Surreal nightmare

Print edition : March 20, 2015

The author says the vision of a hard state began to be pushed in earnest by the corporate world post-26/11. Here, the Railway Police at Churchgate station in Mumbai, which sees 27 lakh commuters every day. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

A protest against the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act by members of the Popular Front of India in Thanjavur on March 5, 2014. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

The book unravels the nature of India as a hard state and the tragedy of its victims who, like characters in Kafka’s novels, find themselves unable to escape a labyrinthine situation.

IT requires great courage to write a book like this, that is, to research and record the stories of those who practised courage, rather than merely preached it, in the face of the state’s determination to make them submit without justification. Very often, the narratives of counterterrorism that one reads in the popular media are bereft of truth and reflect what the official agencies hand out. Journalists lack the interest and the incentive to question such narratives and test their claims to reasonableness. Therefore, by not seeking to satisfy their quest for undiluted facts even within the boundaries of their professional competence, they mostly end up doing a disservice to their readers. In this, they have a cop-out: time and space constraints.

The author of the book under review is an academic by profession but an activist by choice. While performing these roles, she has unconsciously acquired the traits of a journalist, that is, to save detailed notes of what one observes and listens to for the purpose of sharing with others. Such notes may appear to be trivial while recording, but when seen after a lapse of time may yield something significant that had remained hidden from public knowledge.

With this substantial methodological advantage, the author succeeds in raising questions outside our comfort zone, and answering them, besides highlighting patterns of violation of human rights by the state.

Thus, in the Preface, the author discovers to her and the readers’ disbelief how the police manage to circumvent the legal requirement of producing an arrestee before a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest by simply taking him out for a walk after 23 hours. She then offers a glimpse into the ease with which norms are subverted institutionally.

State of brutality

Those of us who do not have first-hand experience of the dread of being pursued may well read her observation: “When every knock on the door, every ring of the phone makes your stomach churn; when the grey of the evening appears full of foreboding. But worst of all, the knowledge that no one may be able to help you from being taken away.” Stories that she narrates in Part I of the book (“Stories from Kafkaland”) bear the imprint of this terror, felt as a visceral force. Both this section and the rest of the book are aptly titled as the chapters vividly describe how their protagonists are overpowered by the agents of the state in a surreal, nightmarish milieu which evokes feelings of senselessness, disorientation and helplessness. Just like the characters in Kafka’s novels, the victims the book refers to find themselves lacking a clear course of action to escape a labyrinthine situation.

This is how she narrates the centrality of torture and cavalier prejudice in the 2006 Mumbai train blasts investigations: “Nothing compares to the fear of the early days (of arrest). With time, however, the long arm of the law manages to transform this palpable terror into a dull, unending ache.”

There were 13 accused in the custody of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) investigating the blasts. On the second anniversary of the blasts in 2008, Shahid Azmi, a lawyer who was killed by hired assassins later, circulated two letters on behalf of the accused. The first was a letter of condolence to the victims of the blasts, in which nearly 200 people died. The second was the allegation that the ATS remained clueless and the accused were made scapegoats. Titled “Arrest of the Accused—the Real Facts”, the letter chronicled in chilling prose the diverse practices of cruelty devised by the ATS.

“Tied to a plank with ropes, water is poured continually on the face till the chosen victim loses consciousness—meanwhile a machine monitors blood pressure to ensure that it doesn’t spike up too high, causing death. Trussed up in a chair, unable to move his head even an inch, the victim is subjected to a continuous falling of water droplets. Hours of this unceasing torture lead to severe pain in neck and head. Legs torn asunder at 180 degrees, gases which cause painful swelling of the body, high voltage shocks to private parts, beatings by flour mill belts, humiliation and stripping of family members.” It is a sickening catalogue guaranteed to make your bile rise; torture that broke them psychologically and left its imprint on the bodies of these men, as she puts it. Disregarding their complaint of torture, the magistrate extended their custody to the ATS, which renewed its brutalisation with greater vigour, she tells us.

Laws of terror

Mere suspicion is enough for an organisation to be declared unlawful under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). This has virtually created a “suspicion state”. As the book shows, there is ample evidence to prove that tough laws lead to gross violation of citizens’ rights: illegal detentions, torture, false cases, long periods of incarceration—a wholesale recipe for “disaffection”.

The facts are startling enough. In the decade of its existence (1985-1995), 76,036 individuals were arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). Of these, only 1 per cent ended in a conviction. At the time of repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), in 2004, 1,031 persons were arrested under it. Trial was finally completed with regard to 18, of whom 13 were convicted.

Even as confessions of accused are not admissible as evidence under the UAPA, which was amended to make it more stringent, they are rather useful in constructing a mythology of guilt, as the author aptly puts it. Rightly, she finds the argument that in these times of terror we should all agree to overlook the niceties of constitutional guarantees quite dangerous.

