The Tribune - Spectrum


, January 13, 2002
Time Off

Before September 11 — and after
Manohar Malgonkar

I well remember how Chaudhri Charan Singh, who had briefly been India’s Prime Minister in the late 1970s, and entertained high hopes of winning the 1980 elections too, reacted when he found that his party and its allies had been routed at the polls by Indira Gandhi’s Congress. "Maro goli", he pronounced.

A handy Hindi expression to show shocked disbelief and meaning, roughly, "Shoot the lot!"

Charan Singh, old and ailing himself, certainly had no intention of shooting any of his political opponents.

Those who were in the vicinity could only have shaken their heads in sympathy and understanding — after all, it was no more than a yelp of dismay from a loser. Not a declaration of intent. Even Charan Singh’s adversaries would not have felt threatened that he was going to come after them with a loaded rifle.

Now, after September 11, 2001 and the shattering of the World Trade Center, even a throwaway remark such as this might land one in trouble with the police.

The anger of gods
December 16, 2001
Good words, sinister connotations
November 4, 2001
Unravelling the Kashmir story
October 14, 2001
A land stalked by the ‘thought police’
October 7, 2001
More on Jeffrey Archer
September 2, 2001
Archer shoots a Crooked Arrow
August 26, 2001
A glimpse of Nepal’s past
August 12, 2001
High-profile parties and protocol
July 22, 2001
Stories that make authors rich
July 8, 2001
Unknown heroes or icons
July 1, 2001
Degrees of intolerance
June 10, 2001
Red hands and red faces
May 20, 2001
Pictures that speak
May 13, 2001
Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001

Lest I am charged of scaremongering, I cite an actual case. Can there be a more respectable and harmless occupation than that of a maestro? A music conductor? People like Zubin Mehta and Andre Previn who put on formal evening attire and orchestrate bands with their batons? Well, a quite well-known conductor, a Frenchman called Pierre Boules, aged 75, had gone to Switzerland in the course of his work. On a cold morning early this December, he was woken up in his hotel room by the Swiss police and arrested as being a terrorist. The evidence was that, in the 1960s, when he was a much younger man he was heard to have remarked that Opera Houses should be blown up.

Luckily, the misunderstanding was soon cleared. The police seemed satisfied that Boules had not come with sticks of RDX or dynamite in his handbag to blow up the local Opera Theatre.

The incident just shows that we have all become excessively cautious about the threat posed by terrorists. Sure there are false scares such as the one in Switzerland. But then the extra vigilance that is now become routine in most countries has also discovered potential terrorists who have been just waiting for a chance to strike.

Here are two actual cases which bring out the point I wish to make. That before September 11, even the most bizarre activities of individuals were not subjected to police scrutiny for fear of overstepping the bounds of civil rights. After that date, nothing out of the ordinary escapes police vigilance.

The American police have worked out a ‘racial profile’ of the typical terrorist, and have circulated it to police organisations of all countries likely to form terrorist targets. Any foreigner who conforms to the profile is kept under surveillance. That was how Mohammad Afroz Abdul Razzak, who came to Mumbai from London by air in late September, happened to be kept under special watch, and when they found that this man had changed his hotels four times in as many days, they thought of taking him in for questioning. What Razzak had to tell them was truly sensational, indeed bizarre.

That he was a member of a team which had been given the task of ramming aircrafts into four selected targets, the Parliament buildings in London and Delhi and the Romal Tower in Australia; that he had undergone training for flying these planes in schools in Melbourne, Texas and London on the strength of forged educational certificates; that he was financed by the Al-Qaida network; that these suicide attacks were to take place either at the same time as the ones in America or a day or two later, but the plan had misfired. He was based in London, but had taken a flight to Mumbai to escape the British police.

Early in December Razzak was produced before a Mumbai court, duly charged, among other offences, with waging war against the nation.

Sensational, no doubt; but does it ring true? Is Razzak a psychological freak indulging in nightmarish fantasies? Is it all a hoax, pandering to the fear of such attacks?

Or are the Mumbai police keeping some vital details under wraps while they’re building up their case? No doubt the true story — or at least a more credible one — will come out when the hearings begin. But the point here is not whether Razzak is a firebrand terrorist so much as whether the Mumbai police would have been as vigilant, or would have acted as they did — pull in someone for questioning merely because he had changed his hotels frequently — before September 11.

Police surveillance of foreigners was much more relaxed in those days, and an instance of pulling in a foreign national for interrogation a rare occurrence. There were risks involved, of inviting rebukes from the judiciary, howls from human rights activists, even diplomatic protests from oversensitive nations. Law-enforcement authorities of most civilised nations chose to tread warily. In India, most probably, and in the United States certainly, someone like Razzak could have gone about beavering away at his plans without fear of arrest, no matter if he changed hotels every day.

This assumption is entirely demonstrable; because something very like Razzak’s case had actually happened in the US only a month or so before that Black Tuesday, and while the local police were convinced that they had sufficient grounds for arresting a man, the FBI which, presumably has a monitoring role in such extra-judicial arrests, had dug in their toes and said ‘no’.

The proprietor of a flying school in Minnesota was perplexed by an unusual request by a man who wanted to enroll as one of his students. He only wanted to learn how to steer a jetliner, but not how to take off or land.

The student’s name was Zakarias Moussaoui, and his papers said that he was 37 years old and that he had come from Morocco. And when the flying school owner told Moussaoui that, even if all he wanted to learn was how to steer the plane, he would have to pay the fees for the full course, $ 8000, he answered: "But of course; I’ll pay the full fee — and in cash too."

And this, more than anything else, was so unusual in the proprietor’s experience, because in the US, where even daily household purchase is done through credit cards and, if only out of fear of being mugged, it is most unusual for people to carry more than a few dollars in cash, that he reported the matter to the police.

The FBI’s initial inquiries seemed to warrant further questioning of the applicant for flying training, so, much as the Mumbai police had done in the case of Razzak, the Minnesota Police arrested Moussaoui and questioned him, and they also made inquiries from the Moroccan police authorities. It came out that Moussaoui had been in contact with Islamic extremists and also that before coming to America, he had travelled to Pakistan, and possibly to Afghanistan. But they had also discovered that this suspect kept all his records on a personal computer in his room. The police believed that if they could lay their hands on his computer they would get a much clearer idea of his background and plans.

But for breaking into the man’s room and studying his computer records, they needed the sanction of the authorities at FBI headquarters.

Their request was unceremoniously turned down. The police had no right to inspect anyone’s computer records merely on suspicion. After all this man Moussaoui had not committed a crime, had he?

This happened in August 2001, barely a month before the destruction of the World Trade Center. In those days, a citizen’s rights were regarded as being more important than concerns of national security.

P.S. On December 11 Zakarias Moussaoumi was charged with committing a whole range of terrorist offences. He became the first person first to be charged with the September 11 attacks.


This feature was published on January 6, 2002