The day after Australia announced that it had “absolutely nothing” on Mohammed Haneef — not even a dartboard with the perforated face of Greg Chappell — I called up Iftikhar Gilani.
You know how it is. It’s a Saturday morning; England has been reduced to 169 for 7 at Trent Bridge the previous evening; fellow Indians are mighty pleased that one of them is cleared of criminal charges in a foreign land; the Government of India is trying its best to show that it played a pivotal role in justice being done in faraway Melbourne. On such a day, what else do you do but call up a person who was once charged of conducting anti-national activities and being an ISI spy — and then found innocent by the court after spending a nice seven months in Tihar Jail.
“Hello, Iftikhar-ji, so what do you think of the way the Australians handled the Haneef case?” I ask as if trying to get his opinion on whether it was high time that Tendulkar was dropped from the Test team. Gilani catches on that what I am suggesting is that one man’s story about his SIM card being found in Liverpool, linking him to his terrorist-cousins in Glasgow is be another man’s computer hard-drive in Delhi containing material linking him to nasty Pakistanis.
“Well, the Australians have been very forthcoming and have released Haneef after 25 days,” Gilani replies.
Last evening, after the news of Haneef’s impending release and homecoming was aired, every patriotic television anchor wanted to know whether the Aussies would now take off their shirts, hand Haneef and his wife Firdous Arshiya a pair of cat’o’nines and ask the couple to whip them for their heinous mistake. There was some on-the-air tension when Australian High Commissioner to India John McCarthy refused to commit himself to go to the Hameed residence in Bangalore with a bouquet of flowers and a ‘I’m Sorry’ card when the good doctor is back.
So I ask Gilani: “You were accused of a very serious crime from June 9, 2002 to Jan 13, 2003 and then found not guilty. You think if you were picked up in Australia for the same reason, you might have got a better deal than you did here?” I hear a nervous laugh on the other end. Gilani points out one simple fact instead of answering me directly. “It took the Australian police a few days to chargesheet Haneef. It took three months in my case.”
For Haneef, the faeces hit the ceiling when the police took him into custody at Brisbane Airport on July 2 just before he was boarding a flight to India. Twelve days later, he was charged with providing support to a terrorist group.
In Gilani’s case, Intelligence Bureau officials (camouflaged by Income Tax officials) raided his house at 4.30 am on June 9-10, 2002. Being the son-in-law of Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani didn’t help matters. The ‘compelling’ evidence that the IB found in his computer was a document downloaded from the internet. It was a paper called ‘Denial of Freedom and Human Rights: A Review of Indian Repression in Kashmir’ by Nazir Kamal. I myself have, in the past, visited the Institute of Strategic Studies Islambad (ISSI) site — as can you at http://issi.org.pk. I had dowloaded a 2001 paper — ‘Nuclear Safety and Terrorism: A Case Study of India’, by Shireen Mazari and Maria Sultan — not to share notes with A.Q. Khan, but to convince myself that I’m a ‘serious’ journalist. Both the articles that Gilani and I downloaded from the dreaded ‘Islamabad Papers’ series of the ISSI site are freely available. And yet, Gilani went to try out Tihar food while I continue to enjoy the leftovers in my fridge.
But while we wag our fingers at the Aussies for meting out Haneef his 25-day ordeal, our very own ever-vigilant Men in Black seem to have sinister qualities of their own that not too many people — the Prime Minister included — have sleepless nights over. Take the matter of officials tampering with the ISSI document in Gilani’s computer to make it look like classified matter in the court.
“I had pleaded that the document was freely available on the internet. The police had told the courts that they had asked cyber café owners to find it on the net and they couldn’t,” Gilani tells me over the phone. “I told the court that the National Informatics Centre, a government body, could find it on for them. When the judge said that the document should be downloaded in the court itself, I was overjoyed.”
A computer was brought to the court proceedings. But this was pre-broadband days and a telephone line was needed to hook up to the internet. Which is when Gilani got his come-uppance. “I will not allow any telephone line to conduct anti-national activities in my court,” the judge had said. And that was the end of that.
When the Press Council of India prepared a resolution in support of Gilani and requested that the court include it in its records, Justice Sangeeta Dhingra Sehgal thundered, “I don’t recognise the Press Council of India!” Sangeeta Dhingra Sehgal went on to become the Secretary of the Press Council of India.
The tampering of the documents found in Gilani’s PC that were brought in as evidence should have amounted to contempt of court. But no charges have been brought against any officer to date. A couple were posted to Kosovo, and one of them now has a lovely farmhouse near Delhi. The Australian authorities, in the meantime, have launched an inquiry into the police investigations against Haneef. A subtle cover-up underway, say the cynics?
Before realising the need to read the morning papers, I ask Gilani one last question. “So did anyone apologise to you after the whole thing was over?”
“No one publicly apologised. Not the police, not the government. LK Advani and George Fernandes had privately told me that they regretted the whole matter.”
I’m glad that Haneef’s coming back home to his people, more than 30 of whom are still in prison under the Official Secrets Act for jeopardising the nation’s security. Many, many more are in the clanger without being charged. But isn’t it better to be charged with something rotten in this wonderful country of ours than anywhere else in the world? Oh well, Gilani’s hung up. Have a gd’day, mates.