A dangerous prejudice had slipped into the Indian criminal justice system: if there was a blast, a Muslim was behind it. For this, these 32 Muslims had to pay for blasts done by Hindutva extremists. Ashish Khetan reports
IN A twist of fate worthy of the literary greats, a chance encounter a month ago between a Muslim boy and a hardline Hindu triggered a change of heart that seems to have unravelled a massive terror conspiracy.
In 2007, Abdul Kaleem, 18, was picked up from his house by the Hyderabad Police in connection with a bomb blast in Mecca Masjid in which nine people had died. Kaleem pleaded his innocence but no one would listen. It was crime enough that Kaleem was a Muslim and the younger brother of Abdul Khaja, who had gone over to Pakistan years earlier and intelligence agencies had inputs that Khaja was working for the ISI. Kaleem’s second brother Abdul Khaddar was at the time employed in the Middle East and Khaja was listed as absconding.
However, in the interim, his brother Khaja was caught in Sri Lanka by RAW and sent to jail in Hyderabad. In October 2010, the police accused Kaleem of supplying a phone to his brother and arrested him again.
This is when Swami Aseemanand met Kaleem. The unsuspecting boy was kind to the Swami and the two got talking. When the Swami found out that Kaleem had been jailed and tortured for a crime that, in fact, the Swami and his comrades had committed, apparently it had a profound impact on him. Moved by a desire for penance, he sought a confession before a magistrate.
The Swami’s confession (See story on page 30) has brought back into focus the entrenched prejudice against Muslims in the criminal justice system.
In a time of tragedy and terror, everybody justifiably wants answers, culprits, punishment. The challenge then is not to reach for the quick route, the easy demonisations. Sadly, the Indian State does not always meet this challenge well.
Over the last decade — particularly between the years 2004 and 2009, as the country was struck by frequent and terrifying terror blasts, dozens of innocent Muslims have found themselves automatically and falsely accused of terrorism. In the struggle for a just and safe society, it is crucial to find real perpetrators and correct answers; crucial to cleave doggedly to the idea of fair play and rule of law; crucial not to fall prey to overblown and false psychoses. But a dangerous prejudice had crept into the psyche of a section of our investigating agencies. There was an instant assumption: behind every terror blast there must be a Muslim hand. Trapped in that hysteria, it no longer mattered whether this assumption was true, or even whether the correct Muslims were arrested. What mattered was that someone should be blamed for it — and blamed quickly.
What makes this additionally shocking is that, often, these arrests were carried out not just in states run by the BJP, which is seen to be hostile to Muslims, but in states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, that are led by either a Congress government or a Congress alliance. Clearly, Muslims had no real political champion.It is a measure of the cynical carelessness with which these Muslim youth have been arrested, that until Maharashtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare’s fiercely dogged investigation into the Malegaon blast of 2008 exposed the tip of the Hindutva terror network, even bomb blasts in Muslim neighbourhoods and mosques were casually ascribed to Muslims.
Swami Aseemanand’s confession has now proved that the arrest of 32 Muslim men for the Mecca Masjid and Malegaon blasts were utterly misplaced. Some of them may have been radicals, some may have had ambiguous histories, but they were not behind the terror blasts. This is the disturbing story of what the security agencies did to them. And the shoddy work that passes for investigation.
ON 26 DECEMBER 2007, the then CBI Joint Director Arun Kumar, who was supervising the investigation into the Mecca Masjid Blast case, was thrilled to receive a letter from the Hyderabad Joint Commissioner of Police (administration), Harish Gupta. Gupta’s two-page letter was annexed with confessions and CDs of narco-analysis tests. It claimed to have solved the Mecca Masjid case and listed as many as 25 accused, of which 19 were Muslims from Hyderabad and six were Bangladeshi Muslims. Gupta said out of the 19 local accused, 11 had already been arrested.
He further claimed that two of them had confessed to their role in the Mecca Masjid bombing during police interrogation and also in the narco-analysis tests. Kumar swiftly dispatched a team to Hyderabad to tie up the loose ends and charge-sheet the accused listed by Gupta.
One might wonder why the Hyderabad Police was investigating the Mecca Masjid case when the CBI had already taken over the probe on 9 June 2007. The fact is, two separate cases had been registered in relation to the Mecca Masjid terror attack. One case pertained to the bomb that had exploded; the second to the bomb that had not and which formed the only material evidence at the time.
While transferring the case of the exploded bomb to the CBI, the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh kept the case of the unexploded bomb with the local police. This case — crime No. 107/2007 — was registered at Hussaini Alam Police Station and was subsequently transferred to the Central Crime Station, where it was investigated under Gupta’s supervision.
So the only material and scientific evidence — the unexploded device with an intact Nokia phone and SIM card that eventually led the CBI and the Rajasthan ATS to RSS pracharaks — was not initially given to the CBI. Instead, the Hyderabad Police unleashed a manhunt for the accused. As always, it was the usual suspects — in this case, the followers of the Ahle Hadees sect — that the police went after.
An Ahle Hadees member, Abdul Sattar, 24, had been a police mole for some time. He was linked to the LeT and had been to Pakistan for terror training. But at the time of the Mecca Masjid bombing, he was working as a police informant. Sattar gave the police a list of possible suspects. Over the next few weeks, three dozen Muslim boys were detained and tortured.
