‘What If It Was Me Or My Father?’
Chasing the SIMI Tribunal’s trail was not easy but exposing one of the biggest lies was worth every moment, writes AJIT SAHI after three months in the field
State is organised violence. — MAHATMA GANDHI
AS A reporter, I take vainglorious pride in rarely being distracted on the job. But the morning of June 12 this year turned into a testing moment. I was in Hyderabad, sitting in the living room of Moutasim Billah, a 22-year-old bearded Muslim, an engineering college dropout. Billah, who wears the traditional Muslim skullcap, is implicated in more cases of terrorism and sedition than I have cared to count. As he spoke without emotion of his 90 days in prison that had ended only hours earlier, I pretended to fill my notebook. But unknown to the six-odd youngsters crowding the small room, I desperately searched for an excuse to send out two young boys not much older than eight years in age so that they would be spared Billah’s chilling story of persecution and injustice.
Their chins on their palms, their elbows on their knees, the two boys seemed to soak in the alleged terrorist’s every word. One brought me water when I asked for it but was back on his haunches instantly. I don’t know their names because, for once, I was loathe to make them my story. As neither Billah’s home nor his tale was my domain, the boys, to my discomfort, sat through his storytelling. My thoughts raced then as they race now: what have they made of Billah’s staccato narrative of the unending humiliations of beatings, torture, jail, false charges? How far have they internalised Billah’s story? How amplified is it in their perception? Celebrated reporter Robert Fisk of Britain’s The Independent once opined why the Taliban of Afghanistan turned out so regressive: driven away from their motherland, growing up in the refugee camps of Pakistan, those Afghan youngsters perhaps sought to recreate the sad and repressive world of their camps once they marched victoriously back into Kabul.
To be sure, when I started investigating the state’s supposedly open-and-shut case against the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), I knew it was a singular story, for rarely had there been an issue in which “the other point of view” had been so denied a right to exist by just about everyone: the government, the police, much of the judiciary and the media, and the (largely Hindu) middle class. Anyone I spoke with, everything I read, had only this to say: SIMI is a terrorist organisation. It is working to break up India. It must be contained. My mother, childhood friends, cousins were stunned into silence when I shared with them that I was probing SIMI, and, so far, it seemed the group was in the clear.
Indeed, the more I read the more I found a complete absence of that foundational element of sustainable accusation: evidence. I’m a journalist from the 1980s when the word of the police wasn’t to be trusted, unlike today, when for the corporate media, to borrow a nomenclature from Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, that word alone is the overwhelming proof of culpability. When I first landed the Centre’s Background Note (issued with the ban notification of February 7, 2008), it was so ridiculous a document that I knew I was on the right track.
Yet, it has been a difficult story to fetch because there is no doubt SIMI is a fundamentalist Islamist organisation that, as the Centre says, believes in the propagation of Islam. Its stated ideology clashes with the idea of India that the globalised, Western-aspiring, stockmarket punting middle classes have mounted to give a thumbs up to “development”: nuclear deals, large dams, more IITs, more IIMs, Indian companies buying international ones, and what not.
Until its ban on September 27, 2001, SIMI had constantly pushed the envelope, engaging with radical Islamists in Pakistan and the Middle East, stridently suggesting that a pan-global Islamic agenda was of direct consequence for Indian Muslims. Employed with a news agency at the time, I had interviewed SIMI’s then president, Shahid Badr Falahi, just days before the group was banned and he was arrested. Among other questions, I had asked him what SIMI thought of revered leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, Gandhi failed to make the grade with SIMI. In purist Islam, there are only Allah, the Holy Quran, Prophet Mohammad and the story of his life as a beacon.
BUT AT another level, this was an easy story to pursue, for all I had to do was to remember the basics: That the idea of India is not homogenised, that the founding fathers of the Indian Republic promised fundamental rights to all citizens to peacefully practice their religions and faiths and navigate their lives as they wanted. In terms of the law, it was still easier: I only had to reject prejudice and look for evidence. I just needed to remember: every single accused Indian Muslim is as bona fide an Indian citizen as I am. “Is there a doubt?” former SIMI general secretary Ziaduddin Siddiqui, who lives in Aurangabad and has a bouquet of criminal cases against him, had laughed when I had made this comment to him.
But this is no dry story rising from lifeless court documents. It has been an emotional rollercoaster to sit across young boys barely into manhood, their foreheads creased by sleepless nights worried stiff over the jailing of a father, a brother, wondering endlessly, “Will this end? Is this for real? What do I do now? Where do I go now? Will he survive this? Will I survive this?” As I interviewed countless Muslims so weathered, I couldn’t but ask myself, “What if this was me? What if it was my brother, my father in jail?”
In the three months I chased this story across India I found tremendous anxiety among not just SIMI members or sympathisers but also those who reject SIMI’S puritan ideology and prefer India’s syncretic Islam of a thousand years. For many such Muslims, the idea of India as promised them by the Constitution is fast fading, and they need urgent reassurances that the state hasn’t abandoned them.
Falahi and scores of his brethren may not know it, but the Indian establishment they are ranged against has, in a way, elevated them to the status of Mahatma Gandhi by invoking an oppressive British law to charge them that the erstwhile rulers of India had used to convict Gandhi. This is Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. In March 1922, standing in the court of Ahmedabad’s District & Sessions Judge, CM Broomfield, accused of sedition, this is how Mahatma Gandhi described this obnoxious law: “Section 124A under which I am happily charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. But the charges under which (I am) charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime.”
While replacing the phrase “His Majesty or the Government established by law in British India” with “Government established by law in India”, the law stands today as it did in 1922. “Whoever by words,” it says, “either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years…”
When TEHELKA began publishing this series three weeks ago, I passed on a copy to Falahi’s lawyers when we met in the last days of the Tribunal at the Delhi High Court. Unexpectedly, one of them asked me to sign on it, giving me a rare moment of self-indulgence. “To the SIMI bravehearts,” I scribbled in the magazine, then added as a considered afterthought: “Someday, this will be used against me as evidence.”