Swami Aseemanand’s Confessions: Its time for an apology
New Delhi (9 January 2010): Swami Aseemanand’s confession before the metropolitan magistrate of Tees Hazari Court has finally put the seal of legal validity over what had been circulating for months now, since the surfacing of the audio tapes seized from Dayanand Pande’s laptop. That Hindutva groups had been plotting and executing a series of bomb blasts across the country—including Malegaon (2006 and 08), Samjhauta Express (2007), Ajmer Sharif (2007) and Mecca Masjid (2007).
For the past several years however, dozens of Muslim youth have been picked up, detained, tortured, chargesheeted for these blasts—with clearly no evidence, except for custodial confessions (which unlike Swami’s confessions have no legal value). Report after report has proved that the Maharashtra and Andhra police willfully refused to pursue the Hindutva angle preferring to engage in communal witch-hunt—or as in the case of Nanded blast—where the evidence was so glaring as to be unimpeachable—weakening the prosecution of these elements.
What is striking today is not the revelation contained in Aseemanand’s confessions but that it should have taken the country’s premier and pampered security agencies this long—four years after the Malegaon serial blasts, and even longer since the explosions elsewhere in Maharashtra—to unravel the Hindutva terror networks. Especially so, when Maharshtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare had, as far back as 2008, communicated to the Hyderabad Police the sensational claim by Col. Purohit that he had procured RDX from an army inventory when he was posted in Jammu and Kashmir in 2006. While the Hyderabad Police having conveniently arrested over 70 Muslim youth, tortured them at private farmhouses and extracted confessions, refused even to seek Puroshit’s custody; the Haryana ATS investigating the Samjhauta Express blast questioned Dayanand Pande but then pleaded that the trail had turned cold, thus washing its hands off. The use of RDX in the Samjhauta blast was touted as proof enough of Pakistani involvement in the Samjhauta blast; the crucial piece of evidence, the suitcase carrying the bomb was traced to Kothari Market in Indore, but the Haryana ATS, possibly under pressure or simply incredulous about the possibility of Hindutva terror appeared paralyzed.
Amnesia about Narco-Analysis?
What is one to make of the reports of the Narco-analysis tests conducted on SIMI activists, including Safdar Nagori his brother Kamruddin Nagori and Amil Parvezin April 2008, which claimed expediently that SIMI activists “had helped carry out the Mumbai train bombings of July 11, 2006 and the Samjhauta Express blasts of January 2007...with the help of Pakistani nationals who had come from across the border.” India Today magazine had proudly claimed in an ‘exclusive’ that the Narco-tests revealed “SIMI’s direct links with not only the Mumbai train bombings which killed over 200 persons but also links with the Samjhauta Express blast of February 2007 which killed 68 persons.” The reports of the Narco test on Nagori claimed that he had revealed that “some persons from Pakistan” had purchased the suitcase cover at Kataria market, Indore, while a SIMI activist “helped them to get the suitcase cover stitched”. Nagori is said to have named Abdul Razak and Misbah-ul-Islam of Kolkata as key people who provided crucial support to SIMI’s Indore unit in executing the Samjhauta train blast.
As for the Malegaon blasts, Nagori is said to have ‘admitted’ during the Narco test that some Muslim members were involved and he was aware of it; and he attributed the Hyderabad blast to one Nasir—who according to Nagori disliked the owner of the Gokul Chat stall—who was arrested a few months’ prior to Nagori’s arrest.
Other important information revealed in the exclusive story is the Nagori claim that “most of the SIMI activists knew about other bomb conspiracies across the country” and the presence of sleeper cells in Hubli. (Sandeep Unnithan, IndiaToday, 19 September 2008)
So why did Nagori decide—even if in a drugged state—to take credit for the blasts that have now been proven to be the handiwork of Sangh offshoots? To boost SIMI’s sagging image? Or maybe to score brownie points over rival factions within SIMI?
Or perhaps, as several scientists, jurists and civil rights activists have been pointing out, Narco-analysis not only robs the suspect’s rights and dignity—amounting to third degree—but is also highly unscientific, dubious and undependable as evidence in investigations. It is entirely possible for the investigator to induce, communicate his/ her ideas and thoughts to the suspect, thereby eliciting a response favoured by the investigator and the police theory—whatever it happens to be at the moment.
Media or Hand Maiden of the Police?
What India Today was trying to disguise as a scoop was the result not of any painstaking investigation, but the patronage of security agencies. This is sadly becoming too routine in supposedly investigative stories about blasts and terror strikes: security agencies pass on dossiers and reports such as the Narco tests to favoured journalists, who dutifully reproduce the police version. The public naming of individuals and groups as suspects—with little credible evidence—is usually a prelude to detentions, arrests and torture of ‘suspects’. No doubt, claims that SIMI members in Maharashtra were in the know of the bomb conspiracy then afford greater freedom to the police to launch manhunts for former SIMI members (even when the organization was still not banned) as co-conspirators. Mass arrests following Mecca Masjid blasts were accompanied by stories which implicated local youth from Muslim-dominated localities such as Moosaram Bagh (“Behind the Mecca Masjid Bombing: Communal Violence, Organised Crime and Global Jihad Intersect in Andhra Pradesh’s Capital” by Praveen Swami, Frontline, May 23, 2007). Such stories lent a veneer of legitimacy to the subversion of due processes of law—where the hype surrounding the threats of Islamic terrorism justifies the shortcut methods of investigation—namely illegal detentions, torture, custodial confessions, narco-tests and the like.
