…is that the conclusions they jump to have political implications for which they take no responsibility
Mihir Srivastava | 23 Feb, 2012
…is that the conclusions they jump to have political implications for which they take no responsibility
Way back in 2005, when I was working with Tehelka, I was assigned a series of stories on fake encounters. I came across such cases as that of a crippled father of six from Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh who was shot by the police in Jammu & Kashmir while he was allegedly attempting to run across the Line of Control. There were many such cases, but when I was told the killing of terrorists outside Indian Parliament in December 2001 was also a ‘fake encounter’, the idea seemed ridiculous. But it did trigger in me a need to look at the case closely.
Afzal Guru, the main accused, had been sentenced to death by then—despite not a single charge against him under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) having been proven. The Supreme Court sent him to the gallows to satisfy the ‘the collective conscience of society’, as the judgment said. As I went through the court documents, it was clear that the Special Cell’s investigation of the case had been completely shoddy. By their theory, there were 12 conspirators: five had been gunned down on 13 December 2001, four were never caught, and of the three arrested, two were acquitted, one was sentenced to ten years in custody, and Afzal Guru got the death penalty.
In all, just two of the 12 involved in the ‘conspiracy’ to attack Parliament were convicted. And the conspiracy theory presented by the Special Cell was unconvincing. For a case described as ‘an attack on Indian sovereignty’, no less, the probe was unbelievably hurried, contradiction ridden and illogical. I wrote a story for Tehelka titled ‘Guilty of an Unsolved Crime’ with a picture of Afzal Guru. My contention was simple and still stands. I don’t say Afzal Guru is ‘innocent’, but his guilt is still unproven. In particular, there is nothing to show that he was the attack’s ‘mastermind’, as portrayed by the prosecution. The fact is that we still do not know who attacked Indian Parliament in late 2001. My story was also carried in a book of essays on the attack published by Penguin under the title December 13, edited by Arundhati Roy. She signed my copy, ‘In solidarity.’
In September 2008, I headed to Batla House near Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia in the aftermath of the police encounter that took place six days after the Delhi Serial Blasts of 13 September that killed 30. Given the history of such events in India, it was reasonable to expect that this was yet another fake encounter. The story that I eventually filed turned out to be something else. It was published as a cover story in India Today, titled ‘Inside the Mind of the Bombers.’ It was based on my conversation with three young men arrested after the encounter who were later accused of carrying out the September blasts. They bared themselves to me. They told me what they did was jihad in the name of Allah. I expected them to say they were innocent. They did not. I reported what they told me.
It was a sheer coincidence that I was present at Batla House the evening the three were picked up, a day after the encounter. It was the month of Ramzan, and a friend of mine had invited me there for a meal. It was a tense evening. My friend received a call that three local boys, Rehman, Nisar and Shakeel, all in their twenties, had been picked up on terror charges and were being held at the local police station. Locals, perhaps to prevent another violent encounter, had mobbed the police station. I went there and was able to strike up a conversation with them. One of the three clearly needed to vent pent up emotions. I gave him the outlet.
I was not there alone; relatives and acquaintances of the three men were wandering in and out, and in all the confusion of the cops trying to hold off the mobs, no one was guarding the arrested men closely.
Later, when the matter was discussed in court, civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan mocked our affidavit on what they had told me, saying that if there were so many people around, how come the story is exclusive? I failed to understand his argument. The story was ‘exclusive’ because I was perhaps the only journalist present.
I did not expect the reaction my story received. I don’t have an ideology. I don’t stand left, right or centre of the political spectrum. I write what I see, as I see it. If I have any inherent bias, I try to keep it at bay by sticking to the facts of the matter. This philosophy, which, mind you, is not an ideology, has served me well. I feel strongly that it is my duty to tell my readers what I see or hear, and try not to temper it with any extraneous considerations.
I sent an SMS to Arundhati Roy soon after this story was published, seeking her comments. ‘I am disturbed,’ she wrote back, ‘But willing to listen.’ The first sentence is a comment. In retrospect, I take it as a compliment: my story disturbed her. I was disturbed too. The idea of the report was to disturb people. But the second sentence was condescending. She might have been ‘willing to listen’, but I was unwilling to defend myself for her judgment. I did not owe her any explanation.
