Professor Syed Abdur Rahman Geelani’s nightmares do not seem to end. More than a decade after he was acquitted, in 2005, in the case relating to the terror attack on the Indian Parliament building on December 13, 2001, he was detained on February 15 by the Delhi Police and shown as arrested in the early hours of February 16 on charges of sedition and conspiracy. He was charged under Sections 124A, 149 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for organising a meeting at the Press Club of India (PCI) on February 10 to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru.
Retired Delhi University professors Nirmalangshu Mukherjee and Vijay Singh, who were speakers at the programme, were interrogated for several hours until late into the night at the police station about the programme. Prof. Ali Javed of Delhi University, in whose name the hall in the PCI building was booked, was expelled from the PCI. “It was a cultural programme. A guy played the guitar, a girl spoke in ornate Urdu, which I didn’t quite follow, and the rest of us spoke on a number of issues relating to freedom, human rights, justice and Kashmir. Prof. Geelani made no speech, he gave no slogans. He anchored the programme. There were the usual slogans of azadi and Allah-O-Akbar. I told the police that there was nothing anti-national in it,” said Vijay Singh. It has been stated ad infinitum that azadi slogans are not given only by a handful of separatists as projected by the state and the media but by all those living in Kashmir Valley.
So, if “azadi” slogans are seditious, then the entire population of the Valley should be put behind bars. What is left unsaid is that human rights abuses in the heavily militarised Valley go unchecked and unpunished. The Valley has been under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives the security forces sweeping powers.
The day after the PCI event, Zee News (the television channel that repeatedly telecast doctored videos of a programme organised at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which resulted in the arrest of students on charges of sedition) aired a still photograph of the PCI meeting showing the speakers seated in front of a poster of Afzal Guru and the late separatist leader Maqbool Bhatt, and interspersed the news with slogans from elsewhere. The Zee News story said it was an anti-India programme. The police took suo motu cognisance of the news and ordered an inquiry. PCI’s office secretary, Jitender Singh, and secretary-general, Nadeem Ahmed Kazmi, corroborated the “pre-planned plot to raise anti-national slogans in the PCI and spread hatred in the nation”, as stated in the first information report.
“The police asked me why I did not dial 100 when I saw the poster of Afzal and Maqbool with martyr written on it but frankly it did not occur to me to do so. In fact, there was a poster of Bhagat Singh behind the SHO [Station House Officer] while I was being questioned and I pointed that out.” Bhagat Singh was hanged to death by the British Raj on sedition charges. Another speaker at the event, retired professor Tripta Wahi, was also questioned at the police station for hours but was allowed to go home by 8 p.m. She told Frontline that she was asked what she thought of soldiers dying in Siachen Glacier and that she replied: “Yes, it disturbs me very much. But I get equally disturbed by Pakistani soldiers dying on the border, because both are sons of poor people and victims of wrong policies on both sides. Observing the working condition of the policemen by being present in the police station for several hours I found that they worked over long hours without eating and resting and without going home for days and weeks together. The working conditions of the police need serious consideration/intervention by democratic sections of society.”
Geelani was remanded in judicial custody. A Metropolitan Magistrate of Patiala House courts rejected his bail plea. “Is he being targeted because he is a Kashmiri Muslim?” his brother Syed Bismillah Geelani asked. “Meetings marking Afzal’s hanging have been organised for the past three years now of which he [Geelani] has always been a part. Why this sudden arrest?”
Several commentators maintained that it was not unusual or illegal to question a Supreme Court judgment or capital punishment. From former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to former Delhi High Court Chief Justice and ex-Chairman of the Law Commission A.P. Shah to former Supreme Court judge A.K. Ganguly, a range of legal luminaries have questioned the way Afzal Guru was hanged. Chidambaram said: “I think it is possible to hold an honest opinion that the Afzal Guru case was perhaps not correctly decided.” Justice Shah said: “The hanging of Afzal Guru and of Yakub Memon was politically motivated. There were some grounds for favouring the mercy petition of Yakub Memon. Afzal Guru was let down by the executive.” A.K. Ganguly said: “I am saying as a [former] judge the way the execution took place—his clemency petition was rejected on February 3 and the execution took place on February 9. This is wrong. He had the right to challenge it.”
Geelani’s arrest comes in the wake of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assault on the democratic rights of people across the country using the colonial law of sedition as a political tool against any voice of dissent. Attempts were made to link the event at the PCI with the one in JNU, where six students were charged with sedition, eight students debarred from academics, and several others, including teachers and journalists covering the events, questioned. JNU students Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar were arrested and lodged in Tihar Jail.
Kanhaiya got bail and returned to the campus to lead the JNU struggle from the front. The movement in universities and outside against the BJP’s and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) systematic branding of any opposition to their politics as anti-national has been gaining momentum. The struggle for justice for Rohith Vemula, the Dalit research scholar who committed suicide on the University of Hyderabad campus, reached Delhi and joined hands with the movement in JNU, which extended solidarity to Soni Sori, the Adivasi activist who was attacked in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. In order to discredit all these voices, the BJP-RSS combine cooked up a sinister communal propaganda and polarisation tactic with an eye on the upcoming Assembly elections in key States, political observers said.
