Batla House in our Conscience
Tuesday, September 23, 2008. I distinctly remember the intense fear which cut through the by-lanes of Batla House near the Jamia Millia Islamia University like a sharp knife cutting through melting ice. It was cold fear, colder than a mortuary, with a distasteful, diabolical, apocalyptic sense of doom — so typical of a Police State.
On September 19, the Special Cell of the Delhi police had killed two young boys in Batla House in what was widely perceived to be a fake encounter; a cop also died, even while question marks have been raised on the circumstances of his death. The entire area, and the campus, seemed to be trapped in a terrible twilight zone of fear. Plainclothes cops were everywhere in unmarked vehicles, young boys were afraid that they will be picked up and branded terrorist, an entire community was under siege.
Hardnews reporters were on the spot when the encounter was staged. There are too many holes in the police version. A prejudiced media refused to question the police version, as is the usual norm of ‘objectivity’ in most such cases when young Muslims are frequently arrested or illegally detained. Indeed, no questions are asked even when, finally, innocents are proved innocents, despite longs spells of imprisonment, torture, psychological and emotional devastation, the destruction of families and reputations, relentless alienation and
After the Batla House encounter, of the boys arrested, one himself went to the police station, the other was on television talking about the two boys he knew who were killed in the encounter, and another was sitting for an examination on that day. They are all still in prison, and even the Gujarat government has reportedly filed several cases against them.
On September 23, amidst this lingering shadow of fear, one young boy, Saqib, a teenager, was picked up by unknown men from his Shaheen Bagh home. I was there outside Saqib’s house moments after he was picked up. I had joined a group of lawyers, journalists and Jamia teachers who were discovering first-hand the nightmares of police repression. It took a whole day to get him released, with the help of a senior lawyer, even while his brother, Talib, was afraid that he too will be picked up. When Saqib came back, it seemed like a miracle. They were both fasting. They hugged each other and cried.
We wrote a report (‘The terrorist who was not a terrorist’, October, Hardnews, http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2008/10/2388). The story ended like this:
They broke their roza with a snack and proceeded towards home. Mother is waiting. What if they come again in the night? “If I can’t sleep in my own house, where else should I go? Why should I hide?” said Talib.
But no terror can eternally dominate the human will. Students’ came out in protest: don’t condemn everyone as terrorist, they said. Manisha Sethi, along with a group of young, gutsy Jamia teachers, took the fight to the streets, made meticulous documentations, picked a thousand holes in the police version. Except Hardnews and Mail Today, then led by its conscientious Editor, Bharat Bhushan, one of the rare and finest editors in Indian journalism, all the papers and TV channels toed the police line. Bharat took a big risk, sent his best reporters for the follow-ups, got his designers to make diagrams of the encounter site, consulted specialists to prove that this was nothing but a fake encounter. The younger one, Sajid, had bullet marks on the top of the head, as if he was made to sit down and shot from above, at point-blank range.
The dogged campaign by the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association continued, despite the very sinister, very diabolical forces they were fighting against
The dogged campaign by the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association (JTSA) continued, despite the very sinister, very diabolical forces they were fighting against. The Batla House encounter became symbolic of how an entire community was being hounded.
Four years later, in September 2012, their extraordinary report, Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a ‘Very’ Special Cell was released in a jam-packed auditorium at Jamia. This report tells the story of Indian Muslims, mostly young, who were tortured and condemned in prison for long spells, and then acquitted by the courts, because they had committed no crime.
This is the story of intense suffering and injustice. It is also the story of great resilience and undefeated spirit. On September 28, Bharat met Manisha in a get-together. He shook her hand and said, “Surely, you have much more courage then I can ever imagine for myself.”
This was a beautiful moment. It too tells a story.