Digvijay Singh’s Azamgarh Visit: Congress Runs with the Hare and Hunts with the Hounds

Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh’s visit to Azamgarh is being touted as the party’s reaching out to a community and town that have been reeling under a spate of arrests of alleged terror accused and battling the tag of ‘epicenter of terror’.

During his visit, Mr. Singh tried to persuade the people of Azamgarh about the futility of a judicial probe. This, even while publicly acknowledging that photographs of the boys killed (Atif Ameen and Md. Sajid) showed bullet injuries on the forehead region—an impossibility in the case of a genuine crossfire. Mr. Singh today claims that these photographs convince him that there could be another side to the ‘encounter’ story. These photographs have not surfaced suddenly, but have been in circulation since the day of the burial of the boys, and have in fact been used by civil rights activists to argue for an independent enquiry into the ‘encounter’. They were widely published in Urdu press and a section of the English press in September 2008. What stopped the AICC General Secretary from persuading his party to order a judicial probe? Indeed, he writes in the Indian Express, that he “along with some other Congress leaders had met and requested the Prime Minister to order an inquiry into this encounter. The PM then referred this to the National Human Rights Commission.” And when the NHRC concluded the encounter to be genuine, the matter rested there. It would appear here that the UPA government did what was required of them—order its statutory body concerned with such issues to conduct an enquiry and accept its report—all very procedural and above board.

However, this is also patently untrue. While several leaders of the Congress were reported to have met the PM and the UPA chairperson in support of the demand of an enquiry, it was swiftly dismissed by the UPA government. The Lok Sabha elections were too near to upset the supposed ‘nationalist’ sentiments by an enquiry into an incident where ‘terrorists’ had killed a national hero. The simple truth is that the Congress at that time pandered to the jingoist frenzy about ‘Islamic’ terrorism and dared not disturb this majoritarian logic while it was in election mode. Indeed, the Lieutenant Governor actively stalled a magisterial enquiry—as is required under the NHRC guidelines—by expressing his satisfaction with the “impartial and scientific investigation” being conducted by the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police. Recall also the Congress’ leading role in the agitation demanding a fair enquiry into the tragic encounter killing of a youth Ranbir in Dehradun, which culminated in a CB-CID probe and the suspension of several senior police officers of Uttarakhand. Clearly, Atif’s and Sajid’s lives were dispensable and did not merit a fair probe.

Furthermore, the NHRC enquiry did not emerge out of a governmental or prime ministerial direction; rather, it was when the High Court cracked its whip that a lethargic NHRC, dragging its feet till then despite appeals from civil rights groups in Azamgarh and Delhi to initiate its enquiry, was forced to undertake an enquiry. And what an enquiry it turned out to be. Basing itself on statements of four senior police officers, including one of the Special Cell, whose role was to be investigated in the first place, the NHRC concluded that the encounter was genuine. And the Congress collectively clutched at this straw, absolving itself of any responsiveness to the anxieties of a community, which felt under siege, or towards the aspirations of those who were campaigning for truth and justice. Raashid Alvi, one of those who had earlier met the PM with the demand, quickly declared after the NHRC report, "nobody should have any doubts" over the incident and that the issue should not be politicised. (TOI, 23 July 2009). Salman Khurshid, by then a minister in UPA II, suddenly felt constrained by his constitutional authority, pleading that “I can't say whether I am happy or unhappy with the findings of NHRC and the high court's order.” (Interview in Hard News, October 2009)

Mr. Singh justified his visit by saying that “young Muslims must not lose confidence in our system.” Entirely laudable and noble as that intention is, Mr. Singh and his party must stop posing as a spiritual sect that believes in faith healing. Congress was in power when the Batla House ‘encounter’ occurred; it is in power now. If the confidence of young Muslims is to be restored, it is by ensuring that justice and truth prevails. Mere patronizing words and condescending visits to the families of the boys slain in the Batla House encounter cannot heal the wounds of injustices. Unless the demand for a fair and independent probe is ceded to, unless this communal witch-hunt in the name of fighting terror is halted, unless those responsible for torturing and foisting false cases against innocent Muslim youth are not punished, unless those police officials who have brutalized terror accused in jails (in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra—all Congress ruled states), this healing touch can only be seen at best as a meaningless gesture, and at worst, as cynical manipulation by a political party.


Shahid Azmi:

Crusader against Witch-hunt of Muslims

Advocate Shahid Azmi, felled by bullets while sitting in his Mumbai office on February 11, was no stranger to death. As a TADA detainee in Tihar, he was often used as a ‘dummy’ for the hangman’s noose.

As a teenager in Azamgarh, he was witness to the madness of communal violence following the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the methodical prejudiced manner in which the police operated, routinely rounding up and arresting young men from the Azamgarh slum where he lived.

The anger at the communal violence he experienced first hand turned him, for a brief period, into an insurgent in Kashmir. But in spite of the fact that he parted ways with insurgency and returned, he was arrested in 1994 for “planning to kill several top politicians”, and despite no evidence except his confessional statement, he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment. Remarkably, he spent his time in jail graduating and learning law. Upon his release, he finished his studies in law and made it his mission to fight the cases of the poor and innocent Muslim youth who had been harassed, tortured and arrested by the police; and he rarely charged fees for his legal services.

In his brief life of 32 years, he overcame all the hurdles that a communalised society places in the path of a young Muslim from Azamgarh – and devoted himself to the cause of justice. He was able to secure several landmark judgments – most notably he had won a legal victory for the terror accused who were being brutalized by the Mumbai Central jail authorities into signing confessional statements. He had also raised several crucial legal points: he had challenged the legal validity of applying MCOCA on his clients as he argued that the power to enact laws vested with the Parliament alone.

Shahid Azmi’s killing follows a spate of incidents where lawyers defending those accused in cases of terrorism and blasts have been attacked and abused. Journalist Ajit Sahi writes, “We need to directly ask just who benefits from Azmi’s killing. The answer is a Who’s Who of Indian security: the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, RAW and the Intelligence Bureau, whose grand constructs on terrorism Azmi demolished each time he won a case. Maharashtra Police despised Azmi, for he represented, mostly successfully, many accused in a string of blast cases.”

Shahid Azmi was killed for fighting the communal witch-hunt that largely passes for ‘terror investigations’. It is a must that an impartial probe be instituted to identify the forces behind his assassination.

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