Straining to be heard

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

The constitutional and democratic obligation of the Indian state demands that it give better hearing to the countrys Muslims.

For Mohammed Amir, 14 years of his life have become like pages in a book that he will never forget. After being picked up by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police in Old Delhi in 1998 for his alleged role in hatching a conspiracy against India together with a few Bangladeshi militants, he spent those years shuttling between prison cells and courtrooms and helplessly watching his carefully moulded life collapse. His father died of shock and his mother became paralysed for life. The social stigma that followed his arrest ruined his family business. He was acquitted earlier this year as there was no evidence against him, but he has not completely escaped the suspicious gazes of people around him. He will not get back those lost years, but he expects some compensation from the government.

Amir is not the only victim of the Indian state machinery. There are countless Muslim victims who were framed on charges of terror and sedition, only to be released after having spent a good part of their youth behind bars. Civil society activists have recorded many such cases in documentaries, reports and public hearings.

At a time when Muslims across the world have been taken aback by the hate-inducing depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the derisively titled film Innocence of Muslims, such fabricated cases point to a larger trend of anti-Islamic propaganda, perpetuated particularly by the United States and its allies.

The protests and their context

The militant but largely non-violent protests by Muslims in India against the film must be seen in this context. The communitys socio-political environment is marked by its own insecurity and the Indian states indifference to such fabricated cases. Hence, the protests against the online screenings of the film throughout the world on websites like YouTube have also resonated with the communitys resentments against the U.S., which is seen as the biggest perpetuator of anti-Islamic propaganda. For the Muslim community in India, the film has also become a rallying point to target the countrys role as one of the main allies of the U.S. in recent times. One of the consequences of this alliance is perceived to be increasing Islamophobia in the Indian subcontinent, which leads to the victimisation of innocent Muslim youth.

The Shahi Imam of Punjab condemned the movie and demanded that the Indian government ban it. He also criticised U.S. President Barack Obama. How could the liberal President Obama not know that a film was being made in his country which could hurt the sentiments of billions of Muslims across the globe and put... world peace in danger? he asked in a press release. Protests in Chennai saw the demonstrators burning an effigy of Obama. In Hyderabad, hundreds of people gathered in protests to condemn the controversial film. Shahbaz Khan, city president of the Telugu Desam Partys (TDP) minority cell, told a national daily: The film can still be watched on YouTube. We have demanded that the government take necessary action to completely block the film on the Internet. Otherwise, we will stage a protest in front of the American embassy. We have also spoken to other parties and organisations to join the protests in the future. In many parts of India, Muslim parties and organisations staged roadblocks and protested in front of U.S. consulates.

The rising protests indicate that the communitys anger is not just against the film but also against the broader alliance of the U.S. and India. In many protests, it was pointed out how India had significantly moved away from its non-alignment policy and had been toeing the U.S. line in foreign policy. This may serve the Indian diplomatic agenda against Pakistan, but the victimisation of Muslims has a negative impact on the psyche of the countrys largest minority.

Rising concern

The Centre for Policy Analysis, based in New Delhi, recently conducted a public hearing where it presented many fabricated cases of terrorism involving Muslim youth. In its statement, it noted: There is rising concern across the country about the large-scale arrests and harassment of Muslim youth by the security forces of the state. Young men are being picked up without explanation, taken into police custody, beaten and tortured and eventually thrown into jail awaiting trial for years on end. Several have died in custody, the latest case being of Qateel Siddiqui who died in mysterious circumstances in the Yerwada Jail, Pune. He was arrested last November and killed in a high-security prison for a case in which his complicity had still not been established. There has been silence about the disappearance of Fasih Mahmood, the engineer picked up in Saudi Arabia. Except for denying any knowledge of his whereabouts, there has been no response from the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government about efforts to trace an Indian citizen whose family is now running from pillar to post in search of justice. Urdu journalist Syed Kazmi remains in jail on charges of terrorism, with the police still to file a charge sheet against him.

