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Kafkaesque ordeal?

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

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The arrest of Syed Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi in connection with the bomb attack on an Israeli embassy car raises many questions.

in New Delhi

AN uneasy silence fills the streets of B.K. Dutt Colony near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. Named after the revolutionary freedom fighter Batukeshwar Dutt, who, along with Bhagat Singh, threw bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly on April 8, 1929, the nondescript colony has been in the news with the arrest of one of its residents, who has lived here for the past 11 years. At 11-30 a.m. on March 7, the day after the results of the elections to five State Assemblies were announced, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police whisked away Syed Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi, 50, a journalist with more than 25 years of standing, as he emerged out of the India Islamic Centre in New Delhi. Kazmi coordinated personality development and communication skills activities of the Noble Education Foundation there.

An accredited journalist and a former Urdu newsreader with the government broadcaster Doordarshan, he was arrested for his alleged role in the sticky car bomb incident at Aurangazeb Road in New Delhi on February 13, wherein the wife of the Israeli Defence Attach in India and two others were injured. Preliminary investigations had shown that the blast was caused by a magnetic device stuck to a car. Kazmi was tagged a conspirator in international terrorism, booked in a case of non-bailable offence under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and remanded in police custody for 20 days.

The arrest of a senior and respected journalist like Kazmi under a stringent law drew widespread reaction from within and outside the journalist fraternity. He wrote regular columns in leading Urdu newspapers such as Al-Ahmeen, Sahafat, Milli Gazette and the Rashtriya Sahara Urdu. He is proficient in Arabic, Urdu and Persian. He also has a Master's in geography and Persian and has studied mass communication. His first foray into journalism was as an operator with All India Radio in 1988. His multilingual skills landed him a job later with a popular news programme on Doordarshan, where he worked with veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi.

In 1990, Kazmi joined Media Star News and Features. Three years later, he was reading Urdu news on Doordarshan. In 1999, he travelled to the United States along with other senior journalists. In 2002-03, the then Director General of Doordarshan was keen that Indian journalists should cover world affairs. As a result of this, some of them, including Kazmi, got postings in West Asia. In this period he interviewed Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress and former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq.

In 2002, the Iraqi government invited him along with several journalists to that country. Those who travelled with him recall that in Amman, where the team, which included a Congress Member of Parliament, was to travel by road to Baghdad, the Jordanian intelligence, Mukbarat, interrogated Kazmi, after it mistook him for an Iraqi agent. He was thoroughly rattled by that incident.

He covered the Gulf war for Worldview India, a programme that Saeed Naqvi had started on Doordarshan. While he was covering the war, the Iraqis once mistook him to be an American agent.

Kazmi also had brief stints with the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, the state news agency of Iran. He was friendly with everybody and his Iranian connections were well known. He used to attend press conferences at the Israeli embassy too, said a journalist.

He had contacts in Najaf and Teheran, and recently he was invited, along with several other journalists, to Syria, Saeed Naqvi told Frontline. He said Kazmi should have been considered an asset by the Indian government as he would have put them across to several people in Iran.

Kazmi visited Syria twice in the recent past. He was able to dig out information that did not fit in with the image of Syria that had been created by reports in the Western media, said a journalist. International wars are being fought today in the media. The Indian media were not there and Kazmi, because of his contacts and his language skills, was able to penetrate areas and uncover issues that were not easily visible, said a journalist who knew Kazmi closely.

One of his visits to Syria was a week after the sticky bomb incident. He went there along with a team of reputed journalists on an invitation from the Syrian government. Like several other individuals, including Muslim and non-Muslim journalists, he held passionate views on the Palestinian issue and was critical of the imperialist interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, Libya and Syria. Upon his return from Syria recently, he was singled out and detained by immigration officials. He was very upset, a journalist recalled.

The arrest

As was his normal practice, Kazmi was returning home for lunch and to offer namaz when he was arrested. A devout Muslim, he was not apologetic about his religious beliefs. In fact, on the day of the car bomb blast on Aurangazeb Road, he was on Akbar Road, protesting against an alleged land-grabbing incident involving the Shah-e-Mardaan shrine located near his home. The shrine was revered by Shia Muslims; it was not unnatural for Kazmi to take part in such a protest.

My father asked us not to do anything that would put oneself or the family to shame. Do you think he is the kind of a person who would do something like this? asked his 18-year-old son, who was appearing for his 12th Class board examinations. The youngster was distraught at the manner in which the authorities treated his father.

Meanwhile, reports were being planted in sections of the media that Kazmi had admitted to his guilt. This was after the spokesperson for the police clarified that Kazmi was not directly involved in the attack. He was instead accused of providing logistical support to the main suspect, apparently a motorcyclist who attached the magnetic sticky bomb to the car of the Israeli embassy staffer. The man's whereabouts have remained mysteriously unknown. The police told a local court where Kazmi was produced that the attack was a case of international terrorism and that the conspiracy was hatched outside India.

Interestingly, for an attack in which there were no fatalities, the Delhi Police were seen working very hard. That there was immense international pressure to make arrests and produce results was not lost on anyone. Only last month had Israel accused Iran and the Hizbollah of having engineered two bomb attacks targeting Israeli embassy staff in Georgia and Israel. Serial explosions in Bangkok around the same time, in which an Iranian was killed, were also linked to Iranian terrorism. The Delhi Police have maintained that the Delhi and Bangkok blasts are unrelated.

