A controversial ban

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The Centre bans the Students Islamic Movement of India for "anti-national activities" but fails to justify the action with credible evidence against the organisation.

ON September 27, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre announced a ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, for its "anti-national and destabilising activities", for "making controversial remarks questioning the country's sovereignty and integrity" and for its "links with militant outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen".

Activists of the Students Islamic Movement of India, detained following the imposition of the ban on the organisation, being taken to the Patiala House courts in New Delhi, on September 28.-RAJEEV BHATT

As in the case of the Naga truce offer in the Northeastern region, the unilateral ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir and the Agra Summit, the government's move appears to have been ill-timed. It sparked off a political controversy, exposing the government to charges of selective persecution with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The ham-handed manner in which the U.P. government handled the violence that broke out in Lucknow following the ban only served to strengthen this impression.

The Opposition parties have uniformly accused the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of turning a blind eye to the communal activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, while targeting Muslims in order to instill fear among them to consolidate its Hindu votebank.

According to a clarification issued by the Home Ministry the immediate provocation for the ban was the pro-Taliban stance of SIMI in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. It said SIMI activists had distributed leaflets and posters lauding Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden as the "ultimate jehadi", and warned that any U.S. attack on Afghanistan would amount to an attack on Islam. They also called upon all Muslims to be ready for jehad.

The notification banning SIMI described its activities thus:

1. SIMI is in close touch with militant outfits and is supporting extremism/militancy in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere.

2. SIMI supports claims for the secession of a part of the Indian territory from the Union, supports groups fighting for this purpose, and is thus questioning the territorial integrity of India.

3. SIMI is working for an international Islamic order.

4. During Ikhwan conferences, the anti-national and militant postures of SIMI were clearly manifest in the speeches of the leaders who glorified pan Islamic fundamentalism and used derogatory language for deities of other religions and exhorted Muslims to jehad.

5. SIMI has published objectionable posters and literature, which are calculated to incite communal feelings and which question the territorial integrity of India.

6. SIMI is involved in engineering communal riots and disruptive activities in various parts of the country.

The notification further said that the activities of SIMI were "detrimental to the peace, integrity and maintenance of the secular fabric of Indian society and that it is an unlawful association."

Police personnel outside a sealed office of SIMI at Zakhir Nagar in New Delhi. Offices of the organisation in several parts of the country were thus sealed.-R.V. MOORTHY

Following the ban, there was a nationwide swoop on SIMI activists, and hundreds of them, including its president Shahid Badr Falahi, were arrested from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. SIMI offices across the country were sealed and "incriminating" documents seized.

THE crackdown, although peaceful, left Lucknow on the boil. The Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's parliamentary constituency and the capital of Uttar Pradesh witnessed widespread riots. The police opened fire on protesting Muslims, killing four and injuring many. Curfew was clamped on several areas. Although the situation was brought under control without further loss of life, the episode has taken an ugly political turn, with the ruling BJP and the Opposition parties accusing each other of trying to gain political mileage.

In the opinion of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the ban was meant to divide the people along communal lines so that the BJP could consolidate its Hindu vote bank. "It is a move to divert people's attention from the government's failures," said S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav. This view was echoed in the remarks of BSP leader Mayawati. The S.P. demanded that the government convene an all-party meeting and place all facts available with it on this issue before the meeting. The BSP said that the fact that other political parties were not taken into confidence before the ban was slapped smacked of a conspiracy. "It is a politically motivated move, otherwise we would have been told about it at the all-party meeting which was held earlier in the day," Mayawati said. The Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) echoed this opinion.

The Congress was guarded in its reaction as two of its own Chief Ministers, Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan, had demanded it. The party, however, described the ban as "ill-timed in view of the vitiating international situation" and demanded a similar ban on the Sangh Parivar affiliates, which were also indulging in vitiating the communal atmosphere. This demand was made also by the CPI, the CPI(M), the S.P. and BSP.

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau, in a press statement issued on September 28, demanded that the Central government come out with the full information on the basis of which it imposed the ban. The statement said that the activities of organisations like the Bajrang Dal were inimical to national unity, but the Centre had been silent on that issue. "The Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) strongly condemns the indiscriminate police firing in Lucknow where three young men have lost their lives. The Rajnath Singh government, given its communal bias, will try to use the prevailing atmosphere to target the minority community. All the democratic forces must strongly resist such move," it said.

The BJP, on the other hand, accused the S.P. of engineering violence. Chief Minister Rajnath Singh said that S.P. leaders provoked Muslims by spreading rumours that ulemas (religious scholars) were also being arrested. "This angered Muslims and they started throwing stones and petrol bombs at the police. They resorted to large-scale arson and burning of vehicles. The police opened fire to quell the mob," he said.

