Guest Post by Sharib Ali
There is something disquieting in what Ashish Khetan has written and said recently on terror in India (in The Hindu and on Tehelka.tv), and centrally within it, the Indian Mujahideen. More so, because it comes from one of the most credible journalist’s today, who has done some commendable work over the years. A journalist I personally respect. But there are several reasons which compel this response. And yet, this is not just a response, but also an attempt to elucidate the many complex processes within which ‘terror’ is located today, and the way the discourse has transformed, and has implications for a people’s negotiated relationship with their state.
Over the last one year, through Gulail.com, Ashish Khetan has exposed several cases which have been fabricated against individuals and groups, all of them Muslims. This expose, through the revelation of classified Interrogation Reports in the public realm- using the police’s own documents to challenge their own story- has been, till now, the most brilliant and effective way to challenge the cases, which many, suspected to be fabricated from the very start. And this expose was, and remains, a brave and mammoth task requiring extensive contacts, sources, and credibility, as anyone working in the fiercely guarded territories of national security and ‘terror’ would know.
It is this body of work that constitutes the historical background and legitimating authority of his recent op-ed in The Hindu on terror in India, and forms its silent and silencing basis. And yet, the work itself is neither the point of the article, nor forms the basis of what Mr. Khetan is trying to say, while the article exists primarily in the realm of speculation and an authoritative khutba meant for the country’s muslims. The larger argument in the opinion piece- the first one in which Mr. Khetan has made sense of his one year long research on terror cases in India- is not based on facts, beyond the jurisdiction of journalistic inquiry, unwarranted, un-necessary, laced with presumptions, and even possibly incorrect. But what makes it dangerous, so much so that the article seemingly overturns the very idea that Mr. Khetan has been challenging in the past, is the way it is implicated, and plays to, an extremely communal politics and narrative within which terror today has been a central rallying point. The ideological framework within which the fabricated terror cases have been expounded- neither supported by facts, nor seeking in any way to serve the struggle for human rights of the citizen-, sits comfortably with particular political agendas today. Let’s take it piece by piece.
I am compelled to state that I do not write here as a Muslim. I am neither trying to contest a narrative of terror that has been associated with Muslims, nor am I speaking from the location of a Muslim in whatever else I am trying to say. I write here, today, as a citizen contesting and challenging the infringement of human rights of its citizens by the state- whether minorities or tribals, or any of those peoples, communities, religious groups who have been expendable in the state’s slow and gradual weakening of democratic institutions. All in a political game of power and control over peoples and dissent.
Mr. Khetan’s central argument is this: the Indian Mujahideen is a reality, a terrible spectre responsible for many of the blasts that have taken place in the last decade, and that Muslims should come to terms with it, develop a political understanding, move out of narrow narratives of victimization, stop defending all and any who have been accused of terrorism, and demand that all should be brought to justice- including the IM who are Muslims. Tactfully arranged within it is a secondary argument: that before the IM was busted in 2008, many innocent Muslims were wrongly prosecuted- as he has shown- and that the police and the judiciary has been complicit in producing and convicting them, making a mockery of the criminal justice system.
The stakes are high. To claim that the IM exists and that it is responsible for the many bomb blasts has huge implications, something that will be discussed later. But it is a claim that cannot be lightly made. What proof is offered behind the claim? None. Only Mr. Khetan’s own reading and privileged access to Interrogation Reports(IR), none of which he deigns to share with his readers . Ironically, the only Interrogation Reports that have been revealed are those which have helped prove that the cases against some have been fabricated. It is based on this credibility that Mr Khetan argues that the Interrogation reports reveal a sinister reality of the IM that we as a people, or rather, muslims, have to come to terms with. But there appears to be a misplaced sense of value put on the Interrogation Reports’, as well as limited understanding of how they can help prove that the accused in the 7/11 blast, or the others that Mr Khetan has revealed, were innocent.
There are three questions that need to be asked here:
- Whether such a claim can be made based on IRs
- Mr Khetan’s authority or legitimacy to make such a claim
- The possible, factual incorrectness of the claim (though, as the article will show, the correctness or incorrectness, factual or otherwise, is besides the point at the moment)
The IRs are classified documents and are not meant to be shared publicly. They are prepared by the police for their own use. Though, that in no way raises its credibility, it does make them crucial if these internal reports stand in stark contradiction to another official case made by the same agency on the same matter. At the same time, IRs in themselves are of no evidentiary value in any court of law, nor do they have any inherent truth value as they could be lacking in any material basis as the information obtained by the police could be through the use of third degree and the person may be compelled to state what the agency wants to hear rather than the truth. Even in the realm of the commonsensical, the IRs are just that- reports prepared by the police of a suspect’s interrogation, with no value whatsoever but as investigative leads. Since Mr. Khetan does not reveal the source and content of these IRs, one has to largely and only accept his word about there being anything in the IR’s about the IM, if at all.
