Action Reaction: We are sipping our black coffees in silence. Me, exhausted, and he, killing time before he is summoned into another TV studio. It’s a busy day for ‘security experts’, the day after the twin blasts in Hyderabad. We have just finished a show where this gent has been on the whole sober, arguing that media and public pressure force agencies to commit errors. At this point, the anchor strides in, and demands, “So, what is this Indian Mujahideen? (IM)”
“I was raring to answer this question. I wish you had asked me this. I have a theory on this,” he says, softly. As the retired head of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), he is expected to have a theory on this.
“I think Indian Mujahideen is a rubric. There are many cells, not connected with another,” he continues. By then it is obvious that his theory is not original but the latest to emanate from the ‘intelligence community’. The honeycomb model of loose, uncoordinated cells, unrelated to each other, is the favoured IM theory these days.
“I don’t agree with UdayBhaskar that the roots of IM are to be found in BabriMasjid or Gujarat 2002,” he says, referring to the argument of our co-panellist, another strategic expert, on the show. Ok, here may be something interesting. “It goes back much further.”
“How far back? Independence? Partition? Pre-Independence?” ventures the anchor, gamely.
“Oh, no. Much further back. It will be the subject of a rather long monologue, I’m afraid.”
Then, undeterred by his own threat of monologue, he lowers his voice to a whisper. “Abrahamic traditions,” he reveals, as though this may be a State secret. The sound of his own words has a warming effect on him. “There is no meeting ground between Abrahamic traditions and traditions of the East. Abrahamic traditions are history-centred, unlike Hinduism.”
He launches into a fusillade against Islam, forgetting for the moment his own theory of Abrahamic traditions. “You see, jihad is a religious obligation in Islam. Hindus can never be violent.” The chief is in full flow now.
‘What of Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Sharif, Aseemanand, Sadhvi Pragya?’ asks the anchor. My head is oscillating between the two, almost as though this were a tennis match.
The chief smiles beatifically. “Hindus have been involved only in five incidents. These were reactions to what they saw around them. Hindu terrorism is an oxymoron. It cannot exist.”
At this moment, I let out my breath, which I have been holding for the past five minutes, collect my bag and leave.
India’s newsrooms suffered a collective implosion following the Union Home Minister’s Jaipur ‘blasphemy’. The Congress was left collecting the detritus as senior ministers dismissed Sushil Kumar Shinde’s ‘Hindu terror’ remarks as personal opinion. ‘Terror has no colour’ became the sudden, righteous slogan of all channels and all regulars thereof. Have we ever termed jihadi terror as ‘green’, they asked, incensed at the coinage of ‘saffron terror’. The innocence of our experts was charming, if nothing else.
Many cussed characters took a more uncharitable view of this hullabaloo over Hindu terror, but we can ignore these conspiracy theorists for now. Let’s focus for the moment on one of the favourites on the endless discussion programmes on TV news channels: a retired cop. A former police commissioner of Mumbai, who had led the investigations into the ‘Black Friday’ blasts of 1993, condemned it as “politically coined terminology… very handy for some people to counter the charge of jihadi terrorism… In my opinion,” he concluded, “there is nothing like saffron terrorism. Itjust doesn’t exist in the Hindu pantheon.” (sic)
The SanatanSanstha and Abhinav Bharat were localized phenomena which had “been nipped in the bud” by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Terrorists of the Hindu variety — oxymoronic as they are, even if they exist — lack the capacity, the capability, the resources, but above all “even the motivations”. Of course, ‘Mr Singh’ did not rule out the possibility of involvement of some Hindu groups, but their actions were to be classed as “retaliatory attacks” — “retaliatory attacks as opposed to organized home-grown terror sponsored by Pakistan” (1).
How could Hindus possibly bomb their own country — except in retaliation?
The idea of Hindus as the only true and natural citizens of India has long been elevated to the mythical. As is the binary between a violent Islam and a non-violent Hinduism. So, ladies and gentlemen, these prejudices are the operating codes for those at the apex of investigating agencies. Frightening, but no longer surprising.
Mumbai: Suryaprakash. Sunlight. Suggesting warmth, glow, life. But to those who have passed through the torture chambers of the Maharashtra Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS), it invokes horrific memories of burns, blisters and scorches — suffering which continues hours after Suryaprakash oil is applied to their nostrils, anal passage and penis.
Among these singularly unlucky men were those 13 charged with planning and executing the blasts in Mumbai trains in 2006.
On July 11, 2006, in just over 10 minutes, seven bombs tore through the first class compartments of Mumbai’s local trains, killing close to 200 people and injuring hundreds. In an act of cheap mimesis, commentators swiftly labelled it as India’s 7/11. In two days flat, the Home Ministry discovered SIMI’s stamp on the blasts (2).
