As chief of Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, Atulchandra Kulkarni is trying to change the counter-terrorism narrative in the country. A former Intelligence Bureau officer, he is spearheading the state’s counter-radicalisation programme, which, he says, has successfully de-radicalised 114 youth, who were on the verge of joining terror outfits like Islamic State. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
How widespread is the threat from radicalisation?
The first case of radicalisation of youth, who then left the country to join IS, was from Maharashtra. There were four boys from Thane district who went to Iraq with the help of a tourism company. From there, they vanished and joined IS. In that sense, it is not a very happy thing to know that we are the pioneers in this.
Since it is all linked to online activities, there is no way to estimate how widespread the IS influence is. It is happening inside the four walls of homes, 24x7.
Tell us about the de-radicalisation programme of Maharashtra ATS.
The number of de-radicalised youth now is 114, and the process is ongoing. De-radicalisation is a tightrope walk. It is an opportunity given to boys and girls to lead a normal life. There is no guarantee that it will always work, but we have made an effort, and let us see how it goes. It is a four-pronged effort. The first contact is with the family of the radicalised youth. The youth, of course, should be willing to work with us. The second participant is the police force itself, but we remain behind the scene. The third is the clergy. We have identified well-meaning clergy who can dispel religious misbeliefs. The fourth involves psychologists.
Is there a timeframe for this process?
On an average, it takes around two and a half months to decide whether we can de-radicalise a youth or [have to] register a criminal case. After we detect a case, or after the family approaches us, there are a lot of meetings with the family and the youth. They are reassured that their details would not be revealed, that his or her normal life would not be disturbed. We do not contact the companies where they work, and meet them when they have finished work. For each case, there is a case officer who remains in touch with the person and ensures his or her welfare.
The minority community treats the police, especially the ATS, with suspicion. How do you gain their confidence?
Initiatives like the rural employment training scheme of the Union ministry of rural development, which has been supplemented by an exhaustive Maharashtra government resolution for the overall social economic uplift of youth by giving them self-employment training and small loans, are helping in a big way.
The ATS has asked these regional self-employment training institutes for slots for the radicalised youth. More than 50 of them have already benefited from it, and another 250 shortlisted. Our aim is to impart training to 300 youth by the end of 2018. I sincerely feel that the community is feeling reassured with our efforts.
Despite the de-radicalisation efforts, why have some youth been arrested in IS-related cases?
In the past two years in which I have been the ATS chief, there have been very few arrests in IS-related cases. In the Parbhani case of 2016, the boys made improvised explosive devices, recced places and twice attempted to execute their plans. There was no way we could have not proceeded against them. In the second case, a Saudi national was in touch with an Indian boy, and both of them joined IS. The boy had already left the country. The last information we had was that he was in Libya. We are making all efforts to impress upon the Libyan authorities to send him back to India. But the political turmoil there has made things difficult.
So, only five boys from Maharashtra have been booked in IS-related cases. Compare this figure to the 114 boys and girls who have been de-radicalised. It clearly shows that we are giving them opportunity to return to the mainstream.
Do you think incidents of communal violence and lynching, and intolerance have made the minority youth angry and insecure?
These are issues that radical ideologues will use to propagate their ideology. They are already doing it on the internet. Whether such incidents have gone up or not, I will not be in a position to comment. But, in Maharashtra, there have only been a couple of cases related to the beef ban. Instructions from the government were very clear—no illegal activity, either by the gaurakshaks or by the other side, should be tolerated.
The real challenge is that things get posted [online], and then they are reposted by the youth. I appeal to everyone to verify the credibility of these posts before reposting them. In the past one and a half years, more than 530 links and Twitter handles have been banned at the ATS’s request. It is an ongoing process.
We have still not been able to act against radical preachers like Zakir Naik, who left the country and remains abroad.
In the international domain, things don’t always work out the way we want [them to]. There are a lot of pulls and pressures…. The Union government is making every effort to get him back.
Muslim youth arrested on terror charges have to live with the stigma even after they are acquitted. What needs to be done?
Once we make a case and submit the charge-sheet, the court takes over. My appeal to the media is not to demonise or glamorise any accused as soon as he is arrested. Muslims constitute 14.2 per cent of India’s population; Maharashtra has 11.54 per cent minority population. If we want inclusive development, this population cannot be left feeling alienated. This is something I always keep in mind and tell my officers.