TACTILE TERROR, true lies

Editor’s Note: Tragedy strikes Hyderabad again, even as people cry and mourn for the dead. The country shares the grief of the survivors, the dead and the injured. This is the time for solidarity, not quick judgements. Ordinary people across caste, class and religion have been directly affected by this act of barbarism. Something sinister is in the air. It is crucial therefore not to jump to conclusions and get into blame games, branding this or that community, condemning innocents, creating mass phobia. We reproduce this long, highly researched essay on the way the cops hounded members of one community, many of them tortured and jailed for years, and then proved innocent. Beware, let’s not repeat the same ugly narrative yet again against our own Indian citizens.

Three years after the Batla House encounter, and many blasts later, the line between fake and real becomes blurred and bleary

Manisha Sethi Delhi

There is a fairly typical story that appears in the media after every bomb blast. It is accompanied by a visual spread that graphically 'joins the dots' in the supposed Indian terror network, the Indian Mujahideen (IM). At the centre of this graphic is Atif Amin, the youth slain in the 'encounter' at Batla House, and various arrows shoot out towards photos of Bhatkal brothers, Mufti Abu Bashar, an elusive Abdul Subhan Qureshi 'Tauqeer', and many others. The cast changes marginally, and the plot moves between Kerala, Bhatkal in Karnataka, Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Ujjain and Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh (MP), with detours to Hyderabad, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

SIMI, IM, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and HuJI morph seamlessly into each other in this story of homegrown terror. Speaking at the launch of a recent book in the capital, unimaginatively titled, Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within, to an audience made up largely of the elite of the security and intelligence establishment, Union Home Minister P Chidambram stressed that we could no longer rest easy in the assumption that the source of terror was across the border; we must wake up to the homegrown variety that SIMI and IM represent. A stunning regurgitation of chargesheets and confessions – the latter not admissible in court – the book was launched around the time two prominent Indian magazines chose to do cover stories on the IM (based again on chargesheets and confessions, and little else), weeks after the blasts in Mumbai.

This was barely a month after the investigative agencies were claiming successes in busting modules and making arrests. June 2011 saw several arrests in MP – even a shootout in Ratlam, after which ostensibly high-ranking IM operatives were arrested – and the Gujarat police claimed the trophy of Danish Reyaz.

Does the IM exist?

In all honesty, it's not an easy question to answer, given that the only proof of its existence have been the e-mails received after the 2008 blasts, and the State's dossiers. Surely, the Norway narrative should caution us against eager conclusions drawn from purported claims of organisations. What can be done – and ought to be done by journalists who love the prefix 'investigative' – is to subject to some scrutiny the claims of the police and anti-terror agencies, especially after the Malegaon and Mecca Masjid (also, Ajmer Sharif and Samjhauta) blasts' revelations. Such an exercise reveals another pattern altogether, that of the web spun by counter-terror agencies, whose threads connect Kashmir and Delhi Police Special Cell, Gujarat Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) and UP ATS, and various police departments in between.

In fact, several such blasts, besides fake encounters in Gujarat, have been traced to RSS-linked Hindutva terror groups, as much as to top Gujarat cops and former ministers like Amit Shah, now out on bail. So why were so many Muslims, including youngsters, 'picked up', brutalised, condmened and tortured for the crimes committed by Hindutva terrorists? And why is P Chidambaram so afraid to book RSS leader Indresh, despite his proven links?

Investigating agencies are predisposed towards 'picking up' suspects and the accused far ahead of the arrests shown in FIRs, chargesheets, media conferences and leaks. The phrase 'picking up' reflects our unique ability to sanitise and blunt the jagged edges of the investigative process to which illegal detention is crucial – just as many 'encounters' are a glamorous euphemism for cold-blooded executions. This is now so routine that it has lost all novelty.

