Part investigative journalism and part political commentary, Amitava Kumar’s latest book “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb,” is a thought-provoking, incisive, and intelligent look at America’s war on terror and its linkages to terrorism in India. As two of the world’s largest democracies, both the United States and India aggressively pursue individuals and organizations they see as real or imagined threats to national security. Both nations have endured horrendous attacks from jihadists — September 11 in the United States and the attack on the Indian parliament and the terror attack in Mumbai in November 2008 — that have served to justify and validate the nation state’s policing of its borders and its methods of detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Kumar takes an interesting approach to his subject. He profiles two South Asians, Hemant Lakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who have been indicted of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts. Siraj, a Pakistani immigrant was indicted in a plot to bomb a New York subway station and Lakhani, an Indian American, for conspiring to sell weapons to al-Qaeda. Kumar carefully profiles these men not with the intent of proving them innocent or dismantling the case against them but to examine how these charges were developed against each man. Unlike the popular media image of a terrorist master-mind, what emerges is the portrait of two naïve, bungling men who were embroiled in a complex conspiracy that neither seemed to have the wit and intelligence to commit. Both men were indicted based on evidence developed through police informants whose role involved active provocation of the conspiracy. Even if Kumar had simply focused on these two men and their stories, this book would have been an important one; however, Kumar extends his discussion to analysis of terrorism investigation and prosecution in India. His recounting of the story of Geelani, a professor of Arabic, indicted of conspiring to attack the Indian parliament is chilling. The description of the torture methods, the violation of individual rights, and complete power of the surveillance state raise questions about how far can a country go to protect itself. What justifies Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the treatment of Kashmiris?
Kumar’s reportage is a compelling read; his portraits of different men — Siraj, Lakhani, Geelani, Prakash — rendered with the deft hand of a talented writer. He is careful to explore the many dimensions of each case and to provide a nuanced and balanced picture. At the same time, he levels a searing critique of the practices of nations that pride themselves on their democratic principles. As he notes in his conclusion, “The slow, calm procedure of law hides from us the brutality of the state and the horror of war.” It leaves the reader wondering, how much does a citizen really know about the brutality of the nation state that claims to be guided by law? Reading Kumar’s book is definitely a step in educating the citizenry.