Breaking the News

Five years ago this week, on December 13, 2001, the Indian parliament was in its winter session. The government was under attack for yet another corruption scandal. At 11.30 in the morning, five armed men in a white Ambassador car fitted out with an improvised explosive device drove through the gates of Parliament House. When they were challenged, they jumped out of the car and opened fire. In the gun battle that followed, all the attackers were killed. Eight security personnel and a gardener were killed, too. The dead terrorists, the police said, had enough explosives to blow up the parliament building, and enough ammunition to take on a whole battalion of soldiers. Unlike most terrorists, these five left behind a thick trail of evidence–weapons, mobile phones, phone numbers, ID cards, photographs, packets of dried fruit and even a love letter.

Not surprisingly, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seized the opportunity to compare the assault to the September 11 attacks in the United States only three months previously.

On December 14, 2001, the day after the attack on parliament, the Special Cell (antiterrorist squad) of the Delhi police claimed it had tracked down several people suspected of being involved in the conspiracy. The next day, it announced that it had “cracked the case”: the attack, the police said, was a joint operation carried out by two Pakistan-based terrorist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Three Kashmiri men, Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru, and Mohammad Afzal, and Shaukat’s wife, Afsan Guru, were arrested.

In the tense days that followed, parliament was adjourned. The Indian government declared that Pakistan–America’s closest ally in the “war on terror”–was a terrorist state. On December 21, India recalled its high commissioner from Pakistan, suspended air, rail, and bus communications, and banned air traffic with Pakistan. It put into motion a massive mobilization of its war machinery, and moved more than half a million troops to the Pakistan border. Foreign embassies evacuated their staff and citizens, and tourists traveling to India were issued cautionary travel advisories. The world watched with bated breath as the subcontinent was taken to the brink of nuclear war. All this cost India an estimated $2.1 billion of public money. About 800 soldiers died in the panicky process of mobilization alone.

The police charge sheet was filed in a special fast-track trial court designated for cases under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Some three years later, the trial court sentenced Geelani, Shaukat, and Afzal to death. Afsan Guru was sentenced to five years of “rigorous imprisonment.” On appeal, the high court subsequently acquitted Geelani and Afsan, but upheld Shaukat’s and Afzal’s death sentences. Eventually, the supreme court upheld the acquittals and reduced Shaukat’s punishment to ten years of rigorous imprisonment. However, it not just confirmed, but enhanced Mohammad Afzal’s sentence. He was given three life sentences and a double death sentence.

In its judgment on August 5, 2005, the supreme court admitted that the evidence against Afzal was only circumstantial, and that there was no evidence that he belonged to any terrorist group or organization. But it went on to endorse what can only be described as lynch law. “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation,” it said, “and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

Spelling out the reasons for giving Afzal the death penalty, the judgment went on: “The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society and his life should become extinct.” This implies a dangerous ignorance of what it means to be a “surrendered militant” in Kashmir today.

So, should Afzal’s life be extinguished? His story is fascinating because it is inextricably entwined with the story of the Kashmir Valley. It is a story that stretches far beyond the confines of courtrooms and the limited imagination of people who live in the secure heart of a self-declared “superpower.” Afzal’s story has its origins in a war zone whose laws are beyond the pale of the fine arguments and delicate sensibilities of normal jurisprudence.

For all these reasons it is critical that we consider carefully the strange, sad, and utterly sinister story of the December 13 attack. It tells us a great deal about the way the world’s largest “democracy” really works. It connects the biggest things to the smallest. It traces the pathways that connect what happens in the shadowy grottoes of our police stations to what goes on in the snowy streets of Paradise Valley, and from there to the malign furies that bring nations to the brink of nuclear war. It raises specific questions that deserve specific, and not ideological or rhetorical, answers. What hangs in the balance is far more than the fate of one man.

For the most part, the December 13 attack was an astonishingly incompetent “terrorist” strike. But consummate competence appeared to be the hallmark of everything that followed: the gathering of evidence, the speed of the investigation by the Special Cell, the arrest and charging of the accused and the three-and-a-half-year-long judicial process that began with the fast-track trial court.

The operative phrase in all of this is “appeared to be.” If you follow the story carefully, you will encounter two sets of masks. First, the mask of consummate competence (accused arrested, “case cracked” in two days flat), and then, when things began to come undone, the benign mask of shambling incompetence (shoddy evidence, procedural flaws, material contradictions). But underneath all of this–as several lawyers, academics, and journalists who have studied the case in detail have shown–is something more sinister, more worrying. Over the past few years, the worries have grown into a mountain of misgivings, impossible to ignore.

