Jaipur public tribunal on terror in the name of countering terror
By Yoginder Sikand
Last month, the Rajasthan unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, along with several other human rights’ groups, organised a two-day public hearing in Jaipur on the theme State Responses in the Name of Countering Terrorism and Religious Conversion. It was attended by a large number of activists from various parts of Rajasthan and beyond.
In his opening remarks, the noted social activist and scholar Ram Puniyani spoke about how communal violence in India is now being rapidly transformed into organized pogroms against Muslims in which key sections of the state and the media are playing a major role. Condemning all forms of terror, including that engaged in by some fringe Muslim outfits, Puniayni opined that what he called ‘Hindutva terrorism’ today threatens to take the form of full-blown fascism, which, while ostensibly targeted against Muslims and Christians, actually aims at preserving the status quo in terms of caste/class relations and also in promoting global imperialist forces. Lamenting the silence of the media on ‘Hindutva terrorism’, he claimed that it was possible that several other terror attacks that India has recently witnessed other than those that occurred in Malegaon could also have been the handiwork of Hindutva groups. He stressed the importance of public tribunals as this one to articulate the voices of the victims of state terror in a context when there was little hope for justice from the courts and the state machinery. ‘There now seem to be two different systems of justice in this country’, he claimed, arguing that it was increasingly difficult for Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and the poor in general to gain succour from the courts, the police and the media.
Magsaysay Award-winner and social activist from Lucknow Sandeep Pandey spoke at length about what he saw as the deliberate hounding of innocent Muslim youths across the country wrongly accused by the police and intelligence agencies of being involved in acts of terror. He focussed particularly on one case that he has sought to intervene in葉hat of a Muslim youth from Lucknow, Shahbaz Hussain, who continues to be in jail, accused of being behind the deadly bomb attacks that ripped through Jaipur some months ago. Pandey and some of his colleagues had visited Shahbaz’s house and were convinced, so he said, that he was actually innocent. He cited another instance where he had personally intervened to help stop a fake encounter that had been planned by a police officer and an army colonel involving a Kashmiri youth whom they had planned to shoot and then falsely brand as a terrorist. This had been plotted soon after what Pandey called the ‘fake Batla House encounter’. The intention, he said, was probably to ‘prove’ that just as the police in other states were picking up Muslims whom they had accused of as being ‘terrorists’, the UP police ‘wanted to show that they, too, were doing something.’
Nilabh Mishra, editor of the Outlook Hindi magazine, echoed somewhat the same sentiments. He accused sections of the media for simply parroting the police version of events in cases of terror attacks for which Muslims were invariably blamed, and remarked how the mounting anti-Muslim prejudices spread by this section of the media was doing irreparable harm to inter-community relations in the country and communalizing vital pillars of the state machinery, including the police and the judiciary. ‘This represents an organised effort to hijack the pillars of the establishment’, he stressed.
Senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan remarked about how he believed that ‘Hindutva organizations in India enjoy almost unfettered freedom to defy the law, to massacre people in their hundreds, with no action being taken by the state against them.’ And, despite this, he added, ‘they are referred to as patriots, not as terrorists, which is what they actually are.’ He pointed out that Hindutva forces are desperately seeking to export what they call the ‘Gujarat model’ all mover the country by resorting to terror attacks, blaming them on Muslims and then seeking to galvanise Hindu support. He spoke about the large number of Muslim youths, wrongly accused of being terrorists, who continue to languish in jails. Several incarcerated Muslims, who, when found innocent by the courts and released, do not even get an apology, let alone any compensation for being picked up, imprisoned and even brutally tortured. For the rest of their lives these people are tainted in the eyes of society, and often even their close relatives want to have nothing to do with them for fear of being suspected by the police of being ‘terrorist’-sympathisers.
Bhushan was bitterly critical of the role of the police, large sections of which, he said, were biased against Muslims and who themselves violate the law that they are meant to uphold. In this regard, he called for the setting up of a high-powered enquiry commission consisting of three retired Supreme Court judges to go into the numerous cases of ‘fake’ and ‘communalised’ investigations by the police in terror attacks. He noted that a police complaints authority had been suggested by the Supreme Court some years ago, and remarked that this is yet to be set up. He also called for adequate representation of Muslims and other vulnerable minorities in the police force. In addition, he suggested the need for a high-powered international tribunal to examine the very real threats to secularism and democracy in India.
Noted Delhi-based columnist Girish Nikam voiced similar concerns. Reflecting on his own experience of having worked in the ‘mainstream’ media for several years, he said that the attitude of large sections of the media to the issue of terrorism was ‘indefensible’, in particular their relative silence on Hindutva terror and their sensational reporting of cases of Muslims being accused of terrorism even in cases when no firm evidence had been brought against them. This reflected what he said was a deep-rooted sentiment held by many that Muslims were to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. And, he added, any critique of this policy is often quickly branded as ‘anti-national’.
Others who testified at the tribunal included Kavita Srivastava, head of the Rajasthan unit of the PUCL, Tej Kumar, an advocate who has taken up the case of some Rajasthani Muslim youth accused of as terrorists, as well as several men and women from various parts of Rajasthan whose relatives continue to languish in jail and some others who had been arrested on false charges but were later released.
Public tribunals like this one serve a valuable purpose, enabling victims to articulate their voices when these continue to go unheard in the corridors of power. However, given the fact that, particularly in the wake of the recent Mumbai attacks, the issue of terrorism has assumed alarming proportions and the role of fringe radical Islamist terror in fomenting strife in India groups cannot be ignored, it is imperative that human rights groups take a broader and more balanced perspective. While state terror and terror unleashed by Hindutva groups rightly deserve to be condemned, for us to turn a blind eye to terror engaged by radical Islamist groups is not just unacceptable, unfair and unethical, but also, from the point of view of our joint struggle against all forms of terror, which feed on each other, extremely counter-productive.
Visit Yoginder Sikand’s site at TwoCircles.net