The Burden of Being Muslim

After every terror strike India’s Muslim youth are fearful — of encounters, illegal detention and torture. How long must Muslims live under suspicion of being terrorists or supporting terrorism? The sense of insecurity has become part of our lives,  writes  Mahtab Alam

“Serial bomb blasts in Delhi. Where are you? Are you safe?” read a text message on my mobile from a friend in Delhi. It was late in the evening of September 13, 2008. “That’s horrible. I am fine though, and in Bihar. Hope you and your family members are all right,” I replied before forwarding the message to other friends in Delhi. I was in Bihar surveying the aftermath of the devastating floods that had struck the Kosi region that year.

On September 13, 2008, the sun went down to serial bomb blasts in Delhi, killing 26 people and injuring many more. In all, five bomb blasts within a span of 30 minutes created havoc. I heaved a sigh of relief when all the messages I received in reply to my forwarded one, were positive. My friends were all fine. The last reply I got was around midnight, from a senior colleague of mine, A R Agwan, a former assistant professor of environment sciences with whom I had conducted a number of workshops for human rights activists in various parts of the country. He messaged me saying he was all right and had been sleeping, hence the delay in replying.

Still shaken by the news I tried getting on with my work, believing the worst was over. But I was about to be proved wrong. Around noon the next day, I received a frantic call from the secretary of the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights (APCR), a Delhi-based civil rights group I was working with as a coordinator. The man sounded tense and poor connectivity added to the problem. All I was able to make out was that the situation in Delhi, especially in Jamia Nagar, an area in south Delhi populated by Muslims, was  bad. A sense of fear pervaded the area. The police had been randomly picking up Muslims. I was asked to come to Delhi as soon as I possibly could.

Not satisfied with the details, I tried ringing A R Agwan as he was from the area. I grew worried when around 20 calls made to his mobile through the day went unanswered. It was unusual for him to react in this manner. Immediately after iftar (it was the month of Ramadan), I proceeded to the nearest cyber cafe to book my ticket to Delhi. Then I received an email: A R Agwan was under arrest! He had been picked up by a special cell of the Delhi police – the equivalent of the anti-terror squad or special taskforce in other states.

A R Agwan is a prominent social activist and has been attached to many social and human rights groups. With a clear record, and an even clearer conscience, his arrest sent shockwaves through the community. Leaders of the Muslim community were outraged by the arrest. His neighbours did not know how to react. Enquiries with other activists revealed that, apart from Agwan, three other people had been detained from the area. Agwan was released only after pressure from community leaders, social and religious organisations. Also released was Adnan Fahad, a DTP operator in his late-20s who had a small publishing business. They were arrested around 11 am in the morning and freed late evening, around 7.30 pm. Their illegal detention would have gone on longer had community leaders and activists not pressurises the Delhi police.

On September 17, immediately after returning to Delhi, I went to see Agwan. He was still recovering from the shock, having been though the worst hours of his life. He was at a complete loss as to why he had been picked up. “They asked me about my whereabouts on the day of the blasts, my activities in the evening that day. I told them I was at home meeting two non-Muslim friends from Hyderabad. They had come over to discuss starting up an NGO. Then they questioned me about the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and its people. They pressed me to give the names of some SIMI people in my locality, and I told them I didn’t know anything. But they kept insisting.” The interrogators also asked him about Abul Bashar, a madrasa graduate, who had been arrested from Azamgarh a month earlier and was later projected as the mastermind of the Ahmedabad serial blasts. “I told them I did not know any more about Abul Bashar than what had already appeared in the media,” Agwan recalled. Not content with this response, his interrogators alleged that Bashar had Agwan’s phone number and that he had stayed in his home. Agwan flatly denied the charges. “But they did not believe me and put words in my mouth. They just wanted me to confess to something I had absolutely no connection to. It was like there was no rule of law, and the police had become a law unto themselves,” he told me. “When they realised that it would be difficult to continue my custody, as pressure was mounting from different sections of society for my release, they offered to drop me home. I refused to go with them. I told them I was afraid they would take me to some other place and torture me severely so that I ‘confessed’ to their charges, as has been done to hundreds of Muslims across the country. I asked them to tell my family to come and collect me.”