But this was just the beginning. Her acolytes got into the act. One of them accused me of carrying out a ‘fake encounter in journalism’. Said an India Today colleague with a smile: “You didn’t just change your job (joined India Today after a four-year stint with Tehelka), but also your ideology!”
Though my critics could not find a single error in my story, their version of reality soon came to influence the country’s liberal discourse. I saw Arundhati Roy in conversation with Karan Thapar on Devil’s Advocate. “You are extremely upset by the fact that India Today journalists were given access to the young men arrested at Batla House so that interviews could be done,” he told her on air. His assumption was weird. What made him so sure that I was ‘given access’ to them? The truth is that the police spent days trying to knock down my claim that I had spoken to the three. It was only when mobile phone tower records confirmed my presence in the area at the time (as I later learnt) that they backed off.
Arundhati Roy seemed to have anticipated Thapar’s hypothetical question. She called my story an example of the “phenomenon of media confessions” that was “becoming a standard operating procedure with the Special Cell and Delhi Police”. Her lawyer friend Prashant Bhushan even took me to court for allegedly publishing a police version of the trio’s confession, one that he claimed they were forced to make under duress. If you could not dismiss the message, shoot the messenger.
As I have already stated, it was not always like this. I had worked hard to find out who could have masterminded the Parliament attack. The thought that the 13 December event could have been an inhouse conspiracy by India’s intelligence agencies was bugging me. There was one possible lead. Just a few days after the Parliament attack, Thane’s then Commissioner of Police SM Shangari held a press conference announcing that the Thane police had earlier held four Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operatives and one of them had the same name as a militant killed in the Parliament attack: Hamza. The J&K Police had taken these four alleged militants back to the Valley by the court’s permission on 8 December 2000, nearly a year before the Parliament attack, as they were required for investigations in some other cases. They were never sent back, despite repeated summons by the Thane court. Shangari saw a stark similarity in the blueprints, arms and ammunition seized from the four detained in Thane and the material recovered from the aforenamed terrorist slain in New Delhi on 13 December 2001.
This was a lead for me. The only way to confirm it was to compare identity details in the two cases. I procured all possible details, including pictures, and was of the view that one of the four held in Thane was among those shot during the Parliament attack—the hairline matched, as did a cut over the eyebrow. I got a forensic expert at AIIMS to examine these details. He could not confirm my suspicion. There was not enough information. So I could not proceed.
All this while, I was exchanging notes with Arundhati Roy. I visited her frequently and gave her photocopies of pictures and details of the four LeT men I had procured from Thane. I was a little apprehensive that she might break this story before I could, but then, it felt great working so closely with such a famous writer. I must say that she was very kind and warm, and our discussions often strayed beyond serious issues of politics and human rights. We even gossiped, discussing such people as my then boss Tarun Tejpal (whom she imitates rather well), Ramachandra Guha (a favourite target of her ire) and Barkha Dutt (with whom she had had a newspaper edit page argument).
I soon came up with another exposé on the Red Fort terror attack on the night of 22 December 2000. The main accused Mohammad Arif alias Ashfaq alias Abu Hamad, a Pakistani national, was a RAW operative, and was staying in Okhla village in Delhi with one Nain Singh, who acknowledged in court that he worked for RAW (cabinet secretariat). Phone records had been fudged to fix him. The botched investigations here bore an uncanny resemblance to those of the Parliament attack case. Arundhati Roy was pleased with the story, and gave me an interview, even letting Tehelka photographer Salman Usmani take a photo shoot, something she usually does not grant.
Among her friends, Prashant Bhushan helped me on a number of stories, from the GM crop controversy to corruption in the judiciary. We even discussed a story that would need a sting done on a chief justice’s son who was suspected of operating from a basement in South Delhi and collecting money on behalf of his father. The sting never happened.
A number of human rights activists suddenly grew close to me, and would tell me that I haunt my stories like a ghost till they are done. I made friends with SAR Geelani, the Zakir Husain College lecturer of Arabic who was an accused in the Parliament attack case. After his acquittal, he survived a bullet attack that he attributed to Indian intelligence agencies. Geelani now lives in Batla House with ‘Z’ category security.
The strange thing is that through the course of these stories, they displayed no interest in how I got my information, or what led me to the facts that they were so pleased to use in their own reports. I now realise that this had more to do with what they wanted to hear than any concern for facts.