However, it is inconsequetial if there is anything in the IR’s about the IM or not. The credibility of the previous work by Mr. Khetan, stems not from any inherent truth value of the IR’s, but from something entirely different- the fact that these reports, prepared by the police themselves, were contradictory to the official case. And hence, a crucial part of the defence case against the official prosecution. The plea for the innocence of those prosecuted by the revelation of the IRs, has nothing to do with whether the IRs are true or not, but rests on contradictory evidence being available and the conscious and deliberate suppression of the same by the police. To put it simply while it is the job of the court to weigh the evidence and make a value judgment as to the truth or otherwise of the prosecution’s case, the prosecution itself cannot act knowing that its case is false. In these cases, the IRs revealed that not only did the prosecution itself not believe in its own case, it infact had reason to believe that it was false. The good faith of the prosecution was hence absent and the prosecution was proved to have acted in bad faith. The IRs, in themselves are in no way any proof of the guilt of Sadiq sheikh or any others who have been clubbed together with the overarching term of the Indian Mujahideen. It would be enlightening to look at what Justice A.M Thipsey of the Bombay High Court who dealt with this issue in the 7/11 case had to say regarding this very point.
Much before the revelation by Mr. Khetan, the defence council of the 13 accused in the 7/11 train blast case wanted to tender as part of the evidence the confession of Sadiq Sheikh who claimed to have done the blast. The prosecution objected to the confession being tendered as evidence in this case by arguing, among other things, that the confession if admitted here would be:
“inconsistent with the guilt of the accused in this case…[and that ]it would prejudice the accused in that case(Crime Branch IM case- MCOCA Special case no.4 of 2009) and would not afford them the chance.” (Pg 37.)
The trial Court accepted the prosecution’s argument. When the defense took it to the High court, Justice A.M. Thipsey setting aside the order explicitly pointed out:
“ It is not possible to accept the view of the learned judge. In the first place, the appellants had not claimed- and could not have claimed that the confessions of those accused ‘were true’. They were not expecting to ‘prove’ those confessions against those accused. What they were saying is that someone else has confessed of having committed the offense with which they are charged…and it is the court that decides whether the fact of a confession having been made is true and also whether the facts stated in the confession are true. Confessions are treated as circumstantial evidence of the truth of the facts stated therein and it is the court that decides whether the facts stated in a confession are to be believed or not in a given case. It is a matter of evaluation of evidence to be done by the court after it is tendered.”(Pg 26,29)
It is important to note that a confession is immeasurably more valuable when compared to an Interrogation report. It can be tendered as evidence in court. Despite this, as the High court points out and rightly so, that even then there is no presumption to their inherent truth value, and, it is the job of the court of law to evaluate if they do and can be believed and relief upon. For, the court remains the final arbitrator of guilt or innocence.
How is it possible, then, to proclaim the guilt of the IM based on Interrogation reports, even when the cases of Sadiq Sheikh and the rest, under the rubric of the IM, are still sub-judice? Can a claim be made even on the basis of certain facts which journalistic research might have brought to light, when those facts are yet to be tested in court?
Mr Khetan offers us neither proofs nor explanations. What is offered instead is a narrative of how 5 people- Sadiq Sheikh, Mujahid Saleem, Asif and Amir Reza Khan, and Riaz Bhatkal- fired by ideas of Jihad and retributive justice, bankrolled by forces across the border, went about bombing places one after the other.
The preposterousness of the claim, in the sheer absence of any proof offered, even when all these cases are sub-judice, do not warrant a rebuttal. If anything, it warrants the forceful disciplining of the clause of ‘contempt of court’- for the sheer damage that the claim could possible wreck for all the cases that are presently under trial at a time when the ‘collective conscience of the people’ has assumed legal weight.
And yet, as the narrative has been expounded by Mr. Khetan, I shall take it seriously within the bounds of this article, as, unfortunately the entire fabric of the discourse of terror has been created by such unsubstantiated and baseless allegations. Allegations which have assumed the status of commonsense- and through repetition- gained legitimacy and have become the “truth”. And it needs to be said that this narrative is thoroughly contested- factually.
