“After having spent fourteen years—a period usually served by murder convicts—they walked free; a freedom that they were wrongly denied for such a long time.”
– Framed, Damned and Acquitted: Dossiers Of A Very Special Cell, Jamia Teacher’s Solidarity Association, Edition 1
October, the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA) released the second edition of its widely acclaimed report ‘Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a ‘Very’ Special Cell’, first published in 2012. The report had documented 16 cases where people accused of terrorism spent long years in prison, only to be acquitted of all charges. The second edition consists of additional eight cases and a new introduction.
Regarding the same, Campus Watch Correspondent for Youth Ki Awaaz, Towfeeq Wani got a chance to talk to one of the most active members of JTSA, Manisha Sethi. Besides actively working on these reports along with the other members of JTSA, Sethi’s book ‘Kafkaland’ published in October 2014 was widely praised for challenging the dominant narratives of counter-terrorism and the emerging security-industrial complex.
Here, she talks about these reports and why common people need to challenge and contest the investigative agencies’ and media narratives of terror related cases more and more.
Towfeeq Wani (TW): According to National Crime Records Bureau of India (NCRB), Muslims make up for over 21% of all under trails lodged in various jails in the country. Is there a pattern of persecution that the team observed with respect to how the police went around targeting Muslim students, especially Kashmiris? Why do you think there is selective targeting?
Manisha Sethi (MS): The high proportion of Muslim under trial population (21 per cent) as compared to their share in general population could be to attributed to a variety of reasons: including the fact that Muslims come from the most marginalized sections of our society and would not be able to afford lawyers and secure bail, and that the ordinary everyday violence of the police and criminal justice system falls most heavily and disproportionately on the poor and the excluded.
However, the kind of exceptional violence and targeting that we see in terror cases like the ones we have been documenting is noteworthy. The agencies operate in the national security paradigm which is contingent upon the figure of the ‘Muslim terrorist’ – even better if it’s a Kashmiri. The men in these cases were picked up and implicated in terror cases for a variety of reasons: to settle scores, to teach someone a lesson, to buy favours, to dispose of petty informers past their usefulness, to ‘help out’ colleagues in other parts of the country, to keep the ‘terror case cracked’ score card ticking. The victims were students, businessmen, informers.
It is in the larger framework where prejudice dominates which allows the agencies to selectively target those who fit the ‘profile of the terrorist’. In each case we discuss in this report, we also examine along side the manner in which the arrest was reported in the press at that time. The absolute trust in the police version is striking. It shows how easy it is to pick someone and frame them, keep them in jail for years – even if in the end, the courts acquit them. But perhaps securing conviction is not the aim. Besides the fact that the process itself is punishment; the continuous arrests have the effect of keeping alive the hype of terror threat. This in turn justifies concentrating more powers in the hand of special elite anti-terror forces, tough laws, erosion of constitutional values.
TW: Based on the cases in your report, do you believe that the agencies you have mentioned are at fault or does the state have a role to play?
MS: Its both. Often it is said that it isn’t even the agency but particular officers within the agency who are responsible for framing innocents, but if you look at the pattern, which is clear from our report, it is plain to anyone that agencies and officers indulge in this repeatedly for lack of fear and consequences. The fact that none of those involved in destroying lives has been punished for malicious prosecution is disturbing. Even in cases, such as the Dhaula Kuan Fake Encounter Case (Case No. 8 in the Report), the sessions court very clearly said that an FIR must be filed against the police party which engaged in the false framing and the implication of these innocents into a terror case, and yet there is nothing. There is protection from the top. On the other hand, if you look at the names of the Special Cell team – which remain consistent through out – you will notice that they have been recipients of gallantry awards and rapid promotions for cracking ‘terror’ cases and encountering ‘terrorists’.
It is a system which rewards lawlessness. It is a culture of impunity. It is not a matter of individuals – bad apples here and there – rather, this impunity is institutionalised. We tend not simply to ‘forgive’ those who we think work for national security but also to fete and glorify them.
Also, the special laws related to terrorism are a problem. First we had Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and now we have Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). In all of these, the definition of terrorism is quite problematic. It is the executive that will decide and label you a terrorist. The way in which the power is granted to the executive to decide who is lawful and who is unlawful or a terrorist is very ideological and subjective. Who gets to be defined as terrorist depends really on the ideological predilections of the government.
TW: After reading the cases in your report, do common people need to be further dismayed and dejected from the law in general and these specific agencies in particular?
MS: Yes, I certainly think so. There should be great deal more cynicism than is currently displayed when confronted with police and media stories on terror cases. Even the faintest suggestion that these cases should be investigated, or the officers be prosecuted for wrongdoing, brings forth the protest that the morale of the police will sag. We need to question this grotesque idea that morale of our investigative agencies can only be based on malicious prosecution of somebody, or on encounter killings.
The ordinary people as such should be aware and conscious of what is being served in name of national security by investigative agencies as well as by the media. We would be failing in our duties as citizens if we don’t question enough.
TW: What has been state and police authorities’ response to these reports?
MS: Our first edition of the Framed, Damned, Acquitted was published in 2012. The police response was typical. First, that they would look at the report and would take action against us if they found anything objectionable. But as anyone can see, the reports are based entirely on court documents. The second was to call our report a piece of lie and contest it by saying that conviction rates in terror cases were high. Again, this is not true as we have shown in this second edition. The truth of the matter is that in all of these 16 cases cited in the first edition of the Report, the police have been able to secure convictions on terror charges in only one case and that too partially. The excuse that public witnesses do not readily come forward does not hold as the courts have also noted that government officials could have been attached as witnesses (especially since many of these so-called arrests are beign claimed to have been effected in railway stations etc.).
The point is that neither the police establishment nor the state has bothered to acknowledge the fact that there is a problem even when we presented such mounting evidence of their wrong doings.
TW: Would you say that these reports have helped in the rehabilitation of the acquitted youth or stopped further arbitrary arrests and framings?
MS: I wouldn’t be so ambitious to say that it has helped in anybody’s rehabilitation. I wish it could have, but obviously it hasn’t. However, it has made a modest contribution in at least questioning the mainstream narrative and the blind acceptance that whatever media and police are saying is correct. Our report is not rhetorical; rather it is based on clear cut evidence from the courts, so it helps in denting the popular discourse around the issue.
Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association is a collective of university teachers, formed in the aftermath of the Batla House ‘encounter’ in 2008. JTSA conducts fact-findings, investigations, publishes reports, engages in legal aid work as well as collaborates with a range of civil society groups on issues of democracy, justice and civil rights. For more on the activities of JTSA visit, www.teacherssolidarity.org.
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