Lashkar operatives or innocent imams?

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Tucked in the foothills of the Aravallis and around 100 km southwest of New Delhi is a nondescript village called Ghaghas. It is on the fringes of Haryana’s Mewat district and close to the Rajasthan border, 12 km off a four-lane highway. The narrow pucca road leading to Ghaghas village makes for a rather pleasant drive with lush yellow mustard fields on both sides. Just 4 km before the road reaches Ghaghas is a village called Chhoti Meoli.

Last December, the Delhi Police Special Cell claimed that two imams from these villages were operatives of the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) who were “planning to carry out some terrorist activity in Delhi and adjoining states”. Shahid, 28, the imam of a mosque in Chhoti Meoli, was arrested on 7 December. Soon after Shahid’s arrest, local newspapers reported that the police were on the lookout for his “accomplice” Rashid, also 28, the imam of a mosque in Ghaghas. On 16 December, Rashid surrendered before the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Nuh town, the district headquarters of Mewat, after his parents received a notice from the Delhi Police summoning him. He was taken into custody by the local police and handed over to the Special Cell a day later.

Even though the chargesheet in the case is yet to be filed, the media was abuzz with reports on 7 January that the two imams were trying to recruit men for the LeT in the riot-hit Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, around 200 km from Nuh. Special Commissioner (Special Cell) SN Shrivastava told the media that two men from Muzaffarnagar — Liyaqat and Zameer — had claimed that the imams had approached them to plot a kidnapping and use the ransom money to build a mosque. Liyaqat, who teaches in a government school, and Zameer, who is allegedly a petty criminal, have also made the same statement before a Delhi court.

These reports took on a political colour in the light of what Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had said in October last year during an election campaign in Rajasthan. Addressing a rally, Rahul had claimed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was trying to rope in vulnerable youth in the relief camps for the riot-hit in Muzaffarnagar for terrorist activities. He said an Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer had passed on this information to him.

Following the Special Cell’s claim, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh told reporters, “If this information is correct that some people from LeT had gone to relief camps to lure the victims, it proves what Rahul had said.”

The Opposition parties, however, reacted sharply and alleged that the Special Cell was making false claims in support of Rahul’s statement. Both the BJP and the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh accused Rahul of raising doubts over the “integrity” of Indian Muslims. The BJP also questioned how an IB officer could pass on such information to Rahul when he does not hold any constitutional post. Moreover, replying to a question in Parliament last month, Minister of State (Home) RPN Singh had said there were no intelligence inputs to suggest any link between the ISI and the Muslim victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots.

The Delhi Police later clarified that the two men the imams had approached were not riot victims. Sources have told TEHELKA that Liyaqat and Zameer had been working as informers for both the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh Police.

At the Khan Sahab Wali mosque in Ghaghas village, where Rashid also used to teach 150-odd children, no new imam has been appointed yet. The villagers say they will wait for Rashid to come back.

Locals remember Rashid as a shy man who was always ready to help the villagers in times of need. They claim he used to work as a stringer for an Urdu newspaper at some point in the past and was also involved in social work.

“As he had some knowledge of traditional medicine, villagers used to approach him when they fell ill,” says 53-year-old Mohammed Anwar, a resident of Ghaghas. “His arrest has saddened us all. It’s worse than the death of a fellow villager.”

Rashid, a native of Tain village, 25 km away, had been living in Ghaghas since 2010. Along with his wife and two children, he had found accomodation in a house next to the mosque where he was the imam. Villagers say that after Rashid’s arrest, his wife left Ghaghas along with the children and went to live in her mother’s house.

The villagers say they never suspected Rashid of being involved in any illegal activities. He would sometimes go to visit his parents after the Friday prayers, but always made it a point to return the very next day.

“My son used to visit us once in a while along with his wife and children,” says Rashid’s father, 55-year-old Jan Mohammad, who runs a paan kiosk in Nuh town. He says he has no idea why his son was arrested. Today, he has no choice but to run from pillar to post trying to get his son released on bail.

The residents of Ghaghas point out that after riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar, Rashid was involved in collecting funds for the victims and was, perhaps, in touch with some NGO. “What is unusual about that?” asks Shakir Hussain, 28, whose house is adjacent to the Khan Sahab Wali mosque. “Many people across the country were collecting funds for relief work.” Hussain believes that Rashid has been framed.

Residents of Ghaghas remember that in the days leading up to Rashid’s surrender, two Delhi Police sleuths, who are natives of Mewat district, had been making rounds of the village in a car with a Delhi registration number and keeping an eye on his movements.

Besides the Khan Sahab Wali mosque, there are five other mosques in Ghaghas. The imam of one of these other mosques, who did not wish to be named, alleged that the two sleuths had also threatened to frame him in a terror case if he did not pay them a bribe.

At Chhoti Deoli village, the police had to face some resistance from the locals when they arrived to arrest Shahid. “He was in the bathroom, getting ready for namaaz when the police came,” says Sahabuddin, an elderly villager. “We protested that he should not be arrested before the prayers.” Villagers say that Shahid rarely ventured out of the village, except on Fridays when he went to visit his parents in Bazidpur village, 20 km away.

Shahid’s father, Din Mohammed, 67, claims that a senior officer of the Special Cell had assured him that there was no strong case against his son and that he would be eventually released.

The families of both the arrested imams have approached lawyer MS Khan, who is also representing Abu Jundal, suspected to be a mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. “The case against the two shall not stand in a court of law,” Khan told TEHELKA. “The police version has many loopholes.” But he refused to reveal more, saying he is still preparing the arguments for his clients’ defence.

However, in its remand application submitted before an additional sessions judge in New Delhi’s Patiala House Court on 3 January, the Special Cell claims that the two imams were arrested on the basis of intelligence inputs received in November 2013. An extract from the remand application reads: “A known LeT terrorist, Javed Baluchi of Pakistan, who was under surveillance, had been contacted on his Pakistani cell phone number from one Rajasthan number and there had been suspicious conversations indicating a conspiracy to carry out a terrorist action, which had to be executed in the forthcoming days.”

The police had zeroed in on the two imams while scanningIMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) numbers across India. This led the police to a Haryana number that was also being used to contact Baluchi. This number was subscribed in the name of a woman, but the call detail records revealed that it was in the possession of one Mohammed Aris. On being confronted, Aris revealed that he had given the SIM card to Shahid. The Special Cell claimed that Shahid later confessed to his association with the LeT and mentioned Rashid as an accomplice.

The police also claimed that another suspect — Zameerul Islam from Jalalabad in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district — revealed more details about a terrorist conspiracy being hatched by Pakistan-based LeT commanders and named some other suspects. Islam also revealed that “Shahid and Rashid had participated in certain meetings where an action plan for obtaining Maal-e-Ganimat (war booty) for waging jihad against the sovereignty of India was discussed”, the police told the court.

The families of the arrested imams, however, do not believe the police version and have demanded that the probe be handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). They cite the dubious arrest of former Kashmiri militant Liaquat Shah by the Delhi Police from the Indo-Nepal border in March last year when he was on his way to surrender under the Jammu & Kashmir government’s rehabilitation policy. The NIA had later found that contrary to the Special Cell’s claim, AK-47 rifles and ammunition found in a Delhi hotel didn’t belong to Shah but was planted by a police informer.

Though Shah has not been released as the NIA is yet to file its final report, his case gives a glimmer of hope to the families of Rashid and Shahid.

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