Conspiracy cases always make for multiple narratives and the so-called Hubli conspiracy case typifies this axiom. After seven long years, the case was thrown out last month by a trial court in Hubli and all the 17 accused were acquitted.

The 17 accused Muslim youths are a motley group of doctors, medical students, electricians, engineering students, auto drivers, workers of multinational corporations and alleged “top SIMI leaders” of varying ages. They were accused of being part of a hit squad of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India and arrested for allegedly planning a series of terror strikes across the nerve centres of Karnataka, including the Kaiga Nuclear plant, the Hubli airport, and “offices of major companies like Infosys, Dell, and IBM”.

The crime was of the highest order and so were the charges – under Sections 120B, 121, 121A, 122, 124A, 153A(1AB), 153B(1A) of the Indian Penal Code; Sections 10, 11, 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Among other things, the youths were accused of waging a war against the state.

Communal witch-hunt

Now that the court has thrown out the case, it is possible to speak of some facts which were hitherto impossible to narrate, and hear some voices which, till now, were lost in the incredible cacophony of “national security” and “terrorism”. They sum up to this: the case from the very beginning was a communal witch-hunt, which was carried out right before the Assembly election of 2008 in Karnataka.

The mainstream reporting of “seven long years of the trial”, and “big setback to the police”, conveys an entirely misleading picture. It wasn’t, to use someone else’s phrase, “a bumbling policeman, reminiscent almost of Jacques Clouseau, tripping over reams and strings of evidences, in an impossible attempt to build a watertight case against the villains”. Nor was it a case of the benefit of the doubt because of the incredibly high standards of courts.

No. That image is a smokescreen for the inordinate delays that were introduced into the trial – never allowing it to start, leading to seven years of incarceration – all without evidence.

The charges took a long time framing, the public prosecutor was not available and was frequently changed, judges retired or were frequently transferred, and most of all – the state of Gujarat refused to let the accused appear for trial.

In many ways, the case represents almost all the processes that make up terror trials in the country. The accused were arrested and “webbed” in several cases after the initial one and were taken to police stations and prisons across the country, consistently delaying trials.

In the Hubli conspiracy case, the trial got shelved for almost a year when the Gujarat government refused to let them out of Sabarmati Jail. It did so by issuing a notification on October 27, 2009, under section 268 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which restricted the removal of terror suspects from the prison in Gujarat. After that pause of one year, pressure mounted from the defence and the trial took place via video conferencing. Eventually, that broke down too. By 2013 only 130 of the 363 witnesses were examined.

The case of Sadiq Sameer

Let’s look at the case of Sadiq Sameer, which lays bare the nature of evidence in the case. The only accused to get bail in the case, he applied for bail in 2008 on grounds that there was no evidence. It was refused on claims by the prosecution that the hard disk recovered from him had a manual of bomb making and that it had been sent to the Forensic Labs in Hyderabad for examination. In 2010, Sadiq applied for bail again as the police was unable to submit any report to the court. The High Court rejected it again directing the session court to complete the trial at the earliest. The Supreme Court granted bail to Sadiq in 2011 as the prosecution was not able to produce any evidence.

Following Sadiq’s example many other accused applied for bail. All of them were rejected. By 2013 there were seven orders by the higher courts directing the sessions court to take up the trial on a day-to-day basis – one each after every bail application was rejected, and which attempted to point out that the trial was not proceeding in spite of such orders.

However, if the case was false, how did such a diverse group end up being charged?

The other story

In 2008, the Assembly elections in Karnataka were scheduled for the month of May. Between January and May, more than 30 young men were arrested from various districts of Karnataka for alleged terror-related activities. For the first time, those who were arrested were educated men – doctors, engineers and those who worked in multinational corporations. Which is why the quashing of this case is extremely significant: this case, back then, had signalled the new face of Muslim terrorism in India. The suave, educated terrorist. All those who were arrested were later filed into two different cases, the so-called Hubli and Belgaum conspiracies.

