Questioning ‘Quack Remedies’ for Terrorism

(The campaign led by Jamia teachers for judicial enquiry into the Batla House ‘encounter’ has effectively brought anti-terror operations by police under a question mark. An effect of the public campaign has been the Delhi HC declaration that the Government has no right to flout NHRC guidelines that demand a magisterial enquiry into every encounter. Senior journalist Sukumar Muralidharan reviews ‘Encounter’ at Batla House – Unanswered Questions,’ a report by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group. – Ed/-)

“Terrorism” represents the vanishing point of reason, a spectre that is easily enough invoked to ensure unquestioning public acquiescence in the actions of the security agencies. With a few exceptions, altogether too sporadic, the media has been part of this stratagem, a willing accomplice in fostering a mood of public fear and anxiety, where questions are suppressed and critical commentary actively persecuted.

Terrorism has been altogether too frequent an occurrence in India, most often as serial bombings that stun and stagger, and also in its most recent visitation, as a prolonged siege of landmark buildings in India’s commercial capital. Inevitably, the investigations into these attacks, with all the media spectacle they afford, have done little else than fuel public hysteria. Processes of the law have been wilfully shredded, as arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions and forced confessions under torture have become accepted practice for the police agencies.

Part of the intent of terrorism, is that it creates the conditions in which quack remedies gain a measure of legitimacy. Public acceptance comes in part from the seeming simplicity of these remedies, as also from their conformity with an existing template on terrorism.
That template was created in India soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. Though various authors have contributed, none has left as distinct an imprint on this master-narrative as Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s principal spokesman. Yet to become chief minister of Gujarat and with the horrors of February 2002 still a distant glimmer, Modi pronounced the mantra that has seemingly become the catechism for all official investigations: even if all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims.

Yet there have been notable instances when the public has pushed back against this effort to corral them into the national security mindset. These have been led by civil liberties groups, in the teeth of the indifference, if not active hostility of the mainstream media. But there have been few occasions when a community has mobilised to question the fiction that they have been fed by the security agencies. In that respect, the Batla House shoot-out of September 19 last year, in which the alleged masterminds of a string of serial bombings were eliminated, was clearly unique.

Batla House and indeed, the wider Jamia Nagar neighbourhood, are unique in that community life here is closely integrated into the institutional processes of a university, the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). The report published in February on the Batla House shootout by Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group, a gathering of politically active academics, is in some respects, an acknowledgment of the nature of this organic relationship between the life of the university and the wider community. It is also a fine investigative effort that shows up glaring lacunae in the official narrative on the investigation of terrorism.

The summary extra-judicial killing of two young men in the Batla House raid was an atrocity that would have been compounded several times over, had the people of Jamia Nagar not broken the silence that is deemed obligatory in matters connected with terrorism. As the Jamia Teachers’ report documents the neighbourhood witnessed an unprecedented public hearing (a jan sunwai) on the issue on October 12 at which public scepticism about the official narrative was freely ventilated.

With the Delhi Police successful so far in stonewalling the demand for a judicial probe and managing to even prevent the application of strict norms on magisterial inquiries into so-called “encounter killings”, the truth, like community life in India is in grave danger of ghettoisation. The overwrought climate of public anxiety created by the Delhi serial bombings of September 13, had a major part to play in suppressing public debate. In the circumstances the Delhi Police managed to get away with a story on the supposed links connecting the two youths killed in Batla House to serial bombing in Jaipur on May 13 and Ahmedabad on July 26, that verged on unimaginative fantasy.

The Jamia Teachers’ report documents how the supposed mastermind of the terrorist ring in India has been portrayed variously and with disturbing inconsistencies. First there was Waliullah and then there was Abu Bashar Qasmi, a 25-year old cleric, snatched from his home in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh by the Gujarat police and identified to be the man behind the Ahmedabad bombings. And then there was Shahbaz Hussain, arrested in the dead of night from his home in Lucknow by the Rajasthan police and charged with prime responsibility for the Jaipur attacks. Brooding over the whole conspiracy was the presence of Mohammad Altaf Subhan -- later identified as Abdul Subhan Quereshi, and variously described by the alternative names, Taufeeq and Tauqeer, by which he was allegedly known in terrorist circles -- a computer hardware specialist missing from his home in Mumbai’s distant suburb of Mira Road, since 2006.

The media soon arrived at a consensus on the name “Tauqeer”, which was the chant on every journalist’s lips when the Delhi Police began their operation in Batla House on September 19. When the dust had settled the story took a dramatic twist: it was no longer Tauqeer, but Atif – one of the two youths killed that day – who was the terrorist mastermind. A month later a senior policeman from Maharashtra’s anti-terrorist squad could claim, with complete insouciance, Tauqeer was a complete fiction, a creation allegedly, of the media.

The media needless to say, has repaid this affront with greater loyalty, living up ever more abjectly to its accustomed role as a lapdog of the police. If a public that is united and well-informed is the key requirement for a successful struggle against terrorism, the media clearly is doing its very best to ensure the opposite circumstances. And despite the many contradictions in the official narrative on terrorism and its protagonists, the police agencies have successfully managed – so far – to gather more powers in their hands. Yet as these powers are abused as they must inevitably be, public confidence will just as inevitably be eroded. The alternative would be for more public interventions such as this one by the Jamia Teachers. These could show a pathway out of the heavy-handed approach in evidence today, which seems designed to open the door towards greater terror.

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