Guilty until proven innocent By Praful Bidwai — FRONTLINE, INDIA

Volume 25 – Issue 21 :: Oct. 11-24, 2008
from the publishers of THE HINDU


Guilty until proven innocent




India’s counter-terrorism strategy, which has become deeply communalised and duplicitous, will only strengthen terrorism’s sources and roots.




EVEN before Delhi witnessed the September 13 bomb blasts, on top of terrorist attacks targeting innocent civilians in Varanasi, Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, it could be predicted that the government would respond to any fresh explosions by adopting a macho stance relying on excessive force.

The United Progressive Alliance had long been put on the defensive by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hysterical campaign, which accused it of appeasing Muslims and lacking the will to combat terrorism.

Home Minister Shivraj V. Patil, widely slammed for ineptitude and threatened with a loss of portfolio, was under pressure to flex his muscles. Administrative Reforms Commission Chairperson M. Veerappa Moily recommended a “tough new anti-terrorist law”, in line with the BJP’s demand for a version of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, including preventive detention and admissibility of confessions to the police as evidence. This was made public after September 13.

The government’s response was indeed sharp and brutal. On September 19, in a daylight “encounter”, the Delhi Police’s anti-terrorist Special Cell gunned down two alleged terrorists, Mohammed Atif Ameen and Mohammed Sajid, in the Batla House area of Delhi’s Jamia Nagar. The police said one more terrorist was arrested, but two others managed to escape. This “encounter” was said to have been personally supervised by Shivraj Patil.

The killings followed a pattern similar to the Ansal Plaza shootout and other encounters attributed to Rajbir Singh, who became notorious for corruption and extortion, and who was gorily killed. It would have been widely perceived as the state’s “answer” to September 13 and provoked an overwhelmingly sceptical public response but for the fact that Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma was killed. But such a response is now building up as more and more inconsistencies and flaws become apparent in the official version.

Indeed, there is more than one official version. The Delhi Police say Atif Ameen was the top leader of Indian Mujahideen (I.M.), which was behind all the major, recent terrorist bombings. But the Mumbai Police have claimed a “breakthrough” and said that the real “mastermind” behind recent attacks, including September 13, is Mohammad Sadiq Shaikh, who was arrested with four associates. Yet, the “breakthrough” casts doubt over the Mumbai Police’s claims in respect of the culprits of the 7/11 train bombings for which they have been arrested and several other people charged for.

Contrary to the Delhi version, the police in Varanasi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad say the people responsible for the recent attacks in those places were Waliullah, Shahbaz Hussain, and Abu Bashar and Abdul Subhan Qureshi alias Tauqeer respectively. Tauqeer was recently publicised by Central intelligence agencies as the “I.M. mastermind”.

The police also say Atif Ameen had an alias, Bashir. But Atif Ameen’s family and friends totally deny this. This raises the possibility that the police may have mixed up Atif Ameen’s identity. The Delhi Police say that Atif Ameen led a shadowy existence and stashed away Rs.3 crore in Union Bank in Azamgarh just before the Delhi blasts. But media inquiries say he had Rs.1,400 in his account, which had not been operated since July. Atif Ameen recently rented an apartment in building L-18 at Batla House. He registered the rent deed and got himself duly verified by the police.

It stretches credulity that a “terrorist mastermind” would practise such openness and transparency – especially because the police had been stalking the area for almost a week earlier. The police accuse Atif Ameen’s associate, Saquib Nissar, of planting bombs in Ahmedabad on July 26. But records show that Nissar took MBA examinations in Delhi from July 22 to 28.

Several eyewitness accounts of the “encounter” report an altercation when the police entered the fourth floor apartment where Atif Ameen and Nissar lived. The police dragged the two unarmed men down to the ground, where heavily armed Special Cell police personnel, including Mohan Chand Sharma, were present. The police beat them up severely after cordoning off the area. In the ensuing resistance and scuffle, a policeman’s gun went off and bullets hit Sharma.