The fear that Agwan experienced reminded me of the stories that I had heard at the Impendent People’s Tribunal on ‘Atrocities Committed against Minorities (read Muslims) in the Name of Fighting Terrorism’, in Hyderabad, in August 2008. We were told spine-chilling tales of arbitrary detention and torture by victims of the so-called ‘war on terror’, families of the accused who were in jail, and human rights activists. The common complaints were that they had been punched, kicked, and badly beaten up. In order to humiliate them and make them break down, they said the interrogators made them stand for long hours, or hung them upside down. In custody, they were denied all basic amenities and were forced to drink water from the toilets. Some were subjected to electric shocks by police officials and made to repeat what the police were saying. One of them recounted: “The interrogators repeatedly used abusive and profane  language with me. The torture continued from about midnight/1 o’clock until morning.” In most cases, the first question they were asked was: “Why have you people become anti-nationals? You all are bloody Pakistanis.”

The torture wasn’t limited to those arrested; the police used every trick in the book to make their victims ‘confess’. Family members were also subjected to torture. Ataur Rahman, in his mid-60s, lived in Mumbai with his family which included an engineer son who was an accused in the July 2006 Mumbai blasts. At the tribunal, he told us: “My house was raided in the night and I was taken to an unknown destination. After keeping me in illegal custody for several days, I was formally shown to be arrested on July 27, 2006, and an FIR was lodged against me. Me, my wife, my daughter and my daughter-in-law were paraded before my arrested sons while being continuously abused by the police officers. My sons and I were beaten up in front of each other. The women of the family were called up by the ATS every day and asked to drop their burkha (veil) before my arrested sons. Adding to their humiliation, my sons were abused in front of the women. An officer beat me up and threatened me that the women of my family were outside and they would be stripped naked if I did not remove my clothes before my children and the police officers. They brought in other arrested accused and I was stripped naked in their presence…”

The witch-hunt of Muslims only intensified after the September 13 blasts, which were followed by the infamous ‘encounter’ at Batla House in the Jamia Nagar area of south Delhi. On September 23, a meeting was organised in Delhi to discuss the police excesses and the communal witch-hunt; it was attended by well-known lawyers, activists, journalists, academicians and community leaders. As the meeting progressed, we received the disturbing news that a 17-year-old boy, Saqib, had been picked up. Since the men who had taken the boy were unknown, we decided to lodge a complaint with the local police station. Initially reluctant to entertain us, the presence of senior lawyers, Jamia teachers and journalists pressured them into registering our complaint. We were later informed that the Delhi police special cell had picked Saqib up for questioning. When Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonzalves and the boy’s relatives approached the special cell, they had another surprise in store for them. The cops said: “Hand over his brother and take him!”

Saqib’s is not a unique case. People are picked up indiscriminately every day and harassed, some of them are brutally tortured. Most victims prefer to remain quiet to avoid further harassment. They are also afraid no one will employ or rent a house to a ‘suspected person’.

Three years after the Delhi bomb blasts and the Batla House ‘encounter’, the residents continue to live in fear. A situation has been created wherein every Muslim is viewed as a terror suspect, if not a terrorist. The infamous SMS which reads: “Every Muslim is not a terrorist, but all terrorists are Muslims”, first did the rounds after the July 2006 blasts in Mumbai. The implicit message for a major section of the public is that every Muslim is a potential terrorist, regardless of whether he is a believer, agnostic, or atheist.

