India just set a new global precedent in the battle against terrorism: for about 15 hours, we had a ‘legal’ terrorist group.
On Tuesday, a High Court judge highlighted a farce in India’s battle against terror when Justice Gita Mittal lifted the ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi), an alleged terror group, because of lack of evidence.
The Supreme Court has halted that ruling, but it is clear that new evidence would have to be cited if the ban is to continue. And if that new evidence can be found now (as officials promise), why wasn’t it given earlier? The sequence of events highlights how India’s battle against terror is based more on rhetoric than evidence. If Simi is indeed a terrorist group against which we have sharp words, a legal ban but no evidence, then just for that — and of course for a thousand other things — Home Minister Shivraj Patil should take moral responsibility and resign.
There is another aspect to this case that impacts the upcoming general elections. If the Centre fails to convince the courts on the ban and the ban is lifted, it will have a spiralling effect on the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
That is because Simi — founded in Aligarh in 1977 — had built an ‘iconic saviour’ image among large parts of the Muslim community through the 1990s and the ban on it in 2002 by the BJP-led Vajpayee government was seen as ‘anti-Muslim’, and an attempt to realign Hindu votes. Especially among the Muslim dispossessed, Simi had acquired the aura of ‘liberators’ before the ban, with a scramble among Muslim intellectuals to be aligned with it. Simi leaders were special invitees to meetings of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the powerful body set up to defend Muslim interests in India.So in 25-35 of the 80 constituencies across UP, Simi is seen as influencing the verdict through its control on Muslim votes — potentially matchwinning maths in an era of slender margin-coalition politics.
Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party — which was in power in UP when the NDA banned Simi and now has influence over the Central government — has been one of the strongest defenders of Simi. According to reports, on June 23, 2006, Yadav’s secretariat had written a letter to the UP Home Department asking it to withdraw the pending cases against more than a dozen Simi activists “in the larger public interest”. It is unclear whether the order was carried out or not.
Even after that, public prosecutors went slow in cases against Simi members accused of treason, sedition and waging war against India. This included a case against top Simi leader Shahid Badar Falahi and dozens of other active members and local leaders. They all got bail. And at least 23 of the accused have now jumped bail.