Born in a family of poor farmers in Dholri village in Meerut district, Uttar Pradesh, Kazmi was the only one among his 10 siblings to have made it big in life. He struggled a lot, but he was determined to give us a good education, his son told Frontline. Both his sons were born in Delhi. The family had earlier stayed at Welcome Colony in Shahdara, East Delhi, an area not known for being upmarket. The unassuming dwelling in a narrow lane in B.K. Dutt Colony too speaks volumes about a family that came up the hard way.

His elder son broke down like a child while addressing a press conference in Delhi. In normal circumstances, the 23-year-old, who has completed a Master's course in Business Administration, would have been looking for a job rather than addressing press conferences or signing arrest memos. My brother had not got the kind of exposure to a relatively better environment as I did. I studied in Shahdara for only a few years before our family shifted to B.K. Dutt Colony, said the younger son, who is studying in a well-known public school in the locality. The question was why Kazmi would jeopardise all of this, especially his future and that of his children.

Uncertainty looms large in the Kazmi residence. The family is yet to get over the shock at the manner of his arrest. The family members told Frontline that they panicked when there was no news from him until 9-30 p.m. on March 7. His phone was switched off. Soon, a posse of plainclothes policemen came to the house with Kazmi. I was studying for my examinations in the room on the ground floor when I heard some voices. I thought my father had returned. I went upstairs. I saw my father along with some people. I initially thought they were my father's friends. They were looking for something. My brother was out. I asked them, Uncle, what are you doing?' My father then said that they were policemen and that they were making inquiries relating to issues involving Israel and Iran and that he would be back soon. The policemen who were seven or eight in number began randomly searching the house. They took away all his original documents, including his PIB [Press Information Bureau] card, passport, two laptops, a CPU and two cellphones, including one belonging to my mother, he said.

Kazmi's car had already been confiscated outside the India Islamic Centre. The family was told not to inform the media. We couldn't contact a lawyer or anyone else at that moment, said a family member.

When there was no news for more than two hours after that, the family panicked and rushed to the office of the Special Cell at Lodhi Road. Here, they were not allowed to meet Kazmi. After some time, the elder son, Shauzab, was called in and at around 2-30 a.m., the father and the son were forced to sign the arrest memo. They threatened Shauzab with dire consequences if they didn't sign. My brother was under tremendous pressure, the younger son told Frontline. Shauzab was also told that the police could even lock Kazmi up for three months.

The Kazmi family got in touch with a lawyer later in the day. The idea is to break him down mentally, get a confession and parade him in front of the media. The prolonged custodial interrogation has only one objective, said a criminal lawyer familiar with the handling of such cases by the police.

The police also seized a Scooty (a moped) from the Kazmi residence as evidence as the vehicle used in the alleged reconnaissance for the car bomb attack. The Scooty was not even working. It had to be dragged by the police, said Kazmi's son. It was indeed peculiar that all the papers of the Scooty were also lying at the Kazmi residence and were picked up by the police rather easily. It has been pointed out that had there been any involvement of Kazmi, the Scooty would have been sold to a scrap dealer and all evidence destroyed.

The timing

The timing of Kazmi's arrest, coinciding with the pathetic performance of the Congress in the elections, has raised legitimate doubts. Had he been arrested earlier, whatever little support the Congress received from Muslims would have disappeared, said a political analyst. And Kazmi was a high-profile journalist. His family showed several photographs of him with many politicians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the late Arjun Singh, Ram Vilas Paswan and Farooq Abdullah. A photograph dated August 26, 1996, shows him with another senior Congress leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, at a seminar on Challenges before Secularism. Media Star News and Features organised several programmes on secular challenges in the early and mid-1990s and Kazmi was in the forefront of such activities.

There is one photograph of him with Libya's slain leader Muammar Qaddaffi, taken in 1988. But just as his association with leading politicians does not vindicate him, his trips to Iran, Iraq or Syria or a picture with Qaddafi does not point to his guilt.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists have expressed concern at the manner and context of Kazmi's arrest. Many feel the investigating agencies and the government were bending over backwards to produce results, under international pressure. If they can target Kazmi with all his contacts in high places, the ordinary journalist is even more vulnerable, a reporter commented.

In a statement, the IFJ noted that the Delhi Police had cited Kazmi's phone records, which revealed a number of recent calls to Iran and Syria, as part of the grounds on which he was arrested.

The IFJ understands that these calls were purely of a professional nature, in line with his professional assignments, read the statement. The IFJ called upon the authorities in Delhi to uphold the presumption of innocence and provide a full explanation of the grounds on which Kazmi has been arrested and ensure that he is given all opportunities to clear his name. It further suggested that Kazmi may have been identified for arrest based on his political views rather than solid evidence.

This is not an isolated opinion. On March 11, two uniformed policemen landed at the residence of John Cherian, chief of Frontline's New Delhi bureau, claiming that they had received a tip-off regarding a cache of smack (heroin) in his house. An alert neighbour and members of the journalist fraternity raised an alarm, following which an embarrassed Delhi Police claimed that the tip-off was a hoax and the entire incident a misunderstanding. The coincidences were many. John Cherian had recently visited Syria as part of a wider delegation that included Kazmi. The team had been invited by the Syrian government to cover the referendum on a new Constitution, which is part of President Bashar al-Assad's political reform proposals.

When contacted by Frontline, Rajan Bhagat, spokesperson for the Delhi Police, declined to say anything relating to the Kazmi case.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 06, 2012.)

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