Then, the police apparently went berserk and fired at Atif Ameen and Nissar from point-blank range. A picture of Nissar taken just before he was buried shows one large bullet wound each in the shoulder and the chest, and at least four bullet holes in the front portion of the skull. Even one bullet fired into the head would have proved fatal. But the assailant pumped more, presumably out of vengeance.

Post-mortem reports


Post-mortem reports of Sharma, obtained by the news channel Headlines Today, contradict the claim of a straightforward “encounter” in which bullets were pumped into his chest and abdomen by Atif Ameen/Nissar as soon as he entered their apartment. The bullets apparently hit Sharma from the back, and exited from the front/side. There are contradictory reports on the number of bullets that hit Sharma.

Besides, the police have not sent them for forensic examination. The police claim that two terrorists escaped. But that is incredible given the single exit/entry point at L-18.

Six points follow. First, only a ruthlessly independent, scrupulously objective inquiry can establish the truth or falseness of the police version(s). Such is the recent record of police sloppiness and disingenuousness in investigating/fighting terrorism that no discerning members of the public can believe them.

Second, this crisis of credibility has been aggravated in the recent past by the indulgent manner in which Hindutva extremists from the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Shiv Sena have been treated by the police and national security authorities. As the anti-Christian attacks in Orissa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh show, the sustained campaign of arson, rape and killing would not have been possible without state complicity.

Those guilty of provoking and committing violence against religious minorities are rarely identified and arrested, let alone punished, in India. By contrast, many merely suspected of involvement in or abetting terrorism are routinely harassed, insulted, illegally detained, tortured and even executed.

Third, appalling as these double standards are, they acquire even greater perversity when we recognise that the Indian state has come to view terrorism through an anti-minority, specifically anti-Muslim, prism. Indeed, its characterisation of the agency of terrorism has long involved stereotyping and ethnic-religious profiling.

This became stark in a particularly repulsive manner on September 22, when the media all over India carried pictures of three alleged “terrorists”, all wearing a keffiyeh, the scarf or headgear associated with Arab men, rather than the black cloth with which the police usually allow detainees to cover their faces.

The three were made to use that headgear by the Delhi Police, who confessed to having bought the material “in bulk” to put suspected “terrorists” on display. Involved here is an equation between the terrorist and the Muslim, and also the stereotyping of the latter as someone linked to an international terrorist network, dominated by fanatical Arabs of the Osama bin Laden variety.

Nothing could have been more criminally deplorable for an official agency to do than to vilify and demonise a particular community. The depiction has deeply offended Muslims and strengthened prejudices against them, which are being cynically exploited by Hindutva forces to deepen social divisions and promote hate-based politics.

Fourth, this makes it imperative that those responsible for such profiling are identified and punished – however high they might be in the hierarchy. In particular, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan must be held to account.

Fifth, we must acknowledge after the latest encounter and the exposure of corruption, outright criminality and extortionate practices in various exclusive anti-terrorism units – such as Delhi’s Special Cell, Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, Special Task Forces, and so on in different States – that these units have become unmanageable and heavy liabilities for the public.

Not only are they unaccountable to the police brass and the Home Ministry, they have vast sums of money, which they invariably abuse while committing human rights violations, including non-judicial executions.

Finally, the time has come for us to prevent, delegitimise and punish practices such as social and commercial boycott of beleaguered minority communities. After the Batla House “encounter”, even mobile telephone companies are refusing to send bill collectors to the area, and pizza makers no longer deliver there because of the malicious stories planted by the police about the locality’s “character”.

This further victimises an already ghettoised community, which has been systematically deprived of access to basic municipal facilities, including piped drinking water and ration shops for decades.

Such discrimination is simply unacceptable. It will breed further discontent and resentment and expand the cesspools of grievance and unredressed injustices that feed terrorism. We cannot afford this if we want India to aspire to be a civilised country with a modicum of social cohesion, tolerance and respect for human rights. •

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