Pressing Malaysia to send back televangelist Zakir Naik without a prima facie water-tight case about his alleged crimes risks endangering what has become a robust counter-terrorism relationship between Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi.
At the last count, six terrorists who made up Khalistani modules in South East Asia, mainly operating out of Malaysia and Thailand, had been handed over to Punjab thanks to such cooperation between Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi. The cooperation began in October 2010 after Manmohan Singh’s prime ministerial visit to Malaysia when the two countries upgraded bilateral relations to a Strategic Partnership.
In all these six cases, Malaysia’s Special Task Force for Counter-Terrorism Operations followed up on information shared by India. They did not order anyone’s summary deportation based merely on an Indian submission. Investigative agencies in Kuala Lumpur were convinced during their independent probes of Indian clues that several terrorists of Indian origin living in Malaysia or shuttling between their country and Thailand were, indeed, engaged in subversive activities on Malaysian soil.
One such, Amarjit Singh, also known as Jasvir Singh, owned a chic restaurant in Kuala Lumpur’s “Little India”, which was a cover for facilitating Babbar Khalsa International’s activities in South East Asia. Originally from Nangal Ropar, he entered Malaysia as a software engineer and later bought the restaurant with what Malaysian investigators concluded was a case of terrorist financing. He was promptly deported to India.
Daljit Singh, alias Ajaib Singh Khalsa, worked for a telecommunication company in Mumbai, but moved to Malaysia and set up a Hindustani music school as his cover in the dense Indian neighbourhood of Sentul in Kuala Lumpur. Kanwal Singh Soundh, a network programmer, set up a real estate renovation business hoping to gain access to diplomatic properties in Ampang where key embassies are located.
Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun, who was Director of the Counter-Terrorism Task Force when these men were deported, told this writer then that Indian authorities had informed him of alleged terrorist acts by them in India. “Here, their main task was to provide financial and logistic help to their comrades who used Malaysia as a transit point.” Fuzi Harun is now Inspector General of Police, the seniormost law enforcement official in the country.
Interrogation of these men led to Satpal Singh Raghvir Singh, who was the alleged kingpin of these operations. He was arrested and deported to India. He had been living in the Cheras suburb of Kuala Lumpur since 2006, but that did not deter Fuzi Harun’s men from acting as long as they found evidence that Satpal Singh was associated with terrorism.
The Malaysians also arrested and handed over to Punjab Police a Khalistan Tiger Force lieutenant Ramandeep Singh alias Goldy who was wanted since 2009 in the murder of Rulda Singh, president of Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, an RSS affiliate in Patiala. Besides, three Babbar Khalsa operatives were nabbed when they arrived in Punjab from Malaysia on a tip-off from Kuala Lumpur.
Fuzi Harun’s predecessor, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, had confidently predicted that Malaysia’s intelligence agencies were working with neighbouring countries and the Interpol to nab Jagtar Singh Tara, the mastermind in the assassination of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, in 1995. A few months later that happened in Thailand in January 2015, on a tip-off from Malaysian intelligence.
Malaysia’s new government believes that the case of Zakir Naik is substantially different from all these deportations which merited cooperation with India on counter-terrorism. When Datuk Hazizah Kassim, chairman of the human rights and international relations affairs of the Malaysia Syarie Lawyers Association, said last weekend that “an application to extraditate must be made not for political interests”, it became clear that the establishment in Kuala Lumpur views Naik’s case as one of human rights.
At an event to celebrate Mahathir Mohamad’s 93rd birthday on Tuesday, the new Prime Minister said about New Delhi’s request to send back Naik: “We do not easily follow the demands of others. We must look at all factors before we respond. Otherwise, someone will become a victim.” He clearly sees Naik as a victim, not as a terrorist.
It has certainly not helped that Mahathir’s bête noire and predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak had sought India’s patience in the deportation of Naik until after the general election in which Najib was unexpectedly defeated, according to sources in New Delhi and Kuala Lumpur familiar with the negotiations.
The view gained ground within the Malaysian establishment this week that even if the courts were to grant Naik’s extradition, Malaysia’s basic law on repatriating foreigners — the Extradition Act 1992, commonly known as Act 479 — should supersede the extradition treaty that Kuala Lumpur signed with India in January 2010.
“Act 479 is in force on Zakir. Under Section 47 of the Act, it gives authority to the Home Minister to release or withhold a fugitive,” the human rights activist Datuk Hazizah said. “The extradition process is not made automatically,” merely because of a treaty to this effect with India. “Zakir has permanent residency status and as long as he has not created any problem or committed any crime, he is entitled to fair justice,” she emphasised.
Vijay Gokhale, now Foreign Secretary, was High Commissioner in Malaysia when New Delhi signed the extradition treaty with Kuala Lumpur and deportations of Indian terrorists began within the framework of a bilateral strategic partnership. Gokhale knows better than anyone else that getting back Naik is an uphill task.