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Mumbai Bomb Blasts- I: Denial of Constitutional Rights

Apart from a definite anti-Muslim bias and insensitive treatment of suspects, the Mumbai police have been systematically violating the constitutional rights of citizens in the process of their investigations into the train bombings of July 11.

MUMBAI BOMB BLASTS – I

Denial of Constitutional Rights

Apart from a definite anti-Muslim bias and insensitive treatment of suspects, the Mumbai police have been systematically violating the constitutional rights of citizens in the process of their investigations into the train bombings of July 11.

JYOTI PUNWANI

A
wide range of violations of constitutional rights has accompanied the search for the culprits of the July 11 bomb blasts in Mumbai. But there has been little protest about these violations. They seem to have been accepted as inevitable, given the enormity of the crime. Also, there has been just one allegation of torture, and most of the 1,500-odd Muslims who have been picked up have been let off after a few hours or days – without of course, being produced before a magistrate. Even those formally arrested and charged have been produced before a magistrate days after they were picked up.

The question arises: have Hindus as a community, or, even members of selfproclaimed militant Hindu organisations, ever been treated similarly? Leaving aside the impunity allowed to Hindu extremists to kill, burn and destroy lives and properties of minorities in Mumbai and Gujarat in 1992-93 and 2002, there was a very specific incident involving members of an extremist Hindu organisation that needed to be investigated after the blasts. Two persons died in April this year while handling bombs in the house of an RSS activist in Nanded – who was a retired government servant to boot. The four injured and 10 arrested are reportedly Bajrang Dal activists; fake beards and moustaches were found in the house. The Maharashtra police have either included this major incident in their long list of crimes committed by Hindu extremist organisations that need no follow up, or are keeping uncharacteristically quiet about their findings. This is in total contrast to their regular briefings to the media after the blasts, about their arrests and “findings”. Indeed, the media has played no small role in violating the constitutional rights of Muslims.

Role of Media

Like the police, the media knows that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.

The police routinely ignore this rule. The media need not. Media trials are now passé. But unlike celebrities and politicians, who live mostly in the public eye, ordinary Muslims suspected of being terrorists live private lives, like other ordinary citizens, and the sudden focus on their private space

– their homes and families – can cause lasting damage. It needs to be stressed that these Muslims have not yet been tried, let alone convicted. Would the effect on readers of front page photographs of their homes and relatives, and headlines such as “terror finds a new face” ever be wiped out? Similarly, will Muslim ghettoes like Mominpura and Naya Nagar ever recover from the tag of “fertile breeding grounds for jehadis”? The police arrested a principal of an Urdu school from the school itself. Sure enough, the media printed a picture of the school.

The media has rarely questioned the police version, even when the latter has repeatedly been proved wrong. Somehow the media finds it difficult to accept a welldocumented finding, publicly proclaimed by eminent judges as well as senior police officers, that the Indian police have an inbuilt anti-Muslim prejudice. At the same time, the media’s role in exposing the Gujarat government-directed pogrom against Muslims in 2002 cannot be ignored.

Now also, among sections of the press, the Mumbai police’s claims regarding the dozen-odd suspects they have formally arrested after the July 11 blasts are being questioned, though these doubts form only a fraction of the coverage given to the claims themselves.

Police Claims

The police claims that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) with the help of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists carried out the blasts. But the basis of their claims is “confessions”. Leaving aside the legal validity of confessions to the police, it seems surprising that hardened jehadis would spill the beans in such detail soon after being arrested. And if indeed they are what the police claim them to be, surely the state’s intelligence ought to have been keeping tabs on them?

Mumbai police commissioner A N Roy’s defence of the wide sweep with which Muslims of all classes are being picked up: “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack”, is itself a confession of intelligence failure. Mumbai’s Muslims are paying the

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 price of such failure as a community. From the “jhadoo rounds” (as the Urdu press derisively describes them) of Muslim slums, to all ex-SIMI members, from those who have travelled to the Gulf recently to Ahle Hadees members – the police have picked up for questioning such a wide range of Muslims that no one seems immune.

After every bomb blast – and there have been no less than seven in Mumbai in the last four years – the police have blamed LeT and SIMI, and picked up former SIMI members. Surely these members ought to have been under constant surveillance. The irony is that the first people to be picked up are those who left SIMI because they could not stomach its “jehadist” ideology. In 1991, almost the entire top leadership of SIMI’s Mumbai unit left the organisation, announcing in front page advertisements in the Urdu press that they could not go along with its extremist ideology. But no police officer met them then. Thereafter, SIMI continued with its provocative and communal acts, with no preventive action by the police. Obviously, there was no surveillance worth the name being kept on it. No wonder then, that after SIMI was banned in 2001, the police have had no clue where its active cadre have gone, and keep picking up the same exmembers again and again every time there is a blast.

This time, the police have, apart from arresting anyone who has ever been a SIMI member, and their relatives, zeroed in on the Ahle Hadees sect, to which SIMI is reportedly close. This sect believes that true Islam lies in the Quran and the Hadees, not in any interpretation of these.