Take the case of Qamar and Irshad Ali, kidnapped by the Delhi Police Special Cell in December 2005 and then declared arrested while alighting from a Kashmir Roadways bus in February 2006, full two months after they had 'disappeared'. It turned out in the end that Qamar and Irshad were not operatives of Al Badar, as the Special Cell claimed, but IB informers who fell out of favour when they refused to carry out the directives of their bosses.

Or, consider the case of Md Sarver, one of the key accused in the 2008 Jaipur blasts. A BTech from Integral University, Lucknow, Sarver arrived in Ujjain in mid-January 2009 to work in a branch of ICSA Ltd, a Hyderabad-based IT company, . On the evening of January 19, 2009, four days after he had joined work, he stepped out of the premises, and did not return.

The next day, his office filed a missing person complaint at the Neelganga Police Station, Ujjain. They were told that in all probability the police had taken him away. On January 22, two days after the complaint had been filed, Sarver's family received a call from the Lucknow ATS that their son has been arrested from Lucknow in connection with the Jaipur blasts.

Abu Bashar, a cleric from Beenapara, Azamgarh, charged with indoctrinating young IM recruits to wage jihad, was picked up in full public view from his home on August 14, 2008 by half a dozen men in plainclothes, following which his father rushed to the Sarai Meer police station, fearing his abduction. He was rebuffed and no effort was made by the local police to trace the missing mufti. The local papers were agog with this story and some quoted the Superintendent of Police, Azamgarh, who said that Bashar was a SIMI activist and had been arrested by the ATS. These stories appeared on August 15; surprisingly, the ATS announced the next day that they had arrested Abu Bashar from outside the Charbagh railway station in Lucknow on August 16!

Truth doesn't hurt anybody, believes the UP ATS, as did its predecessor, the Special Task Force (STF). On December 12, 2007, after serial blasts rocked courts in Faizabad, Barabanki and Lucknow on November 23, 2007, the STF abducted Hakim Tariq, a traditional practitioner of medicine, on his way to an international istema (religious gathering) organised by Tableeghi Jamaat. Tariq was in charge of the health camp at the istema. While crossing the Mahmoodpur checkpost in Rani ki Sarai (Azamgarh, UP), his bike was waylaid by a group of men on a white jeep. When others present at the spot opposed what they saw as a kidnapping, they were told that it was a family dispute and Tariq was only being returned home, which he had left after a tiff.

Between December 13 and 20, a 'missing person' complaint was filed and an application was moved in the court of the chief judicial magistrate. The district information office was asked if it had any information about the whereabouts of Tariq. Locals organised protests and demonstrations demanding that he be produced in court. The news of the disappearance was widely covered in the local press. But all this could as well have been happening on another planet, for this is how the FIR lodged in Barabanki Kotwali records the arrest of Tariq:

"Today, on 22.12.2007, secret information was received from an informer that a suspicious character with links to a terrorist organisation, bearing deadly weapons and explosives, will be arriving at the Barabanki railway station at 6.30am... around 6.15am two persons got off from a rickshaw outside the station and began to wait for someone. The informer, from a distance, pointed towards one of these two men holding a bag. Suddenly, both picked up their bags and started walking quickly from the railway station towards the main road. We introduced ourselves and asked them to stop. They tried to open their bags. Knowing fully well that their bags were laden with explosives, the members of the team... risked their lives in fulfilling the call of duty and finally caught them after some struggle..." (translated from Hindi). Bravo.

Don't be surprised by the fact that 10 alleged operatives arrested in a midnight raid at Gulmohar Colony in Khandwa, MP, on June 13, 2011, were actually 'picked up' (again that dreaded phrase) between June 10 and 12 by the police from their homes in Ganeshganj and Indira Nagar, ostensibly for questioning. They never returned home – the police dismissed the families' pleas to return the boys, even feigned ignorance. At least two families moved applications in court that the police had detained their sons without any charge and failed to produce them in court within 24 hours as they must.