The doubts set in as early as the day after the parliament attack, when the police arrested Geelani, a young lecturer at Delhi University. His outraged colleagues and friends, certain that he had been framed, contacted the well-known lawyer Nandita Haksar and asked her to take on his case. This marked the beginning of a campaign for the fair trial of Geelani. It flew in the face of mass hysteria and corrosive propaganda that was enthusiastically disseminated by the mass media. But despite this, the campaign was successful, and Geelani was eventually acquitted, along with Afsan Guru.

Geelani’s acquittal blew a gaping hole in the prosecution’s version of the parliament attack. The linchpin of its conspiracy theory suddenly tuned out to be innocent. But in some odd way, in the public mind, the acquittal of two of the accused only confirmed the guilt of the other two. There was bloodlust that had to be satiated. When the government announced that Afzal, Accused No 1 in the case, would be hanged on October 20, 2006, it seemed that most people welcomed the news not just with approval but with morbid excitement. But then, once again, the questions resurfaced.

To see through the prosecution’s case against Geelani was relatively easy. He was plucked out of thin air and transplanted into the center of the “conspiracy” as its kingpin. Afzal was different. He had been extruded through the sewage system of the hell that Kashmir has become. He surfaced through a manhole, covered in shit. (And when he emerged, policemen in the Special Cell pissed on him. Literally.) The first thing they made him do was a “media confession” in which he implicated himself completely in the attack. The speed with which this happened made many of us believe that he was indeed guilty as charged. It was only much later that the circumstances under which this “confession” was made were revealed, and even the supreme court was to set it aside, saying that the police had violated legal safeguards.

From the very beginning there was nothing pristine or simple about Afzal’s case. His story gives us a glimpse into what life is really like in the Kashmir Valley. It is only in the Noddy book version we read about in our newspapers that security forces battle militants and innocent Kashmiris are caught in the crossfire. In the adult version, Kashmir is a valley awash with militants, renegades, security forces, double-crossers, informers, spooks, blackmailers, blackmailees, extortionists, spies, both Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies, human rights activists, NGOs, and unimaginable amounts of unaccounted-for money and weapons. There are not always clear lines that demarcate the boundaries between all these; it is not easy to tell who is working for whom.

Truth, in Kashmir, is probably more dangerous than anything else. The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. At the bottom of the pit are the Special Operations Group and Special Task Force (STF), the most ruthless, undisciplined, and dreaded elements of the Indian security apparatus in Kashmir, which play a central role in the Afzal story. Unlike the more formal forces, they operate in a twilight zone where policemen, surrendered militants, renegades, and common criminals do business. They prey upon the local population, particularly in rural Kashmir. Their primary victims are the thousands of young Kashmiri men who rose up in revolt in the anarchic uprising of the early 1990s and have since surrendered and are trying to live normal lives.

In 1989, when Afzal crossed the border to be trained as a militant, he was only twenty years old. He returned with no training, disillusioned with his experience. He put down his gun and enrolled himself in Delhi University. In 1993, without ever having been a practicing militant, he voluntarily surrendered to the Border Security Force. Illogically enough, it was at this point that his nightmares began. His surrender was treated as a crime, and his life became hell. Afzal’s story has enraged Kashmiris because what has happened to him could have happened, is happening, and has happened to thousands of young Kashmiri men and their families. The only difference is that their stories are played out in the dingy bowels of interrogation centers, army camps, and police stations where they have been burned, beaten, electrocuted, blackmailed, and killed, their bodies thrown out of the backs of trucks for passers by to find. Whereas Afzal’s story is being performed like a piece of medieval theater on the national stage, in the clear light of day, with the legal sanction of a “fair trial,” the hollow benefits of a “free press,” and the all pomp and ceremony of a so-called democracy.

In documents submitted to the court, Afzal describes how, in the months before the attack on parliament, he was tortured in the camps of the STF–with electrodes on his genitals and chilies and petrol in his anus. He talks of how he was a constant victim of extortion. He mentions the name of Deputy Superintendent of Police Devinder Singh, who said he needed him to do a “small job” for him in Delhi. (Singh has subsequently admitted on record to having tortured Afzal in exactly the ways Afzal has described.) Afzal has also said that from the time he was arrested up to the time he was charged (a few months), his younger brother Hilal was held in illegal confinement in a police camp in Kashmir. As ransom.

Even today, Afzal does not claim complete innocence. It is the nature of his involvement that is being contested. For instance, was he coerced, tortured, and blackmailed into playing even the peripheral part he played? In a gross violation of his constitutional rights, from the time he was arrested and right through the crucial phase of the trial when the real work of building up a case is done, Afzal did not have a lawyer. He had nobody to put out his version of the story, or help him or anyone else sift through the tangle of lies and fabrications and propaganda put out by the police. Various individuals worked it out for themselves. Today, five years later, a group of lawyers, academics, journalists, and writers has published a reader (December 13th: The Strange Case of the Parliament Attack, published by Penguin India). It is this body of work that has fractured what, only recently, appeared to be a national consensus interwoven with mass hysteria.

