Far from brushing IM's existence under the carpet, as Ashish Khetan claims, law enforcement agencies have used it as a front to prosecute innocent persons

During the 1950s, the American network CBS hosted a prime-time game show called “To Tell the Truth.” The show’s panel had to correctly identify a reclusive celebrity from a group of three. They could question the group — rules of the game required the impostors to fabricate their response and the real character to tell nothing but the truth. The identity of the person was finally revealed when the game show host asked, rather dramatically, “Will the real ‘X’ please stand up?”

Ashish Khetan would have us believe the Indian Mujahideen has simply stood up in response to police interrogation.

In fact, the IM has been crying itself hoarse to be identified, he says. But the police always picked the wrong “contestants”, i.e. innocent Muslims, to blame for last decade’s terror attacks. Now that they have committed this grievous and embarrassing error, enforcement agencies have sought to brush the IM’s existence under the carpet, writes Mr. Khetan. He wants the Muslim community to “confront” the fact that the IM is for real, and possibly at large.

I’m not Muslim — thus not among Mr. Khetan’s target audience (“Why Muslims should confront the IM”, July 31) — but I have no problems confronting this “reality”. On the one hand, it shocks my liberal sensitivities that State Anti-Terrorism Squads, barking up the wrong tree, have relied on confessions extracted under coercion. On the other, I can rest assured there are some rotten apples out there intent on waging war against the Indian state — after all, bombs don’t go off by themselves. If the debate on Indian Mujahideen is between those who seem cocksure of its operations and those who question its very existence, Mr. Khetan’s version lets me choose the best of both worlds.

But this middle ground is nothing to take comfort in. Muslim men have been wrongfully arrested and prosecuted precisely on account of their alleged affiliation to “terror outfits”. Far from keeping the existence of the Indian Mujahideen under wraps, as Mr. Khetan claims, the state has used it as a front to apprehend and prosecute innocent persons. Courts, too, have wrongly convicted Muslims given the Mujahideen tag. Under these circumstances, Mr. Khetan wants us to make a leap of faith when he says the Mujahideen exists. Why would Muslims buy his argument if doing so means more innocent individuals being picked up and harassed?

Mr. Khetan’s own investigation confirms this apprehension. Himayat Baig, whom the Maharashtra ATS and the media blatantly touted as an IM operative, was handed down a death sentence by a Pune court earlier in April. The petitions Mr. Khetan has filed before the Bombay and Allahabad High Courts, which draw on his investigation, claim Baig was erroneously convicted.

Take also the Delhi sessions court ruling in the Batla House encounter. Last month, the court convicted Shahzad Ahmad, an alleged militant caught pursuant to the encounter, for the murder of Mohan Chand Sharma, the police officer who led it. Popular narrative deduced two things from this verdict: first, that the encounter itself was genuine, and second, that the convict belonged to the IM, as the Delhi Police claimed. Both assertions may indeed be proven true in times to come, but the disappointing Sessions Court verdict does little to prove either conclusively. Shahzad Ahmad has been convicted on the basis of evidence supplied by police officers involved in the encounter. Depositions by “eye-witnesses” — all six of them cops — have not been corroborated. The police apparently did not “involve” local residents (mostly Muslims) during the prosecution for fear of stirring “communal violence”. Without even gently demurring at these outrageous claims, the court has simply noted it is tough to get public testimony.

Even the Sessions Court, which has bought the Delhi Police’s version of the encounter hook, line and sinker, has admitted “there is no evidence” to conclude Shahzad Ahmed was part of the Indian Mujahideen. But this “hardly matters” to the case, the Court has held. The lack of evidence on Shahzad Ahmed’s role in the IM reflects poorly on the Delhi Police’s case that the Mujahideen was responsible for the 2008 Sarojini Nagar blasts.

The Pune blasts and the Batla House encounter cases show how courts are inclined to adopt a less rigorous set of standards for suspects once they are billed as part of the Indian Mujahideen. So far, this problem was confined to enforcement agencies. But now courts of law too have begun to tap into popular discourse about the IM without giving due weightage to evidence.

Responsible policymakers have encouraged this narrative. Mr. Khetan suggests many SIMI activists were falsely implicated in the 2008 Jaipur blasts case. Their arrests have not been questioned, thanks to a now-accepted discourse that the SIMI, a proscribed organisation, has morphed into the IM. The then Home Minister P. Chidambaram suggested in 2011 that, “Many old cadres of the banned SIMI have transformed into IM cadres.” The Minister surely would have been briefed on the IRs Mr. Khetan now has — why did he forgo the space for a nuanced intervention to acknowledge false arrests, while confirming the IM’s schemes?

The ugly political reality is that Muslims acknowledging the IM does little to single out “bad” ones in their midst, while ensuring a good many continue to be apprehended on this pretext. If journalists privy to intelligence reports had insisted on credible evidence before publishing their findings ahead of terror trials, public discourse and judicial pronouncements on the IM would have been better served. To disclose another set of confidential information and expect Muslims to ‘out’ the Indian Mujahideen is facetious.

arun.sukumar@thehindu.co.in

More In: Comment | Opinion