The Burden Of Being Muslim
By Mahtab Alam
12 September, 2011
“Serial Bomb Blasts in Delhi. Where are you, Are you safe?” read a text message on my Mobile, by Sonali Garg, a friend of mine from Delhi. It was late in the evening of September 13th, 2008. “Oh My God! That’s really horrible. I am fine though and in Bihar. Hope you, your family members are all right,” I replied before forwarding this message to other friends in Delhi. During those days, I was in Bihar, surveying the aftermath of the flood that had struck the Kosi region of the state in the second week of August that same year. Village after village had vanished in the flood. It was reportedly the worst flood ever seen by the people of that area. Most of them were left with no other alternative but to shift to the rehabilitation camps.
On 13th September 2008, the sun went down to serial bomb blasts in Delhi, killing 26 persons and injuring many more. In all, five bomb blasts within the time span of 30 minutes created havoc amongst the Delhiites. I heaved a sigh of relief as all the messages I received in reply to my forwarded message were positive. My friends were all fine. The last reply I received was around midnight by a senior colleague of mine, A R Agwan, a former assistant Professor of Environment Sciences with whom I had conducted many workshops for Human Rights’ Activists in different parts of India, saying that he was all right and had been sleeping, thus the delay in replying.
Still shaken by the news, I tried moving on with my work, thinking that the worst was over. But I was to be proved wrong. Around noon the next day, I received a frantic call from the Secretary of the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights (APCR), a Delhi based civil rights’ group I was working with then as a Coordinator. He sounded tense and the poor network added to the problem. All I was able to make out, in interrupted tones, was that the situation in Delhi, especially Jamia Nagar, a Muslim populated area of South Delhi, was very bad. A pall of fear pervaded all in the area. The police had been randomly picking up Muslims from the area. I was asked to come to Delhi as soon as I possibly could.
Not satisfied with the details, I tried ringing A R Agwan, as he was based in that area. I grew worried when around twenty calls made to his mobile through the day went unanswered. Knowing him, it was quite unusual of him to react in this manner. Immediately after Iftar (since it was the month of Ramadhan), I proceeded to the nearest Cyber Cafe to book my ticket for Delhi. An e-mail I received struck me numb with horror and rendered me incapable of any action for a few minutes. It was hard to believe that A R Agwan was under arrest! He had been picked up by Delhi Police’s Special Cell, equivalent to the Anti-Terror Squad or Special Task Force of other states.
A R Agwan, is a prominent social activist and has been attached with many social and human rights’ group. With a clear record, and an even clearer conscience, his arrerst sent shockwaves in the community. The leaders of the Muslim community were completely outraged by the arrest. His neighbours did not know how to react. Enquiries to other activists of the situation revealed that apart from Agwan, three other people had been detained from the area. After much pressure from community leaders, social and religious organizations, Agwan was released, along with Adnan Fahad, a DTP operator in his late twenties, who was also into some small Publishing business. They were arrested around 11 AM in the morning and freed in the late evening around 7:30 P M. Illegal detention would have been prolonged hadn’t the community leaders and activists pressurized the Delhi police for their release.
On 17th September, immediately after coming back to Delhi, I went to meet Agwan. He was still recovering from the shock, having been forcibly subjected to the worst hours of his life. He completely failed to understand why he had been picked up. “They asked me about my whereabouts on the day of the blasts, my activity in the evening that day. I told them I was at home meeting two non-Muslim friends from Hyderabad. They had come over to discussing the opening up of an NGO. Then they questioned me about the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and its people. They pressed me to give names of some SIMI people in my locality, and I told them that I didn’t know anything, but they kept insisting”. The interrogators also asked him about Abul Bashar, a Madarsa graduate, who was arrested from Azamgarh the month before and was later projected as the mastermind of the Ahmedabad serial blasts. “I told them I knew not more about Abul Bashar than what had appeared in the media”, Agwan recalled. Not content with this response, they further alleged that Bashar had his cell number and that he had stayed at his home. Agwan flatly denied the charges. “But they did not believe me and wanted to put words in my mouth. They just wanted me to confess to something with which I had absolutely no connection”. “It was like there was no rule of law and the Police had become a Law unto themselves,” he told me, still unable to reconcile himself to what he had undergone. “When they realized that it would be too difficult to further my custody, as pressure was mounting from different sections of society to release me, they offered to drop me to my home. I refused to go with them.” “I told them that I was afraid that they would take me to some other place and torture me severely so that I confess to their charges, as had been done to hundreds of Muslims across the country”. “I asked them to ask my family to come and collect me”.
