Faith, fear and banishment
Ullekh NP | 17 Nov, 2016
HIS UNANI CLINIC is difficult to locate even in a place as laidback as Azamgarh’s Millatnagar area, even though it overlooks a gaudily painted police station one can’t miss. It is set along a typical pot-holed road in eastern Uttar Pradesh populated with cycle rickshaws pedalled by scrawny old men with goatees. Hakeem Shahid Badr Falahi was in this small room—lined with herbal concoctions on the shelves of two cupboards—on the morning of October 31st attending to patients when he heard that eight undertrials belonging to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) were killed in an encounter by policemen who chased them to a big rock after they escaped from Bhopal Central Jail. They had slit the throat of a constable to make good their escape.
“Have you ever been inside a high-security cell in an ISO-certified jail? It’s next to impossible to do what the boys reportedly did,” says this former president of SIMI. Falahi, who was at the helm when the organisation was proscribed for the first time in 2002, earned his surname thanks to being an alumnus of the Jamiatul Falah madrassa in the nearby Bilariyaganj town. He reels out tidbits from his vast knowledge of four different jails in the country— Tihar, Gorakhpur, Bahraich and Azamgarh—where he had been held for almost four years since 2002. He spent the next ten years fighting the cases, until he was acquitted last March. Falahi had been charged under the Indian Penal Code’s Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505 (making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report conducing to public mischief) and others. He was found ‘not guilty’ in three of the four cases against him. The last case was for reportedly making an inflammatory speech in Delhi’s Zakir Nagar to a crowd of 5,000 people in 2001. According to him, though, the narrow alley outside where he had stayed then couldn’t accommodate even a hundred people. All the prosecution’s witnesses were police officers.
The name SIMI, once feted as a cultural organisation albeit with a strong religious slant, now evokes images of bearded men like him lurking in the shadows aiming for an opportunity to wreak havoc and worse. In general perception, SIMI is almost synonymous with guys in skullcaps nursing medieval beliefs and committed to establishing regressive Islamic laws by terrorising innocent civilians through meticulously planned strikes meant to destroy the country and neutralise other faiths. SIMI, an organisation which has vowed to work towards establishing an Islamic caliphate in response to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s call to create a Hindu Rashtra, especially in the religiously polarised phase of Indian politics since the 1990s, is, in public glare, a group led by men who are hand-in-glove with enemies of the nation. Several security analysts and scholars have helped perpetuate that stereotype by repeatedly warning that it is a dreaded outfit that operates in collusion with Pakistan’s feared espionage agency ISI, Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba and various other Pakistan-based terrorists. Among others, Vikram Singh Mehta, now executive chairman of Brookings India, has stated that former SIMI members regrouped under India Mujahideen (IM) after the ban and launched several anti-India strikes, an assertion that is in line with the official Indian position.
Yet, since the ban under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in 2002, within months of the terror attack of December 13th , 2001, on Indian Parliament, courts in the country have thrown out a large number of cases against SIMI members, much to the embarrassment of central agencies that have initiated proceedings against them. In 2014, when a UAPA tribunal extended the ban of the outfit for the seventh time—and this time for five years as opposed to two years earlier—the Centre said in a ‘background note’ that until 2012, 97 of 111 cases against SIMI members had been quashed by the courts.
