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Branded for life

Vidya Subrahmaniam
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It is a familiar pattern, from Malegaon and Mecca Masjid, to Dilsukhnagar. Whenever there is an act of terror, Muslim suspects are quickly arrested. Torture is common. And even if they are acquitted, the police shadow never disappears.

he Hyderabad police came for Mohammad Rayeesuddin on February 24, 2013 — three days after the Dilsukhnagar twin blasts shattered the city’s fragile calm, killing 17 and injuring over a hundred. The 30-year-old man returned home fatigued from daylong grilling only to be again picked up a week later and subjected to more interrogation. This time, he was with the police for over 15 hours, and his panicked family began to imagine the worst.

Rayeesuddin’s mother and wife had reasons to worry. The family’s breadwinner was one among the 30-odd males picked up in August-September 2007 for suspected involvement in the Mecca Masjid and Gokul Chat Bhandar blasts. After weeklong torture in various police hideouts, Rayeesuddin was shown as formally arrested and sent to trial. On February 14, 2008, he obtained conditional bail, and on December 31, 2009, the Court of the VII{+t}{+h}Additional Metropolitan Sessions Judge cleared him and the other accused of all charges.

The Hindu got in touch with Rayeesuddin in February 2011, and what emerged was the familiar and heart-breaking story of ‘once a terror suspect always a terror suspect.’ Hum utthe baitthe dar me rahte hain [I live in constant fear],” he said, talking of the constant presence in his life of the khaki uniform. The policemen turned up on expected occasions, such as the anniversaries of the Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat anti-Muslim violence and whenever a terror alert was sounded. Often they did not even need the fig leaf; they would turn up just to let him know that he will never stop being under watch.

So when the inevitable happened, and the police knock came in the aftermath of the Dilsukhnagar blasts, Rayeesuddin’s family was understandably crazed with worry. Rayeesuddin himself told The Hindu : “My life is ruined.” He also had a logical question to ask: “I know what it is to go to jail and face torture. Freedom came to me after so much pain, would I forgo it all to get involved in a fresh terror attack?”

Very recently, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) declared the absconding Riyaz Bhatkal the primary suspect in the Dilsukhnagar blasts. It also produced Bhatkal’s associate Asadullah Akhtar in a local court, naming him a second key suspect. But this in itself is no guarantee that the Mecca Masjid boys will finally be free of the ‘forever surveillance’ that has been their fate since 2007. After all, they were freed of the Mecca Masjid charges because a Hindutva link had surfaced when the case was reinvestigated. If that did not stop the police visits, there is hardly any reason why the alleged Bhatkal link to the Dilsukhnagar blasts will.

Identity and oppression

For those acquitted, the tragedy is compounded by the fact of their being Muslim. After much humming and hawing, the Andhra Pradesh Government ordered compensation to those released in the Mecca Masid blasts and other similar cases. The decision itself was taken under pressure from the National Commission for Minorities, which visited the victim boys, and noted the abominable condition in which they lived. Yet the compensation had not even been fully disbursed when the Andhra Pradesh High Court cancelled the award and ordered the State government to recover the sum it had already disbursed. The order, which termed the award illegal and beyond the jurisdiction of the government, was a stunning blow — both to those who had received the compensation and those waiting in eager anticipation for their turn. For the terror acquitted, the compensation was more than a means of starting a new life. It was official recognition that they had been wrongly accused.

Only a terror accused knows what it is to be officially freed of the terror tag. In a society where ordinary Muslim citizens find it difficult to get jobs and accommodation, the Muslim terror tag is equivalent of being condemned to non-existence. Of course, accusations of torture and worse have been made equally by Hindutva-linked terror accused such as Pragya Thakur and Aseemanand. However, the vast majority of those picked up are Muslims, and as an agonised activist told The Hindu : “Muslim boys get picked up in the first place because they are Muslim. They are the first suspects regardless of whether or not there is an actual Islamist connection to the terror act. And then, when they are acquitted, they cannot ask for compensation because the Constitution prohibits religion-based discrimination.”

Ironic indeed! Surely it could not have been the intention of our founding fathers that the injunction against religion-based discrimination ought to be used to further discrimination. In the Mecca Masjid case, as in many others, there is clear evidence of police and administrative mala fides. This was systematic State-sponsored discrimination. If the State finally, and at its leisure, moves to compensate those it victimised by design, how can that be bad in law?

The logic is compelling, and that is perhaps why on September 19, the Andhra Pradesh High Court recalled the stay order on the compensation awarded to those acquitted in the Mecca Masjid and other cases.

Not every terror accused comes even close to getting compensation. Mohammad Aamir, who spent 14 years in jail as the main accused in 20-odd low intensity bomb blasts executed between 1996 and 1997 in Delhi and neighbourhood, finally walked free in January 2011, fully acquitted in 17 cases and acquitted on appeal in one more case. The remaining two cases, in which too acquittals are eventually expected, hold only academic significance today because Aamir has already served more than the maximum prison term of 10 years for offences in these cases.

Aamir emerged from jail to a hero’s welcome. The press celebrated his freedom, and he himself laboured under the illusion that there would be an official compensation for the ordeal he endured. While he was in jail, his father passed away and his mother suffered a paralytic attack. But every government official he met stood up to receive him, commiserated with his plight and made promises that were, of course, never fulfilled.

Order recalled

The recall by the Andhra Pradesh High Court of the stay order on compensation should induce fresh thinking on the whole gamut of issues related to terror investigation — from policing methods and the irrationality of picking up suspects only to show quick results, to compensating those wrongly accused, and finally punishment to policemen found guilty of misusing their uniform against innocent civilians.


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