Instead, a grand declaration made headlines on the morning of June 15 that the police had received "a tip-off on Monday evening that SIMI members were planning terrorist activities at the house of Aqueel Khilji located in Gulmohar Colony. The police apparently also got the information that SIMI members had gathered to discuss the future strategy of the organisation after the arrest of its organisation members along with IM members in the last few days." (Pioneer, July 15, 2011)

IG (ATS) Vipin Maheshwari told Times of India that the police recovered "four pistols, 12 live cartridges, SIMI literature, two dozen CDs and phones" (July 15). That there are eyewitnesses to the 'arrests' made by the police on June 12, and that the court was apprised of the fact by the families, did not deter the police from making these dramatic claims.

It is interesting how counter-terror agencies are drawn towards buses and railways as moths to light. Most arrests are shown as taking place in and around bus stations and railway stations.

Irshad and Qamar were shown alighting from a Kashmir Roadways bus at Mubarka Chowk, North Delhi – it turned out that the bus tickets placed as evidence before the court were of a day later than the purported date of arrest. In November 2009, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmesh Sharma noted that the Special Cell's story of having nabbed Gulzar Ahmed Ganai and Md Amin Hajam – "dreaded terrorists of the LeT" apparently – at Mahipalpur Chowk at 9.15pm when they were getting off bus number DLIPB 0249 (route number 729) fell flat in view of the testimonies of the bus conductor and owner that the said bus did not ply at all in the evening of December 10, 2006, the supposed date of the arrest.

Bus stations and railway stations are significant to many such plots of the investigative agencies, as they are the sites where the accused are invariably shown as trying to pass on arms and explosives to someone leaving town or arriving from out of town. Hence, while according to the police story, invariably, their secret informer, mukhbir, tells them of a rendezvous terrorists have fixed to pass on arms, explosives and such like to their 'aides', the police often show no keenness to apprehend the 'aides' the terrorist was supposedly waiting for. Happy at having nabbed a 'kingpin' and recovered suitable caches of money, detonators etc, investigators then get busy extolling their commitment to duty.

Importantly, why is no effort made to trace the origins of explosives and cash seized from the accused? In some cases, at least, courts have shown that money and arms were planted on the accused. The Special Cell had alleged in the FIR that a search of the accused Gulzar Ganai and Md Hajam yielded 15 slabs of oil-based explosives, Rs 6 lakh in cash, and two non-electric detonators. The police diary, however, when perused by Judge Dharmesh Sharma, revealed no such information about the recoveries. Moreover, there were contradictory testimonies by the Special Cell about the recoveries, forcing the judge to note that it drove him to wonder if it was a "human mistake or something else. The moot point is: were the mistakes pointed out above bonafide or mistakes committed while attempting to cook up the entire story?"

Similarly, the CBI noted while investigating the Qamar and Irshad Ali case that the Special Cell remained unperturbed by the recoveries of explosives and cash, not deigning to track the arms trail – suggesting that these were not recoveries but plants.

Where are these 'recoveries' procured from? Who is paying for the lakhs being shown as recovered? Where does the trail of RDX and arms and ammunition lead to?

The Union home minister, speaking at the same book launch programme, complained that in India the idea of counter-terror operations, influenced by cinema, was of someone chopping off the bomb wires with nervous, sweaty hands. But it appears the Indian public isn't the only one raised on this mythical diet of Bollywood masala; the security establishment too is a firm believer in the value of theatre. Why else would they transform illegal detentions and abductions into dramatic arrests and heroic encounters with terrorists? One understands that there can be false leads and even faulty investigations – but to assert that a blast case has been solved, or a terror module busted, on the basis of forced disclosures and custodial confessions, is a serious lapse of another order.

So how does one believe the Special Cell that has been proven to plant evidence on innocents and implicating them in false cases as operatives of Al Badar, LeT or the ISI? Especially when it is proven guilty not by civil rights groups, but by the CBI and courts? How can we believe them when they claim now that the young men, one of them practically a boy, killed in the Batla House encounter, widely perceived to be a 'fake encounter', were key figures in the IM hierarchy?