97 acquittals out of 111 cases against SIMI until 2012, according to a ‘background note’ by the Centre in 2014 when the outfit was banned for the seventh time
Activists of groups like the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) have highlighted the surge in such acquittals to argue that the ban on SIMI is a travesty of justice, and have blamed various tribunals set up to review the ban for not factoring in lack of evidence and judicial rejection of police cases while recommending its extension. Titled ‘Banned and Damned: SIMI’s saga with UAPA tribunals’, a PUDR report lays bare the omissions of tribunals that have, according to the civil liberties group, relied notoriously on police confessions extracted from undertrials to conclude that SIMI is an anti-Indian organisation and therefore deserves to be outlawed. The report argues that ‘the role of the tribunal is adjusted to suit the Governments’ needs as it cannot seek authenticity of the documents provided by, or ascertain the nature of the cases presented by the prosecution. Nor can it intervene in the situation of wide-scale arrests that happen with the declaration of bans with immediate effect’. In fact, such pronouncements by various tribunals amount to contempt of the VG Row judgment of 1952 which protects the rights of the subject against the vagaries of the state, PUDR’s Gautam Navlakha tells Open in an interview. Notes Irfan Ahmad, author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami: “States around the world manufacture evidence. States also eliminate evidence. Anthropologists have documented such cases from Latin America to India. Journalists writing about terrorism must read the autobiography of Mufti Qayyum, sentenced to death for his alleged role in the dastardly killing in the holy temple of Akshardham but set free by the Supreme Court in 2014.” He discounts the theory made fashionable by journalists and security experts that the IM is an underground outfit formed by former SIMI activists. “Accounts of IM by such experts are replete with factual inaccuracy and contradiction. In an article, titled ‘The (in)visible in Indian Terrorism’, when I pointed them out, instead of offering reasonable arguments, one person tweeted to say that it was ‘anti-India’. Another person tweeted: ‘The author just landed from a different planet. He wants to know why SIMI was banned’.”
52 cases in Maharashtra were rejected by the Judiciary out of 93 against SIMI defendants, by data up till 2012
Ahmad, whose work has evinced great interest among policymakers and sociologists among others, goes on: “How on earth is raising questions as I did ‘anti-India’? These tweets are aimed to silence people asking ‘why’. But that precisely is the reason we must ask questions. I insist [on knowing]: who killed the innocents in the Akshardham Temple attack? Is there an answer?”
Such questions acquire “tremendous pull” in the face of acquittals of SIMI undertrials after they languish for years in jails, points out Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, former SIMI member and now a senior leader of the Welfare Party of India. In Maharashtra, by 2014, when the ban on SIMI was extended, 52 of 93 cases had been rejected by the courts; in Tamil Nadu 11 of 15 cases were nullified. In Rajasthan, the figure was nine of 17 cases. In Gujarat, alleged SIMI members were acquitted in four cases, seven in Karnataka, five in Andhra Pradesh, three in West Bengal and so on, according to a ‘background note’ prepared by the Centre.
It isn’t activists, liberals and former SIMI members alone who are at the forefront claiming that the Muslim students’ organisation has been unfairly demonised. “It was so vehement that if you say SIMI is just a loud Islamic organisation that has made some controversial statements but not necessarily a terrorist organisation, you will immediately be seen as nuts,” avers a former member of the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), often described as the counter-terrorism data-hub of the internal intelligence agency of country. An exhaustive study by MAC in 2009 concluded that it was a waste of time and resources to evaluate SIMI as an organisation that posed a major risk to national interests. “Yes, I agree, terrorism is a complex phenomenon. There are always elements out to wreak havoc in the country and claim to be part of one organisation or another. But SIMI, according to our study, was not found to be an outfit that was criminal in the heinous fashion.” This official adds that since then, various central agencies have “moderated” their outlook on SIMI. According to this official, who was one of the key people who painstakingly studied the “SIMI phenomenon” at MAC, though there were a few of its leaders who had Middle East connections and had got into money laundering or developed associations with overseas groups, they were not found to be of any major danger to national interests. “In most cases, it was the state police in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh who didn’t have much national exposure who started harping on SIMI and began to tag criminals as ‘SIMI’ to attain some kind of [public attention]. That trend still continues,” says this former intelligence official, emphasising that “those criminals who were caught found that they could claim an association with SIMI as a way to escape police beatings. For them, the idea was simple: talk big and impress”. The police, on their part, were only too pleased to treat such people as “goldmines of information”.
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The global political climate since 9/11 has made it easy to tar a Muslim organisation with the ‘terror’ brush. True, SIMI did resort to aggressive posturing and mouthed venomous Islamist rhetoric at a time when Hindu nationalists were growing in strength as an electoral force. Ahmad, also an anthropologist and assistant professor of Politics in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University in Australia, elucidates: “When founded in 1977, SIMI was a student organisation oriented, as you say, toward educational-social issues. Piety inspired SIMI to activism. However, some issues it raised in the 1980s were patriarchal. It opposed gender-mixed education. On one occasion, SIMI activists violently disrupted a cultural event at Aligarh Muslim University’s Kennedy Auditorium because girls and boys jointly staged it.”
