‘Guilt by association’

Spurious charges, flimsy evidence and a biased judiciary have ensured that innocents continue to be prosecuted under UAPA in Madhya Pradesh

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

On July 7, 2009, Akash, a young boy from Khandwa, a sleepy town in Madhya Pradesh, was found hanging from the ceiling in his room. His wrists were slit. His mother alleged that Akash had ended his life, having tired of police harassment. Newspapers quoted his mother as saying that he would run as soon as he would see a policeman or a police jeep. Such was the terror. The inquiry done by the police, however, suggested that he was a drug addict who committed suicide when he was unable to get access to drugs. The suicide note, according to the police, says that he was upset over a fight with his mother. 

The police theory about Akash’s suicide, however, needs to be weighed against other evidence. Akash was a key prosecution witness in a prominent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) case of 2006, where the police had arrested over a dozen men and women, alleging they were members of the banned organization, Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Akash, who initially stood by the prosecution theory, later turned hostile and denied the claims of the police. This is when his harassment began; in February 2009, Akash was picked up by a police team, illegally detained and tortured through the night.

Akash’s tragic story is part of a new report, Guilt by Association: UAPA cases in Madhya Pradesh, brought out by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA). “It demonstrates the extent and scale of cases registered under the draconian anti-terror law, despite there not being a single incident of terrorism in the state. The report documents how many cases are identical — for example, the accused are uniformly alleged to have been pasting SIMI posters or possessing SIMI literature — with the same evidence and even the same set of accused,” says JTSA President Manisha Sethi.

“For example, FIR No. 537/00 and FIR No. 663/00 were registered in police stations Talliya and Shahjanabad respectively on October 22, 2000, against the same set of accused:  Sorab Ahmed, Maulana Arsad Ilyas Ahtesham, Abdul Razzaq, Mohd Aleem, Muneer Uz Zama Deshmukh and Khalid Naim. The six were accused of pasting provocative posters. The six then appeared in many other FIRs filed in the two thanas in various combinations and permutations,” the report notes.

The report lists over 75 cases, with the brief facts of each case, as mentioned in the FIRs. The patterns become obvious at once. In many cases the same copies of magazines and receipts are shown as evidence; in others, possessing clippings of newspapers which carried stories about SIMI has been listed as ‘incriminating evidence’. In none of these cases is violence alleged to have been committed. Seizure of literature belonging to an ‘unlawful’ organization then becomes the grounds for registering these large numbers of cases across the state. Guilt by Association argues that “these cases validate the extension of the ban; the ban legitimizes the witch-hunt in the name of combating the ‘terrorist organization’ creating a vicious circle.”

However, the report points towards the more disturbing trend of convictions being handed out to the accused on “spurious” grounds: “What is most disturbing, however, is the judicial abdication in allowing this witch-hunt by ignoring violation of procedural norms by the police, by lowering the burden of proof, by overlooking the fact that the incriminating literature predates the ban on the organization, and by ignoring the obvious contradictions, to hand out conviction after conviction.”   

‘Since the supply of such material is not limitless, given that SIMI was banned in 2001 and given that it suspended printing and publishing literature and membership forms etc., the same material is used to be shown as recovery’ 

JTSA’s assertions do not seem to be ill-founded if one analyzes the proceedings and the subsequent conviction of the accused in the Khandwa case of 2006, which has been discussed at great length in the report.

Acting on a tip-off from an informer, the Khandwa police raided a lane close to the city’s Kaharwadi mosque and apprehended Aquil Khilji, Md Asif and Javed Ghouri, when they were “addressing a crowd of people and disseminating the anti-national and subversive SIMI ideology”. In a subsequent raid at their homes, the police recovered the constitution of SIMI and magazines Tehreek e Millat and Tameer e Millat, neither of which  is banned. In his interrogation,  Ghouri disclosed that siblings Asiya, Rafia and Inamur Rehman too possessed SIMI literature, validating their arrest. And thus the chain went on: one disclosure leading to another accused; recoveries and arrests — until finally 14 people had been arrested.

The prosecution case rested on the disclosures (or memorandums) and the recoveries of ‘unlawful’ literature. In the course of the trial, it was brought to the notice of the court that seizures had not been sealed at the time of recovery; indeed, many of the so-called seizures in the Khandwa case — for example, the magazine with accused Rafia’s name on the cover and a receipt of donation by another accused, Aasiya — had also made star appearances as evidence in other UAPA cases in MP, as well as in Maharashtra and Hyderabad (Mumbai train blast case and the Mecca Masjid bombings).  The report notes caustically that, “Since the supply of such material is not limitless, given that SIMI was banned in 2001 and given that it suspended printing and publishing literature and membership forms etc., the same material is used to be shown as recovery. The Khandwa case illustrates this well.”  

In fact, the Madhya Pradesh High Court (HC) had noticed the laxity with which the trial court had allowed the police to take out the seized material from time to time, in the name of submitting it to the HC along with bail cancellation applications. Moreover, the HC noticed that on perusing the documents which were said to have been seized from the applicants, it appeared that “most of the documents are in Urdu language and the In-charge, Police Station, Kotwali, Khandwa admits that Hindi translation of these books have not been filed in the trial court. One map of Tamil Nadu State had also been seized, in which several places of worship have been shown, but whether this is sufficient ground to make out a prima-facie case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, it may be considered by the trial court….”

The witnesses in the case were found to be unreliable, one of them being an office-bearer of the right-wing Bajrang Dal. Yet the court refused to consider the fact that witnesses were not motivated, even though it was proved through photographic evidence submitted in the court that one of the witnesses was even in touch with the public prosecutor.  The court even refused to take cognizance of the fact that one of the key witnesses, Akash, committed suicide owing to police pressure, even when its attention was drawn to this fact.  The court also ignored the fact that one of the main prosecution witnesses, Bajrang Lad, was involved in a criminal case filed in the same Kotwali city thana.

However, despite these and many more glaring loopholes in the police story — which the report documents — the court chose to convict most of the accused under several sections of the UAPA.

JTSA hopes that Guilt by Association will help strengthen the campaign against the draconian UAPA, which is applied with such casualness to target minorities, political dissidents and movements. “This report exposes the arbitrariness and malice of this law and tells us that there is no alternative to repealing UAPA,” says Sethi.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013