On October 11, 2007 the Union Home Ministry claimed that the Ajmer Sharif blast was the handiwork of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was opposed to Sufi Islam, whose prime symbol was the Ajmer Sharif dargah. And the very next day, Praveen Swami served up “The War against Popular Islam” (The Hindu, October 12, 2007), wherein he claimed that the bombing of the Ajmer dargah—as well as blasts at Mecca Masjid and Sufi shrine in Malegaon—reflect a “less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.” It turns out now that Swami’s profound understanding has been turned on its head: it was not rabid Islam’s war against popular Islam but Hindutva’s revenge on the inherent syncreticism of India. Aseemanand is said to have told the magistrate: “Since Hindus throng the Ajmer Sharif Dargah we thought a bomb blast in Ajmer would deter Hindus from going there.” (in Tehelka, 15 January, 2011). Again screaming headlines about HUJI link created an atmosphere in which the Rajasthan SIT could detain a dozen Imams, maulvis and madrasa teachers, without producing the suspects in court, plucking them from their native places and bringing them to Ajmer for interrogation without even bothering to obtain transit remands.
More recently, the Varanasi blast occasioned yet another rash of stories based on ‘sources’ in the Indian intelligence agencies about Indian Mujahideen men on the run, in hideouts abroad, but whose associates still live in places as predictable as Azamgarh and Bhatkal. (For a fairly standard story see, “Indian Mujahudeen: The Hunt Continues” by Vicky Nanjapa. http://vickynanjapa.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/indian-mujahideen-the-hunt-continues/)
Gear up for more arrests, shall we?
An apology? And some compensation?
Though the Mecca Masjid blast case was transferred to the CBI, the Hyderabad Police registered three cases related to conspiracies in order to retain control over the investigations and indeed to push for its line of investigation based on forced confessions extracted under torture. This is clear demonstration of the high stakes Special Investigation Teams (SITs) and Special Cells attach to cases such as bomb blasts and terror attacks: terror investigations are lucrative means of earning quick medals, promotions and awards—as long as scapegoats (read Muslim youth) can be produced and paraded as masterminds, conspirators and accomplices.
The Home Ministry must release a White Paper on the total number of those arrested and in jail currently for the blasts now in every single the blasts named by Swami Aseemanand as the handiwork of his organization and associates. Those still languishing in prisons must be released without any further delay.
Those whose lives have been destroyed, those psychologically scarred and socially stigmatized by these false charges and imprisonment deserve surely a public apology, from the state governments as well as the Home Ministry.The former Home Minister Shivraj Patil had expressed his satisfaction at the direction of the Ajmer bomb probe—at the time when maulavis and madrasa teachers were being picked up—and in 2009, P. Chidambaram had pleaded that the investigations in the Mecca Masjid blast case had reached a dead end with the death of the mastermind of the blast, Shahid Bilal (the same Bilal whose house appeared prominently in Praveen Swami’s article). More recently, when a Hindutva angle was suggested by the Maharashtra ATS in the Pune Bakery blast, The Maharashtra Home Minister, RR Patil threatened action against the ATS Chief.
Even the exceedingly low levels of political propriety in our country can be no excuse for not tendering an apology to the victims of the witch-hunt.The Andhra Chief Minister has announced grandly on the floor of the state assembly that he would tender an apology if it was proved that Muslim youth had been deliberately harassed by the police in the aftermath of the Mecca Masjid blasts. The AP Chief Minister would do well to read the reports of the National Minorities Commission and the AP Minorities Commission, both of which laid bare the gratuitous violence committed by the Hyderabad police on suspects. The CM appears to be waiting for the report of the Justice Bhaskara Rao Commission before offering an apology (newspaper reports on 17 Dec 2010). Except that he forgot that the Commission was appointed to look into the police firing after the Mecca Masjid blasts and not into accusations of torture and illegal detention—and the Commission already submitted its report to the CM three months ago, in October 2010!
While we need to be vigilant that the investigations are now not derailed by prejudice of security agencies and state governments; the issue of compensation to those unjustifiably arrested and tortured needs to be addressed urgently. Dr. Haneef’s case in Australia—where the Australian government apologised and paid undisclosed large sums of money as compensation for wrongful terror accusations and detention—should serve as a model for us here. The Andhra Pradesh Government’s offer of rehabilitation package of Rs 30,000 –Rs 80,000 as loans (!) to those who suffered arrests and torture can only add insult to the already inflicted injury (“Andhra’s ‘Healing Touch’ to ‘innocent’ Muslims”, Indian Express, 14 Nov 2008). Just for the sake of record, even these loans have not materialsed. On the other hand, the state government is contesting the damages of Rs 20 lakhs each being claimed by the victims in the Hyderabad City Civil Court.
Finally, all those who colluded and covered up these sham investigations need to be brought to justice: those in the intelligence agencies, officers of the police and security agencies, political bosses et al. The Hyderabad Joint Commissioner of Police (Administration) Harish Gupta—who presided over the Mecca Masjid custodial confessions, torture and narco-analysis tests—must be held accountable. As must be each and every police officer who participated in this charade of investigation; in this large scale violation of the rights of the accused by subjecting them to brutal torture, and in doing so, undermined their own office. Police officers must be charged and tried for their criminal acts of violence against the youth—whom they knew to be innocent—as well as gross dereliction of duties for deliberately building their investigations on falsehoods in so serious a crime as bomb blasts.
We shouldn’t have had to wait for a change of Swami Aseemanand’s heart to reach this far.
Manisha Sethi, Sanghamitra Misra, Ahmed Sohaib, Adil Mehdi, Tanweer fazal, Ghazi Shahnawaz, Arshad Alam, Farah Farooqi, Azra Razak, Ambarien Al Qadar, Anwar Alam, Shakeb Ahmed, Haris ul Haq for JTSA (Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association) www.teacherssolidarity.org