Anti-Terror Probes: Muslims Face Systemic Bias
Book: Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India
Author: Manisha Sethi
Publisher: Three Essays Collective, New Delhi
Both as an academic and activist, Manisha Sethi has been one of the relentless fighters against human rights violations. She worked with courage and consistency to expose the infamous Batla House encounter as fake. The book under review discussed her shocking experiences and findings about the functioning of anti-terror operations.
Her major argument is that a systemic bias pervades counter-terror operations in India. As she succinctly puts it, “there is a systemic and systematic bias against minorities when it comes to terror investigations” (p. 113). The police, in the name of fighting terror, are subverting norms by resorting to torture and carrying out warrantless arrests and illegal detention.
She demonstrates that a large section of the police is communalised and prejudiced, particularly against Muslims. As several fact-finding reports suggest, many Muslim detainees had to suffer abuse, humiliation, beatings, burns and “high voltage shocks to private parts” in torture chambers. Detainees are also forced to undergo brain mapping, and polygraph tests. For instance, narco tests were conducted on the detainees of the 2006 Mumbai blasts during which they were injected with banned drugs used as anesthesia, which might have caused them heart attack.
The state, instead of punishing the erring police officers, offers them incentives and prizes for such acts. Take, for instance, the case of meteoric ascendancy of a Delhi Police sub-inspector, who was promoted to the rank of assistant commissioner of police in a mere thirteen years. In the words of the author: “‘Counter-insurgency spawns its own political economy; the promise of and prospect of promotions, cash awards, public adulation, glorification by a pliant media, all work to lubricate a machinery which transforms innocents into terrorists” (p. 106).
The police in people’s perceptions have become synonymous with fear and death. But the militarised state protects the marauding cops and the pliant mainstream media manufacture consent for this.
Collusion Among State Institutions and Media
When the state-under the influence of global Islamophobic discourse of War on Terror enacts draconian laws, curtailing citizens’ fundamental rights, encourages the police to become a law into themselves. Inaugurating the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Conference in 2002, the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee blatantly justified human rights violations: “We have to sometimes take tough decisions, even infringing some of our freedoms and abridging some of our human rights temporarily, to firmly counter terrorism: (p. 111).
If the prime-minister of the country spoke in such a hawkish tone, how could one expect the police forces to safeguard citizens’ rights? The Vajpayee government enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002 that “allowed the admission of confession made before a police officer-otherwise inadmissible under the Indian Evidence Act-as evidence to be used against the accused”(p. 140). As it was feared, POTA turned out to be a worse remedy than the malady which destroyed liberties, jettisoned criminal jurisprudence and was used for malignant political motives.
Ironically, the opposition parties, which once opposed draconian laws like POTA, soon became the supporters of another anti-terror law when they came to power. In 2004, when the centre-left UPA was voted to power, thanks to overwhelming support by the most deprived sections, including Muslims, it repealed POTA, but brought in a new anti-terror law, namely the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Originally promulgated in 1967 and amended twice in 2004 and 2008, UAPA invests the Centre with so much power that it can declare any organisation as “unlawful” at will.
Given this, the accusation of Maulana Arshad Madani, the national president of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, was not much off the mark when he said that the “secular” UPA government, much more than any previous government, inflicted unspeakable damage on the community by framing Muslim youths in terror cases. The refusal of the UPA government to even allow a judicial enquiry into the Batla House encounter, despite huge demand from people, and to cancel the hanging of Afzal Guru seem to corroborate the charge of the maulana.
She also analyses the role of media, the watch dog of democracy. Just as the global media were fed news by US military in 2002 Iraq war, the Indian media propagated what was dictated to them by government, intelligence agencies, police and security personnel. Today, all big media houses, both regional and national, have got security experts and crime reporters, whose success lies in their ability to write “investigative reports” which are rehashed versions of police and intelligence agencies’ handouts.
Another pillar of democracy, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), too, comes in for criticism. She finds the NHRC perpetuating a statist ideology As a result, the NHRC increasingly faces a crisis of legitimacy. It has been reduced to a “compensation-disbursing body”. This is also evident from the open advocacy of its chairperson and the first Dalit Chief Justice of Supreme Court, K.G. Balakrishnan, of encounters, which he said, were “unavoidable sometimes”. He added, “as law and order problems are increasing, criminals are taking law into their hands, attacking even the police. Police have to take control of the situation” (p. 111).
Particularly noteworthy is the failure of judiciary. The author briefly mentions the role of judges who ignore the marks of torture on detainees and do not overcome their prejudice while pronouncing judgments. Moreover, lawyers have, for several occasions, refused to take up the cases of terror accused, condemning them well before the beginning of trials.
Political Economy of Securitisation
Having discussed the systematic bias against Muslims in anti-terror probes at the hands of the police, the state, its institutions and the mainstream media, the author turns to the factors that sustain this. On the political economy of securitisation, Sethi argues that the period after terrorist attacks is occasion for arms industries to sell their arms and make huge profits. She goes on to point to India’s burgeoning budgetary expenditure on the purchase of weapons in the recent decades, a period marked by the discourse of terrorism.
While India currently imports 14 per cent of global arms, more than China and Pakistan, its expenditure on weapons is likely to grow at 8.3 per cent a year. Further, India’s current expenditure on defence is bigger than the grand total expenditure of social welfare programmes including health, education, and rural development (p. 153). In the wake of growing defence budget, major corporate industries are now making forays into arms business. Apart from them, weapons industries from the West and Israel, too, have found in India a huge market for their products. Given that, the military-industrial complex has its vested interests in maintaining the atmosphere of fear, threat, terror and insecurity. This may be achieved by demonising some sections of society, preferably the most vulnerable, as “terrorists”.
The reviewer is pursuing PhD at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He may be contacted at email@example.com