It is not as though the Mumbai police have just discovered the Ahle Hadees. The main accused in the December 1993 train blasts that took place across the country was Jalees Ansari, who belonged to this sect and lived in Mominpura, an old Muslim area and an Ahle Hadees stronghold. He is serving his sentence. Should not the police have kept an eye on the sect since then?

Had they done so, they would have known that organisations, which believe in the Ahle Hadees ideology, such as the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) and the Islamic Centre for Research and Awareness (ICRA), hold regular interfaith dialogues. Some of their members who have been picked up run medical camps among poor Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and continue to do so after the blasts.

Bias and Insensitivity

Across the board, the manner in which the police have dealt with those whom they have picked up has been illegal. Could this have been encouraged by Raj Thackeray’s warning to lawyers not to take up the cases of the bomb blast accused? (This, incidentally, has been challenged in court by the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers.)

Immediately after the blasts, the police conducted late night raids on lower middle class and poor Muslim areas, rounding up Muslims in their hundreds and then letting off most of them the next day, except those with police records. This exercise was conducted in full glare of the media; the photograph of Muslims of all ages squatting outside Mahim police station, which graced most front pages, is as haunting an image as that of a security man lifting the ‘topi’ of a Muslim outside the Red Fort on independence day, supposedly searching for explosives. The insensitivity of the press, which decided to print these pictures, only matched that of the police. The police commissioner’s clarification that Hindus too had been picked up in Mahim came too late.

Keeping an updated list on “communal goondas” has for long been prescribed in the Mumbai Police’s Manual on tackling communal riots. This was not done before or during the 1992-93 riots, and justice Srikrishna in his inquiry report into them, emphasised the need to follow this rule as a measure to prevent riots. Like his other recommendations, this too has been ignored.

While the poor were picked up en masse, the modus operandi for better off and educated Muslims has been to pick up an ex-SIMI member or one active in an Ahle Hadees organisation and through him, get to the others. These suspects have not just been accused of being responsible for the blasts and grilled about their past and present activities, but have also been taunted about their religion. (There also happened to a bearded Muslim youth flying to Dubai on an employment visa the day after the blasts. The immigration officials, on the excuse that his passport was damaged twice sent him home.) The worst aspect of this treatment has been the threat of arrest unless they lead them to their acquaintances.

National Book Trust

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

Many of these Muslims have regular jobs and do not want their employers to know that they have been arrested. The plea of one such sales manager to the police, that he would be late for work if he accompanied them (for the second time) to point out the homes of his friends, was laughed at. The police had kept his mobile phone with them. Before handing it over to him, they took down all Muslim names and phone numbers from it, leaving out all the Hindu names.

The police take care not to assault these educated Muslims; at the same time, they do not allow them to contact their families for at least the first 24 hours they are in custody. One boy managed to call his father just before the police snatched his mobile from him. This so angered the inspector that he allegedly stripped a poor Muslim who had also been picked up, and began thrashing him with his belt on his knees and private parts. This scene was witnessed by all the 25-odd Muslims herded inside a small room in the police station, some for days.

One call centre employee first tried reasoning with the police, pleading with them to come and search his home. When that did not work, he threatened to complain to the police commissioner. The inspector retorted: “Here’s his phone number and address”.

Making Amends

After a month of such conduct by his men, Mumbai’s police commissioner promised a group of leading Muslims that he would personally deal with all cases of unfair treatment brought to him. He kept his word. The question is: would every Muslim unfairly targeted be able to reach him? Would every such Muslim want to make an issue of it once he was out of custody? More importantly, did the commissioner need to hold a meeting with Muslims to know that his men were breaking the law? The press had printed fairly early that those picked up were being denied access to their families and were not being produced before magistrates. This continues till today.

At the meeting the police commissioner said that after the Urdu school principal had been picked up from her school, he had instructed his men to pick up suspects only from their homes. Had these instructions been publicised in the press, it would have helped reduce the resentment building up within the community. This one meeting of the commissioner has assuaged the city’s Muslims’ anger to a large extent; they now feel they have access to the city’s topmost officer. Could not this meeting have been held at the very beginning? Could not the cooperation of the local level leadership and social workers been sought before alienating the community?

The irony is that the Mumbai police did not need to break the law to get what they wanted. Most magistrates do not hesitate while granting police custody, unless the defence lawyer is not just experienced, but also unafraid to insist on his/her client’s rights. Only a few of those picked up after the blasts would have had access to such lawyers.

Not surprisingly, the Maharashtra Minorities Commission has done nothing about this systematic denial of constitutional rights by the Mumbai police – the commission’s chairman is a political appointee. Groups of Muslim activists – from the orthodox Jamaat-e-Islami to the Muslims for Secular Democracy – are planning to conduct campaigns against terrorism among the Muslim community. That is great news. How about non-Muslims conducting campaigns against the violation of Muslims’ constitutional rights by the police, in a state ruled by a supposedly secular political front? EPW

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

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