The first to be arrested were four doctors from the Karnataka Institute of Medical Science, Hubli. All of them were arrested the night before their final-year exams. Qutabuddin, the father of one of the accused, Dr Munroz, pointed out:
“In the Ramadan of 2007, some students in the hostel of KIMS, Hibli, including the 4 who were arrested used to gather in Md Asif’s room for the start and breaking of the fast (sehri and Iftar), accompanied by prayer. Their collective prayer session during Ramadan aroused the suspicion of fellow students of other communities. Hindu boys took objection to it, calling it a fanatical activity, though the prayers were being conducted quietly. This led to fights between 2 student groups. When a Muslim student filed a complaint against his attackers, his complaint was not registered by the police. The other students who were from ABVP were outraged that a Muslim had dared to complain against them. There were also complaints that Muslim students were assembling in the evening after fasting during Ramadan when they would invite non-Muslims for these meetings. This further aroused the suspicions of ABVP supporters. They got the support of the police who raided students' hostels in Hubli and Honnali. It was election time and hence a good opportunity to highlight the issue. 18 Muslim students were charged with having 'jehadi' literature (which in fact were copies of the Koran).”

Apart from the arrest of the doctors, throughout the months of January-May 2008, arrests were made every 10 days. On January 28, Riazuddin Nasir, the son of Maulana Naseeruddin, was arrested. Maulana Naseeruddin, a cleric from Hyderabad, has been at the centre of the state’s narrative of Muslims conspiring to overthrow the government. Accused in over a dozen cases, Naseeruddin has been acquitted of all after almost two decades in prison. During this time, all his four sons and his wife have been imprisoned on some charge or the other. Meanwhile, Riazuddin Nasir was picked up from Honnali, where he was staying as a student.

Two weeks after the arrest of Nasir, the police picked up Shakeel from Dharwad for alleged SIMI links. After another 10 days, Yahya Kammakuty was arrested from Bangalore. The police also claimed that four others had escaped. After another five days, Sadiq Sameer was arrested. Sadiq, who was earlier arrested in 2004 by the Gujarat police for alleged SIMI links, was reporting every week to the local police station at the time of arrest.

Apart from the above arrests in Karnataka, nine out of the 18 accused in the so-called Hubli conspiracy are those who were arrested in Madhya Pradesh (one absconding accused named in the First Information Report was not named in the charge-sheet). The Hubli conspiracy is part of a “webbing” of terror cases that extended in an outward spiral from the arrests in Preetampur in Madhya Pradesh.

Likewise, the so-called Belgaum conspiracy case was against 11, in which one accused is from 13 people arrested in Madhya Pradesh, and another one from the Hubli conspiracy case, along with three of those who were wrongly arrested for the Hubli court blast, while the rest were new.

Two of the primary cases that have constituted this outward spiral have now proved to be false. The Belgaum conspiracy too proved false: None of panchas as well as witnesses supported the prosecution’s case. The prosecution was unable to prove that any of the recovered items – elements to make a bomb – or hard disks with incriminating material actually belonged to the accused. The trial was completed in a record time of 1.5 years – because of the insistence of Justice Balakrishna who conducted the trial on a day to day basis – and all 11 accused were acquitted in 2011.

In a rare moment in the controversial history of terror trials across the last decade, there is evidence that these cases were not based on facts, but on something else altogether. It is called the “Domino effect”: two days after 13 alleged SIMI leaders were arrested on March 27, 2008, the Senior Superintendent of Police, Dhar, in Madhya Pradesh shot off letters to various districts of the state, asking for registration of similar cases.

The letters set off an outward spiral. Eighteen cases were registered within one month and another four over the next six months in various states. Some of these cases, made an explicit reference to this letter, and in fact, investigating officer BPS Parihar produced 18 of these letters in the SIMI Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act tribunal. The Hubli and Belgaum conspiracy cases are two of them.

The question that needs to be asked is this: if it wasn’t facts, what was it that motivated the letter right before the assembly election in the region?