Terrorism is a form of war, politics by other means. Problems begin when the political imagination becomes its captive and begins to blur the operational lines between prevention, pre-emption, and even provocation.
Dialogue is stifled and civility disappears when the political discourse turns to terrorism, a circumstance of great convenience to the intelligence and security agencies, which seek a relaxation of accountability norms. That intent to operate with absolute freedom from scrutiny has for some time enjoyed the eager endorsement of political elements that flourish on fear and ethnic stereotyping.
Rationality and the sifting of fact from fantasy are a clear and present danger for the politics of fear. And this has proven the case yet again with 73-year-old Abdul Karim ‘Tunda’ of the henna-tinted beard and fearsome reputation. Tunda, whose name reflects a disability supposedly suffered in a bomb-making accident, was arrested in August 2013, amidst a blaze of celebratory reporting in the media and vivid reconstructions of his three-decade-long career in the cause of the Islamic jihad.
It was an attractive story that matched existing templates and gained greater traction after it was embroidered with some details about Tunda’s life prior to terrorism. His capture on India’s border with Nepal — a favoured locale for staging events in the fight against terror — was described as a “carefully crafted operation” involving India’s external intelligence agency and counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Multiple charges were filed against the long-time exile from India and the Delhi Police may well have emptied out its inventory of cases — both solved and unsolved — in the process. But that may have been the easy part.
Among the twenty-odd terror bombings Tunda was accused of, one stood out simply because the police case offered points of reference with Aamir Khan, arrested in 1998 and accused of no fewer than 19 terror bombings, before his full acquittal and release from prison in 2012.
Charges against Tunda and Khan converged in a bomb blast at a popular eatery in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area in October 1997, a crime for which an outfit called the Shaheed Khalsa claimed responsibility, though Delhi Police arrested three Kashmiris the same day. The three initial suspects, like several others, soon disappeared down the memory hole. In February 1998, the police introduced an entirely new cast of characters, bringing Khan from Delhi and Mohammad Shakeel from Ghaziabad to trial, with the spectral figure of Tunda lurking in the background.
Khan and Shakeel were both arrested early in 1998 but met for the first time while under custody in Sonepat jail. They were charged with collaborating on a number of bomb blasts in Delhi and its environs, but as the hearings began, the prosecution failed to make much progress, with its unseemly dependence on forced confessions and witness testimonies scripted by the police. Acquittals came in rapid succession, but in 2003, in what seemed a truce offering from a sceptical judiciary, both Khan and Shakeel were held guilty in the Karol Bagh bombing.
On appeal, the Delhi High Court reversed the convictions, observing in Khan’s case that the prosecution had “miserably failed to adduce any evidence to connect the accused-appellant with the charges, much less prove them”. Liberty, though, did not come for long years. Khan survived partly because of the resilience of youth. But the older Shakeel, a push-cart vendor of cloth, and the sole source of livelihood for his family of three, hanged himself by his bedsheet in Delhi’s Tihar jail. He had spent 10 years in an endlessly long and dark tunnel and saw not the faintest glimmer of hope or freedom.
Without the slightest hint of irony, Delhi Police produced the confessions rendered under torture by Khan and Shakeel, as evidence of Tunda’s involvement in the Karol Bagh bombing. The only evidence besides, was a “disclosure” statement Tunda made to a police officer. In April 2015, a sessions court in Delhi threw the case out. Other charges, including a planned attack on the Republic Day parade in 1994, were similarly dealt with. On March 5, the last of the cases against Tunda was dismissed. He will nonetheless spend perhaps the rest of his years in prison as an undertrial in other cases that could be brought, on similarly shoddy grounds, in other police jurisdictions.
The narration that Khan has rendered since his release in 2012, offers a window into the pathology of the terrorism investigations that have laid waste to the rule of law. From the first approach by a shadowy intelligence officer, only known as ‘Guptaji’, when he was returning from the Pakistan High Commission after securing a visa to visit a sister in Karachi, Khan was seemingly being set up as a patsy for the cynical pursuit of rewards by the Delhi Police. He agreed to an outlandish proposal from Guptaji to use some of his time in Karachi in gathering intelligence, but his nerve expectedly failed him at every critical moment. He came back empty-handed and then began Guptaji’s horrible vendetta.
That Khan survived to tell his tale is a tribute to the support and solidarity rendered by his family and a few lawyers who took on the hazard of defending him. His recently published account of fourteen years spent in the darkest recesses of the Indian penal system (Framed as a Terrorist, Speaking Tiger Books, 2016) is essential reading for all who seek to retrieve the possibility of a democracy from the abyss it could soon plunge into.
Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla
(This article was published on March 18, 2016)