A week after the blasts, the Mumbai Police released photos of two other suspects, Sayyad Zabiuddin and Zulfeqar Fayyaz, and the following day, named the third suspect, Rahil(3). Then, slyly, only a week later, the same police presented three catches to the media: Kamal Ansari and Khalid Aziz Ronak Sheikh arrested from Basupatti village in Madhubani district of Bihar; and Ansari’s brother-in-law, Mumtaz Ahmed Maqbool Ahmed Choudhary from Navi Mumbai (4).
Neither the Mumbai police, nor the crime reporters remembered anything about the first list of suspects.
Between July and September, many more arrests were made, taking the total to 13, and the crime was triumphantly declared as solved. In a press conference, held on September 30, 2006, the commissioner of police described the ATS’s handiwork as a “beautiful piece of highly professional investigation” (5) and outlined how Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had trained, supported and directed Lashkar and SIMI operatives to carry out the blasts, working in pairs. He also described in precise detail how the bombs were rigged: From RDX sourced from Pakistan and locally available ammonium nitrate; one Mohammad Ali fashioned these bombs, packing the explosives into “eight five-litre pressure cookers of the brand name Kanchan” (6).
By way of proving the ISI-SIMI collaboration, a dead description lying unclaimed in the city morgue was identified as Salim from Lahore (7). This dead man was listed as deceased accused 1, address and other details not known, nationality Pakistani, in the chargesheet. No one asked, and no one answered as to how a burnt and mangled torso wrenched out from the blast site was identified as Salim of Lahore, other details not known.
News reports from that period — based largely on official press conferences, which are always aplenty in Mumbai, and unofficial sources, which never run dry anywhere — describe how the case was cracked. Even then, it would have been obvious to half-caring observers, there wasn’t much in it. The case hinged primarily on two things: telephone records; and second, in admitted absence of other evidences and leads, the ‘scientific method’ of narco-analysis (8).
Let’s look at the telephone records first.
The breakthrough in the case allegedly came from high traffic of phone calls between Mumtaz and his brother-in- law, KamalAnsari, in the week preceding the blasts. The duo’s guilt hinged on the reference to Nepal — which is in touching distance of Ansari’s Madhubani village, and which every Bihari in that belt will tell you is the favoured destination for weekly shopping.
Between August 17 and September 25, 2006, the ATS filed five remand applications seeking the custody of the accused on grounds that their cellphones had been seized and their call records were being obtained, compared and analyzed.
A remand application, dated August 22, 2006, claimed that Abdul Wahid Din Shaikh (accused 8) used to give his mobile phone for “contacting members of Lashkar–e–Toiba(LeT) outside India” on behalf of Mohammad Sajid Ansari (accused 7).
An extension of the remand of accused 1-9 was sought on the claim that Kamal Ansari had received arms training in Pakistan and “used the mobile phone and e-mail addresses for communicating with those persons (in Pakistan) and passing on messages. The call records of his mobile phone are being analyzed”. This was on September 25. On the same day, the ATS filed another application listing recoveries of cellphones and sim cards from Dr Tanveer (accused 2), Ehtesham Kutubuddin Siddiqui (accused 4), Shaikh Mohammad Ali Alam Shaikh (accused 6), which had been sent to the Forensics Science Laboratory (FSL), Hyderabad, “for examining and extracting information in it”. It also stated “that on the instructions from the accused no. 5 Mohd. Faizal, the accused no. 6 was contacting other members of LeT on his mobile phone of a given number” (9).
Each remand application created the impression of hectic investigations and forensics whose fruitful conclusion necessitated extended periods of remand. Not one of these applications was turned down. From their time of detention to the press conference on September 30, all 13 remained in the custody of the ATS. But, apparently, this rich haul of evidence by way of Call Detail Record (CDRs) were to be supplemented by the ‘scientific’ method of narco analysis, which revealed the modus operandi of the operatives: how they went to Pakistan for training, how they helped the Pakistani operatives to cross over to India, how they prepared the bombs and planted them, down to the minutest detail.
On the second anniversary of the blasts in 2008, Shahid Azmi, the lawyer for the train blasts accused, later himself felled by the bullets of a lone gunman, circulated two letters on behalf of the accused (10). The first was a letter of condolence to the victims of the blasts. “We, thirteen — innocent accused, are with you in this time of grief and remembrance,” it said. “…We request you not to consider us as murderers, but victims who are suffering for a deed with which we have no connection at all.
