The Other Side of Terror: A Talk by Manisha Sethi

On 9 September, 2015, Ms. Manisha Sethi, author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India, and  Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia University, visited NLU Delhi as part of the Public Law and Policy Discussion Group’s efforts to bring in guest lecturers from different backgrounds to address the student body.

The forty-five minute talk was followed by a Question & Answer session. Ms. Sethi first introduced herself as one of the many Jamia Millia teachers involved in documenting how the media is responsible for sensationalizing headlines pertaining to terrorism, and how her ilk are trying to look beyond these headlines at the other side without bias.

She said that the main actors involved (the National Investigative Agency, the judicial system as well as the media) contribute to the development of narratives that create a bias against certain communities in terrorism related issues. This has also led to an increase in the number of false cases registered due to over zealous arrests to curb the doom that is terrorism.

One of the main concerns she raised was that in most of these supposed ‘terrorism’ cases, it is found that the FIRs filed followed an almost identical narrative. They first refer to secret information being received about a militant entering a city carrying arms or explosives, following which some sort of surveillance of the suspect is carried out. A secret informer then points out the militant, who naturally refuses to surrender, and is thus arrested and retained in custody.

However, by the Special Cells’ own admission, no public witness’ testimonies have been included in the FIRs, even though all these arrests happened in public places, such as railway stations, bus stations, etc. The authorities then defend themselves by claiming they asked by-passers to support the FIRs, but all of them refuse and go away.

Another weak link in the cases is that even though the accused in every case is caught with large amounts of cash and explosives, no investigation is ever made into the source of such possessions. For example, in one case, the accused was caught with a large quantity of TNT, a hugely explosive compound, but when the court asked Special Cells to produce it in court, the court was told there had been a fire and the TNT ‘evaporated’. Further, only the few remaining grams of TNT was produced as evidence in the court to support the arrest.

All agencies across the country often try to defend themselves by saying they are under pressure from the media and politicians to crack cases, and make quick arrests. However, this defence falls flat, Ms. Sethi argued, for it is only in cases of extreme violence (bomb blasts, riots, etc.) does such pressure arise, and most of these arrests are not even associated with violence.

In 2000 in Madhya Pradesh, like many other states, many young Muslim men were arrested for ‘being associated with Students Islamic Movement of India’, which was banned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA. Copies of SIMI books and documents were supposedly planted by the police in the houses of the many of the accused, and when copies ran out in 2011, photocopies of the last page of the Islamic Movement were planted on the accused, to ensure arrest under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

Ms. Sethi further pointed out that the Indian government has banned SIMI on the basis that it is an extremist religious body, but has no qualms about RSS or any other Sena for that matter. Furthermore, each time SIMI sat in front of a tribunal to contest its ban, it was told that as it didn’t exist as an organization anymore, it couldn’t contest the ban. However, at the same time, the police authorities based their arrests on evidence that the accused were involved in furthering the activities of SIMI. Clearly, the authorities have been twisting all facts to their advantage, and thus have been arresting indiscriminately. The paranoia that the Jihadi Movement has been spreading, has resulted in seemingly unreasonable cases, where the accused would just stand in a public place screaming of his undying support for an organization which was clearly banned and very controversial, like he had a death wish.

She further elaborated on a number of SIMI related cases, where few men involved in ‘banned’ activities were arrested. These men informed the police about their ‘friends’ engaged in similar activities, and this formed a long chain of informers, which led to arrests across Azamgarh, Jabalpur and other places. The defences adopted by many arrested were that – first, there were absolutely no witnesses, only those who happened to be in the police station at that point; second, evidence  (books and pamphlets) was planted to justify arrests; and third, even if the evidence was legitimate, there was no such ban on the texts and therefore the arrests were problematic.

The problems with the legal system were also talked about. Many a times, Public Prosecutors argue their cases based on the gravity of the threat to national security, dismissing the importance of evidence to the case, and thus contribute to erosion of due process. Judges also find it hard to give bail to the accused, as many of them aren’t willing to risk the ire of the public.

The police too, is excessively brutal when dealing with such cases. Torture is considered a very normal method of obtaining information. Letters of inmates sent out from jail describe in detail how they have been subjected to torture involving cockroaches, screwdrivers, waterboarding, etc. Not only this, they have also been made to undergo Narco-Analysis tests, where they answered certain questions. However later they would come to know that the questions had been changed so as to fabricate a story that was advantageous to the police who were desperate to make arrests.

With this Ms. Sethi came to the end of her talk, inviting questions from the audience about solutions to dealing with terrorism. She answered that while there is no concrete solution that has been formulated yet, terrorism shouldn’t be sensationalized and over-hyped.

Ms. Manisha Sethi brought a new perspective to the table, along with established facts, confirming that does in fact bias exist in dealing with terrorism due to the treatment meted out to the same by the media, the police and the legal system.The audience, extremely attentive throughout, walked out at the end, their interest heightened, and armed with new knowledge. (After a talk on terrorism. Get it?…)

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