Aftab Ansari’s Story : Demanding Justice for Victims of Witch-hunts

After the serial bomb blasts in November in various courts in UP, the Muslim community in the state is constantly living under the shadow of unfortunate stereotyping and witch-hunt. Aftab Alam Ansari, a worker of the Calcutta Electricity Supply Corporation (CESC), is one such young innocent who was branded a dreaded terrorist and accused for collusion in a blast case. He was arrested by the UP Special Task Force (STF) and the CID, and overnight an innocent man’s world turned into a nightmare of torture and interrogation.

For days, the police tortured Aftab and tried to force a confession out of him that was Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) area commander Mukhtar alias Raju Bengali. 22 long days later, when he determinedly refused to succumb to their torture, Aftab was finally released and he was declared innocent by the court.

Recently, Aftab was in Delhi, joined by the JNU Students’ Union and the Forum for Democratic Initiatives, to highlight his demand for compensation and justice. He recounted how his petitions for compensation and for punishment of the guilty police officials – both in the UP and West Bengal police force – have been ignored.

Aftab’s story is not unusual, it finds echoes not just in UP and West Bengal, but all over the country. These states, particularly UP, are merely the latest “hotbeds” for suspected terrorists, the most recent in a long list. For years thousands of innocent Muslims have been similarly targeted in Kashmir, picked up without even a formal charge by the Indian army operating under the protective shield of the AFSPA, after which they simply add to the long and growing list of the “disappeared”. Maharashtra too has a long track record. After every blast, the Mumbai police routinely descend on the entire Muslim community without any defendable explanation. In Modi’s Gujarat, encounter killings aka Sohrabuddin Sheikh have been frequently observed; but also in Congress-ruled Maharashtra.

While the actual terrorists rarely get punished, most of these “suspected terrorists” either disappear from the face of the earth, or languish in jails waiting indefinitely for a “free” and “fair” trail. In some rare cases, they are declared innocent after a harrowing period of interrogation and torture. For the Aftabs in India, there are many stumbling blocks in the fight for compensation. From a legal point of view, Section 197 of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.P.C.) provides the state with a comfortable loophole to protect state machinery from punitive action. According to provisions of Section 197, prosecution of State and Central government officials requires permission from the same State or Central government!

Obviously, the first step towards justice is that this Section ought to be scrapped. Such provisions cannot exist in a democratic society; if everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, then there can be no immunity from prosecution and the police must be liable to legal action as any ordinary citizen.

Another problem is an ambiguous definition of what exactly constitutes torture. India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT). It has however not yet ratified the CAT, and the existing provisions in the Indian law have not been amended to incorporate the mandate of the CAT. The Convention specifically prohibits the use of torture. There is however no definition under the Indian law of what exactly constitutes “torture”.

In this project of minority witch-hunting, what is particularly disturbing is the role of the media and the judiciary. Both often cooperate enthusiastically with the police in framing innocents. Recently, 5 youth from Azamgarh and Mau in UP were picked up and paraded before the media as the “terrorists” responsible for the Sankatmochan bomb blasts. What followed was a public trial where the media blissfully portrayed them as terrorists rather than as the accused. And the judiciary wasn’t far behind. An institution like the UP bar council refused on “ethical” grounds to fight cases in defence of these suspected terrorists. All of them were later released for lack of conclusive evidence. But the denial of their right to legal representation, and their demonisation by the media, went unremarked.

Another striking aspect is the contrast with the state machinery’s response to genocide or hate campaigns launched by public figures holding responsible positions. The Maharashtra Government, for instance, is only too willing to pick up any young Muslim on scant or non-existent evidence as a suspected terrorist; but the same Government declares that there isn’t ‘enough evidence’ to prosecute Bal Thackeray despite the Srikrishna Commission’s findings of his role in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots – this, despite the pages of Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna full of exhortations to violence.

When Mohd. Haneef was illegally detained by the Australian government, many Australian citizens (both expatriate Indians and Australians), as well as the Indian government (though after some delay and under considerable public pressure!) came out in his support. The Chief Minister of Karnataka gave Haneef a hero’s welcome, and offered to ensure him a job in India, in an attempt to compensate for the injustice Haneef had faced. When will the Indian State accept that there are hundreds of Haneefs in India, thanks to its attitudes and actions? When will it ensure compensation and justice?

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