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Home > Human Rights > Victims of a quick fix war on terror in India

Victims of a quick fix war on terror in India

by Harsh Mander, 3 October 2008

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Magazine Section / The Hindu, September 21, 2008

Terrorism and the State

A People’s Tribunal held recently found out that many innocent lives get destroyed or traumatised when the State presumes an entire community to be responsible for terror attacks.

As bombs explode in crowded market places and places of worship - whether in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Mumbai or Delhi - many innocent lives are abruptly snuffed out, while others are marked for life, maimed or traumatised. Television screens in our living rooms are inundated with images of bloodstains on sidewalks and weeping family members unable to even comprehend their loss. The success of the shadowy organisations which plant these explosives runs deeper, as the engineered mistrust between people of diverse faiths further consolidates with each blast. Millions of men and women, merely because they happen to be born into Muslim homes - believers and non-believers, students, working people, home-makers and the aged, the wealthy and the impoverished - are all, with each blast, dragged into the dock of the hearts and minds of people of other religious persuasions. Here they are charged with guilt at least of solidarity if not active complicity for the horrible crimes that the overwhelming majority of them intensely abhor. They find their eyes lowered, their spirit crushed, for heinous offences which they oppose no less than their neighbours.

This labelling and blanket condemnation of people merely because of their Muslim identities - now a global phenomenon - is not confined to lay people. It extends more dangerously to how States respond to terror attacks, in effect holding the entire Muslim community guilty unless they can prove their innocence. How this can destroy innocent lives forever was illustrated starkly in a series of devastating testimonies in a People’s Tribunal on atrocities committed against minorities in the name of fighting terrorism, organised by Anhad and the Human Rights’ Law Network from August 22 to 24, 2008 in Hyderabad.

The tribunal, comprising respected retired judges, human rights activists, lawyers, academics and journalists, confirmed that "a large number of innocent young Muslims have been and are being victimised by the police on the charge of being involved in various terrorist acts across the country. This is particularly so in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, though not limited to these States". It concluded that "this victimisation and demonisation of Muslims in the guise of investigation of terror offences, is having a very serious psychological impact on the minds of not only the families of the victims but also other members of the community. It is leading to a very strong sense of insecurity and alienation."

In a hurry

The problem begins immediately after a bomb attack, when governments are under great pressure to produce "results". The pattern in India has been that just hours, sometimes even minutes after an attack, the police claim irrefutable proof that an Islamist organisation is behind the terror act. For many years, they would declare that this is the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI, or Pakistan-based terror groups. For geo-political reasons that one can only speculate on, governments more recently shifted their instant indictments eastwards to Bangladesh, particularly to a till recently little-known organisation called HUJI. Now the "foreign hand" seems to have receded; and the prime culprit has become even more worryingly the "enemy within", the home-grown Indian Mujahideen, supported by the controversially banned SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India). If the government indeed had such conclusive evidence in every case about the guilty, why did it not act on time to prevent the terror attack? And even when a mosque is bombed, as in Hyderabad, the possibility that some of the terror attacks could have been engineered by extremist organisations of other persuasions than Islamist is not even considered. The State seems tacitly to subscribe to the canard that terrorists can only be Muslim, forgetting that in India itself we lost the father of the nation and two Prime Ministers to terror attacks, and none of their terrorist attackers was Muslim.

In the name of interrogation

The police then begin to interrogate its suspects, mostly Muslim youth. Testimonies from Hyderabad spoke of their experience of being illegally abducted by police in civil uniforms and unmarked vehicles, blindfolded and driven to locations where they are tortured. In other States, the experience of torture is common, also in "legal" police custody and sometimes even in judicial custody. They are undressed, beaten relentlessly with belts made from old tyres or sticks, given electric shocks including on their genitals, their faith humiliated, their loved ones such as a pregnant wife or an aged father repeatedly summoned to police stations, and ultimately they agree to sign on blank confession papers.

If they are picked up from their homes, people report midnight knocks, violent searches and beating even of children and old women. Many testify to the ransacking of their homes and shops. If they are picked up from elsewhere, their families are not informed, and they run from one police station to another to find their loved ones.

The youth come from diverse backgrounds, mostly with no previous criminal records. They maybe students, auto rickshaw drivers, ice cream sellers, clerics or computer professionals. But as soon as they are targeted by the police, they are disgraced, usually their employment is terminated, their livelihoods boycotted, and even Muslims are scared to associate with the family, for fear that they also maybe tarnished with the same crimes. The media usually accepts the police version uncritically, and broadcasts it with shrill sensational overtones which affirm the guilt of the accused persons to the general public, aggravating their stigmatisation.

The courts are also usually more than willing to go along with the police version, extending remand, denying bail, often responding with little urgency even in habeas corpus petitions, and most gravely, wilfully failing to act on even visible signs of torture on the body of the young men produced before them, refusing to act and take on record their complaints of torture, let alone actively confirming from them that they were not tortured. They also allow criminal proceedings to persist against minors. Sardar was 17 when he was charged with complicity in the Coimbatore blasts. He was 27 when he was acquitted, but only after nearly a decade of harrowing incarceration.

Destroyed lives

Many young lives are destroyed forever by the police labelling them as terrorists. The charges are often flimsy and far-fetched. It matters little that eventually the police is, in most cases, unable to prove the charges, and it sometimes itself drops the charges or the youth accused of terror crimes are eventually freed by the courts. But no one is held responsible for the lost years of dishonour, incarceration, and the crumbling of families. Many of the arrested are sole bread-earners: sons caring for aged parents and siblings, or for a young wife and small children. The tribunal heard tens of testimonies from every State, of families reduced to pitiful destitution because those who earned for them were detained for many long years. Most are ultimately acquitted, but return heartbroken to crushed and diminished families. Some die in custody, never to return, some lose their sanity.

There is no doubt that the governments and people of this land need to combat terrorism, and to track down and punish those who randomly take innocent lives. But in this battle we must not sacrifice our convictions, of democracy, law, justice and humanity. We must not profile people because of their faith. We must not incarcerate people without evidence and torture them to extract spurious proof. If we do, our jails may overflow with men we dub to be terrorists, but the terrorists would still triumph, victorious in their battle of enabling fear and hate to extinguish our sense of goodness and fairness.