The West’s anti-terrorism policy has gone awry

THE harassment and humiliation of 12 Indians travelling on a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai has shocked the South Asian public because it revealed gross racial and religious prejudice. The men were talking among themselves, and they exchanged seats and cell phones shortly after take-off.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sat 2 Sep 2006, 8:19 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:46 PM

But a half-way intelligent sky marshal would have known that terrorists don’t purposely attract attention in this manner. However, American sky-marshals are trained to shoot rather than differentiate between lightheaded and ‘suspicious’ behaviour by ‘aliens’.

Some of the victims violated flight rules. Such infringements are common and usually rectified through polite interaction with passengers. But the cabin crew sounded an emergency. The plane returned to Amsterdam.

The Dutch authorities further humiliated the victims. Said a Dutch co-passenger: "They were treated like dogs". They were denied drinking water and consular and legal access for hours. They weren’t allowed to contact their families. They were put in solitary cells.

This violates international and European Union conventions. Therefore, the Indian government must secure an unambiguous apology and adequate compensation for the victims. It must show exemplary solidarity with them. That’ll also send the right message to the broader Indian Muslim community when it feels vulnerable following the Mumbai blasts and imposition of the Vande Mataram ‘loyalty test’.

The Amsterdam episode should set a global anti-racist precedent. However, it’s even more important that Indians turn the mirror inwards. Just imagine what would happen if the 12 men were poor Muslims, not international travellers, and were found engaging in ‘suspicious’ behaviour on a train in India.

They would probably be detained, insulted and beaten. The police would probably claim they have ‘links’ with Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Students’ Islamic Movement of India, Tablighi Jamat, whatever. National Security Adviser Narayanan would give interviews alleging they are part of Lashkar or Al Qaeda ‘sleeper cells’.

Such things routinely happen, especially to poor Muslims. After the Mumbai blasts, even top-level Muslim multinational company executives were harassed by the police over their recent travels abroad. Many Indian Muslims don’t get or expect fair treatment from the police. A Hindu-CNN-IBN poll says only 42 per cent of all Indians expect such treatment. Muslims form 35 to 40 per cent of the prisoner population in most Indian states —a proportion almost three times higher than their population-share. This reflects a deep anti-Muslim bias. If there’s institutionalised racism in the West, there’s institutionalised communalism in India.

Communal sentiments are particularly pronounced in Indian intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies. They follow Western models of terrorism, characterising the main terrorist threat as ‘Islamic’. They emphasise military and technology-intensive means of tackling terror.

However, terrorism’s principal manifestations in India are related to regional issues like Kashmir and the Northeast. Even in Kashmir, they only secondarily derive from fundamentalist Islam. Even in the West, terrorism isn’t exclusively ‘Islamic’. (Remember Tim McVeigh or the IRA?)

The Western model ignores Muslim resentment rooted in imperial policies towards West Asia for a century, and in the Iraq occupation and the festering Palestinian problem. These circumstances don’t apply to India. Yet, Indian security agencies fall for the Western model —hook, line and sinker.

India must radically revise its counter-terrorism strategy. Three reforms are indispensable. First, it must recognise that the Western counter-terrorism approach has failed. Five years after the global war on terrorism began, terrorism continues to thrive beyond Al Qaeda.

Worse, the Western approach has aggravated racism, xenophobia and far-Right extremism in the West. A survey by the European Network against Racism says Muslims face mounting discrimination in 20 European Union countries as a result of counter-terrorist operations.

Tougher immigration laws and security measures, including stop-and-search-practices, have created conditions in which racism flourishes and genuine refugees are victimised. Last year in Germany, almost 15,000 refugees’ asylum claims were revoked, compared to 577 in 1998.

Anti-terror ‘crackdowns’ have produced racial profiling —stereotypes which demonise whole ethnic groups. The report says: "Islamophobia [has] infiltrated all forms of public and private lives for Muslims".

On Britain, ENAR quotes an Institute of Race Relations study, which says anti-terrorism laws have been used overwhelmingly against Muslims. ‘The increase in the number of Asians stopped and searched [is] disproportionately high at 28 per cent. In London, there was a massive 40 per cent increase, the largest ever recorded. Nationally, Asians are now 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites.’

Also, up to a third of Muslims say they or their family members have been victims of hostility, including ‘assaults, arson and other violence’.

Second, India must not depend excessively on technological means like APIS (Advance Passenger Information System), under which airlines provide information about passengers and crew within 15 minutes of take-off, including name, date of birth, nationality, sex, passport details, permanent residence, and visa particulars.

This doesn’t constitute primary data. It can help ‘connect the dots’ between other, basic, terrorism-related information. But we have to generate and compile the primary data ourselves. This is lacking or unreliable in India. Fake identity cards and passports can be easily obtained in the country.

Equally dangerous is the temptation to use dubious methods like Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), developed by a former Israeli official. This involves profiling behavioural clues by watching facial gestures and ‘suspicious’ conduct, such as picking up and putting down one’s baggage. But recent surveys show that facial-gesture profiling has an overall success rate of 56.6 per cent —slightly better than a coin toss.

The third, perhaps most vital, reform pertains to the composition of Indian security agencies, including the Research and Analysis Wing, Intelligence Bureau, National Security Guard, etc, where religious minorities find hardly any representation.

There are no Muslims in RAW and SPG. It’s utterly communal to presume that Muslims cannot be trusted with security. This raises grave doubts about these agencies’ integrity.

Counter-terrorism cannot succeed unless these agencies become more inclusive, more Muslims are recruited into the police, and all forces are sensitised on the Constitutional value of secularism. We cannot combat terrorism unless we fight communalism up-front.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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