At 8.30 am on December 22, 2015, thirteen young men assembled at House No 78, Gali No 5 in Chand Bagh, North Delhi. It was their first meeting. Their agenda for the day: to read, rage and seek revenge for the ‘atrocities against Muslims’ in India and around the world. The house became the adda where they cast aside their daily lives and discussed the killing fields of Kashmir, Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar. Inside house No78, Mohammad Sajid was not just a tailor but a ringleader who would go on to assemble a bomb. Sameer Ahmed and Shakir Ansari were not just small-time salesmen of auto parts, but devoted followers of their leader, Sajid. The others simply followed suit.
On the same day, around the same time, Delhi Police’s special cell officers and their counterparts from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) parked themselves at a distance from House No.78.
Five months later, on May 3, a bomb went off in North Delhi’s Chand Bagh. The three young men – Sajid, Sameer and Shakir – had assembled crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with help from the internet. The premature explosion was an accident that set off panic. Calls were made to the remaining ten to help dispose the bombs. The special cell decided it was time to move in.
After 12 hours of intensive interrogation, the special cell reached a conclusion: they busted a Jaish-e-Mohammad terror module that had plans to attack the national capital. The special cell has a dubious record of parading suspects as trophies but the script played out differently this time. The low-profile, no-nonsense police commissioner, Alok Verma asked some hard questions. Sajid, Samir and Shakeel appeared to have played a vital role but there was no evidence against the remaining ten.
Conscious of the special cell’s record and its ability to even plant weapons on unsuspecting innocents, as in the 2013 case of Liaquat Shah who was returning to India from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, under the amnesty scheme of Jammu and Kashmir police, Verma studied the case. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe which found that weapons had been planted on Shah was already knocking on his door, wanting to proceed against the ‘special’ cell officers. In 2015, 22 terror probes fell through due to lack of evidence and 40 terror accused were acquitted after languishing in jail for over 3.5 years on average, according to the data accessed from 4 state police departments. Verma, sources reveal, was categorical. “No false implication in the absence of hard evidence, even if it’s a borderline case.”
Verma’s decision is contrary to the image of the Narendra Modi government that often wears nationalism on its sleeve and thumps its chest while taking hard-line stands on matters of sedition. Nevertheless, Verma decided to flirt with the idea of releasing the 10 men and communicated it to home minister Rajnath Singh and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
By all accounts, this is the first time that an investigation into a possible ‘terror plot’ took a different turn: the police roped in psychiatrists and Muslim clerics to mediate between the police and the families of the ten suspects. With this, the government scripted a new doctrine to deal with what Rajnath Singh has often referred to as ‘increasing radicalisation.’ HT spoke to the law enforcement officials and most of the ten suspects and their families to reconstruct what led to their intense feeling of rage and revenge.
Spot the group
On November 8, 2015, a ‘friend’ request from Sajjad Ghori, a member of Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed put Sajid on the agency’s radar. The IB’s social media monitoring cell and Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) were both picking up threads connecting Sajid to terror recruiters. Sajid’s online activity showed frequent visits to JeM’s official website rangonoor.com and its magazine website Al Qalam. Sajid and his disciples also seemed impressed by JeM chief Masood Azhar’s teachings. The same month, Sajid received a Whatsapp message from another Jaish member, Rishad Awan. “Aap ne Hamari Hadrat ki photo apne profile mein kaise lagayi hai,” the text read, referring to Sajid’s profile picture which was of Azhar. Finally, the group’s clandestine form of communication through paper chits raised eyebrows in the security establishment.
Two days before the group’s clandestine meeting in North Delhi’s Chand Bagh, the security establishment was brainstorming on how to deal with radicalised youth like Sajid. At a closed door meeting in Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch, Modi, Rajnath and security officials were viewing Hyderabad police commissioner M. Mahendra Reddy’s presentation on “Radicalisation, its spread and responses.” Verma, then Director General of Tihar Jail was also in attendance. At the closing session, the home minister started his speech by referring to Reddy’s presentation. “A specific plan of action to counter as well as control radicalisation should be made,” Singh said.
