Dissecting the ‘reprieve’ to Saffron ‘terrorists’

By NM Sampathkumar,

Dropping of all charges under Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against the suspects in Malegaon Blasts case has gladdened several hearts beating for militant Hindutva. There have also been vociferous protests from Muslim groups, crying hoarse at what they think is “kid-gloved treatment to culprits.” For, they stand accused of the insane crime that left six innocents dead and dozens injured.

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The ‘reprieve’ can hardly be termed as delivery of justice to these victims of State arrogance and judicial callousness – as Gopal Shetty, city president of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), has exulted. It only demonstrates the depths, which justice in ‘democratic’ India has sunk to. There is far lesser rationale for the minorities to get enraged over the verdict of the special court headed by Shinde than there is for sideline Saffronites to be gleeful about.

The court has only applied brakes on the arrogance of the authorities but not ended it. The decision does not set the suspects free but only entitles them to apply for bail. They have to wait to really be free in ‘free’ India. The judge has only acted on the logic that the State can hold an individual in custody on suspicion only for a reasonable period and no more. A detinue cannot be penalized if the authorities cannot, for any reason, present sufficient evidence and get chargesheets framed. In fact, the demand should be for replicating Shinde’s logic in the case of thousands of citizens of the minority community, languishing in various jails without trial.

One needs to note that absolutely no progress, presentable to a court, has been made so far in cracking the crime in September 2008. Sadhvi Pragya and Abhinav Bharat, Pune-based social service mission co-founded by Lt Col Purohit, have been accused in the conspiracy. Though it cannot be categorically denied that Purohit, Pragya and other Saffronites were associated in plotting and executing the sinister act in some way, they are only the ‘suspects’ and not ‘guilty’ until proven so, in any civilized society.

There are lingering misgivings that Operation Malegaon was aimed at covering up their involvement in dozens of ‘secular’ serial bomb blasts in several towns. These blasts that killed and maimed thousands of people from all communities could easily be blamed by the rulers on ‘anti-nationals’ – a term that has become common among India’s ‘intellectuals’. In States like Gujarat, it may refer to any Muslim till his/her “loyalty to the nation” is endorsed. Abhinav Bharat may perhaps be acting as the front of diabolic elements with an agenda of putting an end to the democratic and secular, at least on the surface, credentials of India. Its real controllers are said to aim at a rabidly theocratic Hindu Rashtra, employing terror attacks. All said and done, however, the outfit can only remain, in the eyes of the law, as just a charitable NGO until proved otherwise in a court. Thousands will vouch to the constructive activities it carries out that the government is not capable of. Ten months is by no means a short time to dig out and parade evidences if they really existed. An administration incapable of doing it despite being convinced of the complicity has no right to exist. A chaotic anarchy would be a better option.

The sadhvi, picked up for ‘interrogation’ a few days after the blast, was sent in late-October to judicial custody. Under the draconian MCOCA provisions, she has been denied bail even though no credible evidence could be produced by authorities. The judiciary has been meekly conniving in the robbery of her liberty. Significantly, the Lt Col and the sadhvi are just two of the thousands of ‘accused’ in terror incidents in India in the last two decades. Their virulence and frequency intensified after the systematic demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to build a temple for Ram and several bloody reprisals on Muslims across the country. Last year, dozens of serial bomb blasts rocked several towns. The bloated, dysfunctional establishment has miserably failed to fix the perpetrators of these crimes. To cover up the failure, scapegoats are indiscriminately taken into ‘preventive custody’ after every blast from across the country.

Confessions extracted after torture in prolonged custody are acceptable to Indian courts to convict these ‘anti-nationals’. BJP’s Shetty let the cat out by alleging, “A political conspiracy was behind the arrest of sadhvi Pragya Thakur and this was done by the rival Congress party to appease the minorities . . . It is a clear case of politicians using the state anti-terrorism squad for political interests.” In fact, the ‘political conspiracy’ appears to be orchestrated from the very top to sustain the power centres at New Delhi. Powerful vested interests have heavy clout in intelligence and security agencies as well as strategic think tanks and political parties. Each one of these parties subscribes to the ‘Gandhian’ doctrine of treating Dalits and Muslims as ‘equals’ as if they were no different from the majority. They all endorse denial of separate electorates as demanded before independence/partition of the British colony. Every political outfit argues that equality offered in a vote-bank-based democracy can let Dalits and Muslims enjoy equity and “join the mainstream”. Hand-picked loyalists appointed from the sections herd the voters with “appeasement” strategies and fake privileges.

There are other possibilities that may seem far-fetched and diabolical but do appear to be corroborated by events. Several awkward questions have been left unanswered about the Dec 2001 Parliament attack drama that preceded an anti Muslim frenzy and war-mongering with Pakistan. The attack, strangely, did not claim a single minister, MP, top official or senior cop while a lone Kashmiri ‘terrorist’ has been sentenced to rot till the government gathers the guts to hang him. The strange phenomenon happened again in the case of the 26-11 terror attack in Mumbai. Incidentally, this was the first terrorist attack in India to claim the lives of top cops. They happened to be the ones who dared to get at the roots of the Malegaon blast. The Union Home Minister and State Chief Minister were promptly removed from public view after glaring lapses. And, reams of ‘dossiers’ were prepared blaming “cross-border terror from Pakistan” and exchanged. Muslims in India are expected to exhibit their unstinted loyalty to New Delhi every time they heighten tensions across the border.

