The seeds of wrath

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IN THE clever calculations men make about security and State, they underestimate the power of human despair. But despair can be a deadly weapon. When you lose faith that a system will protect and play fair by you, it breeds fatal recklessness. It makes you abdicate from the rules that cement human relations. Despair can turn you from citizen to perpetrator. From the hunted to the hunter.

From 2006 to 2008, there was an escalating climate of terror in the country. With terrifying regularity, bomb blasts went off in Hyderabad, Delhi, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad. And finally, most brazenly, in Mumbai. But Mumbai 26/11 was different: here the killers outed themselves: like a giant game show gone horribly wrong, groups of young men in clear view of millions went about with impunity shooting people down. The enemy was visible. Tangible. They could be dealt with. With the other blasts, there was no one to pin the crime on. And as bombs kept exploding and people kept dying, fuelled by a media hungry for immediate answers and genuine citizens’ distress, a paranoia gripped the country.

Hundreds of young Muslims were arrested. And within a few days — often within a few hours — police and agencies, who had had insufficient knowledge to preempt the blasts, began to hold press conferences on how they had cracked the case. A triumphant line of deadly “masterminds” were trotted out: Safdar Nagori, Maulana Haleem, Mufti Abu Bashar, Atif Ameen. Under pressure to perform, the police hid behind short attention spans and a confusing cocktail of Islamic proper nouns. They knew that neither the media (rushing off to its latest story) nor ordinary citizens were interested in the details. No one wanted veracity. Everyone only wanted the illusion of security and ‘action taken’. The few human rights groups and media outfits who raised flags about false arrests and gaps in police logic were scorned as ‘anti-national’. Or doctrinaire liberals.

This confession raises a question. In a just democracy, how should we deal with those who assault us?

The larger point was missed. It is no one’s case that those who plant bombs should go unpunished. Those of us raising flags had only two simple arguments to make. One, take the long route, catch the genuine culprits, remain constitutional: that is the only way to be really secure. Two: do not make false arrests and breed fresh despair, triggering new cycles of hate and revenge. If you corrupt a system entirely, people will abdicate from it. And black despair can be a deadly weapon.

This week, TEHELKA’s cover story braids all these themes together and teases out their giant implications. The story is about a young man, Muslim, no more than 22, caught in a terrible dilemma. He is a star witness in the Gujarat police’s case. Based on his statement, dozens of men are locked in jail. Except, this young man’s statement is a lie. He was coerced by the police into becoming their witness in exchange for his own freedom. He has remained silent for a year, sick with himself, but free. Tracked to his house by TEHELKA reporter Rana Ayyub, he breaks down. Rana is accompanied by a young woman in a burkha, holding a child. The woman’s husband — an innocent man — is in jail because of this witness. Confronted by her and the child, rocked by remorse and a sudden desire for atonement — in an almost cinematic moment — the man tells his real story.

The police hid behind short attention spans and a confusing cocktail of Islamic proper nouns

One could dismiss his account as another false turnaround, except in telling the story — like some protagonist in a classic Greek play — the young man implicates himself. He is no ordinary witness. He is self-confessedly a member of the July 2008 bomb blast conspiracy. Conscience-struck, he stopped short of planting the bombs when he realized the targets would not be Hindu zealots like the RSS and VHP but ordinary bystanders. But he knows and names who his real co-conspirators were. To free the innocent men in jail, he must now bear the cross himself. It is not enough that he shrank back from the abyss and backed out of the conspiracy. As he says to Rana, by speaking out, he is consciously setting himself up for reprisal from the police.

So how is the police and State going to react to this man’s confession?

At a specific level, his story blows big holes in the police’s case in Gujarat, exposing a damning lie and injustice. At a profounder level, it is a parable for what is happening beneath the skin of our democracy in countless other places. It raises questions about media, prejudice, policing and the due process of law. Most of all, it raises the question: in a just democracy, how should we deal with those who assault us?

Of the many strands in this story, there is first the one about nailing true culpability. It is obvious from this witness’ account that all the wrong men are in jail and the police know it. Take Abu Bashar, for example. The media and police jointly touted him as one of their deadly ‘masterminds’. But the witness says he is far from that. The Abu Bashar he paints is a gentle and religious man, so opposed to violence, the mentors of the conspiracy specifically advised the witness and his friends to keep him in the dark. The police know this, yet Bashar continues to languish in jail.

There are other troubling details. The witness speaks of torture and the police’s double-crossing tactics to extract false statements. Set aside polite questions about human rights. What about the holy grail: national security? According to the witness, the real conspirators — Subhan Qureishi, Alamzeb and Qayamuddin — are still on the run. What is one to make of this willful official charade? Lock innocent men in jail, let the guilty roam free. What is this society we are creating, where we are in such a hurry to get answers to difficult questions, we’d rather get false answers than none, even if it means innocent men must pay?

Another profound issue this story raises is one of causality. The witness cites all the big faultlines — Gujarat 2002, false arrests, tortures — as reasons why he and his friends were drawn into the conspiracy. And, indeed, it would be myopic to treat these bitter young men as merely hard criminals. Yet, the argument of causality is a tricky rope. Gujarat 2002 cannot justify bomb blasts of 2006 – 2008. By that logic, extremist Hindus would also be right in marshalling their own epic justifications: Hindu pilgrims burnt alive in a train, Kashmiri Pandits chased out of a valley, organised Christian conversions, a Hindu swami murdered in his ashram. Be they real or imagined wounds, causality can never be a justification for violence. But in a society overtaken by greater and greater hysteria, all causalities must be recognised and addressed. No military might can break the lethal chain of action and reaction. Redressal for grievances stands a better chance.

Finally, this is an intimation of our easy and extreme prejudices. Until a few months ago, whipped on by an unthinking media, India was being lured into demonising 250 million of its citizens. For many years, SIMI — a politically strident Islamic student organization — was a convenient scapegoat for the police. By a sleight of hand, the bad aura around SIMI was projected onto Indian Muslims at large. Last year, TEHELKA published an exhaustive investigative story that proved many SIMI members or ex-members jailed by the police were actually innocent men, wielding nothing more dangerous than strong political views. At no point did TEHELKA vouch for SIMI as an organisation, but by flagging individual miscarriages of justice it broke the easy consensus on SIMI. But by then, another pet poltergeist had been conjured by the police and media: the Indian Mujahideen. (At a press conference in Gujarat, with almost laughable cynicism, DG Police, PC Pande told waiting media, “If you remove S and I from SIMI, you have IM: Indian Mujahideen.” For him, that clinched the truth.)

Now, in an eerie corroboration of TEHELKA’s earlier story, the witness strongly asserts that no SIMI members were involved in the conspiracy. In fact, their mentors – “outsiders” he calls them, “shadowy men, clean shaven who spoke English and smoked a lot” told him and his mates to stay away from SIMI members because they would scuttle the plan to plant the bombs. Who were these “outsiders” — calm, anonymous, out of frame — and why is the police not working overtime to track them down? How many veils of prejudice and illusion do we as Indians voluntarily live behind?

This man’s story is a challenge to us all. How is he to be dealt with? One route — the familiar one — would be for the police to kill him extra-judicially because he has exposed them. But here is a man, bewildered, wounded, tempted into violence. He was brought to the brink but had the courage to pull back. Now, he has the courage to undo another wrong and expose mighty forces at grave danger to himself. Clearly, like hundreds of others, he has both wronged and been wronged. How should a mature society react to such a conundrum?

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