JTSA report

A recent report by a civil society group, the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association (JTSA), formed in the aftermath of the 2008 Batla House encounter, has documented 16 cases in which young Muslims were booked on charges such as treason, sedition and terrorism. In all 16 cases, the accused were acquitted by the courts. The report, Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a Very Special Cell, comes on the fourth anniversary of the Batla House incident, which was perceived by many activists as a faked encounter.

The JTSA released two reports earlier on, Encounter at Batla House: Unanswered Questions (2009) and The Case that Never Was: The SIMI Trial of Jaipur (2012). Both reports say that the Special Cell of the Delhi Police and the Intelligence Bureau have collaborated to frame innocent young Muslims as operatives of various secessionist and terrorist organisations.

The third report by the JTSA seeks to question the most pertinent common sense in terror-related cases. It says: When human rights activists, or families of those arrested in the charges of terrorism, allege foul play on part of the investigating agencies, the usual response is this: Surely, there must have been some involvement, or else why would the police arrest him, and not me? Using court judgments and official documents in its report, the JTSA makes a firm conclusion: The evidence that the report presents shows clearly that the acquittals were not simply for want of evidence (a common reason cited by the police when it loses the case). What judgment after judgment comments on is the manner in which the so-called evidence provided by the police and the prosecution was tampered with and fabricated, how story after story as presented by the prosecution was unreliable, incredulous and appeared as concocted.

According to the JTSA, the 16 cases recorded by it are the proverbial tip of an iceberg, and simply indicative of the extent of the malaise affecting our policing and criminal justice system. For the victims, it has been a story of loss and persecution. Their businesses were destroyed, family members underwent humiliation and trauma of being associated with terrorists, children had to abandon their studies and the normality of everyday life, parents passed away in grief and despair, no apology, no rehabilitation has come their way, the JTSA report says. For the police, the report observes, such cases have become a route for promotions, gallantry awards and the Presidents medal. The officers involved in all the 16 cases received out-of-turn promotions and gallantry awards.

The report adds: To those who say that there is no smoke without fire... the reasons behind the policethe special case in this case, but this could be true for any other investigating agency as wellframing innocents can be many: to settle scores, to teach a lesson, to buy favours, to dispose of petty informers past their usefulness, to help out colleagues in other parts of the country, it says. It adds that the 16 cases documented by it provide instances of such manoeuvring by the Special Cell, which, it says, feeds on the Islamophobia that exists in the post-9/11 world. The delayed criminal justice system and the impunity enjoyed by the investigating agencies make matters worse.

A pattern

The report says that between 1992 and 2012, a large number of those arrested in terror-related cases were acquitted of all charges by the courts; a recent Right to Information inquiry revealed that the conviction rate in these cases had been a paltry 30 per cent. This is attributed to the inefficiency and bad investigating skills of the police or poor infrastructure. The JTSA, however, has noticed a pattern:

Secret information, which can never be verified or disclosed, leads the police to the accused.

Public and independent witnesses are rarely included in the actual operation, even when the accused are apprehended in public places with people present.

Private vehicles are used in the operation, doing away with the need for logs and thereby making it difficult to verify if any such operation did really take place.

The time and date of the actual picking up of the accused are revealed by the subsequent trial to have been much earlier than what was claimed in the police story. Illegal detention, a recurrent feature, is sought to be hidden from the court through blatantly concocted narratives.

Seizure memos (in almost all the cases, the police have claimed to have seized sophisticated arms, detonators, secessionist literature, etc.) are often made in the police station/Special Cell office, and not at the supposed time of seizure, often in the same handwriting and ink as the first information report (FIR).

Senior officers are protected from appearing before the court by not making them witnesses.

There is a nexus between the Special Cell, the Central intelligence agencies, and the police forces of conflict zones, especially Jammu and Kashmir, and Manipur.

In a fear-ridden political context, compounded by the poor socio-economic status of Muslims detailed by the Sachar Committee, the recent protests against the hate-mongering film have to be seen as an important engagement between the biggest minority community and the Indian state. The constitutional and democratic obligation of the state demands that it give better hearing to the countrys Muslims. The controversial film gives the Indian state an opportunity to restore the Muslim communitys confidence in it.

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