Take the case of Shaina K K, a journalist and a declared agnostic, who, whilst receiving an award recently, declared: “See, I happen to be a Muslim but I am not a terrorist.” Shaina has personal experience of the  suspicion with which Muslims are viewed. She has been falsely framed for ‘intimidating’ witnesses in the Abdul Nasir Madani case. Her only ‘crime’ was that she investigated the case of Kerala People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Abdul Nasir Madani, who is an accused in the infamous Bangalore blasts case, and asked the question: “Why is this man still in prison?” in the form of an article which appeared in Tehelka, based on the facts. Madani had already spent 10 years in prison as an undertrial in the 1997 Coimbatore blast case, and was acquitted in 2007. It was only last month that Shaina managed to get anticipatory bail, which put an end to her ‘underground’ life. Another Muslim journalist from Bangalore, working with a leading newsweekly, was grilled several times in the same case.

I too have faced this prejudice. During a fact-finding visit to Giridih jail in Jharkhand in July 2008 I was branded a Maoist along with two other friends, and illegally detained for five hours by Giridih superintendent of police, Murari Lal Meena, who is now being promoted to the rank of DIG, special branch, of the Jharkhand police. Later, I was informed by the PUCL Jharkhand Secretary, Shashi Bhusan Pathak, who was the local organiser of the visit and had contacted officials for our release, that Meena had told him: “Since the guy (meaning me) comes from a frontier area of Bihar which borders Nepal and has studied at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, he is a pucca aatankwadi (hardcore terrorist)!” He had threatened to put us behind bars, in the same prison, without any hope of being bailed out for at least a year.

In July this year, just a few days before the recent Mumbai blasts, a Muslim photo-journalist with the Mid-day group, Sayed Sameer Abedi, was detained for taking innocuous photographs of a traffic junction and an airplane. He was threatened, roughed up and called a terrorist because of his Muslim name. According to a report in Mid-day, at the police station, when Sub-inspector Ashok Parthi, the investigating officer in his case, asked him about the incident and he explained everything, emphasising that he had done no wrong, he was told by the inspector: “Don’t talk too much. Just shut up and listen to what we are saying. Your name is Sayed, you could be a terrorist and a Pakistani.”

Unfortunately, this prejudice is not limited to the police and security agencies. The common man too seems to believe that Muslims are responsible for every terror strike. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is worsening every day.

In 2001, I was on my way to Patna by train and I noticed an old man repeatedly asking a bearded Muslim youth in his teens for an English magazine that the youth was reading with much concentration. The youth politely told the old man to wait until he had finished reading the article. Unmoved by the politeness and angered at the rebuttal, the man abused the youth calling him and other Muslims terrorists who were destroying India’s sanctity after having destroyed America. All Muslims belong to Pakistan, and should leave for that place, he stated. I was a kid of 15 then and didn’t want to be identified as a Muslim, so I thought it unwise to comment. Moreover, the matter subsided when the youth gave the magazine to the old man (which the old man returned proclaiming unashamedly that he couldn’t read English!).

As a teenager, I tried not to give the matter much thought. However, it was not the first time I had been confronted with the stereotypes about Muslims. I remember a non-Muslim friend being surprised to hear that I was studying at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi which, he believed, was a madrasa. I told him it was just like any other university. I still constantly face this question.

It is like living under constant suspicion. In the last three years, I have often asked myself the question: Am I safe? To be honest, I doubt it. And my biggest worry is that the ordinary Muslim youth, who doesn’t have a network of people like Agwan or me, is in real danger.

After every blast every Muslim youth fears that he could be next. In India today, to be a Muslim is to live in fear of encounters, to be constantly suspected of being a terrorist, to know that you can be illegally detained and severely tortured, and even killed.

How long will the Muslims of India have to bear the burden of being Muslim? This sense of insecurity has become part and parcel of our lives. I still have no answer to the question, ‘Will this never end?’ once asked by a teacher of mine, when I informed her about the illegal detention of Mohammed Arshad, an engineering student from Azamgarh who was later released. I can only wish my answer will soon be in the affirmative.

(Mahtab Alam is a civil rights activist and independent journalist based in Delhi)

Courtesy: Infochange


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