Accusations and counter-accusations apart, the "clinching evidence" provided by the government to justify the ban, however, fails to portray the organisation as a secessionist one with sinister, anti-national and seditious designs. Except for general references, there is not a single specific instance of the organisation's large-scale involvement in anti-national activities. The only instance, which the government has cited, is the bomb blast in the Sabarmati Express near Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh on August 14. The rest are just sweeping statements like "it has been found to be involved in communal riots and disruptive activities." There is also a mention of "14 cases of terrorist violence" (cases not specified) which caused "15 deaths and injury to 80 others in UP and Delhi in 2000-2001". According to the Home Ministry report, these exposed the "deep nexus between SIMI and the Hizbul Mujahideen". No evidence, however, has been cited. The Hizbul Mujahideen itself is not a banned organisation. Another charge cited against SIMI is "using the Internet" to publicise the alleged burning of the Koran in Delhi, which resulted in communal tension and riots. The Ministry says SIMI circulated on the Internet pictures of a burning Koran and this inflamed passions. Besides, it distributed provocative posters and leaflets in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka, the Home Ministry says. If indeed there was an instance of burning the Koran, then it is not disclosed whether the Ministry took any action. The Ministry further said that SIMI intended to take up the "Babri Masjid issue more aggressively in future". So are the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, but what action has been taken against them is not disclosed. Another charge against SIMI relates its links with the Muslim Students Union, a pro-Hamas union of Palestine students in India and Pakistan, and the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

The pamphlets and posters produced by the government to establish the anti-national credentials of the organisation are nothing more than a collection of poetic verses from the Koran, and elsewhere, depicting the ultimate victory of those who believe in Allah after overcoming all obstacles, including bloody ones, coupled with a few pictures. One such posters, which the Ministry says "speak for themselves", has these lines on it: "Allah ke jamaat he Ghalib rahne wali hai". It means that God's party shall triumph. This, according to believers in Islam, is a line from the Koran and there is nothing anti-national about it because God's party could mean anyone, not only those believing in Islam. Another poster, which the Ministry says preaches bloodshed and violence, has these translated lines from the Koran: "Your friend should be those who believe in God and offer prayers. Those who keep the company of God and His followers should rest assured that God's party shall triumph." Another one holds out the promise of hope in the face of adversities; yet another exhorts its followers not to be coward and not to beg for compromises, because ultimately victory shall be theirs. It defies reason how these lines could be cited as "clinching evidence" of SIMI's anti-national credentials. Interestingly, while the Ministry cited laudatory references to Osama bin Laden as the immediate and ultimate provocation for banning SIMI, it has chosen to look the other way when the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, said the very same thing about bin Laden and the impending U.S. attack on Afghanistan at a huge Friday congregation on September 28.

What makes the government's intentions suspect is also the fact that these exhortations appear to be relatively tame in comparison to some of the statements made by Bajrang Dal and VHP leaders in the recent past. Some of their actions too are much more disruptive and divisive in nature: the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Gujarat riots in the wake of the demolition, the murder of Graham Staines and his two sons by those owing allegiance to these groups and the attacks on Christian missionaries are only some of the blatant examples.

More recently, the National Commission on Minorities, in its report, blamed the RSS and the Bajrang Dal for fomenting riots in Gujarat. Who demolished the Babri Masjid is known. But political leaders of the Sangh Parivar and its political affiliates have been allowed to go scot-free because of a technical flaw in the notification which rendered their prosecution null and void (Frontline, June 8, 2001).

Replying to the Opposition demand for banning Bajrang Dal, Home Minister L.K. Advani categorically stated that there was no question of banning it because none of its activities was anti-national in nature. Rajnath Singh went as far as to say that the Bajrang Dal might be communal in nature but it was not anti-national, so there was no question of banning it. In his opinion, being communal is all right.

The Home Ministry spokesman, while explaining how the government had gone about banning SIMI in a "rational and objective manner only after gathering adequate proof over the last one year," also gave a clean chit to the Bajrang Dal. He stated that "there is no concrete material available on the Bajrang Dal that can stand judicial scrutiny". He said the government had not received any report so far, not even from the Madhya Pradesh government, citing valid grounds to impose a ban on the Bajrang Dal. Digvijay Singh, however, has demanded the banning of the Bajrang Dal along with SIMI, and had sent a fact sheet to the Centre citing 36 cases against SIMI and 18 against the Bajrang Dal. The NDA government, however, denies any such reports.

The SIMI case will be heard by a tribunal, which is to be constituted within a month. The tribunal will give its verdict on the proscription within six months. Meanwhile, several questions, such as why the crimes cited by the government could not have been tried in a court of law, without resorting to the ban on the organisation, may need credible answers.

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