The fear that Agwan underwent reminded me of the stories that I had heard at the Impendent People’s Tribunal on the ‘Atrocities Committed against Minorities (read Muslims) in the Name of Fighting Terrorism’ at Hyderabad in August the same year (2008). We were told spine chilling stories of arbitrary detention and torture by the victims of ‘war on terror’, families of the accused who were in jails and human rights activists across the country barring Kashmir and North-eastern states of India. The common complaints were that they were punched, kicked, beaten very badly. In order to humiliate them so that they break down, the interrogators made them stand for long hours and hung them upside down. In custody, they were denied all basic amenities and were forced to drink water from the toilets. Moreover, they were subjected to electric shocks by the police officials and made to repeat what the police were saying. One of them recounted,”The interrogators repeatedly used name calling, sexually profane abusive language with me. The torture continued from about midnight/one o'clock until morning.” In most of the cases, the first question that they were asked was, “Why have you people become anti-nationals? You all are bloody Pakistanis.”
And the torture wasn’t limited to those arrested. The police made sure to use every trick to make those arrested confess to their will. The family members too were subject to similar torture. The police ensured that the most inhuman torture was meted out to them. Ataur Rahman, in his mid-sixties, lived in Mumbai with his family which included an engineer son who was an accused in the July 2006 Mumbai blasts. At the tribunal, he had told us, “My house was raided in the night and I was taken to an unknown destination. After keeping me in illegal custody for several days, I was formally shown to be arrested on July 27, 2006, and an FIR was lodged against me. Me, my wife, my daughter and daughter-in-law were paraded before my arrested sons while being abused by the police officers continuously. My sons and I were beaten up in front of each other. The women of the family were called up by the ATS daily and were asked to drop their burqah (veil) before my arrested sons. Adding to their humiliation, my sons were abused in front of the women folk. An officer beat me up and threatened me that the women of my family were outside and they would be stripped naked if I did not remove my clothes before my children and other police officers. They brought in other arrested accused and I was stripped naked in their presence…”
The witch hunting of Muslims only intensified after the blasts on September 13th, which was followed by the infamous ‘encounter’ at Batla House of Jamia Nagar area of South Delhi. On September 23rd, a meeting had been organized in Delhi to discuss the police excess and the communal witch hunt, which was attended by well known lawyers, activists, journalists, academicians and community leaders. While the meeting continued, we received the disturbing news of the picking up of a 17 year old boy, Saqib. The men who had taken the boy were unknown and hence we decided to lodge a complaint with the local police station. Initially reluctant to entertain us, the presence of senior lawyers, Jamia teachers and journalists pressured them into register our complaint. We were later informed that the Delhi Police special cell had picked him up for questioning. When Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonzalves and the boy's relatives approached the Special Cell, they had another surprise in store. The cops said -"hand over his brother and take him!” Saqib’s is not a unique case. People are picked up indiscriminately everyday and are harassed, some of them reportedly brutally tortured. Like Saqib, there are some victims in the area, but most of them prefer to remain quiet to avoid further harassment. Moreover, they fear about who would employ or give a house on rent to a 'suspected person'. Today, even after three years of the Delhi bomb blasts and the Batla House 'encounter', the residents live in fear. A situation has been created wherein every Muslim is seen as a terror suspect, if not a terrorist. The infamous SMS which reads thus, “Every Muslim is not a terrorist, but all terrorists are Muslims,” had first made several rounds after July 2006 Blasts in Mumbai. This has always been believed as nothing but the gospel truth. The implicit message among a major section of the public is that every Muslim is a potential terrorist, regardless of whether he is a believer, an agnostic or an atheist.
Take the case of Shaina K K, a journalist and a declared agnostic, while receiving an award recently had to comment with the following words, “See, I happen to be a Muslim, but I am not a terrorist”. The clarification was given because of the feeling that if one belonged to the minority community, they would but be profiled. Shahina has a personal experience of it, so she would know. She has been falsely framed for ‘intimidating’ witnesses in the Abdul Nasir Madani case. Her only ‘crime’ was that she investigated the case of Kerala People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Abdul Nasir Madani, who is an accused in the infamous Bangalore blasts case, and asked the question, “Why is this man is still in Prison,” in the form of an article which appeared in Tehelka, based on the facts. Madani had already spent 10 years in prison as an under-trail in the Coimbatore blast case of 1997 and who was later acquitted in 2007. It was only last month that Shahina managed to get an anticipatory bail, which put an end to her ‘underground’ life. Another Muslim journalist from Bangalore, working with a leading news-weekly was grilled several times in the same case.