In Selvi vs State of Karnataka, decided in 2010, the Supreme Court held that compulsory brain-mapping and polygraph tests and narcoanalysis were in violation of Articles 20(3) and 21 of the Constitution. The court concluded that even if a person voluntarily agreed to undergo any of the tests at the outset, the responses given during the tests were not voluntary. However, the court provided a narrow exception that evidence gathered from a voluntarily administered test can be valid. This exception applies only when a fully informed individual gives truly voluntary consent to undergo any of these tests. Had the court known that those who administer these tests on suspects could even manipulate the answers, its decision could have been far more in favour of the rights of the accused.

The chapter “Dr.Narco and Other Stories from Kafkaland” shows graphically how the accused were stunned to discover that the tapes had been manipulated and questions inserted to produce a narrative of guilt.

The book is useful in bringing out the deceptive patterns in the counterterrorism operations in India. The author observes in the chapter “Terrorism’s True Lies”: “It is interesting how counter-terror agencies are drawn towards bus and railway stations, almost as moths to light. Most arrests are shown as taking place in and around bus stations and railway stations.”

The reader also comes to know certain unknown patterns. Here is a sample. Most suspects are expected by the police to recall their lives, as though in a flashback, with precise proof, no less, of every single day, while the rest of the public which consumes the stories of their arrests is hoped to be in possession of very short memories. Thus, a young suspect who worked months without an appointment letter, without a salary slip—and without a salary—worries how the free labour extracted by an exploitative market has obliterated his legal existence, leaving him with no proof of his activities in those months. It is unlikely that the former employer would agree to be a witness to state that he employed the suspect, the author suggests.

Culture of impunity

Underlying such investigations is the culture of impunity, a systematic exemption from punishment for inflicting harm, loss and violence and a denial of redress to the victims. The impossibility of bringing the perpetrators of violence to account makes the investigating agencies unaccountable. Their claims of busting terror modules are never questioned by the mainstream media, while their methods are condoned. When the confessions they manufacture through the torture of suspects militate against evidence and common sense, all are forgotten.

“And so the next cycle will begin—on a clean slate, as if nothing happened. New suspects can always be rounded up —abducted even—and paraded sensationally as masterminds and operatives,” she concludes.

Appendix II of the book carries the translated letter written by Irshad Ali, a former police informer, who was falsely implicated as an operative of Al Badr, a terrorist organisation, by the Delhi Police Special Cell, to the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, while he was lodged in the high-security cell of the Tihar jail. Ali moved the Delhi High Court seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe, which was granted. The CBI found him and his co-accused, Maurif Qamar, innocent police informers who were assigned the task of infiltrating terrorist organisations in Jammu and Kashmir. In the letter, Ali explains how they were trapped into the net woven by unscrupulous men in the security agencies to earn rewards and promotions in the name of fighting terrorism.

Remember the recent case of Sayyed Liyakat Shah? A reformed militant, he wanted to take advantage of the rehabilitation scheme announced by the Jammu and Kashmir government to facilitate the return of militants who wished to cross over from Pakistan to rejoin their families in India.

But when he returned through Nepal, the Delhi Police Special Cell arrested him by implicating him in a criminal conspiracy to commit fidayeen attacks in Delhi. Allegations of manufactured charges against him forced the Centre to transfer the case to the National Investigation Agency, which recently exposed the Delhi Police’s conspiracy to plant false evidence against Shah. The case is yet to be unravelled fully. When it does, much of what the book wants the reader to infer may well be proved.

Mumbai 26/11 occupies a pre-eminent place in the history of terrorism in India. The author recounts in the third part of the book, “The Security Metaphysic”, how the vision of a hard state—with its tough anti-terror laws, an overarching national terrorism centre, invasive technologies of mapping and monitoring population—began to be pushed in earnest by the corporate world post-26/11.

The book asks a poignant question while discussing the fate of the accused in the Akshardham case, who was found to be innocent by the Supreme Court: “Adam Ajmeri, accused No.2 in Akshardham, was saved Afzal Guru’s [the Parliament House Attack case convict, whose hanging on the basis of flimsy evidence led to a controversy] fate by the Supreme Court. But can we offer that as a consolation to a man who lost 11 years of his life?” Even if the correct answer to this cannot be in the affirmative, do we have an alternative in the light of the changed political situation, with its obvious consequences for the terror cases?

The author concludes the chapter “Truth is stranger than Fiction”: “G.L. Singhal, arrested in 2013 by the CBI for leading the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter, and protagonist of the Akshardham attack case, has been reinstated by the Gujarat government.”

The author may well have to include a new chapter on the recent discharge of Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah by the trial court in the Sohrabuddin encounter case in the next edition of the book. The trial court’s judgment in the case may offer lessons on how the judiciary bends itself to serve the new political dispensation.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor