Official secrets and a frame-up

Print edition : May 20, 2005

My Days in Prison by Iftikar Gilani; Penguin Books, 2005; pages 148, Rs.195.

I STILL remember the shock I felt, and then immediately anger, when the copy on Iftikar Gilani's arrest landed on the desk at an English-language newspaper I worked for then in Kolkata. Kashmir Times correspondent Iftikar Gilani had been arrested and "incriminating" evidence had been "recovered" from his personal computer that he leaked sensitive information about the Indian Army to Pakistan. He had been, it seemed, using his position as an accredited journalist as a front to carry on espionage activities. I remember commenting on it to a colleague sitting next to me, about how shocking it was that an accredited journalist should be doing this.

I knew, of course, that this was an accusation, not yet proved in a court of law. But it did not occur to me that there could be a mistake, that he could be innocent, let alone the victim of a frame-up. Such is the power of the written word. That the arrested man was the son-in-law of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leader Syed Ali Shah Gilani somehow made it all the more credible. I am rather proud of my secular world view, but did the fact that Gilani was a Muslim (and a Kashmiri) somehow implicate him even further in my mind?

The twisted and pathetic story of how some officials of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) had tried to frame him, how the journalist fraternity fought back to establish his innocence, and how the government, in the end, had no option but to withdraw the charges against him, is now history. All the major national newspapers covered the hearings and Gilani's eventual release; some carried editorials on how the government had over-reached itself. After Gilani finally walked free, Frontline carried a story titled "The end of a witch-hunt" (January 31, 2003). Still, public memory is not just notoriously short, but also strangely selective, with endless possibilities of confusion, association and implication. The men who tried to frame Iftikar Gilani attained some kind of propaganda success in the beginning, taking in even a section of the (mostly Indian language and regional) press, because many confused him with S.A.R. Geelani, the Delhi University lecturer who was convicted by a Special Court in the December 13, 2001 Parliament House attack case, and later set free by the Delhi High Court which found no substantial evidence for a case against him. And, of course, his father-in-law was a well-known Hurriyat leader, also a Gilani, and arrested on the same day. It is easy to construct myths in this maze of similar sounding words and irresponsible inferences; it is also easy to forget. Iftikar Gilani's prison memoirs, published two years after his January 2003 release, are a timely reminder of so much that is wrong with the country's legal system, and of the many lives that are torn apart by its vagaries.

GILANI was arrested on June 9, 2002, after a raid by Income Tax officers at his home in New Delhi's Malviya Nagar. He was booked under Sections 3 (spying) and 9 (attempt to abet the commission of offence) of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), read with Section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) relating to sedition. Charges were also brought against him alleging that he circulated pornographic material.

The charges under the OSA were based on a document found as a text file in Gilani's personal computer, which turned out to be not such a secret document after all. The file, titled `Forces' and running into five pages, contained information about the strength of the troops and paramilitary forces deployed in the operational area of the Northern Command in Jammu and Kashmir. The opinion of the Directorate-General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) was sought and it said on June 14 that the "information ... is prejudicial to the security of the country and has serious ramifications on our operational plans in J&K".

As Gilani insisted from the beginning, and his counsel was later able to prove, the information had in fact been downloaded from a Pakistani website. The data were several years old and were part of a publication titled "Denial of Freedom and Human Rights (A Review of Indian Repression in Kashmir)". It was written by Dr. Nazir Kamal and published by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, in January 1996. Indeed, the paper was available in the libraries of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, the School of International Studies, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Centre for Policy Research and the Indian Council of World Affairs. It is another story that Gilani's counsel and friends failed to locate a copy after his arrest and could only obtain one when Dr. Shireen M. Mazari, Director-General of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, sent it to them.

The DGMI eventually revised its opinion, curiously, after Defence Minister George Fernandes started taking an interest in the case. But the Home Ministry was not in a hurry to make that public. On December 12, 2002, the DGMI wrote to the Delhi Police that its earlier opinion had over-estimated the sensitivity of the documents. The documents had been found to be easily available, actually in the form of a published booklet, and the DGMI now thought they were of negligible security value. But the day before, on December 11, the Home Ministry forwarded the June 14 opinion of the DGMI to the Delhi Police. The court noticed the contradiction in the two reports and the Director, Military Intelligence, testified in court that the DGMI had revised its opinion. A Home Ministry representative, however, told the court that the government considered the revised opinion irrelevant and untenable. This was on January 7, and that this position did not really have solid ground became clear when just three days later, on January 10, the prosecution quietly filed an application in the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's court stating that the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi had decided, in the "public interest", to drop the case against Gilani.

