The years between 2002 and 2008 were particularly difficult for Indian Muslims suspected of terrorism. Waves of extremist violence during this time — from the Godhra train carnage in 2002 to the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks — had created an accusatory climate in which even the suggestion of Muslim innocence was sacrilege.

It was never the case of those arguing on the side of fair play and justice that Muslims were uninvolved in terrorism. Such a position would in fact undercut the premise of fairplay and justice. The 9/11 mayhem on the soil of the United States had exposed the extent and reach of global extremist Islamist networks. For its part, Indian intelligence had identified lynchpins at the head of active and sleeper terror cells, some of which admittedly became magnets for young men motivated to avenge perceived and real wrongs done to the community.

Stories always the same

But the problem was that the stories of terror were feeding off each other, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Slowly it began to emerge that many of the Muslim boys picked up by the police and shown as playing collaborative roles in complex terror plots involving dozens of masterminds and their associates, were in fact innocent; it seemed as if their presence in the plot had become necessary to embellish the police case and give it credibility. It did not matter which party ran the State Government — the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party or any other regional party. The police mind unravelling the terror mysteries appeared to be under a single, unified command. The stories were always the same — of young Muslim men apprehended while “moving about in suspicious circumstances” and readily confessing their parts in devilish schemes masterminded by big names in the terror networks. The recoveries rarely varied: “Urdu/Arabic seditious matter, jihadi literature, Muslim fundamentalism” and so forth. What was jihad? What was Muslim fundamentalism? Were these crimes in themselves? To any objective person it should have been apparent that a large cast of uninvolved side characters had been added to a core terror plot driven possibly and plausibly by some real suspects with real motives. Yet in the hostile atmosphere created by the terrorist bombings, the police passed off any theory and picked up anyone without questions being raised.

Consider the chain of bomb blasts and attacks: In 2007, the Samjhauta Express blast followed by the three Hyderabad bombings — at Mecca Masjid, the Gokul Chat Bhandar and Lumbini Park — and the series of court room bomb attacks in Uttar Pradesh. In 2008, deaths and devastation caused by terrorist attacks in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Delhi, and finally, and most stunningly, in Mumbai. It is now gradually being accepted that while many of these were the work of deadly Islamist groups, some were not.

Turning point

Nonetheless, as far back as 2007, the first doubts had already begun to be articulated — even if only feebly and receiving almost no attention. In Hyderabad, where the police had rounded up a score of young Muslims boys following the three bomb blasts, L. Ravi Chander, Advocate Commissioner for the State Minorities Commission, raised disturbing questions about the irregular manner of their detention. But the national media largely underplayed the report. His scathing September 2008 final report, where he warned that leaving the wounds of the boys unattended could recoil on society, too, did not receive the attention it deserved, though by this time in Maharashtra, Hemant Karkare, the chief of the Anti-terrorism Squad, had set off on a daringly different trail.

Importantly, Mr. Ravi Chander's was an independent voice, uninfluenced by ideological considerations. He was not a “pseudo-secular” civil society activist who could be accused of pre-judging events. Besides, the police case itself was riddled with holes. The Hyderabad police fed the media daily stories of the horrors committed by the boys under their scanner. The initial claim was that they were behind the Mecca Masjid blasts. But after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took charge of the Mecca Masjid case, the police net expanded to include more terror accused, who were all now linked to the twin Gokul chat-Lumbini Park blasts. Curiously, the forceful presentations that the police made were all before the media; the charge sheets themselves did not substantiate the claims. The trend of media reporting changed only after the courts began throwing out unsubstantiated terror cases.

Main charge sheet

The main charge sheet filed after the blasts (dated January 5, 2008), traced a convoluted terror plot said to have been masterminded by Shahid Bilal. Bilal and his associates flitted between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, receiving and imparting training in bomb-making; they did this with “a design to organise Jehadi and terror activities in Hyderabad and other places of India by blasting explosive substances like RDX/TNT/Gelatin and by killing innocent public …” The Bilal gang used a courier, Sameer, to import 10 kg of RDX from Bangladesh into Hyderabad. Sameer distributed the RDX and videographed landmark places in Hyderabad.

Where was the link to the three blasts in any of this? The only suggestion of a link was contained in the FIR/case diary dated June 15, 2007, which formed a part of the supplementary charge sheet filed against a second group of 21 co-accused. The key player in this charge sheet was Abdul Sattar, who, in 2004, received extensive training in bomb-making, physical fitness and handling of weapons in various camps in Pakistan. When Sattar returned to Hyderabad in 2005, he was arrested and jailed in an attempt to murder case (in which he was subsequently acquitted). While in jail “he converted Hindu prisoners to Muslim religion according to the Ahle-Hadees,” and later, in early 2007, he crossed illegally into Bangladesh where he learnt the precise combinations of chemicals to be used in bomb blasts. At this point, Shahid Bilal handed over “provocative literature and CD containing the Mujahideen activities” to Sattar and asked him go to Mumbai to receive a bag along with instructions on where to place it.

Did Sattar place the bag outside Mecca Masid? All that the FIR/case diary says is this: “In his training camp at Bangladesh, he (Sattar) was distributed with ice creams by one Hamza @Asif for having successfully (fulfilled) in their task of bomb blast in Mecca Masjid Hyderabad and few persons have died.” So when and how did Sattar go from Mumbai to Hyderabad? And how did he land back in Bangladesh where he was “distributed with ice creams”? All this would be comic were it not for the tragic circumstances of the blasts, the deaths in the blasts and the rounding up of a huge number of alleged suspects by the police.

That the Andhra Pradesh police had no hard evidence becomes clear from a January 28, 2008 letter from the office of the Commissioner of Police, Hyderabad city, to the Secretary, A.P. State Minorities Commission. The letter says that following the Gokul chat-Lumbini twin blasts, “elaborate efforts have been made to identify and examine the suspects. During the process of examination of the suspects, while evidence of their complicity in the twin blasts could not be gathered, 26 suspects were found to be involved in certain criminal acts and they were also part of jihadi network in Hyderabad.”

Little wonder that the poorly assembled cases came apart in the courts. It is not just that the prosecution witnesses turned hostile. Witnesses in terror cases do turn hostile, and this could well be out of fear of getting involved. Yet what is striking about the Hyderabad cases is the police-prosecution's failure even to make out a plausible case. They presented unsigned seizure memos, failed to produce recordings of alleged terror conversations, and simply could not show that “the two VCDs and Urdu/Arabic jihadi literature” recovered uniformly from all the suspects contained any incriminating material. In an earlier case of attempt to murder, the police could not even confirm the existence of the target, an alleged Bharatiya Janata Party leader named Sampath. Said the judge in that case: “Even the investigating officer is not able to say that there was Sampath Kumar in existence. Where the accused met together and where they have conspired to commit the offence is not at all proved by the prosecution.”

It is important not to diminish the existence of terror networks or undermine investigation into terror cases. But this what the police themselves end up doing when they present absurd cases in the courts. For the sake of their own credibility and in the larger interest of bringing terrorists to justice, it is vital that the police follow laid-down procedure in arrests, investigate cases impartially and present watertight cases in court. For its part, the media must exercise caution, whether the reporting they do is of “Muslim accused” or “Hindu accused.”

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