For the last one year, as a Research Fellow at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I have been researching on terror cases across the 4 cities- Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata. Over this period, I have gone through all relevant documents- legal and otherwise-, met lawyers (both prosecution and defense) as well as accused and their families, of almost all the cases of bomb blasts and attacks in these four cities. This research has encompassed the criminal and social history of two of the 5 people that Mr. Khetan authoritatively mentions as the original member who started the Indian Mujahideen- Mujahid Saleem, and Asif Reza Khan. And the picture that emerges is completely different from what Mr Khetan has attributed to them without proofs or explanations.
Mujahid Saleem: A study of the 4 bomb blast cases of Hyderabad (forthcoming in EPW), as well as my meeting with the lawyer associated with his encounter case, his friends, as well as his father Aleem Islahi (whose provocative writing on Jihad and Babri Masjid is the sudden and only explanation offered by Mr. Khetan of Mujahid’s crime) makes a story worth telling.
But, it is Maulana Naseeruddin, a cleric who has been a friend of Aleem Islahi as well as his son, whose story of prosecution is directly linked to that of Mujahid. The families of both Maulana Naseeruddin and Aleem Islahi live next to each other in Saidabad- a densely populated Muslim pocket of Hyderabad. Maulana Naseeruddin was first arrested in 1992 when he organized public prayer for the ‘martyrship’ of the Babri Masjid. He was arrested along with 62 other young men under TADA. Since then Maulana Naseeruddin has been accused in several cases of terror in Hyderabad, including the famous case of the murder of the Haren Pandya. Last year Maulana Naseeruddin, after spending almost 2 decades in prison, was acquitted of all charges in all the cases. A minor case is still pending against him. In 2004, when Naseerudin was first accused in the Haren Pandya murder case, there were protests and people had gathered when the Gujarat contingent came to arrest him. The Gujarat contingent was led by IPS officer Narendra Amin who is presently an accused in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case. Mujahid Saleem, then a 20 year old boy, was standing the closest to Naseeruddin, protesting with the others. He was shot at point blank range by Narendra Amin. At the time of his death, there was not a single case against him.
Md Rayeesuddin, a friend of Mujahid, was also there that day. He is the prime witness in the case of encounter against Narendra Amin. The case is presently lying dormant. Since the time time Md Rayeesuddin listed as a witness, he has been arrested and interrogated, in every single case of bomb blast in Hyderabad. He was Accused no 16 in the case no 198/2007, one of the 4 Mecca Masjid Blast cases. In that case, his name was included in the chargesheet after he refused to step down as a witness. Even after receiving compensation for the false framing, he has been picked up and tortured after the recent 2013 Dilsukhnagar blast. Ironically, previously listed in the chargesheet as a member of Huji, Rayeesuddin was picked up and interrogated even as the police claimed that it was the Indian Mujahideen. He still refuses to step down as a witness in the day-light encounter of his friend Mujahid Saleem.
Aleem Islahi: The mere holding of an opinion, irrespective of its nature, does not constitute crime, unless an overtly violent act has been done. Though it is difficult to understand the link with the opinions of Aleem Islahi with the guilt of his son Mujahid, it remains a fact that Aleem Islahi has not been accused in a single case of crime or terror in Hyderabad. His name was in the FIR in case no 198/ 2007, it was however not included in the chargesheet.
Asif Reza Khan: Asif Reza Khan, a resident of Kolkata, was 22 years old when he was first arrested in 1994 under TADA. A student at Aligarh Muslim University then, Asif had just finished his graduation from the well known Maulana Azad College in Calcutta. At AMU, Asif had Kashmiri friends with whom he lived in the hostel. The arrest was among the hundreds of arrests of Muslims across the country for alleged ‘Jihadi’ links and disruptive activities pertaining to Kashmir. Also arrested under TADA at the same time was ShahidAzmi- the lawyer who was later killed defending those who were falsely accused in terror cases.
Asif Reza and Shahid Azmi spent 5 years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Released in 1999, after the Supreme Court acquitted them of all charges, both Asif and Shahid, like most others who were released, were re-arrested in several cases, especially in the many hi-profile cases of kidnapping of businessman in the country. After their release, all three of them- Shahid and Asif and Aftab- were accused in the kidnapping of Partha Roy Burman, the ‘Khadim’s’ shoe baron from Kolkata. Shahid and Asif were taken in custody and interrogated. Asif was also accused in the kidnapping of a Gujarat diamond merchant, Bhaskar Parekh. (Gathered from my conversation with Abdul Azeez, JamiluddinNasir, Aftab Ansari. Abdul Azeez is friend of the Asif Reza family and knew Asif well. The facts are corroborated in the deposition of Ali Reza Khan, the brother of Asif.)