We are not a part of any conspiracy, nor are we associated in any way with Lashkar-e-Toiba. We have not even seen any al-Qaida manual, we are not bomb makers nor are we the planters. To be true we have not committed any crime nor have we given any confession… ATS has just played this game with the sole aim of silencing the public and the so-called leaders and to diffuse the atmosphere of fear that had been created. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of the terror are still roaming free. The truth is that the ATS remained clueless (intentionally or unintentionally) and we were made the scapegoats so that they heave a sigh of relief. No doubt you are suffering for the loss of your near and dear ones, but we are suffering each moment for the last two years.”
The second letter, titled ‘Arrest of the Accused — the Real Facts’ chronicled in chilling and bare prose the diverse practices of cruelty devised by the ATS. Tied to a plank with ropes, water is poured continually on the face till the chosen victim loses consciousness. Meanwhile, a machine monitors blood pressure to ensure that it doesn’t spike enough to cause death. Trussed up in a chair, unable to move his head even an inch, the victim is subjected to a continuous falling of water droplets. Hours of this unceasing torture lead to severe pain in the neck and head. Legs torn asunder at 180 degrees, gases which cause painful swelling of the description, high voltage shocks on private parts, beatings by flour mill belts, humiliation and stripping of family members — it’s a sickening catalogue guaranteed to make your bile rise; torture that broke them psychologically and also left its imprint on the bodies of these men.
And yet, not enough apparently for the magistrate — to whom the accused even submitted a written complaint about the torture inflicted upon them — to act to ensure their safety. Disregarding the written submission, the court extended their custody to the ATS who renewed their brutalization with greater vigour. No doubt, the bogey of CDR analysis was crucial to this extraordinarily long remand.
Two years after Shahid Azmi circulated the letter to civil rights activists, and just months after he was murdered, the venerable editor of Milli Gazette received a letter from the high security Anda Cell of Mumbai Central Jail. The writer of this letter was EhteshamQutub, accused number 4 in the Mumbai train blasts case. It described in detail not only the tools and devices of torture in the various offices of the ATS and the Mumbai police, but also the farce of narco analysis, conducted without consent of the accused, or permission from the court. Ehtesham was subjected to the first test in Chandan Chowki at Juhu on August 5, 2006 in the presence of officers from FSL, Mumbai (11).
The next day, Ehtesham writes, he was taken to Bengaluru for brain mapping, polygraph and narco analysis test on a Jet Airways flight. He was subjected to these tests a third time on September 12, 2006, and yet again on September 24. In Bengaluru, these tests were conducted by Dr Malini, the institute’s Assistant Director, notoriously known as ‘Dr Narco’. Ehtesham wasn’t the only one to be injected with sodium pentathol, a banned drug, used as an anesthetic in these tests, and which can cause heart attack — all the accused suffered these degrading tests multiple times.
What information did the ATS extract from these tests?
This was revealed when the ATS confronted the accused with a CD of these sessions. Whilst these dubious tests have no validity — inadmissible in court as evidence — the accused were stunned to discover that the tapes had been manipulated and questions inserted to produce a narrative of guilt. For example:
Q: How many bombs were planted?
The original question had been:
What comes after six?
Q: Who was involved in the conspiracy of the blasts?
A: Dr Tanveer, Ehtesham, Faisal, KamalMuzammil, Asif.
The original question was:
Q: Who are the people in the cells next to yours?
A: Dr Tanveer, Ehtesham, Faisal, KamalMuzammil, Asif.
Ehtesham, in his letter from prison, accused Dr Malini of colluding with the ATS to produce these doctored CDs. In the second letter sent out by Azmi in 2008, Naveed, accused number 12, complained that Dr Malini forced favourable answers out of him by pulling his ears with a plier while he lay drugged and vulnerable in her lab.
These cannot be dismissed as empty allegations of men frustrated by long years of incarceration. In his prison diaries, published after he was acquitted of charges of being a treasonous Naxalite, Arun Ferreira (of St. Xaviers, Mumbai) recounted his tryst with Dr Malini: “During narco-analysis, she slapped and abused me, pinched my ears with pliers, and even administered electric shocks to me and my co-accused to keep us from turning unconscious”(12). When she was ignominiously ousted in 2009, there were 400 cases in queue waiting for her expert attention, a reflection of her reputation for ‘results’ amongst investigating agencies (13).
What is clear now, but should have been obvious at that time too, was that the charade of CDRs was being played out to buy time. Time needed to torture and extract confessions. The narco tests provided a template for the confessions — for this is all that the prosecution’s shaky scaffolding stood on. These torture confessions were all that held up the weight of the 11,000-page chargesheet.
