Failing Shahid

The UPA government has much to be ashamed of in its record on terror investigations.

The best actor award to Rajkumar Rao for his performance in the film Shahid at the 61st National Film Awards most tellingly framed the schizophrenia in the UPA’s politics and policies towards Muslims.

While the reel depiction of lawyer Shahid Azmi’s life and struggle was honoured with a national award, this government didn’t show any empathy for the real Shahid or his work. Shahid Azmi was a 32 year-old lawyer who sacrificed his life fighting the arduous legal battles of dozens of innocent Muslim men arrested and framed as terrorists by this very government. He was murdered because his assassins wanted to prevent the truth from being exposed.

Here is how the outgoing government was Janus-faced.

On July 11, 2006, seven trains in Mumbai were rocked by a series of blasts, which killed 187 persons. Between July 20, 2006 to October 3, 2006, the anti-terrorist squad (ATS) of Maharashtra Police arrested 13 people and claimed to have cracked the case. The ATS claimed that these men confessed to their crime after their arrest. A chargesheet was filed on November 29, 2006. But in November 2006 itself, all the accused filed written submissions to the court, saying confessions were coerced from them under severe custodial torture and that the ATS was falsely implicating them.

Two years later, Mumbai Police arrested five alleged Indian Mujahideen (IM) men and claimed they were responsible for the July 11, 2006 Mumbai blasts. The arrest of this new set of men, allegedly belonging to the IM, for their involvement in the July 2006 Mumbai train blasts case by another wing of the Maharashtra Police put a question mark on the credibility of the entire investigation.

Call data records (CDRs) produced before the special MCOCA court hearing the Mumbai train bombings case have indicated that the phones belonging to three men accused of planting bombs, Ehtesham Siddhiqui, Faisal Sheikh and Asif Khan Bashir Khan, were actually nowhere near the site that day. The Maharashtra ATS had relied on CDRs to prove the links of the July 2006 Mumbai train blasts accused with the Lashkar-e-Toiba on seven occasions to seek their custody in magistrate courts. The ATS had consistently refused to produce the CDRs and even claimed that it had destroyed the records.

Another intriguing twist was that two of the 13 accused, Mohammad Ali Alam Sheikh and Asif Bashir Khan, were framed by the ATS in another case for which a fresh set of people was later indicted — the Malegaon blast of September 8, 2006. NIA investigations have since held a Hindu terror module responsible for that strike. All the accused are languishing in jail, and the government even today continues to support the obviously flawed and inconsistent police narratives.

Shahid was the first to stand up for these 13 young Muslim men who had been arrested immediately after the train blasts and demonised as terrorists even before the trial could begin. As he started to defend these young men, he became a target. Shahid had told the court that he “has received a threat to his life because he has filed v/n (vakalat nama) for the accused in the 7/11 bomb blast case” before special judge Greater Bombay, M.R. Bhatkar. According to an order issued on Shahid’s application, the court had recorded that “an anonymous caller had told him (Shahid) to withdraw his vaqalat nama within 72 hours”.

He (Shahid) had told the court that details of his movements were being watched by a person who disclosed the name of notorious gangster Ravi Pujari. On October 18, 2006, Bhatkar disposed of his application saying that “the Kurla Police station has accepted his (Shahid’s) complaint” and that “to provide security or escort is not a matter of the jurisdiction and power of this court”.

Despite persistent threats, he continued his work. Shahid was shot dead by three assailants in his office in Kurla on February 11, 2010. At that time, he was also defending Faheem Ansari and Sabauddin Sheikh, accused of aiding the 26/11 attackers. Three months after Shahid’s murder, Maharashtra Police’s story fell apart in court and both were acquitted on May 3, 2010. The government made no effort to ascertain who had framed these two men, and why. It didn’t try to find the real assassins of Shahid.

Four years after Shahid’s assassination, Ravi Pujari’s name is back in the news. This time, he has been allegedly threatening to kill Mehmood Pracha, who represents Himayat Baig — a schoolteacher from Beed in Maharashtra, who was handed out five death sentences and six life imprisonments for alleged involvement in the 2010 German Bakery blast case last April. A year later, there is hardly any doubt that Baig had been falsely implicated: the probe by the Maharashtra ATS has been belied by investigations conducted by the National Investigation Agency, Delhi Police and Bangalore Police.

Baig’s tragic story is linked to another man, Qateel Siddiqui, who was brought by the Maharashtra ATS to Yerwada jail in Pune, where he was mysteriously murdered. Maharashtra Police claimed that two convicts strangulated him inside the high security prison. According to the report filed by B.D. Dhongade, assistant chemical analyser to the government at the Regional Forensic Science Laboratory, Pune,alcohol was found in Qateel’s stomach.

In his affidavit submitted on August 30, 2013, the superintendent of Yerwada jail said that “after thorough inquiry by jail administration, no conclusion could be drawn  how the alcohol was found in the deceased’s (Siddique’s) body”. Incidentally, it was Qateel’s testimony that had initially proved Baig innocent. Baig’s innocence was later substantiated when Yasin Bhatkal was nabbed. Qateel didn’t live.

Pracha represents Qateel’s wife Fatima in Bombay High Court, where she has petitioned to probe the mysterious circumstances in which her husband was killed inside a high security prison. Maharashtra is run by the UPA, and so was the Union home ministry for the last 10 years.

The continuing arrests of innocent Muslim youth in terror cases across the country and the seemingly absolute impunity enjoyed by law enforcement agencies, despite harsh strictures passed by the courts, has become a major issue for the Muslim community. Court verdicts have drawn attention to the framing of innocent young men in the name of terror, and in several cases, police officers have been indicted for cooking up evidence.

The UPA did nothing to ensure that investigations are fair when young Muslim men are picked up for their alleged role in terror. Instead, it played political games. For instance, a section of the Congress leadership spoke strongly about the Batla House episode, seeking a high-level probe, while the government supported Delhi Police’s claims on this encounter. That is, the ruling party was playing both government and opposition.

For the BJP, it would seem that every young Muslim man arrested by the police on the suspicion of a terror link is a confirmed terrorist. The Congress party, on the other hand, acknowledges wrongdoing by the state in many of the Muslim arrests. But there is a huge gap between its words and deeds. In the last 10 years, its government did little beyond public posturing. On internal security, in fact, there is hardly anything to tell the Congress apart from the BJP — is it a mere coincidence that a home secretary, an army chief, a RAW chief and a Mumbai police commissioner joined the BJP immediately after retirement or quitting office?

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