The pathology of prejudice: True lies of counterrorism in India
Kafkaland, written by Manisha Sethi, throws up unsettling questions on counterterrorism in India. Here are excerpts from the book and an interview with Sethi
by Akshaya Mishra & Tarique Anwar
New Delhi: Kafkaland, written by Manisha Sethi, throws up several unsettling questions on counterterrorism in India. Illegal detentions, confessions extracted by force, a bundle of lies peddled routinely as truth, a gullible media lapping up every story fed to it by 'sources', so-called security experts popularizing theories tailor-made for the majoritarian sentiment and the collective acceptance of a prejudiced narrative - it's a cynical, convoluted world out there. The abysmally low conviction rate in terror cases tells its own story. With every such case that fails in the courts, the grand narrative that surfaces in the media almost immediately after the arrest of 'suspects' should stand discredited and die a natural death too. But it always gets a new life after every fresh arrest and 'experts' keep circulating the same theories with minor change in character and locations. Sethi questions the narrative and the motive behind it.
Here follows selected excerpts from the book and some questions put to the author of the book by Firstpost.
Excerpt: There is a fairly typical kind of story that appears in the media after every bomb blast. It is accompanied by a visual spread which graphically ‘joins the dots’ in the supposed Indian terror network... The cast changes marginally, and the plot moves between Kerala, Bhatkal in Karnataka, Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Ujjain and Khanwa in Madhya Pradesh with detours into Hyderabad, Maharashtra and Gujarat... SIMI, Lashkar, HUJI morph seamlessly into each other's story of homegrown terror.
Q: According to your book, the narrative of counterterrorism in India is a pack of lies and half-truths. They spin a yarn and the media falls for it hook, line and sinker, sacrificing critical questioning for a saleable story. Do you think media is also responsible for spreading untruth? How can it make a change?
A: Barring a few exceptions, the mainstream media has singularly failed to critique or question. The consensus on national security has turned it into a sacred object beyond questioning. There are moments, for example, when the Mecca Masjid conspiracy was exposed, or when Malegaon accused were given bail, that there is some introspection on part of some –but the pattern is all too depressingly familiar one: of not questioning, not even investigating and relying on police versions almost wholly. One near universal trend is how the agencies leak disclosures to the press before chargesheets are filed. In the public domain, therefore, the guilt of the accused is already established by the time chargesheets are filed. Is it any surprise then, that the accused are never able to obtain bail, which in any case is difficult under UAPA.
But beyond everyday reporting there are the numerous security experts who mostly re-hash IB dossiers and create these sweeping narratives about terrorist organizations. The foundation of these commentaries, as has been shown in this book, is usually very weak.
All that is required to change this is a return to the reporter’s and editor’s ethic of fidelity to truth and a realization that journalists are not foot soldiers of the state.
Excerpt: But the fallout of the Malegaon frame-ups goes beyond one or two cases. Its significance lies in throwing up yet again the pattern of terror investigations. The marking out of Muslim population as suspect and breeding of informers, who themselves can be sacrificed without compunction – which Abrar Ahmed, accused number 9 to discover – as the sine qua non of the relationship between police agencies and Muslims. Malegaon must also be held up as an example of how the constructed idea of Muslim rage and revenge has congealed our national narrative of terrorism. Every single confession – dictated now we know by the ATS – alluded to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom...
...Bias is not simply the bias of police and agencies. It isn’t a bias that seeps into the police force, unknown and unconsciously. Rather, it rests on the knowledge of that bias in our society, polity and media, and uses it to its full advantage.
Q: At one place in your book you talk about the ‘mythology of guilt’ created through confessions elicited through use of force. Later you mention that set prejudice against the Muslims in the larger society that makes all human rights violation in the name of counterterrorism possible. Is there a way out of the situation?
A: The only way forward is to rehabilitate the rule of law – to not allow moral panic to erode due process. The existing prejudice towards Muslims and the structure of our anti-terror laws, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which operates through guilt by association, feed on each other and render entire communities suspect. The first step towards rectifying this would be to recognize that such an institutional bias exists, and also to understand the problems that beset our anti-terror laws. It is not simply the case that these laws are abused by one or two police officers but that abuse is wired into the DNA of these laws. In the Malegaon case, for example, alluded to above, the central piece of evidence were the torture confessions since MCOCA under which this case was prosecuted allows the admission of confessions as evidence. Should not the unraveling of this case give us reason to pause and ponder over the operation of these laws?
Excerpt: Does IM [Indian Mujahideen] exist? If it does, what precisely it is? In all honesty, it’s not a question that is easy to answer – given that the only proofs of the existence of the organization have been the e-mails received after 2008 blasts, and the State dossiers. The arrest of Yasin Bhatkal in August 2013 unleashed another round of fierce reporting – with his disclosures and claiming the omnipresent IM hand everywhere and making headlines everyday...
Q: This turns the prevailing grand narrative of terror on its head. The stories spun by investigative agencies do not add up most of the time – the very low conviction in terror cases is a pointer. Do you have an alternative suggestion on terror incidents in the country? Do you deny the existence of outfits with links to Pakistani outfits?
A: I am not peddling a conspiracy theory – merely saying that the simple narrative on offer is very dubious. Kafkaland looks at many terror cases, which have been sold to us as water tight cases – but consistent interrogation yields another truth altogether – of cases resting on exaggerations and half-truths. What is the source of explosives and cash being planted on accused by investigating officers? In the Malegaon case, it was RDX; in the Dhaula Kuan fake encounter case, arms and explosives were proudly displayed by the Special Branch of Delhi Police in a press conference. In a more recent case, the Special Cell claimed that high grade explosive PETN –seized allegedly from a HUJI operative – evaporated, leaving no evidence behind when its malkhana caught fire!
Why do police informers surface with such regularity in these frame ups? Are they used cynically and then accused of terror acts? These are the questions we must ask of agencies. The black and white story of agencies versus terrorists appears to me, after having gone through these records and files, as some sort of a fantasy.
Excerpt: Investigating agencies are predisposed towards ‘picking up’ suspects and accused far ahead of the arrest shown in FIRs, chargesheets and media conferences and leaks. The phrase ‘picking up’ reflects our unique ability to sanitize and blunt the jagged edges of the investigative process to which illegal detention in crucial – just as ‘encounters are a glamorous and Bollywoody euphemism for cold-blooded executions.
Q: Something is rotten in our investigations. Illegal detentions, the dependence on confessions as evidence are obvious problem areas. What is the solution you would offer?
A: This reign of impunity needs to end. DK Basu guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court with regard to arrest and detention are followed only in breach. Torture remains pervasive and near universal. NHRC remains at best a compensation disbursing body, feared by none. Unless we begin to prosecute officers of investigative agencies who maliciously framed innocents this will continue. Why for instance, should ACP Shengal, Investigating officer in the Malegaon case, who planted RDX on the accused be allowed to leave a quite, retired life while the accused are left to piece together their lives after years of incarceration?
Why for example, has GL Singhal – arrested by the CBI for the Ishrat Jahan encounter, and the mastermind of the malicious prosecution in the Akshardham case (he famously cracked the case within one and a half hours of assuming charge of the investigation of the Akshardham fidayeen attack which had had remained unsolved for almost an year), in which all the accused were finally acquitted by the Supreme Court earlier this year – been reinstated? The message that the government and the police establishment send out repeatedly is that it pays to kill and frame people in the name of terrorism.