So, when the accused retracted their confessions, alleging that they had been extracted through torture, they were brutally attacked inside Mumbai Central Prison. A judicial inquiry conducted by TV Nalawade, Principal Judge, City Civil and Sessions Court, submitted to Mumbai High Court, indicted not only jail officials but also doctors of the government hospital for participating in falsifying evidence of attack on the inmates by deliberately failing to maintain records of injuries and refusing to treat the injured and bleeding prisoners (14).
The voluminous chargesheet itself is an interesting document: the pressure cookers — down to the brand — announced with such fanfare as the containers of the bombs, disappeared mysteriously from the chargesheet. “Evidence has come on record,” says the chargesheet, “that on 10.07.2006 after the explosive devices were assembled and kept in black Rexene bags… this very place was used by the conspirators to store the explosive devices before they were brought to Churchgate Railway Station on 11.07.2006.”
The call details, once deemed so crucial as to seek endless extensions of custody of the accused, are not so much as mentioned in the chargesheet.
In November 2009, when the prosecution evidence was being adduced, EhteshamQutub moved an application in the trial court seeking the CDRs of the telephones of the accused, pleading that these would prove the innocence of the accused. The Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) argued, “The prosecution was required to furnish the accused with the copies of only those documents that are relied upon by the prosecution, and that the application be dismissed.” Dismissing the application, the court passed an order:“I do not consider that production of the documents asked for is necessary or desirable for the purpose of trial before this court.”
One year later, Kamal Ansari, accused number 1, appealed to the trial court to direct the ATS to submit the CDRs of his mobile phone collected by the agency during the investigation as he was certain that the records would support the “defence of alibi”. Again, the SPP scoffed at this appeal, urging the court to turn it down once again. The court agreed with the SPP that prosecution was duty-bound to supply only those documents on which it had relied.
It was the high court that finally said that whether those documents were relied upon by the prosecution or not “was an irrelevant consideration” if the accused felt that it could help “prove their innocence or facilitate their defence”. In fact, it asked why the prosecution consistently stonewalled all appeals for the production of the records: “Was the prosecution conceding that these documents would establish what the appellants claimed they would? If not, what was the objection to produce the same and disprove the claim of appellants that the same would establish their innocence? Was the prosecution suggesting, by objecting to the production thereof, that if anything in favour of the accused had been found as a result of investigation, they were entitled to hide it and would not show it even to the court?”
Faced with a court that refused to buy the shallowness of the plea that the prosecution would not produce what was not relied upon, the ATS lobbed a new grenade: it simply did not have the records. The telecom companies, also, first tried wriggling out by feigning lack of records, and then demanded Rs 34 lakh to ferret them out. Much after, earlier this month, they have begun to furnish the CDRs free of cost (15).
This is six years after the police claimed that these call records held the key to unravelling the conspiracy, and three years after the accused demanded these be placed on record so that they could prove their innocence.
Such is the ‘sacred space’ of the machinery of our criminal justice system: investigators who torture, doctors who comply, pseudo-scientists with dubious truth serums, judges who ignore transparent signs of torture, and a media which carries the burden of national security on its frail shoulders.
(1) For full video of the discussion, see http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/right-wing-terrorism-real-threat-or-overstated/265259?video-mostpopular ex-cop
(2) Mumbai blasts have SIMI stamp: Govt Agencies. Posted: July 13, 2006 at 1024 hrs IST; expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=70969
(7) Report in Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 30, 2006.
(9) Remand applications cited in judgement passed by the Bombay High Court in the Criminal Appeals 973 and 992/ 2012 in the MCOC Special Case 21 of 2006. Dated 10 Dec 2012. Copy on record.
(10) email received on November 22, 2008. Copy on record.
(11) The letter was published in Milli Gazette as ‘My 75 Days of Horror in the Hands of ATS’. http://www.milligazette.com/print/issue/1-15-october-2010.
(13) Dr Malini was sacked from her post and job amidst allegations that she had forged her certificates to acquire the position that wasn’t even officially sanctioned — and one that she didn’t qualify for, as she wasn’t a psychiatrist. By then, many of her results had come under a cloud. The Kerala High Court had rejected her findings in the famous Sister Abhaya case; there were sordid rumours that she leaked recordings of the narco tests to favoured television channels. See http://www.rediff.co.in/news/2009/feb/27narco-what-will-happen-to-narco-cases-after-malinis-ouster.htm and http://www.dnaindia.com/bangalore/report_fake-documents-govt-sacks-fsls-….
(14) Report of Inquiry No. 1 in the High Court Writ Petitions 1377 and 1496 of 2008. Submitted on October 13, 2008. Copy on record.
(First Published in the Hardnews)