When the police forces suspects to display their religious identity, it is committing an offence against the Constitution
Is there a grand conspiracy among the country’s intelligence and police agencies to demonise the Muslim community and Islam as many allege? Or is it that when police of different States single out Muslims for different treatment, their conduct should be treated as unconnected random acts based on prejudice?
A senior officer of the Mumbai police had to apologise this week to the Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Hind, one of the country’s two largest Muslim bodies. A circular issued by the Special Branch to police stations across the city, asked them to keep an eye on the Girls’ Islamic Organisation (GIO), the female students’ wing of the Jamaat. The GIO, the Marathi circular noted, was “trying to motivate girls towards Islam and asking them to live in accordance with the Koran and the Hadees.” Its main aim, said the circular, was to “inspire students towards orthodox Islam, prepare them for jihad, propagate Islam, and through such propagation, work for Islamisation of the world.”
Threatened with defamation, the officer apologised to the Jamaat — for the “hurt” the allegations had caused, not for the allegations themselves, though the circular bore his signature. This was the input he had received from “some other agency,” he maintained, and he had had to forward it. What he regretted was the leak of the internal circular. He would seek out the person responsible for the leak and make sure he was convicted, he said. Such determination to convict other colleagues who have hurt Muslims in rather extreme ways, not just their feelings, has never been shown by Mumbai’s senior policemen. The officer was livid not because his colleagues had made unsubstantiated allegations against a mainstream Muslim organisation, but because he had been embarrassed publicly. Ironically, the man in question is regarded as one of the few secular officers of the Mumbai police.
Police in other States aren’t so concerned about keeping up appearances. The Delhi Police Special Cell is quite open about the message it wants to convey about Muslims to the country. In 2008, they had draped the three boys arrested after the mysterious Batla House encounter in the red-and-white scarves popularised by the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. The pictures of the boys, alleged to be members of the terror outfit, Indian Mujaheedin, wearing these scarves were flashed across the country. It turned out that the Delhi Police had bought these scarves in bulk, no doubt for the numerous Muslims they knew they would be arresting as “terrorists-who’d-slunk-into-the-capital-to-strike” (many of whom have since been honourably acquitted). Instead of the nondescript black hoods/coloured handkerchiefs/loose dupattas that detenus are made to wear in front of the camera, these scarves would leave an indelible, visual impression. Every time viewers saw these, they’d know some more Muslims with pan-Islamic terrorist links had been apprehended.
This long-term plan to stereotype terror accused was foiled by the furious response it evoked. But now, even more diabolic ways have been worked out by the police of other States to stamp Muslim terror suspects by marks of their faith. Yusuf Nalband was released in February after his name failed to feature in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) charge sheet in the Bangalore assassination case. He and four others, including Deccan Herald journalist Muthi-ur-Rahman Siddiqui and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientist Aijaz Ahmed Mirza, had been arrested from their shared apartment last August. The allegation against them was that they were part of an Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) plot to assassinate Hindutva leaders.
The 28-year-old commerce graduate, who held a regular job when he was arrested, didn’t say much when he and Siddiqui met the media after their release. He should have, for what he later told The Hindu reporter was shocking. The Hyderabad police who assisted the Bangalore Police during their arrests, he revealed, forced all of them to wear namaz caps while taking them out of their flat. “I don’t know why they did that,” he said.
Was the young man being polite? Or just unwilling to face the ugly conclusion?
Quick to learn these tricks (or was it their own brainwave?), the Delhi Police Special Cell went one step ahead last week by superimposing an oversized fez cap on the face-sketch of an alleged Hizbul Mujaheedin terrorist. This man, said the police, had left arms in a guesthouse for Liaqat Shah, the Kashmiri who returned to India to surrender and was arrested by the Special Cell as a terrorist. The man was identified on the basis of the CCTV footage of the guesthouse.
The footage (telecast by a news channel) shows a man, head down, climbing up the stairs. His face is not visible. So whose sketch was released by the Special Cell? More intriguingly, the footage shows the man wearing a Nike cap. Where did the fez come from?
The Special Cell’s attempt to project the suspected terrorist as a devout Muslim would have gone unnoticed some years back. Now, the police’s continuous targeting of Muslims has made them alert. The mischievous substitution was exposed by the Muslim Mirror, an online portal.
Making suspects display signs of their religious identity when presenting them before the world is not the police’s job. Surely, such religious profiling constitutes an offence.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, that threatened to sue the Mumbai Special Branch for defamation, may let the matter die with a written explanation, for the latter’s communal prejudice now stands exposed. But the Hyderabad, Bangalore and Delhi Police can’t be let off. Who will force them to explain?
(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer.)