The National Investigation Agency’s U-turn on the 2008 Malegaon blast case has perversely created propitious circumstances for establishing a truly independent committee to probe the methods employed to solve the terror cases in the past. Such a scrutiny should go back at least 15 years and include cases regardless of their eventual judicial fate.
This is because the NIA’s U-turn tacitly accuses the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorist Squad of extracting confessions from the accused to chargesheet them in the 2008 blast. It’s a different matter altogether that an opening was initially made in that terror case because the ATS traced the ownership of the motorcycle used for the bombing to Sadhvi Pragya Thakur.
Earlier, it was the liberals who accused the Maharashtra ATS, as also such agencies in other states and at the Centre, of brutalising Muslims to own up to crimes they hadn’t committed. The Hindu Right would deride the liberals for showing sympathy for these Muslims at the expense of the state.
The situation has now reversed – it is the Hindu Right which is now jubilant at the NIA’s decision to drop charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act against the accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. The number of accused has also been reduced from 16 to 10.
The liberals now accuse the NIA of having taken such a step under the Modi government’s direction.
Today, the NIA’s cheerleaders claim the Hindu radicals were implicated in what are called Saffron Terror cases because of the confessions they were compelled to make. Yet, the same cheerleaders had been mulishly disbelieving of the accused Muslims when the liberals claimed they had been falsely implicated in terror cases.
For instance, an accused in the earlier 2006 Malegaon case, Shabbir Masiullah, was in police custody on the day the bombings took place. Another was leading a Friday prayer 400 kms away on that day; a witness filed an affidavit to declare that he had been compelled to testify to having watched the making of bombs.
The 2006 Malegaon case took an unexpected turn, as is now well known, because of Swami Aseemanand’s confession in December 2010. He confessed to the involvement of four Hindu radicals in the 2006 bombings. In April 2016, the eight Muslims accused (the ninth died during the trial) in the case were discharged.
Obviously, the Hindu Right believes Aseemanand was compelled to give a false statement. Having presumably acquired wisdom about the myth of the state’s impartiality, perhaps it is time for the more sensible elements among the Hindu Right to read Manisha Sethi’s Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India.
Accessing court records, inquiry reports and interviews with the accused or their families, Sethi has pieced together a frightening, shameful story of the methods security agencies employ to foist false terror charges on innocent Muslims.
The details of some of the cases below have been culled from Kafkaland.
Cases from Kafkaland
In September last year, a special MCOCA court convicted 12 people in the 2006 Mumbai train bombings – five were sentenced to death, the remaining to life imprisonment. In other words, the evidence against the 12 was deemed legally sustainable.
But it is also true that numbing stories of torture in custody constitute a parallel narrative in the 2006 Mumbai train bombings. One of the accused, Ehtesham Qutub, wrote a letter from prison to the editor of Milli Gazette, detailing the “farce of nacro analysis” conducted on him by one Dr Malini on September 26 in Bengaluru.
Forget the legal tenability of nacro-analysis, Qutub and others were shocked to discover that the recordings of their question-answer session, after they had been pumped with the “truth serum”, were altered to implicate them in the bombings. Here is an example:
Q: How many bombs were planted?
The original question had been:
Q: What comes after six?
Another accused, Naveed Khan, claimed Dr Malini would twist his ears with pliers as he lay drugged, compelling him to incriminate himself. Sure, such accusations can be considered typical of those accused of terror attacks. However, Dr Malini’s terror tactics were also underscored by Arun Ferreira after he was acquitted of the charge of being a Naxalite.
Then again, after the accused in the train bombings withdrew their confessions, they were brutally assaulted in the Mumbai Central Prison. A judicial inquiry report indicted jail officials and doctors of government hospitals for their role in it.
Both Qutub and Naveed were sentenced to death last year.
Now for cases which didn’t grab the nation’s attention as the Malegaon and Mumbai train blasts did.
In February 2006, Mohammed Qamar and Irshad Ali were arrested as they alighted from a Kashmir Roadways bus on the Delhi border. The media were told that they were Al Badar terrorists. In reality, though, they were informers of the Intelligence Bureau, which was miffed with them because they had refused to infiltrate a Kashmiri militant group.
The court exonerated Qamar and Ali because their telephone records showed they had been in constant touch with IB officials. Also because the bus tickets on which they purportedly travelled was not of the day on which they had been arrested.
When a web of lies is woven to implicate the innocent, slip-ups are bound to happen. On the evening of December 10, 2006, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell claimed they had nabbed dreaded terrorists, Gulzar Ahmad Ganai and Mohd Amin Hajam, as they were disembarking at Mahipalpur from a bus plying Route 729. The driver and conductor of the bus, however, told the court that they hadn’t taken the route on the evening of their arrest.
In July 2005, the Delhi Police convened a press conference to present four, including two Kashmiri businessmen – Moinuddin Dar and Bashir Ahmed Shah – as dreaded terrorists who were arrested on National Highway 8. A large haul of arms and ammunition was seized from them, also a combat Army uniform. The police tracked the uniform to a tailor in Gopinath Bazar in the Delhi Cantonment.
The case was exposed as a fraud because the tailor turned out to be a stock witness in several terror cases. He confessed that deposition as prosecution’s witness was his way of paying hafta or weekly bribe to the police for plying his business from the pavement.
Worse, the sequence of events did not mention the press conference in which the alleged terrorists were presented. When quizzed about it, the police denied the press conference had ever happened. However, the defence furnished as evidence a picture of it, published in a Hindi newspaper.
Dar and Shah had been penalised for their temerity in turning down an Army major’s demand to organise the surrender of Kashmiri militants so that he could be monetarily awarded.
But it isn’t only Kashmiris who are branded as terrorists. In 2005, after a fierce encounter in Uttam Nagar, Delhi, the Special Cell claimed to have nabbed four Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militants who were planning to attack the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun.
One of the accused was Iftikhar, a biotech student in Dehradun, from whose residence was recovered a pass to watch the Indian Military Academy parade, a diary containing inflammatory verses from the Quran and a note declaring he wished to avenge the 2002 Gujarat riots.
However, the pass was for a parade which had taken place five months before he had been nabbed. The Special Cell couldn’t tell who among its personnel had searched Iftikhar in Dehradun, nor whether the revenge note had been in Hindi or English. The Quranic verses weren’t provocative. The court declared that Iftikhar had been compelled to write the revenge note.
Now turn to Uttar Pradesh, where on 23 November 2007 serial blasts rocked courts in Faizabad, Barabanki and Lucknow. On December 12, Tariq, a traditional medical practitioner in Azamgarh, was abducted on his way to a religious gathering organised by Tablighi Jamat. His family filed a missing persons report; the locals organised protests.
On December 22, Tariq was shown to have been arrested from the Barabanki railway station. He and another person were said to have been carrying a bag full of explosives. The other person was Khalid Mujahid, a teacher at a madrassa in Jaunpur. On December 16, witnesses had seen him getting pushed into a vehicle at gunpoint.
The furore over their arrests prompted the then Mayawati government to institute an inquiry panel by Justice RD Nimesh. After four years, the panel held that Tariq and Mujahid had been abducted by the Special Task Force and couldn’t have been involved in the Barabanki incident. In 2013, Mujahid died of “sudden medical complications,” the police said.
These few stories are not the most horrific examples taken from Sethi’s Kafkaland, largely because this narrative would have been too lengthy and complicated. The more chilling stories are from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad.
But even the cases described here underline the necessity of having an independent committee sift the truth from falsehood in the past terror cases that were deemed to have been solved.
It is only through such a mechanism that we can recover our humanity, which, needless to say, transcends the Right and Left of Indian politics.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.