In fact, this writer also had a similar personal experience but thankfully, to a lesser degree of threat to his life during a fact finding visit of Giridih Jail in the state of Jharkhand, in July 2008. I was branded a Maoist along with two other friends, and illegally detained for five hours by Giridih Superintendent of Police, Murari Lal Meena who is now being promoted to the rank of DIG, Special Branch of the Jharkhand Police. Later I was informed by the PUCL Secretary of Jharkhand, Shashi Bhusan Pathak, who was the local organiser of the visit and had contacted officials concerned for our release, that Mr. Meena had told him, "Since the guy (meaning me) comes from a frontier area of Bihar which borders Nepal and has studied at Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi, he is a Pucca Aatankwadi (Hardcore Terrorist)!" He had also threatened to put us behind bars in the same prison without any hope of being bailed out for at least a year.
In the month of July this year, just a few days before the recent Mumbai blast, a Muslim photo-journalist of Mid Group, Sayed Sameer Abedi, was detained for taking innocuous photographs of a traffic junction and an airplane. He was threatened, roughed up and even called a terrorist because of his Muslim name. According to a report in Mid Day, at the police station, when Sub-Inspector Ashok Parthi, the investigating officer in his case, asked him about the incident and he explained everything, emphasizing that he had done no wrong, he was told by the inspector, "Don't talk too much, just shut up and listen to what we are saying. Your name is Sayed, you could be a terrorist and a Pakistani”. The inspector also told him that he (the inspector) was asked by the seniors to inform the Special Branch and file all kinds of charges, including those of terrorism, against him (Sayed).
Unfortunately this is not limited to police and security agencies. The common men also somehow believe that Muslims are responsible for the all the terror strikes. They are the real culprits! This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is deepening day by day. In 2001, I was on my way to Patna by train. I noticed an old man consistently asking a bearded Muslim youth in his teens for an English magazine that the youth was reading with much concentration. He politely asked the old man to wait till he finished reading the article. Unmoved by the politeness and angered at this rebuttal, he abused the youth by calling him and other Muslims terrorists, who were destroying India’s sanctity after having destroyed America. He further voiced his prejudice by commenting that all Muslims belong to Pakistan and should leave for that place. I was a kid of fifteen and didn’t want to be identified as a Muslim, so thought it unwise to comment. Moreover, the matter had subsided when the youth gave over the magazine to the old man (which the old returned proclaiming unashamedly that he wasn’t literate in English).
I took this to be a matter in isolation, and tried not to give much attention. However, at home, I was faced with questions of a similar nature from a non-Muslim friend who enquired me about my whereabouts. He was surprised on hearing that I was studying at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, which he had thought to be a madarsa. Quelling his doubts, I told him it was just like any other University (Delhi University as example). I still face this question, time and again. It is almost like under living under constant suspicion. Thanks to our media and security agencies, which leave no stone unturned to prove this wrong despite the fact that over the years, it has been proved that Muslims have no monopoly over terrorism. In the last three years, I often ask myself the ask question, ‘Am I Safe?’ To be frank and honest, I doubt it. I am not confident about whether I am safe or not. However, my biggest worry is that the ordinary Muslim youth, who doesn’t have the network of people like Agwan or me, as they are in real danger.
After every blast every Muslim youth fears that he could be next. They can be, in fact, are, easily picked up, tortured, packed and thrown into jails, sometimes even killed in cold blood. In India today, to be a Muslim is to be encounter-able, to be constantly suspected of being a terrorist, to be illegally detainable and severely tortured, to have the possibility of being killed without being questioned, no matter whether one is a believer, agnostic or an atheist. Recent communal witch hunt in the wake of both Mumbai and Delhi blasts only further proves that. And if that is not the case, why hasn’t a single non Muslim person, as named voluntarily by Swami Aseemanad, in his confession, detailing role of Hidutva outfits in several blasts? Why have two of the prime accused, belonging to Hindutva outfits, of Malegaon blasts been granted bail while bails of the Muslims accused in the same case are refused time and again. How long will the Muslims of India have to bear the Burden of being a Muslim? People have started considering this (sense of insecurity) as a part and parcel of their lives. I still have no answer to the question, ‘Will this never end?’, once asked by a teacher of mine, when I informed her about the illegal detention of Mohammed Arshad, an Engineering student from Azamgarh who was later released. I can only wish my answer would soon turn affirmative!
Mahtab Alam is a Civil Rights’ Activist and Independent Journalist based in Delhi. He can be contacted at activist dot journalist at gmail.com. A slightly different version of this article originally appeared on www. infochangeindia.org
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