Abdul Kaleem was one of those boys. Right through this time, the CBI pleaded with the Andhra Pradesh government to transfer the case of the unexploded bomb to it. The Hyderabad Police knew that sooner or later the case would be handed over to the CBI, so they registered three new and separate cases related to terror conspiracies:
1. Crime No 198/2007 registered at Gopalpuram police station — Conspiracy to provide support to the jihadi movement in India and start mobilising Muslim youth for training and subversive activities
2. Crime No 100/2007 registered with the Special Investigations Team — Conspiracy to cause destruction and communal disturbances by causing blasts in Hyderabad and other places in India
3. Crime No 75/2007 registered with the Special Investigations Team — Conspiracy to facilitate terrorist activities by obtaining cell phone connections on false names and communication to this effect Over three dozen boys, including Kaleem, were booked in these cases. Sattar, the police mole, was also booked since he feared that he might be targeted by the local Muslims if he was allowed to walk free. The jail was the safest place for him.
The police took many of these boys, including Kaleem, for narco-analysis tests. But they failed to get any material evidence that could link any of them to the Mecca Masjid case. Despite this, they refused to let the boys go. The only ‘evidence’ they had was police confessions — which is infamously associated with torture and coercion. They wanted the CBI to book the accused for the case on the basis of this.
The Maharashtra ATS took over the probe. But it ignored the first rule of investigation: if you want to find the criminal, first find the motive
In December 2007, when the CBI team went to Hyderabad to act on this request, they found the confessions were bogus. Interrogating the suspects in Hyderabad jail, the CBI sleuths came back convinced that though a few of them were radicals, they were not behind the Mecca Masjid blasts. Much to the chagrin of the local police, the CBI refused to chargesheet these boys.
Later, all the three cases registered by the Hyderabad Police resulted in acquittals for the boys. Knowing that it stood on thin ground, the police did not appeal against the acquittals to the higher court. In January 2008, the Andhra Pradesh government finally transferred the case of the unexploded device to the CBI.
The boys may have been acquitted, but the reality is such arrests often make pariahs of the most ordinary and harmless citizen. Set aside the mental and physical corrosion of the years in jail, it becomes difficult to find jobs or even get houses on rent. So two questions linger: why did the police show such undue doggedness in pursuing boys they had no substantive leads on? And who will restore the cracked pieces of the boys’ lives to them?
ON 8 SEPTEMBER 2006, four powerful bombs tore through the communally sensitive town of Malegaon in Maharashtra, killing 37 Muslims and injuring hundreds. Three bombs had been planted inside the premises of the Hamidiya Masjid, the biggest mosque in Malegaon, and the fourth in a crowded market place named Mushawart Chowk, in the town’s Muslim locality. It was a Friday and the occasion of the Muslim festival Shab-e-Barat. Clearly, Muslims were the target of the bombers.
Since October 2005, bomb blasts in mainland India were fast becoming a regular feature, starting with the Delhi Diwali blasts, followed by the Varanasi and Mumbai train blasts. But the Malegaon blast was different. In the earlier cases, Hindus and their temples had been targeted. In Malegaon, it was Muslims and their mosque. There had only been three occasiona before when crude bombs had gone off near mosques in central Maharashtra: at the Mohammadiya Masjid in Parbhani in November 2003; at the Quadriya Masjid in Jalna in August 2004; and at the Meraj-ul- Uloom Masjid in Purna in Parbhani district in August 2004.
These cases had been solved when an RSS member and a Bajrang Dal activist were killed while preparing bombs in a house in Nanded. But instead of going to the root of the conspiracy, the Maharashtra ATS had arrested a few lower level functionaries of the Bajrang Dal and chargesheeted them for the Nanded, Jalna and Parbhani blasts. The case was quickly forgotten.
In the 2006 Malegaon blast case too, the Maharashtra ATS again took over the probe. But it ignored the first and golden rule of criminal investigation: if you want to find the criminal, first find the motive.
The Maharashtra ATS did come up with a motive, but it was an extremely weak and dubious one. According to them, some local Malegaon Muslims, mainly members of the outlawed SIMI, had exploded the bombs and killed fellow Muslims to trigger Hindu-Muslim riots. Nine Muslims from Malegaon were arrested; another three were shown absconding. Nobody believed the ATS’ theory. When pressure from the Muslims for a fair investigation grew, the Congress-NCP government handed over the probe to the CBI. But all chances of a fair probe were nixed when the Maharashtra ATS filed their chargesheet on the same day that the state government wrote to the CBI to take over the probe. Since September 2006, all nine of these Malegaon Muslims have been languishing in the jail.
The boys may have been acquitted, but the reality is such arrests often make pariahs of the most ordinary and harmless citizen
Now, exposing the police’s almost criminally cavalier approach to terror investigations, Aseemanand has told the Delhi Metropolitan Magistrate Deepak Dabas that a few RSS pracharaks led by Sunil Joshi had carried out the 2006 Malegaon blasts. Aseemanand also asserts strongly that it was he who had picked Malegaon as a potential terror target because of its large Muslim population. The CBI has also found a cell number mentioned under the head ‘sardar’ in Sunil Joshi’s phone book. Probing this further, the CBI has found that this number belonged to Himanshu Phanse, the RSS activist who had died while making the bombs and was the key conspirator behind the Jalna and Parbhani blasts.
Shivam Dhakad, another RSS activist from Dewas and a close associate of Joshi and Dange, was arrested by the Madhya Pradesh Police a few months ago in a murder case. He has apparently told the CBI that Joshi had cried like a child when he heard the news of Phanse’s death.
While these may only count as strong leads, the glaring question Swami Aseemanand’s confession has raised is, if investigative agencies can have no presumed credibility, who can ordinary Indians turn to? And if the agencies have mostly been catching the wrong men in their hurry for accolades and political brownie points, who will nab the real culprits?