Six months later, when Verma called Singh on May 4 at 4 pm, the home minister probably had the session in mind when he said, “Give them a chance, but keep them under watch.” The same day, NSA Doval too gave his go-ahead, with the same rider: monitor them. As the ten walked free the next day, a new doctrine had been scripted. Abdur Raziq, Delhi general secretary of Jamiat Ulemma-e-Hind, who was present with the families in special cell office said, “This is a welcome move. By not putting innocents in jail for years and destroying their life, the immediate release of these men is a very humane decision and the community appreciates it.”
Before they walked free, Verma also called in a cleric from Jamiat-Ulemma-e-Hind, situated next-door in central Delhi. Jamiat, founded in 1919, is a leading Muslim organisation that opposed partition in 1947 and had adopted theological basis for its nationalistic philosophy. The Jamiat cleric and the police psychiatrist were brought in to talk to the families. The Delhi police also called in an independent psychiatrist to counsel the ten. Their release hinged upon assurances from the clerics, the families and a satisfactory report from the psychiatrist.
MS Khan, the advocate who has been representing terror accused, including this case, said, “In this case, the police approach needs to be appreciated. Even if we go by the version of police that these men were radicalized, they would respect the system now. What is the point in destroying someone’s life in jail?”
Ten angry men
HT spoke to eight of the ten. All requested anonymity as they are struggling to return to their daily lives. The oldest in the group is a 40-year-old with little formal education and the youngest is a class VII dropout and only 19 years old. Two others are in their 20’s and the rest in their early 30’s. All of them are school dropouts except one who has completed his diploma and works with an auto-export firm. All are conservative Sunni Muslims.
Their slow process of radicalization started with them huddling together and browsing photos and videos of Muslims tortured in Abu Ghraib, Gujarat and Kashmir. The acts of violence assaulted their conscience and invoked their anger, they told HT. According to the police psychiatrist, “a sense of shame and anger took over their mind. They stopped thinking as individuals and their collective universal brotherhood took over.” Rajat Mishra, a psychiatrist who been working with the Delhi police since 1999, helping them profile criminals, says, “It is a scientific and humane decision. I would say there is a need for institutionalising behaviour knowledge in crime management. It is a sign of a mature society and combating radicalisation this is the way forward.”
The way they lived
HT sat down with the 32-year-old member of this group, who holds a diploma and earns a decent salary. “A Sikh gets a job, even if he has a beard and wears a turban, but a Muslim can get sacked for having beard according to his religion. Look at the venom these Hindu leaders spew. My grandparents chose this country and I am an Indian. I want equal rights in this country, I want my space,” he says in a tired voice. He was referring to Shakir, who had also told his interrogators that he was sacked from Nike outlet in south Delhi because of his beard. In his case, the personal became political. Each of the ten had similar experiences their livelihoods were targeted on the basis of their religious identity.
These men represent a generation of young Muslims who see their future in this country but have been forced to distrust the state. Sajid, the ringleader, was once an aspiring dancer, who failed to make it to a television reality show. It was during this time of despair for Sajid that a cleric told him he was on the wrong path to salvation. This seemingly ambiguous statement had a profound effect on him, reads Sajid’s interrogation report. The police psychiatrist says, “Instincts have been subdued by collective victimhood and the motivation by peers has taken over their thinking. For instance, they watch a video collectively and then started believing in it. Outreach is the best possible way.”
The internet fuelled the quest for universal victimhood. Asked how he knew what that accounts he had heard of the persecution of Muslims were accurate, this 20-year-old youth with no formal education, who speaks reasonably fluent in English said, “I saw it on the internet. I saw it with my own eyes.”
The online world gets more eyeballs during periods of perceived victimhood. The data analysis by the security establishment shows a sharp increase during the time that Mumbai blast case accused Yakub Memon was hanged. It also spiked after the Pathankot air base attack and again after the NIA’s U-turn gave Sadhvi Pragya a clean chit.
Ten Indian Muslims have been given a clean slate to rewrite their destinies but as security officials say, scores of radicals are surfing cyberspace and the challenge is to keep them from venturing onto a road that may lead to terror.