Human Rights

The Bhopal episode and the return of the hostage theory


The killings of eight undertrial prisoners after an alleged breakout of a high security prison in Bhopal are a message. This message is internally and externally directed. In its external orientation, it is a message by the security establishment to Pakistan that Indian Muslims are hostage to Pakistani good behavior. In its internal orientation it is a reminder to India’s Muslims that they are at the mercy of the majority and had on that count better stick to the right-wing sanctioned view of the straight and narrow.

This is not the first time in which undertrial prisoners have been gunned down. In fact, there is a well-known culture of police impunity stretching back decades. This goes by the term ‘encounters’. All manner of challenges to the state and criminality have been met with such staged killings, be it in counter-insurgency situations as Kashmir, North East and Maoist areas, but also in law and order situations in which noted criminals are bumped off.

Such killings have included Muslims among victims, such as the case last year in which five undertrial Muslim prisoners in Nalgonda were gunned down in cold blood by their escort party of Telangana police under the implausible excuse that they were attempting to make good their escape. That Muslims are not the sole victims is clear from the incident the same week when 20 alleged red-sanders smugglers were killed by the Andhra police.

From this it might appear that the opening paragraph above is somewhat overblown, resulting perhaps from an emotional reaction to the incident in Bhopal. However, such an observation would be plausible if this article was written in the immediate wake of the incident when the video and audio footage from the scene went viral on the internet. A few weeks on the observation in the first paragraph, that was then at best a suspicion, has congealed somewhat and is worth examining for what it is worth.

In the light of the messaging seemingly immanent in the killings, the hostage theory needs a reprise. The hostage theory was propounded by Jinnah when he became an adherent to the two-nation theory. He was against the vivisection of the two Muslim majority provinces, Punjab and Bengal. He therefore felt that retaining the minorities in the Muslim and Hindu majority parts of India would ensure that the majorities ruling on the other side would mete out fair treatment to respective minorities.

In the event, the minorities voted for Partition with their feet, vacating their traditional homelands in wake of Partition in a wave of violence on both sides. The Nehru-Liaquat pact after the crisis in 1950 stabilised the situation resulting from Partition. Over time, the numbers of non-Muslims in the two Muslim majority states that emerged out of British India became fewer and fewer, mostly due to a perceived insecurity in these states.

In India, the situation was more habitable and Muslims not only chose to stay but have relatively been more secure than their Hindu counterparts in either Pakistan or Bangladesh. However, over the last quarter century, coinciding with the rise of the right-wing in Indian politics, the question of security of India’s Muslims has come to fore. The Gujarat carnage has been the nadir. With the country electing the then chief minister of Gujarat as its prime minister, it is a question that can only continue to linger.

In the official Indian narrative, India has attempted to reach out to Pakistan. The invite to Nawaz Sharif to Mr. Modi’s swearing in ceremony and Mr. Modi’s susrprise visit to Pakistan are taken as evidence. However, since the military calls the shots in Pakistan, India has not been able to make a dent on Pakistan’s policy of proxy war in Kashmir and support to terrorism in the rest of India. This has led to firmer action on India’s part lately, best exemplified by Ram Madhav’s call for a shift from strategic restraint to strategic proactivism. The results are already visible along the Line of Control with the army engaging in surgical strikes and almost daily fire assaults and the paramilitary force, the BSF, also joining in with fire exchanges along the IB in J&K.

If the matter had rested at this, it would have been but a return to the situation as existed in the nineties and restricted to J&K. However, there is the wider Muslim agenda of the right-wing that needs unfolding.  BJP has gone a step further in proposing amendments to the citizenship bill which will enable non-Muslim minorities in the neighbouring countries to gain Indian citizenship. This measure, among others, heralds the creation of a Hindu state in the image envisioned in the Hindutva philosophy adhered to by the ruling party. For the Muslims living in India, the prime minister, recalling the injunction of his ideological mentor Deen Dayal Upadhyay in a speech in Kozhikode this past September, proposed ‘purification’.

It is clear that in the right-wing world view it is at the interstices of India’s external and internal security planes that Indian Muslims are located. The external factor is their association with the two nation theory and with Pakistan. This explains the oft-used term, ‘Go to Pakistan’. The internal is that Muslims are to lead lives as dictated by the right wing. In the words of one of its leading lights, Golwalkar, Muslims constitute an internal security threat, who, in his words, ‘may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, for less any preferential treatment, not even the citizen's rights.’

This is the context of the Bhopal incident. The killings have come in the backdrop of a worsening regional security situation, with Pakistan’s terror attack in Uri having been responded to by Indian surgical strikes. The killings were on Diwali, when there is a heightened expectation within the intelligence agencies of terror incidents. The killings can thus be interpreted as a warning to Pakistan not to indulge in any terror action in India. Internally, they serve to warn off Indian Muslims who the intelligence community perhaps believes are susceptible to Pakistani overtures for creating trouble in India. In effect, Indian Muslims are to be held hostage to Pakistani good behavior.

This interpretation of the Bhopal encounter killings suggests that the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. In the near term the ruling party requires the polarization since it is faced with polls. Its latest demonetization misstep indicates that it would be paying a price in the UP elections. Therefore, the status quo on the Indian Muslim security question is likely to persist till the national elections. The unfortunate and inescapable conclusion is that Muslim insecurity can only be alleviated once the nation, in particular our Hindu brethren, show the ruling party the door at the next democratic opportunity. 

Firdaus Ahmed (@firdyahmed) is a security analyst who blogs at

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