None of this is very new, but the book is gripping because it is a first-person account. This narrative had belonged to the public domain for so long, reported by journalists, snaking along through court proceedings. Now Gilani, writing like a trained journalist in his crisp, workmanlike English, presents it as a lived experience. For those who had followed the case, My Days in Prison tells the story of what the fiasco actually meant for Gilani: the indignities of a prison system that retains almost nothing of Kiran Bedi's well-meaning reforms. It is a depressing account of unnecessary, unprovoked beatings, harassment, pettiness, dishonesty and, occasionally, organised violence. Sample this excerpt from the book:

"As soon as I entered I heard murmurs from around the desk of the jail official checking the names of the incoming prisoners.

Iftikar Gilani coming out of the Tis Hazari court in New Delhi after his release on December 13, 2003.-R.V. MOORTHY

`He has come,' one official said to another. The man went inside. He soon returned and asked me to follow him. He led me to a room adjacent to the jail superintendent's office, called the `undertrial office'.

One Assistant Superintendent Kishan was sitting on a chair behind a table. Ten to twelve others were in the room. Some seemed to be jail staff, while others appeared to be inmates. Assistant Superintendent Kishan asked my name. Before I had finished saying it, a Nepali staffer slapped me. It was the signal for a free-for-all. I was kicked from behind, blows rained on my back and someone grabbed my hair and banged my head against the table. Blood started oozing from my mouth. My nose and ears started bleeding too. Accompanying these blows were the choicest abuses.

`Saala, gaddar, Pakistani agent,' they were screaming. `People like you should not be allowed to live. Traitors should be hanged straight away.'"

That was Gilani's initiation in the ways of the Tihar jail, beaten until he fainted. And when he regained consciousness, he was made to clean the jail toilet with his shirt and then wear the soiled shirt for three days.

THIS book is an important read because the law that made Gilani's incarceration possible, on wafer-thin evidence, still exists. Gilani had his journalist friends and also some senior politicians, taking up his cause. But there are others not so fortunate who continue to suffer under its harsh provisions. Gilani never slides into self-pity as he narrates his story, never dwells too long on his own emotions. He puts his personal ordeal into a wider perspective, aware that he was not alone in his suffering. The last chapter briefly goes over some of the OSA cases he came across. One of them is about a carpenter:

"Hussamuddin, a carpenter with the Army, had a scuffle with an I.B. official while boarding a bus in Delhi. He was taken to an interrogation centre and made to write names and locations of units where he was posted. Hussamuddin was released recently on bail after spending six years in prison. Mohammad Israr, a clerk, is a co-accused with him. Both of them were arrested in 1991. The case is still hanging in court."

Gilani calls the OSA, 1923, "draconian", an expression that means "excessively harsh" or "severe". Actually, it is worse than that in the way it makes concessions to the prosecution, reducing its burden to prove charges in court, leaving enough loopholes for dishonest officials to pitch completely innocent citizens in jail. Section 3 of the OSA, one of the provisions invoked in Gilani's case, defines an offence of espionage thus:

"If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State (a) approaches, inspects, passes over or is in the vicinity of, or enters, any prohibited place; or (b) makes any sketch, plan, model, or note which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly useful to an enemy; or (c) obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official code or pass word, or any sketch, plan, model, article or note or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy [or which relates to a matter the disclosure of which is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State or friendly relations with foreign states]; he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend ... to fourteen years and in other cases to three years."

The law also says that for an offence under this section, it "shall not be necessary to show the accused person was guilty of any particular act tending to show a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State, and, notwithstanding that no such act is proved against him, he may be convicted if, from the circumstances of the case or his conduct or his known character as proved, it appears that his purpose was a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State; ... ". The language, as so many have repeatedly pointed out, is wide enough to leave room for frame-ups.

Gilani ends his book with a hope: "All conscientious citizens of the country are waiting for this course correction [abolition of the OSA] by the government." Amen to that.

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