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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 28

Secularism, Nationalism and Democracy in the Context of the 2001 Parliament Attack

Monday 2 July 2007, by K S Subramanium

BOOK REVIEW

Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism in the Time of Terror by Nandita Haksar; Promilla & Co. Publishers in association with Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi; pp. 348; Rs 450.

The author of this remarkable volume is a distinguished lawyer and legal activist. Given her family background, one would have expected her to become a leading light of the establishment, educating the rest of her countrymen on how to serve the nation and be good, patriotic Indians! On the contrary, she decided to be difficult for the Indian state and became a defender of the human rights of the Nagas in the North-East who were the first to challenge the hegemony of the newly born Indian state in the wake of 1947. More recently, she has, continuing her bad habits, defended the human rights of another troubled, besieged community of India, the Kashmiris, who are seen also as ‘separatists’, though in a far more complicated way with an international dimension behind the conflict, which has torn the state apart.

The 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament was a major event of contemporary significance which has raised more questions than it has answered. The Supreme Court of India, which delivered its final judgment in the case on August 5, 2005, looked only at the legal issues involved. It did not and could not make an attempt to explain the events surrounding the attack. We learn from its final judgment that five persons, named Mohammed, Rana, Raja, Hamza, and Haider, attacked Parliament, killed some people and were, in turn, killed. Mohammed Afzal, having aided these attackers, was sentenced to death based on the evidence placed before the Trial Court, the High Court and the Supreme Court.

Afzal was convicted of conspiracy mainly on the basis of statements of police witnesses and police seizures of material from him, which went un-rebutted during the trial since the accused was practically unrepresented. The Supreme Court acquitted three of the four persons, including S.A.R. Geelani, who were charged with conspiracy; the confessions obtained by the police were unreliable owing to the methods adopted. On the basis of such unreliable confessions, the then Government of India committed the country to a full-scale war mobilisation against Pakistan with the prospect of a nuclear conflict. The military mobilisation was put to political use, POTA was enacted, public feelings against Pakistan and communal sentiments were whipped up along with war hysteria.

Afzal, the only person found guilty of conspiracy by the Apex Court, was a ‘surrendered militant’ who reported regularly to the Special Task Force (STF) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police and was kept under their strict surveillance. Could such a man mastermind and execute a complex conspiracy? Could a dreaded terrorist organisation, located in Pakistan, ever rely on such a man as the principal link for their operation? On whose behest was Afzal actually acting? He had stated that Mohammed, the leader of the attack, and Tariq, one of the masterminds in Kashmir, actually belonged to the STF. Press reports said that four terrorists, including one Hamza, had been captured by the Thane Police in November 2000 and had been handed over to the J&K Police. It is essential to find the truth behind these observations, which the hanging of Afzal would forestall. The eventual acquittal of three out of four persons, including S.A.R. Geelani, from the charge of conspiracy indicated that the investigating agency had tried to frame at least three innocent persons. The High Court had found the agency guilty of producing false arrest memos, doctoring telephone conversations and illegal confinement of people to force them to sign blank papers. It was also clear that false confessions were extracted by torture.

The political system also failed to take steps to address the serious questions which arise: who attacked Parliament? What was the basis on which the country was taken close to a nuclear war with Pakistan? What was the role of the STF on the surrendered militants? What was the role of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police in investigating the case? What institutional and legal safeguards can be found to prevent a government from going to war unilaterally without the consent of Parliament? Mohammed Afzal is the only living person who may have a clue to some of the answers. Would it be wise to let him hang? There has been thundering silence from the political system.

In this valuable book Haksar, who showed remarkable courage in defending S.A.R. Geelani when the country was enveloped in national xenophobia, tells the story as she sees it and enlightens the reader on a range of political, legal and historical issues relating to the campaign she actively sponsored to save two men, Afzal and Geelani, from being unfairly and wrongly targeted. The media and the middle class, affected by xenophobia, bayed for the blood of the two men. Through a series of letters written to the Prime Minister, sociologist Upendra Baxi, historian Bipan Chandra, television journalist Barkha Dutt, film-maker Om Prakash Mehra and her other comrades, Haksar illuminates a range of issues that have arisen from her campaign and relates them to the larger problems of secularism, nationalism and democracy in our country.

The letters highlight the horrendous world inhabited by the people of Kashmir today, which include illegal arrests, dark prison cells, together with torture and pain inflicted on innocent human beings—men, women and children. Haksar convincingly argues that the so-called war on terrorism in India has undermined the democratic foundations of the polity, widened the Hindu-Muslim divide and tried to align India in an undesirable long-term relationship with the hyper power, the USA, and its statellite, Israel. It has also strengthened the authoritarian and fascist political forces in the country which faced no real resistance in the political arena. The author is forthright in her arguments and does not hesitate to apportion blame where it is due.

