Politicians are framing matters of national importance like a khaap panchayat, where a few people decide what is good for the village

The Ishrat Jahan case national security is not a matter for ribaldryPTI
Voices National Security Sunday, April 24, 2016 - 13:38

The last few weeks have seen some robust and detailed reporting and analysis on the Ishrat Jahan case with Times Now and NewsX leading the investigations. Supporting or opposing them are retired members of India’s multiple investigating agencies and the army, civil society groups, lawyers and politicians.

The crux of the claims, and their dismissal, is this — security briefings and intelligence inputs were altered by former Home Minister P Chidambaram on Ishrat Jahan’s links to terrorism at about the same time that terms like saffron terror and Hindu terror entered the political language and newsrooms in the country, altering narratives forever. All this was apparently done to halt the progress of the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s rise as a potential candidate for India’s top job, which he secured with a resounding vote in May 2014.

This piece is not about who is a terrorist and who is not — I do not have the necessary information, access or expertise to take that call. Neither is it my intention to write about who is corrupt enough — intellectually and financially — to risk national security. My concern, which I believe speaks to those of many Indians, is the total absence of any national authority to take a call on what happened in the Ishrat Jahan case, which left her and her associates dead in 2004. Indians are deeply worried about security issues and with reason. The government is making a mockery of our fears by feeding doubt and allowing more dissent to fester about India’s institutional responsibilities.

Files are missing, witnesses have turned hostile and television discussions have broken the sound barrier.  Those supporting the media investigations say the cover-up is the crime and have released documents to back their claims. Those pitted against the revelations also claim to have documents to show the leaks are choreographed to target Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. The latter is expected to make a bid for India’s top job in 2019.  

This claim-versus-claim game has reduced national security to ribaldry. Politicians and their mouthpieces in the world’s largest democracy are framing matters of national importance like a khaap panchayat, where a few people decide what is good for the village. In this type of framing, tax evasion raises as much bile as terrorism because responsibility is neither collective nor individual.

Framing — lawyers often use a phrase, ‘you have been framed’. This means a person has been falsely accused. Politicians in India have long converted this legal evaluation to represent their victimhood – everybody is a victim. People routinely resort to this ruse, and this also explains the preponderance of lawyers on national television panels making a legal point without taking a stand.

Very early in my career I was introduced to the importance of framing issues for critical thinking and accountability. Frames decide what is at stake, who is responsible and where solutions can or must come from. Yes, you’ve read that last sentence earlier, in many of my articles.

In the Ishrat Jahan case national security, including internal security, and lives of people were at stake. To date, nobody has denied or challenged that. The responsibility was two-fold and inter-related. On the one hand were terrorists whose job (‘responsibility’) it was to accomplish their mission successfully and on the other it was the responsibility of India’s security and investigating agencies to thwart the mission.

That brings us to solutions. By randomly politicising an issue of grave national security, we have made ourselves co-responsible with terrorists for solutions. The debate about whether or not Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist is exactly that. Muddying the waters, denying what has not been said, and shouting are all the many manifestations of lies, institutional and personal. Blaming media leaks is also part of this nonsense.

Leaks are part of investigative journalism. Whistle-blowers and sources make available information to journalists on a privileged basis for many reasons, but most often it is because they seek to arrest and stop institutional damage and corruption in democracies. This rot was at its naked best during UPA 2 (2009-2014) when minister after minister in the Congress-led coalition was found to be corrupt at the expense of national security (spectrum) and wealth (coal).

When Indians voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team, it was not a vote for status quo. It was a vote for root and branch change, including rebuilding India’s institutions — which is the government’s job — and getting out of the way for Indians to generate wealth and create jobs — which is not the government’s job.

It is still not too late to pip the file pushers and sycophants to the post. The Prime Minister cannot afford to make the same mistakes as his party’s predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee made in the same job the last time the NDA was in power. Being nice and accommodating towards all means appeasement and compromise.

If the evidence in the Ishrat Jahan case is incontrovertible, punish the guilty. If it is not, remain silent. Healing, repairing and building a country of India’s size and diversity is no joke. Let us not turn it into one.  

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