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Haneef: India’s hypocrisy

India cannot pretend anymore that none of its citizens fancy the Global Jehad club. We need to examine where our secularism has failed, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2007 00:23 IST

Our schizophrenia as a people is astounding. Right now we are consumed with self-righteous indignation over how Mohammed Haneef, an Indian citizen and an initial suspect in the Glasgow bomb blast, is being treated by the Australians. In his humiliation, we see a sinister attack on our national pride. In the decision to scrap his visa, we see the premature death of our own emigration dreams. We want our government to be less effete in its intervention. We think this is about racism, not terrorism.

In itself, this is a worthy (if slightly selfish) and laudable emotion. By all accounts, the 27-year-old doctor from Bangalore is being victimised, hounded and tortured. A magistrate has already ruled that there is no evidence to link Haneef with the bombing conspiracies in either Glasgow or London. And yet, an innocent man continues to be held in solitary confinement with the ludicrous explanation that the solitude is actually designed to give him more ‘privacy’. Haneef has eloquently argued his own innocence, describing himself as a “Muslim with moderate views” who believes that “every drop of blood is human”. When Australian Prime Minister John Howard still goes on to declare grandly that he is “not uncomfortable” with the young doctor’s continued detention our outrage is spontaneous and entirely legitimate.

But, what if Haneef had been arrested in Bangalore instead of Brisbane? What if a suicide bomber had rammed his explosives-laden car into the airport at Srinagar, instead of Scotland? And what if our investigating agencies had then told us that Haneef was a dreaded terrorist because he had loaned his mobile sim card to one of the men involved in the attack? Would we have been as concerned then about whether an innocent man had been locked away? Would we have demanded transparency from our judicial process on the grounds that the evidence was sketchy? Or would we have simply ranted about how India is a soft State and Islam a factory for fundamentalists? We have branded the Australians as racist, but would we have called ourselves communal?

The overwhelming anger at Haneef’s arrest would be a lot more reassuring, were it not underlined by a distinct double standard.

Turn your mind back to the Parliament attack of 2001. It was indisputably an attack on the nerve centre of India, and the desire for visible justice was entirely understandable. But, in a case eerily similar to Haneef’s, didn’t our investigating agencies almost put an innocent man on death row? The special Pota court trying the case in its early stages convicted a Delhi-based college teacher along with the other accused and sentenced him to death. The entire case against Professor S.A.R. Geelani was based on the fact that he had some telephonic contact with the prime accused in the days before the attack. It was left to the Supreme Court to conclusively throw out the case against the professor and acquit him of all charges. But even today, intelligence officials and investigating officers insist that their case against him was foolproof and they had been let down by the courts. I don’t remember any public outrage defining the national response to the Professor Geelani case. If anything most people seemed willing to believe the police and were impatient and dismissive of the do-gooder human rights activists campaigning for his release.

More recently, Tariq Dar, a Kashmiri model who made it big in Bangladesh was locked away on charges of terrorism. Accused of playing a role in the Delhi blasts of 2005, he spent three months in custody. Finally, the police were forced to concede in court that they did not have enough evidence to build any case against him, and he was able to walk free. The judge who acquitted him was passionate in her ruling. “It’s astonishing,” she wrote that “without an iota of evidence against him, Dar was kept in custody for 90 days which could be a lifetime for any common citizen.” But do you remember anyone you know sharing her anger? Today will be the 19th day Haneef has spent in custody, and we find that appalling. Yet, we were distinctly unmoved, when someone closer home, spent much longer in prison. How can we possibly explain this hypocrisy?

According to the Herald Sun, an Australian citizen, Roy Somerville, who has never met Haneef emerged as an unlikely benefactor and offered to post the ten thousand dollars in bail because he believes in a ‘fair go’. The newspaper quotes the Brisbane resident as saying that if the police only charged Haneef for giving his cousins an old sim card, then it was “bullshit”. Can you imagine anyone in India bailing out a stranger implicated in a case of terrorism?

Of course, it is true that Australia has never known what it feels like to live in the shadow of militant violence and so its civil society may find it much easier to be benevolent compared to us. It is also true that the involvement of Kafeel Ahmed, an engineer from Bangalore in the Glasgow attack, has busted several myths we have about ourselves.

Readers of this column may remember that just a fortnight ago, I argued that political correctness on the left and religious bigotry on the right had strangulated honest conversation about the linkages between modern-day Islam and terrorism. There is an undeniable need to stop candy-flossing the impact of fundamentalism. India cannot pretend anymore that none of its citizens fancy membership to the Global Jehad club. We need to examine where our secularism has failed.

But equally, we still need to keep our democracy healthy. This means that as citizens of a progressive modern country we should be able to demand transparency from our investigating agencies. It also means that when people are locked away on flimsy charges, we owe it them and to ourselves to speak up, even if their politics and antecedents make us uncomfortable.

Seventy per cent of the men and women in India’s prisons are still awaiting trial — that’s a staggering 300,000 people. Some have already spent more time in jail just waiting for a court date than they would have had they been found guilty.

So, as we galvanise public opinion against the arrest of an innocent Indian in Australia, how about sparing some of that anger for the innocent Indians in India?

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7