Through the fissures, those who have come under scrutiny–shadowy individuals, counter-intelligence and security agencies, political parties–are beginning to surface. They wave flags, hurl abuse, issue hot denials, and cover their tracks with more and more untruths. Thus they reveal themselves.

The essays in the Penguin book raise questions about how Afzal, who never had proper legal representation, can be sentenced to death without having had an opportunity to be heard, without a fair trial. They raise questions about fabricated arrest memos, falsified seizure and recovery memos, procedural flaws, vital evidence that has been tampered with, false telephone records, false testimonies, legal lacunae, material contradictions in the testimonies of police and prosecution witnesses, and the outright lies that were presented in court and published in newspapers. They show how there is hardly a single piece of evidence that stands up to scrutiny.

And then there are even more disturbing questions that have been raised, which range beyond the fate of Afzal. Some of these are critical for a country that is claiming to be a responsible nuclear power. Here are thirteen questions regarding December 13:

Question 1: For months before the attack on parliament, both the government and the police had been saying that parliament could be attacked. On December 12, 2001, then prime minister A.B. Vajpayee warned of an imminent attack. On December 13, it happened. Given that there was an “improved security drill,” how did a car bomb packed with explosives enter the parliament complex?

Question 2: Within days of the attack, the Special Cell of the Delhi police said it was a meticulously planned joint operation of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba. They said the attack was led by a man called Mohammad who was also involved in the hijacking of flight IC-814 in 1998. (This was later refuted by the Central Bureau of Investigation.) None of this was ever proved in court. What evidence did the Special Cell have for its claim?

Question 3: The entire attack was recorded live on closed-circuit television (CCTV). Two Congress Party members of parliament, Kapil Sibal and Najma Heptullah, demanded in parliament that the CCTV recording be shown to the members. They said that there was confusion about the details of the event. The chief whip of the Congress Party, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, said, “I counted six men getting out of the car. But only five were killed. The closed-circuit TV camera recording clearly showed the six men.” If Dasmunshi was right, why did the police say that there were only five people in the car? Who was the sixth person? Where is he now? Why was the CCTV recording not produced by the prosecution as evidence in the trial? Why was it not released for public viewing?

Question 4: Why was parliament adjourned after some of these questions were raised?

Question 5: A few days after December 13, the government declared that it had “incontrovertible evidence” of Pakistan’s involvement in the attack, and announced a massive mobilization of almost half a million soldiers to the Indo-Pakistan border. The subcontinent was pushed to the brink of nuclear war. Apart from Afzal’s “confession,” extracted under torture (and later set aside by the supreme court), what was the “incontrovertible evidence”?

Question 6: Is it true that the military mobilization to the Pakistan border had begun long before the December 13 attack?

Question 7: How much did this military standoff, which lasted for nearly a year, cost? How many soldiers died in the process? How many soldiers and civilians died because of mishandled landmines, and how many peasants lost their homes and land because trucks and tanks were rolling through their villages and landmines were being planted in their fields?

Question 8: In a criminal investigation, it is vital for the police to show how the evidence gathered at the scene of the attack led them to the accused. The police have not managed to show how they connected Geelani to the attack. And how did the police reach Afzal? The Special Cell says Geelani led them to Afzal. But the message to look out for Afzal was actually flashed to the Srinagar police before Geelani was arrested. So how did the Special Cell connect Afzal to the December 13 attack?

Question 9: The courts acknowledge that Afzal was a surrendered militant who was in regular contact with the security forces, particularly the STF of Jammu and Kashmir police. How do the security forces explain the fact that a person under their surveillance was able to conspire in a major militant operation?

Question 10: Is it plausible that organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad would rely on a person who had been in and out of STF torture chambers, and was under constant police surveillance, as the principal link for a major operation?

Question 11: In his statement before the court, Afzal says that he was introduced to “Mohammed” and instructed to take him to Delhi by a man called Tariq, who was working with the STF. Tariq was named in the police charge sheet. Who is Tariq and where is he now?

Question 12: On December 19, 2001, six days after the parliament attack, police commissioner S.M. Shangari identified one of the attackers who was killed as Mohammad Yasin Fateh Mohammed (alias Abu Hamza) of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who had been arrested in Mumbai in November 2000 and immediately handed over to the Jammu and Kashmir police. He gave detailed descriptions to support his statement. If police commissioner Shangari was right, how did Yasin, a man in the custody of the Jammu and Kashmir police, end up participating in the parliament attack? If he was wrong, where is Yasin now?