In 2001, immidietly after SIMI was banned, the Gujarat police took Asif into police custody, and took him to Rajkot where they shot him on December 7– one and half months before the American Centre attack. The police said, officially, that Asif, a member of SIMI, in a bid to escape, fired upon them by snatching the AK-47 of one of the policemen. They shot him in retaliation. None of the policemen were hurt.
The entire case of the Calcutta attack is built on the assumption that Asif Reza Khan was a terrorist with links with ‘Jihadi organisations’. An assumption which is not substantiated by any proof or corroboration.
According to the official case, the American Center attack which was a ride by shooting of the guards stationed outside the United States Information Service which lasted 40s, was carried out by friends of Asif (one of the two shooters was Sadiq Sheikh according to the police) who wanted to avenge his death. Strangely, the attack took place in Kolkata, even though Asif was killed in Gujarat, as Asif was initially in custody of the Kolkata police according to a confession in the case. Out of the total of 9 accused, 7 were sentence to death by the trial court. The High court acquitted two of them and reduced the punishment of 3 others to 5 years of imprisonment. Two of the accused who presently stand between the complete collapse of the case, face the death penalty in a case which is laced with irregularities, and where the possibility of fabricated evidence cannot be ruled out, as I have concluded after studying the records of the case and speaking to people concerned. . The appeal by the two accused against their convictions is up for hearing in the Supreme Court the next month, where the entire narrative of Asif as well as the attacks by his friends, including Sadiq Sheikh, will be put to test. Strangely, in this case where the accused have veered between two judicial extremes- from death penalty to acquittal- Sadiq Sheikh, the prime accused who was shown as absconding till 2008, is yet to be tried even though the final appeal of the other two who only have minor conspiratorial roles is being heard.
The reality of the IM is sub-judice in many courts of the country with the allegations against them yet to be evaluated and appraised by examination to the level of evidence. For, along with allegations, are also irregularities, severe contestations and allegation of possible fabrication as well as violence- as the legal and extra legal stories of two out of the five named by Mr. Khetan reveal. And this, here, is the crucial point: this is not a contestation of facts. The above facts about the individuals who have been condemned unheard by Mr. Khetan, have not been narrated here to proclaim the innocence of Asif Reza Khan or Mujahid Saleem, but rather, to reveal the falsity of the innuendos which form the basis of Mr. Khetan’s proclamation of their guilt .
This article is also not a proclamation of the innocence of the Indian Mujahideen. What is intended here is to raise a crucial question: On what basis can the Indian Mujahideen be declared as a reality responsible for many blasts across the country – without evidence- when the matter is sub-judice and also deeply riven with contestation and stories of state violence?
Purely on the basis of a personal, closeted reading of Interrogation reports whose validity is less reliable than the facts pointed out above or the testimonies of all those who are willing to testify in court against it?
IMPLICATIONS, TERRROR AND PEOPLE’S RIGHTS
Terror today is neither limited to cases of bomb blasts and attacks and questions of justice therein, nor is it about the guilt or innocence of individual/ individuals and groups. Terror- whether in the jungles or urban centres, or in the iniquitousness of security cameras- today, is a narrative. A narrative informing a politics, informing relations between the state and its citizens, informing our very ideas of lives negotiated as a people.
And it is this political centrality of terror as a narrative that has made cases of attacks and bomb blasts- the episteme of that narrative- not mere question of crime and justice alone. Put together, terror has taken a heavy toll on lives of the people. And yet, this number is insignificant if compared to, lets say, deaths due to hunger, poverty, diseases, or even traffic accidents. However, the centrality of this narrative today is undisputed- inexplicably. For, there is something in this narrative that offers enormous potential for the state and the powers that be, to assume an authoritarian, overriding, exception-making, dissent-quelling, posture, which commands unquestionable powers and obedience- all in the name of security of the state and its people. What this narrative allows is the people’s collective acquiescence in the withdrawal of their own rights, or other’s rights and permits the creation of a security state which seemingly only exists to protect people from each other.
Let’s take the direct association or causal relationship between the two central terror attacks when this narrative of terror, as well as one of Muslims as terrorist, was being born- the parliament and the Kolkata attacks and the passing of POTA three months later- an act whose extraordinary provisions have been proved to have been used against the minorities for a communal politics.
