We don’t need facts. May we have the propaganda please?

SIMI — a radical Islamic students’ organisation — was automatically accused for every terror attack in India. An exhaustive Tehelka story bust holes into that prejudice. This is why we did it.

September 6, 2008 in Politics
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Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

IT IS difficult to really fight for something you have never lost. Seven years ago, a small media organisation — neither rich nor powerful — undertook an investigation which sucked it under the grand face of official India into its dark sewers below. The investigation established that if the blandishments were correct, both defence equipment and “national security” — that unquestioned altar to which everyone is asked to bow — could be sold by official India for a song. Jets, tanks, ammunition, coffins for dead soldiers: nothing was sacrosanct. Naturally, official India did not like its sewers spilled out onto the street: in a fit of self-righteous rage, instead of cleaning its muck, it began an enquiry into who had dug out all this dirt.

That enquiry took this media outfit further into the dark heart of official India. It found itself locked into a giant Commission. Found itself wading through literally thousands and thousands of pages of lies — blatant, bewildering, inept lies, presented by the Government of India on government paper, stamped with that lion emblem we’ve all been brought up to respect and trust. It was, to put it mildly, the most educative experience anyone could have asked for.

As privileged middle-class Indians, as a rule we mostly live in cocoons of well-being. This makes us dangerously innocent. We believe the world is a straight place. We believe we are good and people like us are largely good. We know politicians can be corrupt, but we never really experience that corruption first-hand — except perhaps as inconveniences in our business and property. Liberty, Democracy, Nationalism, Liberalism: these are just theoretical ideals we inherit and claim to defend. We never experience their loss or subversion first-hand. We never wander into that dark place where none of the rules apply. We never undergo the wrenching experience of falling foul of the centrist view. We never experience the sewer.

At TEHELKA, we experienced all this first-hand seven years ago. Trapped in that Commission with the government as an adversary, fighting a mammoth propaganda battle that has taken almost a decade to abate, we were yanked out of our innocent cocoon and brought faceto- face with how malevolent power can really be. Kafkaesque is a tired word, but nothing else can explain the bewilderment. If the government’s affidavits were to be believed, we were one of the gravest threats to India’s security: we had shadowy godfathers, we were stockmarket manipulators, we were, God knows what. Look away from their trick mirror, and in truth, we were just a bunch of journalists.

That first investigation — and its long aftermath — changed us as people. And as journalists. It stripped us of our easy certitudes. It made us really understand — for the first time — how precious our constitutional liberties and rule of law really is. It taught us how easily all of it can be subverted. Most of all, it taught us to defend the idea of fair play, liberty and rule of law — if necessary, against those very people we have entrusted to uphold them.

That is a door of perception middle-class India cannot easily walk through: it is difficult to really fight for something you have never lost.

This was reinforced disturbingly — almost terrifyingly — in an article, ‘Suspect SIMI? Of Course’ by Javed Anand in The Indian Express, August 16. What makes his point of view especially significant is that it reflects the general English-speaking, middle-class consensus on such issues. Anand’s argument is broadly divided into two parts. In the first he builds a case against SIMI’s alleged jihadist, anti-national and fundamentalist ideology, and warns the Urdu press from cheering Justice Gita Mittal’s judgement against the government ban on SIMI. More on that later.

In the second part, more damagingly, he asks, “Are the blasts in city after city of India part of the “jihad” espoused by SIMI? The investigating agencies obviously believe this to be the case. Why else would SIMI activ – ists be routinely arrested, interrogated, chargesheeted and put on trial? Admittedly, they have yet to establish the terrorism charge against SIMI activists before any court of law in any of the blast cases (My italics).”

How frightening is that easy dismissal and easy faith. The innocent well-being of the middle-class. “Admittedly, no one has been able to establish terrorism charges against SIMI activists before any court of law in any blast case, but why else would intelligence agencies go after innocent Muslims?”

So what if there’s no evidence, may I have the propaganda, please.

Anand goes on to say that for SIMI to be legitimately banned again, the state must establish their guilt on one or more of the charges against them of secessionist activity, terrorism, spreading communal discord, or hostility to the Indian Constitution (which they have been unable to do). “But is it merely a question of law?” he asks, unselfconsciously tossing aside the entire framework of empiricism, fact, fair play and rule of law that keeps each of us as individuals safe. “Should SIMI not also be judged from a socio-political perspective, in terms of its implications for India’s secular-democratic polity?”

In private conversations across India people say, ‘It’s pretty obvious they are fundamentalists, why do we need evidence? It’s so difficult to get evidence. They should just be put away.’ Or else, ‘Whenever any community is at the heart of terrorism or insurgency, some innocents do get sacrificed. It happened in Punjab also, what’s the big deal.’