Question 13: Why is it that we still do not know who the five “terrorists” killed in the parliament attack are?

These questions, examined cumulatively, point to something far more serious than incompetence. The words that come to mind are complicity, collusion, involvement. There is no need for us to feign shock or shrink from thinking these thoughts and saying them out loud. Governments and their intelligence agencies have a hoary tradition of using strategies such as this to further their own ends. (Look up the burning of the Reichstag and the rise of Nazi power in Germany in 1933; or Operation Gladio, in which European intelligence agencies created acts of terrorism, especially in Italy, in order to discredit militant groups such as the Red Brigades.)

The official response to all of these questions has been dead silence. As things stand, Afzal’s execution has been postponed while the president considers his clemency petition. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (now in the opposition) announced that it would turn “Hang Afzal” into a national campaign. But it does not seem to have taken off. Now other avenues are being explored. The main strategy seems to be to create confusion and polarize the debate on communal lines. In the business of spreading confusion, the media, particularly television journalists, can be counted on to be perfect collaborators. On discussions, chat shows and “special reports,” we have television anchors playing around with crucial facts, like young children in a sandpit. Torturers, estranged brothers, senior police officers, and politicians are emerging from the woodwork and talking. The more they talk, the more interesting it all becomes.

One character who is rapidly emerging from the shadowy periphery and wading on to center stage is deputy superintendent Devinder Singh. He was showcased on the national news (CNN-IBN), in what was presented as a “sting” operation with a hidden camera. It all seemed a bit unnecessary, however, because Singh has been talking a lot these days. He has done recorded interviews, on the phone as well as face to face, saying exactly the same shocking things. Weeks before the sting operation, in a recorded interview with Parvaiz Bukhari, a freelance journalist, he said, “I did interrogate and torture him [Afzal] at my camp for several days. And we never recorded his arrest in the books anywhere. His description of torture at my camp is true. That was the procedure those days and we did pour petrol in his ass and gave him electric shocks. But I could not break him. He did not reveal anything to me despite our hardest possible interrogation … He looked like a bhondu [fool] those days, what you call a chootya [idiot] type. And I had a reputation for torture, interrogation and breaking suspects. If anybody came out of my interrogation clean, nobody would ever touch him again. He would be considered clean for good by the whole department.”

This is not an empty boast. Singh has a formidable reputation for torture in the Kashmir Valley. On television, his boasting spiraled into policy making. “Torture is the only deterrent for terrorism,” he said. “I do it for the nation.” He did not bother to explain why or how the “bhondu” that he tortured and subsequently released allegedly went on to become the diabolical mastermind of the parliament attack. Singh then said that Afzal was a Jaish militant. If this is true, why was the evidence not placed before the courts? And why on earth was Afzal released? Why was he not watched? There is a definite attempt to try to dismiss this as incompetence. But given everything we know now, it would take all of Singh’s delicate professional skills to make some of us believe that.

The official version of the story of the parliament attack is very quickly coming apart at the seams. Even the supreme court judgment, with all its flaws of logic and leaps of faith, does not accuse Afzal of being the mastermind of the attack. So who was the mastermind? If Afzal is hanged, we may never know. But L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition, wants him hanged at once. Even a day’s delay, he says, is against the national interest. Why? What is the hurry? The man is locked up in a high-security cell on death row. He is not allowed out of his cell for even five minutes a day. What harm can he do? Talk? Write, perhaps? Surely, even in Advani’s own narrow interpretation of the term, it is in the national interest not to hang Afzal? At least not until there is an inquiry that reveals what the real story is and who actually attacked parliament?

A genuine inquiry would have to mean far more than just a political witch-hunt. It would have to look into the part played by intelligence, counter-insurgency, and security agencies as well. Offences such as the fabrication of evidence and the blatant violation of procedural norms have already become established in the courts, but they look very much like just the tip of the iceberg. We now have a police officer admitting–boasting–on record that he was involved in the illegal detention and torture of a fellow citizen. Is all of this acceptable to the people, the government, and the courts of India?

Given the track record of Indian governments (past and present, right, left, and center) it is naive–perhaps utopian is a better word–to hope that today’s politicians will ever have the courage to institute an inquiry that will, once and for all, uncover the real story. A maintenance dose of pusillanimity is probably encrypted in all governments. But hope has little to do with reason.

ARUNDHATI ROY is the author of An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Power Politics, War Talk, The Cost of Living and The God of Small Things.

Copyright 2006 ARUNDHATI ROY.