He traces the transformation of SIMI—from addressing students to directly taking on political issues—to the sweeping transformation in Indian politics since the late 80s and early 90s. “The bloody movement led by LK Advani to destroy the Babri Masjid was the turning point of SIMI’s transformation. The state-mediated ‘riots’—from Nellie to Bombay—transformed SIMI,” he argues.
The group wanted to be an Islamist counterweight to the RSS, which organised arms-training camps and professed ultra-Hindu nationalist politics with little compunction. Navlakha explains that the likes of him disapproved of the repressive and regressive ways of SIMI and its fondness for violence to take on Hindutva outfits. “According to me, SIMI was banned because it took on the Bajrang Dal, VHP and RSS on the streets like no one else did and was an autonomous, fiery organisation that had snapped its ties with the Jamaat-e-Islami and had strong views on its own.”
SIMI, FOUNDED IN 1977 in AMU, was fostered as a student feeder organisation by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) until it found the former to be highly radicalised and at times unpredictable and even blasphemous in its approach: SIMI was in favour of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 though it was led by a Shia cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. The Sunni- dominated JeI not only found this affinity on the part of SIMI to be distasteful, it was further scandalised when SIMI volunteers raised black flags to greet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on a visit to India in 1980. The JeI had looked up to Arafat as a mascot of Islamist resistance against Zionist oppressors, but SIMI took pride in describing the leader of a people without a nation as a ‘Western puppet’.
The late 1990s and the noughties saw a section of Indian Muslims embracing the concept of jihad and reacting to global developments accordingly. Soon, global Islamists discovered the Subcontinent to be fertile turf for hiring assistants. While Muslim students and scholars have, for centuries, had diplomatic and scholarly ties with the Middle East and North Africa, as scholar Peter Mandaville observes, “global networks and computer mediated communication enabled Muslims to approximate more closely to the Ummah, the traditional model of the Islamic world community, and also, more importantly, how traditional notions of community are mediated and refigured through sustained contact with new technologies of communication”. In that sense, like the cosmopolitan Muslims of yore who had kept in touch with scholars all the way to Turkey and beyond, such practices in partitioned independent India began to be looked at with suspicion. “In light of various Muslim youths getting attracted to jihad and showing a willingness to fight for the Ummah on foreign shores complicated matters and led to massive alienation in the post 9/11 world,” Illyas suggests.
SIMI is less a reality and more a phantasm to rationalise majoritarian democracy by projecting Muslims as an enemy
The likes of Ahmad, Navlakha and the former intelligence official have an issue with the Government not respecting constitutional obligations while dealing with an organisation it finds ‘distasteful’. Ahmad says, “The Government has made allegations but furnished no credible evidence against SIMI. Rather than examine such allegations, the media reproduces them to craft the story of terrorism. This is so because, after the USSR’s collapse, the West forged terrorism as the new enemy of world politics, [a crusade] which India joined.”
He is piqued by the attitude of successive Indian governments. “The continued banning of SIMI only shows the consensus on the dehumanising politics of terrorism beyond the party divide and India’s participation in the global politics of Islamophobia. It also shows the elimination of politics SIMI symbolised.” He wants the Government to justify the ban in a regular court of law. “The special courts formed under POTA or UAPA are based on emergency power that turns the usual process of justice upside down. The tragedy is that this emergency law seems like a permanent emergency, which is anything but democratic.”
The author, like others, questions the large numbers of acquittals. “In 1996, SIMI had 413 members. How many have been arrested and languish in jail as SIMI terrorists? Can we think of elections in the past 15 years where terrorism/ anti-nationalism/ treason with SIMI as its symbol was not used to polarise people? SIMI is less a reality and more a phantasm to rationalise majoritarian democracy by projecting Muslims as an enemy.”
In the world of competitive communalism, Falahi points out that organisations of the majority faith are not banned even though some of its members are found guilty of terror activities. EM Abdul Rahiman, a leader of the Popular Front of India and a former SIMI member, agrees: “If an organisation is to be totally proscribed because some of its existing or former members were accused and jailed in terror cases, there are many Hindutva outfits and even some traditional political parties that could have been banned much before SIMI.” Rahiman was a SIMI member until he was 30, the age at which a member has to mandatorily retire from student politics. He denies that SIMI members had encroached the turf of other outfits. “The Popular Front is not an extension of SIMI or any other organisation. The rightist forces and their subservient agencies which allege that we are a ‘regrouping of banned SIMI’ ignore even the simple fact that the NDF (precursor to the PFI) was formed a decade before the SIMI ban.”