The sadhvi has been accused of providing ‘logistics support’ for the terror attack because a two-wheeler she had used once upon a time was found from the blasts site. It had apparently landed in the hands of the yet-to-be-named culprits after changing any number of hands! Another charge is that she offered to provide two persons for Abhinav Bharat, whose chief is supposed to be the ‘mastermind’ behind the blast, also with zero evidence produced so far! The cops zeroed in on Purohit because some phone intercepts between some undisclosed people (whom the prominent person in public domain may not even know) mention him! Later, the bosses discovered that youth camps for social service he had organized were actually terror training camps! Incidentally, that is what every Moulvi in Saffron-ruled States is accused of doing!

According to India’s shameful laws, they can be denied their liberty until the real masterminds are found. This the corrupt and inefficient administration may never do. In Maharashtra itself, before the arrest of Pragya and her associates, numerous Muslim youths were arrested and charged with MCOCA citing identical logics. An appeal to drop MCOCA from these innocents filed in Supreme Court is still pending after three years. In Gujarat, anti-terrorist forces have the power to consider even religious scriptures as terrorist literature and let the victims languish, as the courts look on. The denial of justice to these ‘jihadi terorists’ can, however, not be the logical basis for putting the ‘Saffron terrorists’ also under detention indefinitely. People getting livid at the ‘reprieve’ that Purohit’s alleged team has earned are only weakening the case of every other ‘accused’, held in custody sans any presentable proof of complicity in crimes, to be set free.

The State of affairs in the country boasting of ‘impeccable record’ of democracy and non-aggression needs to be contrasted with the conscientiousness and integrity of the judiciary in the less-than-perfect, tentative democracy of the neighbour. Just two days after Shinde ‘boldly’ ruled against the powers-that-be, the Pakistan Supreme Court too rubbished an appeal by the country’s rulers. It denied permission to re-arrest Hafiz Saeed, who had been ordered released by Lahore High Court as no stickable evidence acceptable to HC could be presented within a reasonable period. In stark contrast with the justice business in ‘democratic’ India, Pak SC wanted the provincial and federal governments to convince the court of his involvement in terror activities.

In fact, it was due to India’s sabre-rattling did Pakistan want to rob the liberty of Saeed. The toddling civilian government put the JuD chief under house arrest in December 2008, surrendering to the diktats of the belligerent neighbour. India bayed for his blood after Mumbai terror attack because he had founded Lashkar-e-Taiba in 1989 to fight Indian rule in Kashmir before quitting and moving to the charity front. The judges found “independently obtained separate evidence” in the form of intelligence reports marshaled by Indian agencies unsustainable for authorizing his continued house arrest. The Indian dossiers, it was found, hid more relevant information for the sake of shielding the lapses of powers-that-be than they revealed.

The LHC Board ruled that the manner with which the freedom of Hafiz Saeed was usurped could not be justified by resorting to UN resolution as well. Eventually, the HC set him free in June 2009. When the government went to Supreme Court, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary came down upon the executive even more heavily: “Anything you want to do to any person under a particular law, you have to keep it within four corners of the law; because it concerns the individual liberties of the person, you have to construe the law strictly.” The court noted that the UN ban on him related only with travel and queried why he was put under house arrest and said: “We will not move forward one inch unless you convince us that the detention was based on the provisions of the law [invoked for the detention].”

Commenting on the refusal of Pak CJ to sacrifice individual liberty for the sake of extricating New Delhi from the untenable position it is caught in, Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna said meekly: “I think whatever we have provided, according to our assessment, I think that is evidence enough to punish them and Saeed is one of those who is the main brains behind the attack.” The worthy obviously does not realize that the bizarre obfuscations contained in a series of ‘dossiers’ will not be acceptable to any self-respecting judge in any civilized country. They can only satisfy a pliable judiciary.

The ‘reprieve’ belatedly granted by Shinde comes on the heels of the sadhvi’s threat after of committing ‘atma hatya’ (suicide). On the dropping of MCOCA charges, BJP’s national spokesperson Prakash Javadekar commented: “What has happened is a part of a judicial process. Even at this stage, we don’t want issues to be politicized. Let the judicial processes be completed, which will prove whether the accused are guilty of a terrorist act or not!” It makes it clear that Saffron zealots do not mind “sacrificing” the liberty of a handful as long as thousands of suspected terrorists, professing ‘alien’ religions could be kept in custody without basis in “national interests!”

It is in this scenario that the Muslim community must be careful to not walk into the trap set by politicos of different shades. The bosses would only be delighted to scuttle the special court’s order by appealing to SC, if egged on by gullible sections. The government could manage to keep these ‘Saffron terrorists’ confined. But, that would only be another fake “appeasement” of the minorities, which will become an issue to both Congress and BJP to play vote-bank politics.

At the same time, it would effectively be sealing the fate of numerous Muslim families who have the breadwinners in jail for no reason. Such fake “appeasing tactics” have been adopted any number of times so far to trick them into silence. De-slapping of draconian provisions of MCOCA in the Malegaon case should instead be leveraged to demand the same fairness to all the accused, jailed beyond a reasonable period.

[The author is an independent analyst of South Asian issues, based in Ahmedabad, India.]