Muslims fear a witch-hunt, and are in denial of terrorism. For this to change, police investigation must become transparent and the innocent should be offered full protection of the law.
India’s battle with terrorism is not new. Far from it, our ears have become attuned to hearing about bomb blasts and our eyes accustomed to seeing images of death and devastation. Yet something has materially changed this time. The recent serial blasts in Delhi and the police encounter that killed two alleged terrorists and injured a third in Jamia Nagar, have opened up a debate, raising an avalanche of questions. There is an explosion of anger at the increasing freq uency and boldness of terror strikes, a frightening state of affairs magnified by the helplessness of the government.
Alongside, there is growing concern at the methods used by the police and the investigating agencies and their effect on Muslims — a community increasingly feeling under siege. More and more voices are also asking why the Bajrang Dal, which has a proven history of bomb-making, and which, in tandem with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has been on an orgy of murder and mayhem in State after State, cannot be banned.
Television channels have traditionally run with the police stories. These make for riveting viewing — sensational footage of hooded and chained terrorists paraded before a sea of voracious cameras; pen sketches of shadowy men forging links across the country and beyond the borders; tales of myriad masterminds working to undermine the Indian state and so forth. There has been no let-up in this — the blasts and the alleged terrorists continue to appear in endless on-screen loops, with many channels embroidering and enlarging the official accounts with their own in-house art work, graphics and re-enactments.
Nonetheless, there are station heads who have pushed the envelope — asking inconvenient questions and exploring sensitive areas previously avoided by an unwritten consensus. Sections of the print media have dared to go even beyond, raising taboo questions, chasing police and other leads, cross-checking the minutest detail and uncovering the real, human stories behind the hooded faces splashed on television and frontpaged by newspapers. The pictures that have emerged from these efforts are often dramatically different from the accounts put out by the police.
It can be nobody’s case that the police-intelligence versions are all concoctions. To allege this would be to undermine a force that works under the most trying conditions and that is almost always stretched to a breaking point. Yet policemen are fallible, and under ceaseless pressure to show quick and visible results. Police departments in different States also compete to claim credit. The disastrous effect of all this has been illustrated time and again — in the form of encounters that have proven to be staged, by hasty investigations that have led to innocent people being framed. A recent example of this is the Aarushi murder case which saw the Uttar Pradesh police making the crudest accusations against the murdered girl and her father. The media exaggerations and lies forced the Supreme Court to issue warnings against irresponsible journalism. The apex court also ordered an investigation into the encounter of alleged gangster Sohrabuddin, which resulted in the Gujarat government admitting that the encounter was fake.
Today, such is the distrust in the investigative arm of the government that any encounter is automatically assumed to be fake. However till now the media have hesitated to question the police claims, especially when these have related to terrorism. This is mainly on account of the association between counter-terrorism and nationalism. The aftermath of a bomb blast is an extraordinarily delicate moment given the very real suffering experienced by those at terror’s receiving end. For the journalist to raise even the faintest doubt when a terror case is projected to have been solved at such a time is to risk being called anti-national.
The recent vigorous discourse in the media suggests that this burden may have been lifted. What explains this? Probably one significant realisation: that unvetted police claims can have the unwitting effect of tarring an entire community when only a minuscule section is involved in terrorism.
Terrorism is a reality as much as the fact that there is a Muslim connection to it. The new trend of young educated Muslims taking to terror cannot be dismissed as fiction. However, the vast majority of Muslims are ordinary citizens, the bulk of them poor and illiterate. Importantly, a section among the community is just beginning to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and joblessness. Aspirationally different from their parents, these young people want higher education, a career and integration with the mainstream. If the confidence and self-respect of these young adults are undermined, they will return to their familiar world of obscurantism and backwardness. This will hurt Muslims, of course, but the collective grievance of a 150-million strong community will hurt India even more, tearing its already frayed social fabric beyond repair.
Jamia Nagar, the scene of the September 19 police encounter, underscores this point. The raid killed two alleged terrorists, Mohammad Bashir Atif and Mohammad Fakruddin Sajed, and injured a third, Saif Ahmad.Disputed claims
Residents of Jamia Nagar simply do not buy the police version that the youths were hardcore terrorists who plotted and executed all the recent bomb blasts. Nor do they accept that the several young men picked up subsequently were all part of a lethal terror network that struck at will in places as far apart as Mumbai, Varanasi, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Delhi. For every terror story put out by the police, residents offer a counter story of innocence that is prima facie hard to disregard.
The police might insist that Atif and his flat-mates formed the backbone of the Indian Mujahideen’s nationwide operations. But for Jamia Nagar residents, they were simply masoom bachche (innocent children), who, like so many other Muslim boys from the Hindi heartland, had come to Delhi with a dream: to work hard, earn a degree and achieve social status and respect. Atif was enrolled as a student at the next-door Jamia Millia University, as were the subsequently arrested Zia-ur-Rehman and Mohammad Shakeel. The Orkut profile of Atif reveals a youth like any other — friendly and non-political. His favourite films: the ultra-national Mother India and Rang de Basanti!
Of course, the Orkut profile could have been a clever disguise. But there are other niggling questions. Police reports said Atif had stashed away crores in his bank account in Azamgarh. He had a little over Rs.1000. One of Atif’s cousins told India Today’s group paper, Mail Today, that he had dropped a few examination papers because he could not afford the fee. The cousin bought him a cell phone, the bills for which Atif could not pay.
More relevantly, Atif submitted his tenant verification papers, complete with his correct personal details, to the Jamia Nagar police station on August 21. The police charge that the papers and the police seal were forged is contested by Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan who examined the papers and the seal. After the encounter, Zia-ur-Rahman, the caretaker of Atif’s apartment, took the papers to a television station. He was picked up by the police and instantly labelled an IM operative. Sajed, who was enrolled in a Delhi coaching class, was only 17. He left his Azamgarh home as recently as July 10. His father recalls a shy, reticent son, reluctant to leave his mother’s embrace.
Jamia residents ask to know if hardcore terrorists would voluntarily go to police stations and television studios to present their correct personal details. Atif’s mobile phone forms also carry his correct personal details.
The police claims regarding Atif and his friends may well be true. There may be perfect explanations for the details unearthed by the media and incessantly thrown at visiting journalists by Jamia Nagar residents. If so, that is all the more reason for terror investigations to be rigorous, clean and transparent. This is necessary as much to protect the innocent as to establish the reliability and credibility of the police. The case of Australian resident Mohammad Haneef, described by the police and the Indian media as the mastermind of the 2007 Glasgow blasts, is a lesson worth remembering. Thanks to transparent investigation by the Australian police and relentless scrutiny by the Australian media, Haneef was shown to be completely innocent.
The alternative to transparency is doubt and suspicion — a situation we simply cannot afford. Today, Indian Muslims are in denial of terrorism: Every encounter is fake and every bomb blast is the handiwork of the establishment. Of course, this is absurd. But for Muslims to be convinced of this truth, the innocent among them must be protected — and with the entire resources at the command of the Indian state. The community must be also be assured that the state will not measure the Bajrang Dal by a different yardstick.
To question Jamia Millia University Vice-Chancellor Mushirul Hasan’s offer of legal aid to terror suspects — as the Bharatiya Janata Party has done — is to strike at the presumption of innocence which is a sacred law of the land. To show leniency to the Bajrang Dal, which has been caught red-handed making bombs and spreading terror, is to compound this error.