Bush mutated it into a war against 'Islamic fascists', airplanes were being hijacked in India as frequently as people fly kites. Even so, India's Muslims, Christians and Parsis had not then, and have not till now, been part of the procession. Everyone else has had their share of fun. That is how terrorism was seen until someone rammed commercial planes into the two tallest buildings in New York City.

On at least two occasions, the hijackers in India were Brahmins. Bhola and Devendra Pandey commandeered an Indian Airlines plane over Lucknow in 1978 to demand the withdrawal of Emergency-related cases against Sanjay Gandhi. That incident catapulted the brothers into politics, both becoming Congress MLAs in Uttar Pradesh. Another Pandey gentleman hijacked a plane simply because he wanted Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then an opposition leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, to request him to come down. The demand was met and the incident ended peacefully. In 1994, Dalit Buddhists hijacked a plane to demand that Marathwada University be renamed after Dr B R Ambedkar. Sikhs have commandeered Indian planes on two or three occasions in their quest for Khalistan. Four college students in 1993 even took off on a packed plane to demand the resolution of problems plaguing the Lucknow Arts College!

Of course, the illustrious history of aviation piracy in India began with Kashmiri Muslims in 1971, but the issue of Kashmir should not be mixed up with the ongoing profiling of India's 130 million Muslims, accelerated by July's blasts in Bombay. These two groups never saw eye-to-eye on most key issues, after all, including separatism. While Vajpayee humoured his Brahmin constituent in Lucknow, he did so at a time when the so-called War on Terrorism was merely America's domestic affair.

But Vajpayee's BJP colleagues, L K Advani and Jaswant Singh, followed this tradition of releasing hijackers after the definition had widened at the international level. Both freed alleged terrorists that had been ensnared by previous Congress governments. While Singh received poor grades during the 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar, few know that Advani also has a history in this department. He too has freed hijackers: the seven Sikhs brought back from Dubai by Indira Gandhi in a diplomatic coup, for which she probably paid with her life; as well as Kashmir's Hashim Qureshi, the alleged plotter of India's first hijacked plane to Pakistan, who now participates in peace talks with Manmohan Singh.

Free-market worship

All this resembles a page out of an Orwellian fairytale. As George W Bush received the Taliban in Texas before declaring them of no use to his vision of the world, so too did Indian prime ministers Singh and Vajpayee. Both in their time warmly received Pakistani pro-Taliban politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads groups that keep popping up in Kashmir and London terror alerts. By contrast, representatives of secular parties from Pakistan complain they are often given short shrift by the Indian establishment. This expedient approach to terrorism is cut from the same cloth as the global muddle led by Messrs Bush and Blair.

Take the case of Osama bin Laden, a Wahhabi Muslim from the most entrenched fundamentalist sect in the world of Islam, Saudi Arabia. Osama was a favourite of the American establishment until he made a disturbing request: the head of the King of Saudi Arabia on a platter. Subsequently, he wants it known that the king was a stooge of the Americans, and that the other Gulf rulers have been equally corrupted by the West. When you really get down to it, it is this ongoing standoff between the protagonists of two Wahhabi factions that has come to be known as a global war on terror, a clash of civilisations, and other such empty catchphrases. Do two medieval practitioners of a common sect represent two diverse civilisations?

Of course the Americans have always had strategic interests in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi rulers have long been required to guarantee the inviolability of this relationship. Therefore there was a genuine fear that if Osama bin Laden did usurp power in Riyadh, the Saudi national oil company Aramco, along with countless other American standard-bearers, would be liquidated in no time. Is that why Osama wanted the king removed? Perhaps, but he also wanted to implement in Saudi Arabia a more rigorous form of Wahhabism called Salafism.

The kingship of Saudi Arabia is no less obscurantist than the world's most wanted fugitive. King Abdullah did not visit Mahatma Gandhi's shrine when he came to Delhi in January this year, because doing so would have been 'insulting' to Islam – a view that the Indian government evidently accepted. Thankfully, Pervez Musharraf did not have similar concerns about Islamic purity when he paid homage to India's founding father in 2001.

King Abdullah had been in Delhi a few weeks before President Bush was to arrive to meet Manmohan Singh, India's first pro-free-market prime minister. All three men follow different religions, and yet they agree on how the world's market system should operate. The born-again Christian Tony Blair brings up the fourth corner of this obscurantist platform of free-market votaries.

Osama does not share their perspective. He opposes usury, insofar as it is forbidden in Islam to receive interest on bank deposits. It is difficult to see how this Islamic edict would ever square with a global banking system, the first step to a free-market structure.

Land, not religion

There is an unspoken but widespread assertion that all those who resist the West's growing influence must be medieval practitioners of Islam. But this is thwarted by the profile of the 11 September attackers, and that of those who allegedly tried to blow up a few more planes in London recently. How many of these people had any more than a nodding acquaintance with Osama's brand of Islam? This question has important implications for Indian Muslims, whose pursuits and loyalties range from communism to communalism. Politically, they are followers of the Congress, even of the rightwing Hindu BJP, and of every other party sandwiched in between.

US professor Robert Pape has conducted a study on global suicide missions that took place between 1980 and 2003, which included profiles of those who have attacked Western targets in Lebanon. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pape says, Hizbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia, and evidence of the broad nature of the group's resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers.

Hizbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986, altogether involving 41 suicide terrorists. Of those, Pape's team was able to collect detailed personal information for 38. "We were shocked to find that only eight were Islamist fundamentalists," he writes. All the terrorists were born in Lebanon, fully 27 were members of leftist political groups, and three were Christians, including a woman schoolteacher with a college degree. What these suicide attackers shared was "a specific secular strategic goal", which was spurred not by "religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation".

Although religion is rarely the root cause, Pape says it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting, as well as in service to broader strategic objectives. Religion was not the motive in any of India's hijackings. Nor, dare we say, will it be found to have been a motive in the killing of 200 commuters in Bombay on 11 July. The picnic days for India's intelligence community are over. It is time to do some real soul-searching, with an open mind.

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