The varied reactions to the Varanasi bomb blasts of March 7 bring back memories of a three-decade old political debate. The debate about the “foreign hand” now deserves to be revived, though in a vastly different context.

Actually the debate should now deal with two “foreign hands” — the much-discussed and much-derided one of the 1970s and the other that almost everyone in India has come to hint at and do so without a demur except from a dissenting scribe or two. It is for the latter “hand” behind the Varanasi outrage that the pundits and the powers-that-be are looking. The former continues to be forgotten despite the fact that the blasts came in the wake of the US president’s visit to the country.

It was in the days of Indira Gandhi that the first of the “foreign hands” came to feature prominently in political discourse. It was in her time, too, that it went out of fashion. It did so when her camp began to see Uncle Sam’s “hand” behind every adverse political happening. The propaganda, which pointed to the “hand”, started losing credibility, when the line between “destabilisation” of India and “Indira rule” became blurred.

Credibility was lost entirely with the much-mourned Emergency of the mid-1970s. Pro-US quarters cleverly used the political conditions to laugh out of the court any idea of this “foreign hand” in Indian affairs. The idea was even projected as a danger to democracy. The “hand” became a convenient rib-tickler for cartoonists and columnists.

Uncle Sam’s ardent loyalists, it must be noted, got away with it in a period that witnessed the CIA coup against the Salvador Allende regime in Chile and the unbelievably brutal US offensive on Vietnam, to cite just two examples.

The Emergency made this “hand” as embarrassing an expression as “family planning”. Indira’s younger son Sanjay, who emerged as an extra-constitutional authority at the time, made this population control institution abominably unpopular by adopting cruel, coercive methods. The result was an extreme official reluctance for years to even mention family planning. The similar post-Emergency unpopularity of this “foreign hand” has lasted even longer.

The other “foreign hand”, however, has faced no such problem. Ever since the aggravation of the Kashmir issue in the 1980s, when batches of angry youths crossed the border, the mention of a neighbour’s “hand” after every major disaster of a “terrorist” description has become a ritual. It has been official practice to hasten to see the “hand” in any such incidence even before investigations are initiated. Often the hypothesis is treated as fact, even after “encounter-killings” eliminate possible evidence.

This “foreign hand” acquired growing credibility in the golden period of communal politics — from the Babri mosque demolition of 1992 right up to the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. The “hand” — and an unquestioning media — helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its march towards the status of the main opposition and then into power. Varanasi raises the hope that the hand may be falling into political disuse.

Anonymous officials as well as the BJP did rush to raise the customary alarm about the cross-border and Kashmiri “hand”. The police produced sketches of suspects, bearing a striking Kashmiri semblance. The rest of the story, however, did not proceed according to the far-right script. While denial by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba may be dismissed as inconsequential, eyewitnesses, too, refused to recognise suspects arrested on the basis of the sketches.

More importantly, and inspiringly, the temple city refused to be shaken by the terror strikes that claimed a toll of 21 human lives. Varanasi has lived up to its proud reputation as home to a composite culture. The holy city, where the strains of Bismillah Khan’s shahnai blend with the sound of temple bells, has reacted with a reassertion of Hindu-Muslim unity in musical concerts and in many other ways.

It is good news that the BJP and its band have failed to fan communal passions and to find a great political opportunity in the outrage. That still, however, leaves unanswered the question: whose hand was behind the blasts after all? It is curious that no one, not even the Left, has sought to link the blasts with the other “foreign hand” of the long-forgotten kind.

It is “curiouser” that only the BJP and its parivar (far-right “family”) have focussed on the connection between the crime and the Bush visit. They are the ones to note that broad protests against the US president’s visit preceded the blasts. They are the ones to project the Indian protests, with massive Muslim participation, as a purely “Islamic” campaign against US policies on Iraq and Iran. They are the ones to portray these protests, therefore, as an expression of “extraterritorial loyalties”. From there it takes just a leap of far-right logic to link the blasts to the menace of anti-national “minority-ism”.

Pro-US quarters have promptly seized the proffered opportunity. They are busy making it appear that opposition to the India-US nuclear deal with its dangerous implications for sub-continental peace, and to the pressures on India to play a satellite’s role on Iran, are merely instances of “minority-ism”. The blasts have served not only to divert attention from the debate the Bush visit provoked, but also to defend Bush and Bushism.

In this context, should the question about the non-South Asian “foreign hand” sound far-fetched? That, too, in a period that is witnessing a series of “pre-emptive wars” to promote “democracy”?

The writer is a journalist and peace activist based in Chennai, India