Shinde’s directive against detention of innocent Muslims may find resonance there

For the last 13 years, Afzal Hussain (35) had spent every festival behind bars at the Malegaon police station. The labourer is among those routinely rounded up in “preventive arrests” in this powerloom town close to Nashik in Maharashtra.

In another case, Altaf, an innocent student ended up in police custody. His only fault — passing by a protest march organised by the banned extremist group, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), in 2001. The police arrested him, alleging he was a member of the group and had even burnt a flag at the protests. He claims he was just a bystander. “I was a student and just happened to pass through that area. The police made a lathicharge and I was rounded up. I tried to explain to them that I was going for my exams. I even showed them my hall ticket but they didn’t listen,” says Altaf.

Last month, a local court acquitted Altaf of the charges for lack of evidence. But over a decade of court appearances in the case, foiled his desire to pursue his law degree.

Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s directive on Monday to Chief Ministers to ensure that innocent Muslims are not wrongly detained in terror cases stirred a political controversy with the BJP accusing him of attempting to divide the country on communal lines. But in Malegaon, once a major hub of SIMI activity and target of two terror blasts, there are many who might back Mr. Shinde.

The arrest of nine Muslims here for the 2006 Malegaon blasts turned out to be unjust. They were granted bail in 2011 after Swami Aseemanand — under arrest for the Mecca Masjid blast — confessed that the Hindu right wing was behind the blasts.

The National Investigation Agency says it will not contest their discharge because there is no evidence against them. Each of these men spent over five years in jail. This case apart, local residents say they feel “branded” as suspicious just because they hail from what’s considered a “terror town.” Like the experience of Hamidani Ahmed, one of the lawyers who defended the nine accused. “My profession involves a lot of travel especially to Delhi, Mumbai and Nashik. While booking rooms in hotels, I am asked for multiple proofs of identity, when the staff hear I am from Malegaon. What is even more humiliating is, the hotel staff often make calls to check the references we give, right in front of us,” she says.

Multiple challenges

Lawyer Nihal Ansari says: “Last month, I was travelling to Delhi along with a handicapped colleague. At Manmad station, which is less than 45 km from Malegaon he tried to avail of the concession given to the handicapped. But the station master refused to oblige him because we were from Malegaon and said we were lying. People have pre-conceived notions about us,” he alleged. “I have stopped discussing my cases in hotels and restaurants. If a man with a beard hailing from Malegaon uses a word like “bomb” an eavesdropper might misunderstand,” says Nihal. The predominantly Muslim town faces multiple challenges in the perception battle. It has been a SIMI hub for over two decades. It’s also seen as a communal tinderbox, having faced four riots. The two terror blasts of 2006 and 2008 only made the taint stronger.

However, the local police say they are doing their best. Additional Superintendant of Police Sunil Kadasane is among the few who is popular with both communities here. He follows the Mohalla Committee model of grassroots contact. “Malegaon is a paradox. On the one hand locals have reservations against the predominantly Hindu police force. On the other, they come to us even for innocuous problems like a water supply crisis. We attend to it because in a town like this, you never know what might flare up into a law and order crisis,” he says.