And why is the Centre so hesitant to order a judicial enquiry on the Batla House encounter, if it is so confident of the Special Cell investigations, even as the young boys have been trapped in innumerable cases, also by Narendra Modi's police? Will they get justice in this lifetime?

Activists and legal rights workers often advise those vulnerable to such arrests and illegal detentions that in the event someone is taken away unlawfully without identification or papers, a 'missing persons' complaint should be lodged at the earliest. Bashar's father not only reported his 'missing' son to the police station, he also wrote to a whole range of offices available in our democracy, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). To the NHRC, he wrote not only of the unlawful taking away of his son, but also of the apathy of the local police, and the abuse and violence by the ATS while it conducted a raid on his house.

What did the NHRC do? Issue notice to the ATS? Seek a response from the Commissioner of Police?

No, it simply redirected the complaint to the SSP, Azamgarh, asking the complaint to be disposed "at your end". End of matter.

And then there are enquiry commissions. Confronted by mounting public pressure, Mayawati ordered a probe into the allegations surrounding Hakim Tariq's arrest. The enquiry panel headed by Judge RD Nimesh began work in 2008, but is yet to conclude its work precisely because the ATS has refused to cooperate, with no officer above the rank of CO appearing before the commission to depose. In all likelihood, the trials will conclude before the commission's report (indeed, Hakim's co-accused, Sajadur Rehman, was discharged from the Lucknow court blasts for absolute lack of evidence).

However, even when commissions submit their reports, governments prefer not to table them, believing firmly in the credo that time heals all forms of relentless suffering and injustices. This is precisely the fate of Advocate Ravi Chandar's report examining the allegations of torture and forced confessions in the Mecca Masjid blasts case, as well as the Bhaskar Rao Commission looking into the police firing on those protesting the blast in the mosque.

The Andhra Pradesh chief minister insists that he would apologise in the assembly if the enquiry reports corroborate the accusations of torture. However, he wouldn't table the reports, so we know. There is a third approach too: brazenly ignore all calls for impartial enquiry and hide behind an effete NHRC that submits its report on an encounter killing on the basis of unilateral police statements. This is what happened in the Batla House case.

No doubt, if stories about 'homegrown terror' are to be reported solely on the basis of confessions, disclosures, interrogation reports, and the opinions of so-called security experts, then there will emerge the "picture of a shadowy, sinister outfit of brainwashed young men". Then, journalists can write that these youth are so socially integrated as to be indistinguishable from other boys their age, and simultaneously, without a trace of irony, that they are driven by "alienation from the Indian
society" as well.

There is no precise count of how many are arrested, under trial or convicted in terror-related cases. But, certainly, the assertion glibly bandied around that this new breed of terror suspects are doctors, engineers, 'techies', college-educated and professionals, is a lot of hot air.

In Hyderabad, auto mechanics and drivers were picked up; in UP, a mufti, among others; poor daily wagers and construction workers have been arrested in Madhya Pradesh.

If investigative reporters had applied their skills to examine the latest prize catch of the security agencies – Danish Reyaz – they would have found that his name is not Danish Reyaz at all, that he was employed in an Hyderabad-based IT company, and that when his name had first surfaced in connection with the IM in Ranchi newspapers, he himself visited the National Investigating Agency (NIA) office in Hyderabad. This was barely two weeks before he was supposedly arrested from the Vadodara railway station.

Short memories. That's what Indian investigating agencies depend on. They live in the hope that their claims of busting terror modules will not be questioned and their methods will be condoned. And when the confessions they manufactured allegedly through torture of suspects militate against evidence and common sense, all will be forgotten.

And so the next cycle will begin – on a clean slate, as if nothing happened. New suspects can often be rounded up – abducted even – and paraded sensationally as masterminds and operatives.

It falls on us, then, to keep stoking the fire of memories – not for breast-beating, but to ensure the end of impunity.

The writer teaches at Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Milia Islamia University, Delhi, and is Convener, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2011