From “friend-officers” tracking “candidates” for five years to meeting at cafes and restaurants, from professional psychologists to preparing a two-volume compendium of writings on Islam, jihad and terrorism — all translated into Marathi. This is part of the core curriculum of the Maharashtra Police’s deradicalisation programme. And along with this, two assurances: no criminal case will be registered against a “candidate” selected for the deradicalisation programme; and complete confidentiality — other than immediate family, not a word to relatives, neighbours or employers.
“And that word is being kept,” said an IPS officer familiar with the programme who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “It took us some trial and error and efforts over 7-8 months to develop a Standard Operating Procedure. We had one by the beginning of 2017.”
As the ongoing series in The Indian Express showed, after speaking to officials and individuals part of the programme, the deradicalisation programme has helped pull back 120 youth, including six women, from the brink of jihadi recruitment. The programme, the only one being run by a state police force, is being looked at closely by J&K, Punjab, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
Candidates were chosen after the ATS monitored their Internet activity or, as in many cases, from a tip-off from the community or family that their son or daughter was “behaving strangely.”
Sometimes, candidates were also selected on information from field officers, like in one case, about a WhatsApp group where radical messages were being exchanged.
“Once a candidate is identified, he is observed for months perhaps. And at each point, we try to analyse where the person is. Are they really on the edge? Are they about to cross the limit, which will force us to register a case against them? Is it still at the ideological level?” said a police officer.
“It is a razor-edge decision. The moment you allow a person to do something, you risk the lives of others. And the moment you register a case, you finish the life of the candidate. So it’s a very difficult decision.”
The genesis of the programme was a chance meeting at a global conference on counter-terrorism in 2015 between Atulchandra Kulkarni, who later became ATS chief, and Rohan Gunaratna, who then headed the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore’s Nanyang University.
By then, four men from Thane had flown out of India to join Islamic State (IS).
Gunaratna offered ICPVTR’s expertise to run a workshop. Months later, the Mumbai police and ICPVTR organised a three-day workshop called Deradicalisation and Community Engagement.
Four academics – all Indian-origin Singaporeans – from ICVTR conducted the sessions and about 200 officers, from sub-inspectors to IPS officers, attended. Then Minister of State M J Akbar delivered the keynote address and former Intelligence Bureau Director Syed Asif Ibrahim, at the time a special envoy to the National Security Council Secretariat, was another speaker.
But when Maharashtra finalised its own programme, there was a key difference from the Singapore model, in which those selected for the deradicalisation programme are convicts serving jail terms. “Ours is a preventive model,” said the police officer.
The deradicalisation programme is built on four prongs – the “candidate” and his family; psychologists; clergy — and the police. Once the police decided someone was eligible, the ATS contacted him and his parents.
“Usually the meeting is arranged at a neutral place, like a cafe or a restaurant, and it’s a friendly chat, and we tell them that this is an opportunity being given. Take it or leave it,” said the officer.
Early in the process, police roped in a collective of psychologists who framed a questionnaire that all “candidates” are put through. This Thane-based collective also analysed the results. Last year, their role in the process was formalised through a Government Order.
Meanwhile, ATS officials also met scores of ulemas, asking them to guide Muslim youth away from forces online tempting them into a place of no return. They also roped in Muslim clerics to speak to “candidates” during their deradicalisation, “if required”.
One problem early on was that officers did not like reading anything in English. So, teams of ATS officers translated relevant pages from major international works on terrorism, radicalisation and Islam, from English to Marathi.
Two in-house volumes were published, and a third is on the way. The officers were also trained in counselling and “rendering psychological help”.
It is also unclear if, on the ground, all policemen involved in the programme followed the SOP exactly. The progamme’s participants The Indian Express spoke to had different experiences of how the police got in touch with them and at what stage their families were told. None said he/she was counselled by a maulvi.
Officers involved said there were times when they had to speak sternly to “instil some fear” that candidates are being watched. “They are not roughed up but we do tell them quite forcefully about the consequences” of going down the radical road, said one officer.
Each case is assigned to an officer, introduced to the “candidate” as “your friend officer”. And there have been cases where the “candidate” and “friend officer” developed strong bonds. In one instance, a “friend officer” told The Indian Express that he was so moved by the financial difficulties of his candidate that he wanted to help out in some way, and held back because it would have meant crossing a professional line.
The other aspect of the programme – it runs for a minimum of four weeks but varies from candidate to candidate – is that there are no goodbyes. The case officer tracks the candidate and keeps in touch with him. In some cases, such tracking had found “renewed efforts” by online recruiters to enlist the candidate, and renewed efforts by ATS to wean the candidate away.
“It would be safe to have at least a four to five-year watch. That’s what we had decided,” said a senior official familiar with the programme.
— With Zeeshan Shaikh
(Next: After the programme: Skills training, loans from banks)