The conviction on Monday of Mohammed Ahmed Siddibapa, better known as Yasin Bhatkal, and four other men for the 2013 twin bombings in Hyderabad’s Dilsukhnagar is the first successful prosecution ever brought against members of the Indian Mujahideen network. Ever since September 2008, when police and intelligence services made their initial breakthroughs against the group, dozens of its alleged operatives have been incarcerated in prisons across the country — some on the basis of evidence that appears persuasive, and others to answer charges that seem less so. Not one, however, had been convicted for the long-running urban terror campaign that claimed over 200 lives since it began in 1995, until the Dilsukhnagar judgment on Monday. For all the elements in India’s criminal justice system — the police who investigate cases, the lawyers responsible for prosecuting and defending litigants, and, of course, the judges — this ought to be a matter of grave concern. For citizens, it is even more so: If India’s criminal justice system cannot address high-profile terrorism cases, what hope is there of seeing law and order enforced in more routine matters?
Lessons can usefully be learned from what went right in Hyderabad. Ever since Siddibapa was held in an Intelligence Bureau-led operation in 2013, the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency. This allowed for the Dilsukhnagar investigation to be given the resources it needed, something overburdened and under-equipped state police forces often lack. The result was a compelling prosecution case. The fact that NIA cases are heard in special courts, too, allowed for the prosecution to proceed relatively rapidly, at least by Indian standards. Though it may yet be years before the inevitable appeals in the Dilsukhnagar bombing case conclude, this case is an example of things gone right.To conclude that all major cases should be handled by élite agencies like the NIA, though, would be to learn the wrong lessons: The sheer volume of significant counter-terrorism cases nationwide would simply drown any central organisation in work. Instead, the central and state governments need to come up with a road-map for capacity-building in police forces across the country, to give them the human resources, training standards and investigative infrastructure that they so desperately need. There is also a compelling case for better prosecutors, and better-functioning criminal courts. These issues should be matters of concern for us all, not just criminal defendants. A democracy which cannot dispense justice is one that destines all its citizens to live in fear.