WE may, in the interest of space, briefly note here some of the points made by the author in her letters to the Prime Minister, sociologist Upendra Baxi, historian Bipan Chandra and television media person Barkha Dutt, leaving aside the other letters, which are equally interesting and must be read by those who care for the future of India. The reviewer has read the book with great interest and has learnt much from it, especially with regard to the contested issues of secularism, nationalism and democracy in Indian politics. He cannot but admire the author for the courage, clarity and force of conviction with which she expounds her views.

In a long and anguished letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the author points out that in her work as a lawyer in defending S.A.R. Geelani, she was only defending Indian democracy which she feels is under threat. The media and the police had combined to carry out a vicious campaign against Geelani against whom there was no evidence as shown by his subsequent acquittal by the High Court and the Supreme Court. She reminds the PM that the change of government in 2004 did not mean change of the administrative machinery, which continued to remain what it was before. Castigating the intelligence machinery for misrepresenting the realities in J&K, the author points out that these agencies do not understand things such as idealism, solidarity and emotion. They have a myopic vision of India and do not understand the complexities of history, politics, and society. Since the data collected by these agencies were themselves defective, the analysis cannot be better. Such defective analysis has proved disastrous for the country time and again. The author provides a detailed analysis of the struggle in J&K, the background and thinking of young people like Geelani and goes into the sufferings undergone by him and others in the police lockup and the Tihar Jail. She makes a critical examination of the working of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police and brings out the need for far-reaching reforms.

In a stinging letter to Upendra Baxi, her teacher in the university, rightly some may feel, the author takes him to task for not standing up for human rights issues arising out of the Parliament attack case in India. Baxi was then not in India but busy in an international teaching assignment though this did not prevent him from expressing his views on human rights issues in his homeland. As a leading activist and human rights defender, he had lost credibility by keeping quiet throughout the long duration of the case. Baxi, who was present on the occasion of the author’s book release function, bravely but somewhat unconvincingly tried to defend his actions and inactions. However, to be fair to Baxi, it must be noted that though he had not done anything unusual for a scholar by taking up an academic assignment abroad though, as a human rights activist, he had erred in his noticeable and prolonged silence when serious and unprecedented human rights violations were taking place in India.

In an extremely illuminating letter to the popular historian, Bipan Chandra, the author faults him on his non-illuminating analysis of the concepts of nationalism, secularism and democracy thus weakening the theoretical response to Hindu communal historiography. This letter should be of immense value to all those who seek to formulate a meaningful approach to these concepts in the specific context of political developments in India today. The author’s letter to media personality Barkha Dutt is of great value in exposing the pernicious role of the media in whipping up a perverse form of nationalism while reporting on the Parliament attack case. The unthinking and dangerous way in which the mass media articulated the ‘majority sentiments’ in relation to the accused in the Parliament attack case perhaps influenced even the highest judiciary, which passed the by now controversial judgment in the Afzal case referring to the need to satisfy the ‘conscience of the nation’.

IN her moving introduction, the author points out that the book is not about the attack on the Parliament of India but about the reactions to it. We still do not know who really planned the attack. The government has refused to place the facts before the public. The police claimed that the real masterminds behind the attack were the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed but the Lashkar was not even mentioned in the chargesheet nor was any evidence laid against the Jaish. We still do not know who attacked Paliament and why. The love of one’s nation cannot be based on hatred towards a section of citizens of the nation. The chilling hatred and fear among the people have led to an insatiable appetite for human life. We do not care how many terrorists are tortured, maimed, beaten and killed by the security forces and the police. The government and the media talk about terrorism ceaselessly but tell us little about its causes. During the last few years the author had gone through a ‘roller coaster ride’ of the emotions of outrage, sadness and helplessness. She has frequently felt that we are living in a republic of dying dreams where no one has a vision for the future. One admires her idealism, sincerity and integrity.

One may add that this writer went through perhaps the same emotions while participating as a member of the Citizens’ Tribunal on the Gujart carnage 2002, which produced a massive three-volume report on the genocide in that State. He, therefore, shares her concerns but lacks her ability to express them as forcefully and movingly as she has done in this extraordinary book which, incidentally, has a number of moving photographs and is well-produced. The country needs many more activists like the distinguished author.

The reviewer, a former IPS officer, was a member the Citizens’ Tribunal on Gujarat 2001 and is the author of the forthcoming book Political Violence and the Police in India (Sage, 2007).

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