Over the past three decades, terrorism has slowly injected itself into the minds of ordinary citizens, infecting them with a deep fear of the unknown. Terrorism as a mode of warfare in the hands of men who want to inflict mayhem and fear has evolved to be a defining feature of our times. Bomb blasts, as primary weapons of terrorism, are random, unexpected and unforgiving. Blasts invariably trigger rage and mass paranoia, blurring our rationality to a level where our senses and memories stand stunned. “Uprooting terrorism” has become a ubiquitous project in our political discourse as the problem is identified as a great threat to our republic. That is why it is important that we understand the mechanics that go into “uprooting terrorism”. Manisha Sethi’s Kafkaland is probably the best place to start.
In Kafkaland, she has pulled off something astounding; she has laid bare with meticulous detailing and substantiation, the deep crisis in our criminal justice system. From counter-terror ops in Punjab to investigations into all the major blasts since 2005 perpetrated by “Islamic terrorists” and anti-Naxal operations, the author has delved into the minutest strands of cases to present a grim picture to the reader. Long is the list of innocents who have been paraded in front of us as terrorists or abettors of terrorism, just to reassure us that our elite intelligence agencies are doing a commendable job in keeping us safe.
Playing the role of a researcher, journalist, lawyer and a patient storyteller, the author exposes a deep rot in our investigation agencies, media and even the judiciary. Building up her case on detailed analyses of tonnes of official documents — FIRs, police statements, chargesheets, witness statements and court orders — she does not pull back punches as she takes on decorated officers of the Delhi Police Special Cell, the Mumbai ATS (Anti-Terror Squad), counterterror legends such as KPS Gill and our “temples of justice”.
In just over 200 pages, with 11 essays divided into three sections, the book manages to be revelatory on many levels. The absurd stories of Gulam Yazdani (framed and killed in a fake encounter), Jaswant Singh Kalra (a citizen who dared to document the killings in Punjab), Ishrat Jahan (a 19-year-old girl killed in an alleged fake encounter) and Maurif Qamar and Irshad Ali (IB informers who got framed as al Badr terrorists) could make even the most hardened believers rethink their assumptions on terrorism. The book also tears into the narrative around the Indian Mujahideen, calling out convenient lies that the investigators put out for crime reporters to regurgitate. There is illuminating criticism of investigating techniques as well as the utility of torture as an interrogation tool. In the last essay, ‘The Security Metaphysic’, the author unveils the complex military-industrial complex in India that works overtime to push the country into allotting more funds for defence purchases.
Journalists would be worried by the author’s striking indictment of the role of the media in perpetuating lies. Several prominent journalists — who have convinced us about the imminent dangers of terrorism, the gargantuan conspiracies by Islamist elements, the necessity of torture and the procurement of more arms — have been made to answer for the half-truths and spins they put out. This book ought to be a must-read for crime reporters in New Delhi and Mumbai to remind themselves of the need for caution, if nothing else.
The author’s clarity in her arguments and substantiation ought to shut up those who find great joy in ridiculing the “human rights wallahs”. The author sums up her take on the Indian criminal justice system thus: “Such is the machinery of our criminal justice system; investigators who torture; doctors who comply; pseudo-scientists with dubious truth serums; judges who ignore signs of torture; and a media which carries the burden of national security on its frail shoulders… It falls on us then, to keep stoking the fire of memories — not for breast-beating, but to ensure the end of impunity.”
Do not let the boring jacket and the tiring title dissuade you from picking up this book. It is arguably one of the most important works so far on the complexity of modern-day terrorism in India and the efforts to counter it.
‘Reporters should keep a distance from investigating officers’
In a conversation with G Vishnu, the author of Kafkaland, Manisha Sethi, talks about the need to challenge the dominant discourse on terrorism and why reporters should be sceptical of what the police tell them.
Edited Excerpts from the interview:
You have put in a tremendous amount of work into this book. Why did you take up this subject? How did you go about doing the research?
It was not written at one go. I have been a part the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association’s campaign against wrongful arrests. We founded the association in 2008 after the Batla House encounter. I had written some of the essays such as ‘Sinful Liberals and the Investigative Bias’ and the piece on Ishrat Jahan before I thought of this book. I did write some pieces just for this book. I took up the subject as there is so little in the media and the papers brought out by various think-tanks that challenge the mainstream discourse on terror. I think it’s very important for us to not restrict our campaign to rhetoric alone. We have to sharpen our weapons, improve our arsenal. Facts are our weapons. Unless you do that, you cannot make a persuasive case. Even when we write a pamphlet, we make sure it’s well-researched and backed by legal documents etc.
You are highly critical of the functioning of our investigation agencies. But are there no good cops? How should terror cases be investigated?
Sure, there will be good cops and bad cops. For example, Hemant Karkare (who was killed during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai) is a good example of what one can do while being a part of the system. However, my book is not about that. The point, here, is the question of impunity. It’s a structural question. Some people tend to write about these cases (where innocents are arrested) as instances of bad apples, of individual officers trying to engage in self-promotion and acquire wealth and fame. But that’s not what is really happening. What’s happening is that the system is allowing them to get away with what they do. The problem lies with the very discourse of the war on terror. Encounter killings going back to the Emergency era reveal a systemic problem. It is not about individuals. Moreover, laws like tada, pota and uapa reinforce this discourse and allow innocents to be imprisoned for long periods of time without chargesheets.
Have there been unfair arrests in ‘Hindu terror’ cases as well?
My focus was on what the media ignores. In the Hindu terror cases, even LK Advani goes and meets the accused. The point of this book is to see what terrorism is. The focus of this study has been to examine the terror that the State unleashes on its citizens. Given the rampant prejudice against Muslims, the political climate that has existed in the past two decades and the prevalent discourse on Islamic terrorism, it is difficult to believe that the police will not be careful about who they pick up in such cases.
You have examined the role of the media. However, there’s a counter-point. The crime reporters can always say that they just report what the police tell them. They show us what the police are thinking.
But that is not really their job. Crime reporters are not supposed to be spokespersons for the Special Cell or the ATS. Yes, they are supposed to read the press releases. But they also have the duty of questioning the police theories and scrutinising what they are being told.
When you go to a court for a hearing on terror cases, you see that many crime reporters are on friendly terms with the investigating officers. They need to keep a certain distance. The reporters might be thinking that they are using the investigating agencies as sources, whereas it is really the agencies that are using the reporters. But that’s only a part of the problem. The bigger problem is political decision-making at the editorial level, which lets reporters get away with these kinds of stories or, worse, even encourages these kinds of stories. Take the reportage on the Burdwan blast, for instance. In that case, it is not just that the reporters are not asking questions, but the editors also have already decided the slant.