Falahi often refers to SIMI as ‘SIM’ (excluding ‘India’), which seems to validate the oft-made suggestion that the students’ body has scant respect for the country. The Unani doctor, however, refutes this: “We are the only organisation that after a ban has continuously appealed to the courts to revoke the ban despite complete knowledge that we could be sent to jail for that. Such appeals are still pending in the courts, and that too at a time when most of the cases against former SIMI members are falling apart.”
No doubt, SIMI is not a secular man’s favourite outfit. It insists on its members learning the Qur’an by heart and holding discussions on Hadees, besides pursuing ways of living that reveal a medieval mindset incompatible with modern lifestyles. “There are religious zealots who preach whimsical things, but until we are able to establish criminality linked to such mad ways, we can’t ban an organisation. There are laws for this. Most bigoted people can’t be thrown into jail just because they hold bigoted views,” says the former intelligence official.
Meanwhile, SIMI has been categorised by various think-tanks and agencies as a ‘terrorist’ organisation. As for the acquittals of SIMI members, the internal reports of Central agencies suggest that policemen often arrest people for reasons of personal enmity. The police also jail people just because they happen to be former members of the SIMI and sometimes, absurdly, over activities as innocuous as reading the Qur’an. The enforcement authorities also end up missing crucial evidence in some cases, say these reports. Delays in handing over cases to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) also complicate matters.
Notably, a ban on SIMI was lifted in 2008 by the anti-terror special tribunal headed by the Delhi High Court’s Justice Geeta Mittal, who quashed a February 7th government notification extending the ban on SIMI under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The Central Government acted swiftly, within 24 hours, and moved the Supreme Court to obtain a stay against the order. Justice Mittal was of the view that the Government could not merely invoke the ban based on earlier records, as it had to provide the necessary grounds. She asked the Government, ‘You have to satisfy the tribunal about the sufficiency of the reason behind issuing a fresh notification.’ The tribunal held that the background note was an ‘opinion’ which couldn’t be taken into consideration, whereas factual reasons had to form the ‘grounds’ for a ban. According to reports, the judge stated: ‘It is settled that so far as the requirement of furnishing ‘grounds’ is concerned, it would require furnishing of basic facts and the supporting material… The evidence has to relate to the facts set out in the background note.’
Of course, names such as CAM Basheer’s do pose unsettling questions. A Malayalee who had joined the Lakshar-e-Toiba and had later become a major fundraiser of the terror network in the country, Basheer was once a SIMI activist. He had also, according to police reports, inspired several youths to take up arms for the caliphate cause. However, the former MAC official points out that to proscribe an organisation for the faults of a few former members is a drastic step that can send bad signals and alienate communities. He also confides that the notorious Vagamon arms training case has been blown completely out of proportion. “It could be true that some Islamic group had organised a camp there, fashioning themselves after the RSS. However, not a single arm was ever recovered from there,” he says, referring to reports that SIMI had held arms training camps there in 2007, besides other states. The NIA, for its part, did not offer any specifics on how it had arrived at the conclusion that the camp was SIMI’s. To queries from Open, the NIA also didn’t share details of how SIMI regrouped after the ban. The NIA’s major probes on SIMI include the Patna bomb blasts case (one at a train station and another at a BJP rally attended by Narendra Modi in October 2013), the Binanipuram case, Bangalore Church Street blasts and so on.
“[We must] act on the basis of evidence and not hearsay or bone-chilling fiction about Islamism,” says the former intelligence official. Ahmad maintains that to portray “SIMI’s rhetoric and pomposity” as a threat “is farcical”. The 45-year-old Falahi says matter-of-factly, “All these cases are a bundle of lies. They have squeezed the youth out of our lives just because we have a different belief system.”
Until we find a way of battling Islamism without fanning Islamophobia, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can prove costly to many more Muslim youths.