Vicious cycle Although rightly seen as an extension of the ongoing intolerance debate in the country, Geelani’s victimisation revolves in a continuous loop and needs to be put in perspective. Geelani migrated to Delhi in the 1990s to complete his studies, leaving the strife-torn Valley and his home in Baramulla. In 1998, he joined Zakir Hussain College (evening) as a lecturer in Arabic. His family joined him subsequently, in search of peace, as violence had become part of daily life in the Valley. But Geelani was picked up on December 14, 2001, in connection with the Parliament House attack case. In a bid to document what followed, Bismillah published a book in 2006 titled Manufacturing Terrorism: Kashmiri Encounters with Media and Law . In it, he says, “Between 16 December and 23 December 2001, the investigating agencies and the media constructed an image of my brother as an archetype Kashmiri terrorist. This is the image that I believe condemned him to death even before the Sessions Court trial began. That is the image that has come to stay, even though the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court have acquitted him.” Bismillah deconstructs the myth-making of his brother as an “intellectual terrorist”. Mainstream newspapers and channels at that time made grave allegations such as “it was established he got calls from militants”, he was a “varsity don who guided fidayeen and provided logistic support”, and “he was a key person in touch with the mastermind”. Bismillah is pained that these defamatory statements were not followed up with an apology after his brother’s acquittal. The journalists who wrote the stories did not make any effort to report the truth about him. “We are not asking for any favours. We just want reporters to do their job properly and professionally. That’s all,” he told Frontline .
When Geelani was picked up by the police in December 2001, newspapers and television channels repeatedly ran stories accusing him of planning the attack. “Today there is complete silence in the media,” Geelani’s daughter, Nusrat, said. Nusrat, her younger brother and her mother were illegally detained at the Special Cell in Delhi soon after Geelani’s arrest in 2001. Growing up in this atmosphere has made her strong. She and her brother have decided to pursue law.
In December 2002, a special Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) court sentenced Geelani to death. “The main piece of evidence against him was a 2.16 minute [136 second] conversation he had with his youngest brother, who had phoned from Baramulla asking for the syllabus and prospectus for the medical exam,” writes Geelani’s lawyer, Nandita Haksar, in the foreword to the book. In December 2003, the High Court acquitted Geelani and Afzal Guru’s wife, Afsan Guru. While the case was pending in the Supreme Court, Geelani filed an affidavit in the High Court in March 2004 stating that he was being shadowed by the police and intelligence agencies ever since his acquittal. He said he feared he might become the victim of a fake encounter as several attempts were made on his life when he was in jail. While his complaint was treated as paranoia, on February 8, 2005, there was an attempt on his life outside Nandita Haksar’s house where five bullets were fired at him. Geelani held the Special Cell directly responsible for the attack, though the latter vehemently denied it. No probe report has to date been released to throw light on the possible assailants.
Even after his acquittal, Geelani was attacked by fringe elements who claimed he was guilty. In 2008, a group of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists, shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram”, damaged property, resorted to violence and spat on Geelani’s face, disrupting a programme on “Communalism, Fascism and Democracy Rhetoric and Reality” in Delhi University.
Despite repeated attempts to discredit him and his politics, Geelani took up issues that do not sit easily with any government of the day. He was vocal on issues concerning human rights abuses faced by Adivasis and Dalits, the situation in the north-eastern region and, of course, Kashmir. As the working president of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), Geelani raised awareness about prisoners in conflict zones. Prof Jagmohan Singh, vice-president of the CRPP and a nephew of Bhagat Singh, told newspersons that Geelani’s detention was on the cards as he was a Kashmiri and a Muslim, both attributes that fit in with the current government’s image of an anti-national.
He said whenever someone put a difficult question to the government, instead of answering it, the person would be arrested and labelled as anti-national.
Events unfolding in Delhi since February 9 are an extension of the intolerance debate in which anybody opposed to the BJP’s idea of India is targeted. But the implicit and dangerous fact is that the K-word is taboo—any attempt to raise the Kashmir issue is not tolerated. Hany Babu, Associate Professor in the English Department in Delhi University, said there was a need to open up debates on contentious issues but the fear of a lynch mob had silenced neutral voices among public intellectuals. “Professors who are speaking up are being branded as anti-national elements on social media. This is absurd. Because it signifies that you can talk about Palestine but not about what is happening in your own country as you will immediately be branded as anti-national.”
Afzal Guru is being used as a bogey not just to oppose any discussion on the Kashmiri people’s right to discuss self-determination but also to restrict their right to self-expression. Recent police actions have been successful in curbing debates around Kashmir, be it relating to human rights abuses, the draconian AFSPA or the future of the Valley, as was evident in Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech after his release in which Kashmir was conspicuously absent.
“The genesis of these arrests and harassment, the February 9 event in JNU, has been lost and silenced for now. While Kashmiri students in the capital live in fear of being picked up or falsely implicated, the other progressive voices are maintaining a safe distance from anything to do with Kashmir in the fear of being further cornered in the nationalism debate,” said an observer.