Or, let’s say, in the enormous ability of the narrative of terror to declare an unspoken state of exception. The most powerful example being the Mecca Masjid blast case, where the very evocation of the name, a blast, levied a state of exception on the city’s Muslims so powerfully that the police could round up 200 Muslims after the blast, even when the place bombed was the community’s own mosque and the people killed were the Muslims themselves. And no questions were asked.
These narratives of terror- that Muslims are jihadists spreading terror, or on the other hand, Muslims believe that all Muslims are innocent and ask for justice only for them (as also assumed in Mr. Khetan’s asticle)- have been the basis of politics, political mobilization over the last decade. And this is the most crucial point here. That these narratives and its ideological counterpart- the question of security- have been the central rallying point of decade long politics, and the terror cases their site, the building block.
Hence, the falling apart of any case, is not an isolated incidence of wrong prosecution, but rather the collapse of a narrative which puts to question the very basis of the politics and the ideological formulation which has manifested itself into history post 2001. These are the fissures that help us expose the myth that is being narrated to through our governments, media and war machines.
It needs to be said that Mr Khetan’s previous contribution- the publishing of Swamy Aseemanand’s confession, as well as the expose of the case, has helped dent this narrative. Yet, in the present formulation Mr Khetan has first tried to prove that some individuals are innocent, and then, used that credibility, to add weight to an extremely communal narrative- completely unsupported by evidence. This sleight of hand is subversive of the very struggle for rights and justice in its raising, or lending force, to the terrible spectre of the Indian Mujahideen- a new narrative to be used by both communal and authoritarian forces.
By implicating the Indian Mujahideen after giving SIMI a clean chit, Mr. Khetan seeks to demolish the argument built by an entire body of evidence of fabrication of cases against Muslims by the state- by stating that this is not a case of political targeting of a community, but of mistaken identity. A corollary of the argument : that the state has not acted communo-politically and targeted Muslims, and hence not implicated in the fabrication, but as much a victim of the fabrication as those wrongly accused by it. Mr. Khetan also seeks to subvert the other challenges to the state’s blatant violation of human rights of its citizens-as the new data of fabrication proves-, the real spectre of Hindu terror especially after the Asseemanand confession, and most importantly the imputations that the state acted communally and in bad faith. And here comes the most lethal and dangerous aspect of Mr. Khetan’s argument: it reinforces the belief that though not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are indeed Muslims.
There is something else, however, that needs to be said. Mr Khetan displays an extremely limited understanding of the way events or actions- bomb blasts, attacks- needs to be conceptualized and located within the labyrinth of citizens and their state, as well as the many realities of religious identities and communities that play upon it. And also, in light of the terrible political as well as violent import of information regarding such cases- where many lives as rights of people are at stake-, the journalistic caution and non-embededness with which it needs to be spoken of.
For journalism, remains, as Mr khetan himself professes, people coming together to check the excesses of the state, and to ensure the rights of the people- whether it means investigating bomb blasts to ensure that the right to life is not violated by anyone including people, or investigating the way the state has fabricated cases and infringed upon the fundamental rights of its citizens. But the disdain that Mr Khetan displays for, in his own words, ‘so-called-human rights-groups’- referring directly to JTSA, which has been instrumental in bringing to light cases of enormous violence, fabrication, and impunity- is barely understandable. And so is the distinctly communal expression for a journalist covering violence, where Atif Ameen and the IM have been attributed to have the blood of ‘300 innocent hindus’, three times in an 11 minute long interview on Tehelka TV.
The preposterousness of the claim, the lack of evidence, and the entire expression of his research within the conceptual categories of the majority or the minority community, displays either a sheer disregard of the seriousness of the issue, or a careful calculation. A similar lack of nuanced understanding is betrayed in the presumptions about the muslim community- its herd mentality, its supreme leaders, and its narrow, limited and communal understanding in asking justice only for Muslims. On the basis of which Mr. Khetan authoritative commands them to shift the discourse to asking justice for all. The prejudices that inform such an understanding, are neither novel, nor uncommon. Chetan Bhagat’s letter, strikingly similar in its presumptions, and benigness, has already been responded to.
Irrespective of whether it a limited understanding or prejudice, or a calculated career move, it is not surprising within the rabidly communal posturing that Mr Khetan has assumed. In fact, if anything, all the above are definite characteristics of those with such a posture. An example would be Praveen Swami, whose confident proclamation and extensive knowledge of the way the HUJI of Bangladesh planned and executed the Mecca Masjid and the Ajmer blasts, is still not history.
Sharib Ali is a Fellow with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai who is researching on terror cases in India. He is currently writing n the cases in Bangalore. He can be contacted at email@example.com