A 100 ml bottle of hydrogen peroxide and 30 mobile phones and 30 SIM cards from nine persons, were some of the materials seized by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad when they arrested nine Muslim youth from Aurangabad and Mumbra on January 22-23 for their alleged links with the Islamic State. The arrests made front page leads in all but one of the Mumbai editions of national English-language newspapers, with headlines varying from “Daesh plot to poison thousands” (Mumbai Mirror, January 24) to “Police bust plot to poison food, water in Maharashtra” (The Hindu, January 23).

As always the case when terror-accused are arrested, the newspapers carried the police version in full. Apparently, the Anti-Terrorism Squad had been monitoring these nine youths for weeks and had “swooped down on them after they cautioned each other through mobile/online communication to ‘take care’ while handling chemicals” (Mumbai Mirror).

Though reports spoke of “chemicals”, the only chemical named in all of them was hydrogen peroxide, because one 100 ml bottle was labeled so.

Known as a hair bleach and a mouth rinse, hydrogen peroxide was described by the Anti-Terrorism Squad as a chemical “preferred” by the Islamic State to make bombs (DNA, January 24).

Between 2015 and 2017, Europe experienced six bomb blasts in which hydrogen peroxide was indeed used. Three of these explosions were planned by the Islamic State. However, the other chemical used in these blasts was TATP or triacetone triperoxide.

There was no mention of triacetone triperoxide being found in the homes of those arrested in Maharashtra.

The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad linked hydrogen peroxide to the Islamic State. But it seems to have forgotten a much closer link. Earlier this month, the substance was also found in a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh office in Thiruvananthapuram, along with knives and daggers, during a raid carried out by the Kerala police.

The fig leaf of ‘alleged’

The Indian Express of January 24 had the full list of materials seized from the nine men in Maharashtra. These were 10 hard disks (the Mirror report said “hard drives”); “harmful chemical substance”; hand gloves; a box containing nails, drill nails, light holder; weapons (Mirror specified these as “six small knives”); a 500 ml bottle with liquid that smelt like vinegar; a liquid substance smelling like a thinner; a few books and “an Eveready battery cell of 1.5 volts (which ATS said could be used for making of an IED)”.

The Anti-Terrorism Squad concluded that these nine youths were set to mix the chemicals and poison food or water “at big public gatherings”. Holi, a festival of water, was round the corner, noted an Anti-Terrorism Squad official to the Express.

DNA was the only paper that quoted an official as saying it was “too early” to say if these youth were planning something at the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Yet, every newspaper report mentioned the mela as a possible target.

The Express report explained why. It said earlier this month, investigators had been alerted that the Islamic State was planning a chemical attack in the Ganga during the Kumbh Mela.

While every paper parroted the Anti-Terrorism Squad version, the obligatory adjective “alleged” was used in the body of the reports – except in Mumbai Mirror’s second report on January 24. The paper had devoted an entire page to these arrests. The main half-page report had this strapline: “Chemicals in ‘experimental quantities’ seized this week; investigators ascertaining if Kumbh Mela was on the list of targets.”

Abhishek Sharan’s report in Mumbai Mirror, describing the “several incriminating materials” that had been seized, pointed out that hydrogen peroxide was a mild antiseptic. But it immediately added: “It can cause burns in high concentrations and has explosive characteristics.” The Anti-Terrorism Squad, it went on, suspected that the youths had been experimenting with chemicals to make a “potent poisonous mixture”. Then came the punchline: “Among those arrested are a pharmacist and two engineers.”

Mirror’s Sharan was on his own making the same links that the Anti-Terrorism Squad had made. In DNA and Hindustan Times, the agency was quoted as saying that since two of the suspects were chemical engineers and one a pharmacist, obtaining and mixing lethal chemicals was not difficult for them.

Two smaller stories on the same Mumbai Mirror page profiled two of those arrested. One of the headlines said: “Football coach ‘lured youth’ with promises.” However, unlike Abhishek Sharan’s report, these two reports written by Vallabh Ozarkar, were careful to use the word “alleged”. Both also quoted family members defending the arrested men.

The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and DNA carried interviews of the families of the arrested youth on the inside pages. However, DNA carried a small box within the main story on the front page, as a window to the families’ version inside.

The Times of India stood out by its unique coverage. On January 23, it had a one-paragraph report on page one, with a longer report inside. The next day, it carried a short, bland report on page 6.

Stenographers, not journalists

There is nothing new in this kind of coverage of terror arrests: be it the accusatory headlines, the stenographer-like faithful reporting of the police version, or the positioning of the reports of the arrests and the families’ interviews.

That is what is worrying.

Journalists know that most of the Muslim youth imprisoned on terror charges since 2000 have been acquitted because the prosecution could not substantiate its accusations. They also know that these Muslims have found it impossible to shed the stigma of having been jailed for terrorist acts, partly because of the way the media has covered their arrests.

The Mumbai press knows that the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested the wrong persons in two high-profile terror acts: the 2006 Malegaon blasts and the 2010 Pune German Bakery blast. If not the entire press, at least reporters on this beat must know that the Anti-Terrorism Squad has been either warning about terror attacks, or actually arresting Muslims for possible terror attacks, before every Republic Day since 2016.

Despite all this, the press has not shown the least bit of scepticism whenever any new arrest takes place.

The Mumbai press has given wide publicity to the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad’s campaign to prevent “radicalisation” of Muslim youth. Yet, it was left to the mother of one of those arrested to ask why the agency had kept quiet after monitoring her son for weeks. “Why didn’t it attempt to de-radicalise him?” she asked in the Mumbai Mirror.

Covering Hindu terror

Here, one must point out that on the few occasions when Hindus have been arrested for terrorist acts, newspapers have followed the same pattern – parrot the police version on the front page, relegate the family’s version inside. However, there are major differences between the two.

Rarely have these Hindus been described as terrorists in either headlines or text in the initial reports; “right wing extremists” has been the preferred term (as if Muslim terrorists are “left wing”). Second, some of these Hindus have had powerful politicians speaking up for them, and the pronouncements of these politicians have made front-page news. Finally, when discharged, acquitted or even just released on bail, the most prominent Hindu accused have been glorified not just by parties backing them but also by sections of the media.

The English press seems to have made its choice. By continuing with the same formula of reporting arrests of Muslims accused of terror, it shows it does not care about losing credibility among the country’s largest minority, at least when it concerns the crucial issue of terrorism.