TO A media ever ready to jump to conclusions, a terror attack often provides vital fodder. On 21 February, 16 people died in two bomb blasts in Hyderabad. Coming a few days after Afzal Guru’s hanging, the blasts evoked emotional responses from Kashmir as well as a cross-section of civil society. Contradicting the ‘unofficial’ intelligence warning of another attack, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said he hadn’t received any specific alert.
Meanwhile, the media was abuzz with several conspiracy theories, with the needle of suspicion pointing towards the Indian Mujahideen (IM). Desperate to break the ‘exclusive’ piece of evidence and name a mastermind, several news channels had sketches of possible masterminds ready — a formidable task even for leading investigating agencies. One news channel even flashed images of Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement member Manzar Imam as the brain behind the blasts, though the act and the man cannot be connected by any stretch of imagination; Imam was killed by the Taliban in January.
If anything, the reporting on the Hyderabad blasts is symptomatic of a larger problem with the Indian media’s coverage of terror attacks, and the IM in particular. Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju’s claim that the IM is a product of the media’s fertile imagination doesn’t help either.
There may be a grain of truth in Katju’s claim, and it demands fact-checking right from the IM’s genesis. So far, the sole proof of the outfit’s existence are the mails it sent to news channels after the 2007 terror attacks. Though experts have blamed lack of coordination between state agencies and the NIA as a reason why the IM myth is yet to be busted, it could simply be the outcome of a desire for easy answers and instant gratification. As the then Gujarat DGP, PC Pande, pointed out in his press conference after the 2008 Gujarat blasts, “You remove S and I from SIMI and it becomes IM, that’s all.”
Pande was referring to the Gujarat blasts investigation, which can easily qualify as one of the shoddiest ever. Nearly 70 accused continue to languish in Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Jail with the trial yet to begin. The Gujarat Police had named six ‘masterminds’ in a span of three weeks.
A 2009 investigation by TEHELKA tracked down the star witness of the blasts, who tore the police theory apart, proving that those implicated in the case were, in fact, innocent. Surprisingly, the chargesheet suggests the police had been keeping a tab on their activities. How could these men carry out the attacks if they were already under surveillance? That question remains unanswered, and unasked by the media.
Ever since, the country has witnessed several terror attacks with roughly two dozen masterminds and a horrifying number of the accused detained, arrested and acquitted in several cases, including blasts at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, Pune’s German Bakery, Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium, and the 2006 Mumbai serial bombings. In the much publicised German Bakery case, the Mumbai ATS picked up the wrong person, who was later acquitted with a public apology. But, post the recent Hyderabad blasts, the police again knocked on the doors of six men who were acquitted in the Mecca Masjid case, and detained them for questioning.
Though it may be too soon to nail the real culprits, with the police still struggling with the forensics of the case, it is time the investigative agencies came clean on the IM theory, backed by facts and details. It’s also time the contradictory claims about the Bhatkal brothers (Yasin Bhatkal, admittedly the planter of bombs in most cases, is still in the country, but hasn’t been tracked down) were resolved. If the prime accused in the 12-odd cases attributed to the IM are behind bars, why are there glaring discrepancies in the versions offered by various agencies? A similar question must be asked of Sanatan Sanstha and Abhinav Bharat, outfits formed around the same time as the IM.
Perhaps, it would be a good idea for Shinde to get the investigative agencies to put a stop on selective leaks to the media, and get the Delhi Police Special Cell, the NIA and the Mumbai ATS to sit together and act on the basis of evidence. Till then, myths, both old and new, will continue to flourish.