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Shinde's appeal to states on Muslims: right letter, wrong message

The timing is all wrong and it smacks of Machiavellian intent

columns Updated: Oct 02, 2013 17:24 IST
Smruti Koppikar

Himayat Baig is a convicted terrorist, and sentenced to death, in the Pune German Bakery blast of February 2010. That's if you believe the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) which secured the conviction in April this year in a Pune sessions court. Baig, now prisoner C-323 in Arthur Road jail, has challenged the verdict.

Himayat Baig is not a terror operative and was not at the scene with IM co-founder Mohammed Ahmed Sidibapa, aka Yasin Bhatkal, that evening; it was another operative, Qateel Siddiqui, who executed the sinister plot with Bhatkal. That's if you believe the National Investigation Agency (NIA)'s report which joins the dots of various investigations into terror attacks across the country, and Bhatkal's statement to the NIA.

Is Baig then a foot soldier in the proxy war mounted against the country with considerable support from young Muslims, disenchanted or mere mercenaries? He--and we--will have to wait for the slow criminal justice system to arrive at a sound and definitive answer. Baig is not the only one; there are tens of others living on the slim hope, an article of faith as it were, that the wrongful incarceration for their alleged role in terror attacks will end in freedom. Soon.

It's against this backdrop that union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde's letter to all chief ministers assumes significance. In it, sent on September 30, Shinde asked them "to ensure that no innocent Muslim youth is unduly detained…and subjected to undue harassment" in the guise of combating terror, and that "strict and prompt action" is taken against those - presumably police officials - who make such malafide arrests. Such instructions were bound to raise hackles. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expectedly slammed Shinde for "dividing the country on communal lines". That was a tad too rich. Shinde returned the jibe, saying he was only doing his "routine work".

The message of the letter was over-due, given the number of cases surfacing of Muslim men wrongly arrested, tortured and then acquitted or discharged in terror cases, as human rights groups have been documenting. Yet, it's difficult to miss the inescapable finger-print of his party's utterly cynical and opportunistic strategy to retain--or in some cases, win back--the Muslim community's support in the pre-election months. Shinde, after all, is among those note-worthy politicians thrilled to crawl when asked to bend by their political bosses.

It is nobody's case that those who plan terror strikes and plant bombs should go unpunished but it has become routine for local police to pick up Muslim men after a blast and run the usual drill on them: detain, arrest, torture, force confessions, invoke harshest provisions in law, and deny legal assistance. Bangalore-based journalist Muthi-Ur-Rahman Siddique was arrested with 14 others last year by the local police in a terror plot; he was released this February after the NIA took over the investigation and dropped charges against him. The stigma, he has said, is hard to get over. Lower courts in Delhi acquitted four "terrorists" arrested by the local police Special Cell in 2005 for their plan to attack the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.

Before Swami Aseemanand confessed and the role of the radical right-wing Hindu groups became apparent in the Malegaon September 2006 blasts, nine Muslim men had been doled out the "special" police/ATS treatment. In the Hyderabad Mecca Masjid blasts, 70 men charged and later acquitted are due to receive compensation for the wrongful arrest and torture. In March, Infosys agreed to pay compensation of Rs 20 lakh to Rashid Husain, unfairly targeted by the police in 2008 Jaipur blasts and sacked from his job.

The list is embarrassing. Each such arrest means despair for those targeted and their families, and inevitably blanked-out futures; also, it turns the community against the State and sets up as a communal issue what should only - and always - remain a security matter. The template of reflexively and arbitrarily targeting Muslim men needed to be questioned at the highest level. Shinde's letter could have been the cautionary one; alas, the timing is all wrong and it smacks of Machiavellian intent. Sad, for a crucial issue will be further steeped in politics.

(The views expressed are personal.)