We at TEHELKA first started discussing SIMI around four months ago, when Jaipur exploded in a series of horrific blasts. The subject of intense government and media propaganda since it was first banned seven years ago, for most Indians, SIMI is a dread word. Many in the office shared that prejudice. “Prejudice” — because our idea of SIMI too was, till then, no more than an unexamined belief, a received view of the world. But after the Jaipur blasts, when for the nth time, the government began to put out a bouquet of suspect names, SIMI prime among them, Editor- at-Large Ajit Sahi leaned over a colleague’s desk and said, “Yeh SIMI wala chakkar kya hai?”

That casual question seeking to get to the bottom of things became the starting point for an arduous investigation, in which he personally tracked almost every sitting of Justice Gita Mittal’s tribunal over several cities across India, and met scores of Muslims accused of being SIMI terrorists. What has his investigation proved?

It has proved that scores of innocent Muslims have been falsely accused and jailed to create a contagious sense of miasma. It has proved — and this is re-endorsed by Justice Gita Mittal’s order — that as far as the government’s cumulative and existing case against SIMI goes, it has no ground to stand on. This is hugely significant, because SIMI has been consecutively banned for seven years and has had the full might of the state ranged against it. Yet the state has found nothing to implicate its members in any act of terrorism or sedition. Hugely significant also is the fact that Ajit’s investigation relies heavily on the government’s own documents against SIMI in the tribunal: documents that are the sum total of their investigations conducted across states over several years and that could — and have — deployed every deceit and evasion of logic possible.

Yet, though it is empirically evident that dozens of innocent Muslims have been falsely victimised, though the government’s own tribunal has deemed an organisation ‘not guilty’, such is the motivated rage of the state, it has sought a stay on Justice Mittal’s order from the Supreme Court. We uphold the judiciary and rule of law when it rules in our favour, we cast it aside when it does not suit us. Kafkaesque is a tired word, but what else can explain the bewilderment?

TEHELKA holds no brief for SIMI. (Or any other organisation.) In fact, this has been a very difficult investigation to undertake, to say the very least, and has involved several internal debates in the office. At no point does TEHELKA’s investigation presume to vouchsafe for all existing or former SIMI members. Nor does it vouchsafe for the future. Perhaps the state will indeed find some individual involved in some blast in the future. But that is mere conjecture. For the present, there are no facts that point in that direction. And in the absence of facts, trained first-hand by experience, we refuse to buy into trick mirrors.

Which brings one to the heart of the matter: the first half of Javed Anand’s argument: SIMI’s alleged ideology and its implications for India’s “secular-democratic polity”. At the heart of the matter, at the heart of the animus against SIMI are competing ideas of India. More crucially, it is whether there is the freedom to have competing ideas of India — as long as there is no violence involved.

IT IS impossible to entirely know what SIMI’s ideology was or has evolved into unless it is allowed to come overground and articulate it. Given that there is no established case of sedition or terrorism against them, no matter what one’s discomfort with their real or imagined ideology is, they should indeed be allowed to come overground. It is their fundamental right. In fact, both the right to associate and the right to propagate one’s religion are enshrined in our Constitution. “Peacefully” being the only operative word.

What makes the state and the media’s unexamined bias against SIMI so disturbing is that it is symptomatic of the fact that we are increasingly being cornered into becoming a society that is fearful of difference, and willing to discard ideas of tolerance and fair play the moment they are not convenient.

Is the SIMI an Islamist organisation? Yes, selfconfessedly, it is. But that is not against the law. Did it put out posters that said, “Secularism, NO; Democracy, NO; Nationalism, NO; Polytheism, NO; Only Islam.” Yes, apparently it did. Are many of us uncomfortable with its homogenising agenda? Certainly, as much as one is uncomfortable with the agendas of the RSS, or VHP, or Bajrang Dal – many of whom are more empirically violent. But that is a war of ideas: by no means illegal in this great land of ours. Just because we don’t agree, will we put each other away in jail?

There are complex and sophisticated arguments that SIMI intellectuals put forward to back their stances. “Why don’t people want to have a dialogue and hear out our views instead of jailing us?” says one SIMI activist, who spent 22 months in jail, 10 in solitary confinement for pasting a poster. “Have we done any violence at all? Someone has to still establish that, but the violence of the state against us is pretty well established. Yet, I can tell you, in no way are we anti- India.” But unfortunately, that discussion cannot go forward until the ban is lifted, and “secular democrats” bow to the rule of law.

There is a fascinating cameo in the new Batman blockbuster, Dark Knight. As a test for civilisation, its joker villain, an apocalyptic version of evil, plants bombs in two boats. One boat is filled with hardened criminals and policemen. The other is full of ordinary, good, middle-class people. He gives each boat a detonator for the other boat. The bombs will go off in both boats at the stroke of twelve unless one of the boats blows up the other first. The point is, under duress, when everything — our children, our loves, our life itself is at stake — what is the choice we make? Do we cast aside the rule of law, the rule of civilisation, and blow up a boat full of human beings we don’t like? Or do we cling doggedly to the right way of doing something?

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