The marked people
In today’s world, many things have been globalised. One of these is prejudice. In the name of the global war on terrorism, an entire community has been labelled and demonised. Terror attacks, whether in Washington, London or Madrid, are followed by paranoid surveillance, strip searches and prolonged detentions of large numbers of Muslim youth, often without even tenuous evidence or respect for their elementary human rights.
The latest to join this global assault on democratic rights — in the wake of the three bomb blasts that hit Hyderabad this year — is the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh. The state Minorities Commission has reported the abduction and illegal detention and torture by the police of a large number of Muslim youth within days of the blasts on August 25, 2007. I have heard from several terrified families of many youth who “disappeared” for several days without legal trace, chilling testimonies similar to those made by youth incarcerated in Cheraiapally Jail before the fact-finding committee established by the Commission. The committee comprised advocate Ravi Chandran, Professor of forensic sciences Mahender Reddy, and activists Nirmala Gopalakrishnan, K. Anuradha and Afsar.
What emerges is that tens of — it is feared hundreds — Muslim youth have been forcibly picked up from their homes, and more often while they are on way to work or the market or to worship, without legal arrest. These detentions have been forced by men in civilian clothes presumed to be policemen. Among those illegally arrested is an autorickshaw driver, an embroiderer, a medical student and a software engineer. Almost none have criminal records.
As they struggle against their abductors, they are bundled into vehicles without number plates, their eyes covered with blindfolds that they are not allowed to remove throughout their detention, their hands bound and their mouths gagged. They are then driven to unknown destinations, possibly farm houses in the periphery of the city. In these locations they, and other youth, are subjected to various forms of torture, including denial of food for long periods, electric shocks and beatings on the soles of their feet. Their eyes continuously masked, they lose track of night and day. They are driven every few days to new torture chambers, grilled about their role in the bomb blasts and coerced to agree about their alleged role in the blasts and their sympathies with international jehad. They are continuously battered with communally-charged taunts by the interrogating policemen. Some succumb by signing blank confession papers; others stoutly resist.
Their hapless families are, of course, not informed by the police about the detention. They are sometimes informed by witnesses of the police abduction. Many are poorly educated and impoverished, desperate, but unable to comprehend how to set about finding their loved ones. They contact the police, who deny any knowledge of the missing men. Others frantically contact lawyers and human rights organisations to file habeas corpus petitions in the high court. These are heard without urgency by the judges, and the police routinely deny, in court, that the missing men are in their custody. However, in a few days, they are indeed produced by the same police before magistrates, claiming that they were arrested just a day earlier. It is not possible that the habeas corpus petitions by the families of the youth could have been filed before their arrest by the police, in anticipation of their future arrest by the police.
The fact-finding committee found “tell-tale signs of bodily abuse obviously not self inflicted” in the incarcerated youth, including “noticeable small scars of 1 cm diameter noted on external ears” and “1 mm to 2 mm scars noted around nipples indicative of electricity or needle entry”. Even jail records in three cases acknowledge injuries. They were visibly traumatised, some vomited blood, and others were severely dehydrated with swollen limbs and barely able to walk. The Commission observed that since these injuries “are not self inflicted, these obviously arose during police custody... [therefore] custodial atrocities on young detainees, all minority persons, stand proved”.
What is even more worrying is that the magistrates abdicated their duties by wantonly ignoring the visible signs of torture (some even noted later in jail records), when the detained youth were presented before them. Even the high court judges ignored Supreme Court guidelines by listing habeas corpus matters for hearing only once a week, unmindful of the imminent threats to the survival of the youth.
It is remarkable that even after legal production, following prolonged interrogation under torture, the police could still not charge most youth with involvement in the bomb blasts. Instead, the police alleged the youths’ support for international jehad been ‘proved’ by possession and propagation of ‘inflammatory’ CDs and pamphlets. The remand case diaries that I have in my possession describe these CDs as containing “Gujarat communal incidents like showing burnt bodies, damaged houses, the statements of victims as well as their relatives” and the other “clippings like shooting and beheading of… western forces by jehadis”. I possess and exhibit at least the former. Is that evidence to detain me for waging war against the State, in the way that these unfortunate youth have been charged?
The dazed families of the detained men live with their loss in intense social isolation. They are not just stigmatised by people of the ‘other’ community, even their neighbours, friends and relatives avoid contact with them, for fear that they too will be suspected by the authorities to harbour sympathies with terrorism. The larger community, especially poorer Muslims in the city, subsist with the daily cold dread that their own loved one may be the next target of the police.
An agonised young woman related to one of the detained youth cried out in a solidarity rally, “We are also Indians; we love India. Why are we seen as ISI agents and traitors?” Speaking from the heart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned recently against the dangers of precisely such ‘labelling’ of communities as unpatriotic or violent. It is a warning that governments led by his own party, in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Assam, do not seem to heed. He recalled that his own community of Sikhs was similarly labelled in the 1980s. What he did not mention was that thousands of youth were similarly abducted by the police in Punjab in those times, exterminated and cremated in mass graves. The story is hardly different for thousands of young people alleged to be Naxalites in Andhra, who are similarly abducted and eliminated.
After terror incidents, a hamstrung police are under unbearable pressure to perform. But crippled by ramshackle intelligence, poor investigative skills, demoralised and untrained forces and the crumbling fibre of police leadership, it resorts to shortcuts like the illegal abductions and torture that Hyderabad has witnessed. As the advocate appointed by the Commission, Ravi Chandran, concludes, “What is at stake is not just the lives of 20 odd young boys living in resigned solitariness in a cell tucked away somewhere on the periphery of the modern city. What is at stake is the functioning of a healthy democracy. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”