In the Batla House case, which I reported much the same way I had reported so many of the cases they were happy with, it is just that the facts as I saw and reported did not mesh with what they wanted to believe. Suddenly, they had concerns to raise about my methods and sources of information, something that did not worry them earlier, back when my stories suited them. I was accused of colouring public sentiment and the judicial environment against these three young men, thus denying them a fair trial. The matter is sub judice, and the courts will take a call on it eventually. But I did what any journalist must do—report a story on the basis of available facts.
I do not claim to know the whole truth about the Batla House encounter, but I do know far more about the three men arrested the day after than those who question my motives without ever having ventured out to report or study the events they seem so sure of. I certainly do know for sure that I heard the three men say what they told me, and they did so freely at the police station shortly after their detention, without the police—in all the commoction—being aware of the conversation.
This may seem like an argument between a reporter and a few activists, but the truth is the ramifications are far wider. These activists shaped public perceptions of the truth in the days after the encounter. Large numbers of Muslims who have often felt victimised in India—with some justification—were more than willing to buy versions that questioned the veracity of what the police had claimed. The police had given them ample reason to do so with their past misdeeds. Perhaps, in such an atmosphere, a calm examination of the facts as presented and claimed by the police and those arrested was necessary. Instead, we got hyperbole largely unsubstantiated by facts, hyperbole that fed the sense of victimhood and aroused passions still further.
Shortly after the encounter, I met my old friend SAR Geelani at a coffee shop in New Friends Colony. He told me that Delhi Police’s Special Cell was perfectly capable of killing one of their own officers to establish the authenticity of an encounter. I asked him whether he had any proof, and when he couldn’t produce any, I said that this is precisely the sort of rhetoric that should not be used anywhere around Batla House. My plea did not register. Such talk was soon to gain currency in that Muslim-dominated locality of Delhi.
Today, in Uttar Pradesh, a Congress party desperate to woo the state’s Muslims seems to be pandering precisely to such sentiment. Party General Secretary Digvijaya Singh has asserted yet again that the encounter of 19 September 2008 was “fake”, a position consistent with that taken by the Ulema Council of Azamgarh. He added that he had always “believed” it was “fake”. For many liberals, this word invokes its own credibility. Many who take this position have perhaps had their minds made up well before an actual encounter occurs. Whenever one takes place, they quickly conclude it is ‘fake’, irrespective of the factual particulars of the case.
Digvijaya Singh has also claimed that he tried to get the Government and Home Ministry to investigate the matter but did not succeed: “The Prime Minister and Home Minister were of the view that the encounter was true.”
The Congress cannot have it both ways. It is, of course, a matter for the judiciary to pronounce on. But now that it has been dragged into the polls, where does Rahul Gandhi stand? If he believes what Digvijaya Singh does, why does he not ask the Government to act? And if he does not, why does he not ask Digvijaya Singh to shut up?
The ‘fake’ rhetoric in the aftermath of the encounter, fanned by politicians looking for Muslim votes, can be held responsible for the protests that Rahul Gandhi had to face in Azamgarh on this issue. “We had already warned that if Rahul comes to Azamgarh without an inquiry into the Batla House shootout, he would not be allowed to enter,” Ulema Council President Aamir Rashadi had said. Voters in Azamgarh were making the same point: the party cannot have it both ways.
The issue could easily have spun out of the party’s control, and it did dramatically when India’s Law Minister Salman Khurshid claimed on the UP campaign trail that pictures of the Batla House encounter case had brought tears to Sonia Gandhi’s eyes. Khurshid’s words: “I was not a minister at that time, but still took the issue of the Batla encounter to Sonia Gandhi, and she had tears in her eyes.”
Digvijaya Singh strongly rebutted Khurshid’s contention that Sonia had shed tears. “This is his version of the incident,” he said, offering his own version of it. Several activists who claim a special closeness to the Gandhi family probably have versions of their own.
In all this, the Congress cuts an especially sorry figure—what with two senior members of the party in such open disagreement over Sonia’s tears. Whether it is Sonia’s tears or the Batla House encounter, party leaders are apparently not concerned with the truth, they are merely offering versions they think will get them a few more Muslim votes.