Mumbai defendants’ trial by media
As the convictions were delivered last week in the court case against the accused instigators of the 7 July 2006 Mumbai train blasts, news articles demonizing the defendants and their lawyers appeared in most of the city’s mainstream newspapers. One newspaper even went so far as to call the defendants’ lawyers ‘devil’s advocates’.
The media focused its reporting on how the survivors of the 7 blasts in Mumbai wanted the death penalty for the 12 defendants, who stood accused of killing 189 people and injuring approximately 800 others. The torture and threats the defendants endured while in custody, which led to forced confessions, failed to affect the outcome of the case, or the opinions of the judiciary and the media.
In a meeting at Mumbai’s Press Club earlier this month, held by the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights and the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, author Dr Manisha Sethi explained: ‘Post 9/11, Muslims have been picked up and accused of being “Islamic terrorists” in several terror cases. All along, political dissidents have been targeted by the state, but suddenly we noticed a spurt in their numbers and the government’s use of unconstitutional laws that are loosely defined, so as to empower the state.’
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the Indian government banned the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), declaring the organization ‘unlawful’. No violent crime by SIMI had been alleged by the state. Overnight, all those who were part of the organization were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Assistant Professor Sethi, who teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia College in New Delhi, has also penned Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India. Citing examples of high-profile terror cases, Sethi feels that the media has played a huge part in disseminating state propaganda that has strengthened anti-Muslim bias in this Hindu-majority state.
At the Press Club meeting, Sethi commented on how conviction rates under draconian laws such as the UAPA, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), and the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, are abysmally low because charges are concocted by the security forces.
‘In Madhya Pradesh, the police arrested 8 to 10 people in each district for being part of SIMI and used the same First Information Report [FIR] for all of them. Even the mistakes in the FIRs were identical. The reports stated that the accused were supposedly standing at various bus stops in all the districts, proclaiming that they were a part of SIMI. Even the confiscated material, which surfaced years later from different parts of the country, was identical. The sanction from the Home Ministry for UAPA was automatically granted and all of the accused were denied bail.’
She added that the evidence concocted by the Anti-Terrorist Squad was clumsily fabricated and was used in all terror cases over several years. ‘There was a book titled Tehreek-e-Millat which was not banned and which was allegedly found in the possession of a female accused called Rafia. This book, with her name scrawled on it, surfaced in several other terror cases like Malegaon, 7/11 and Sholapur as part of the evidence.’
In addition, the police and Anti-Terrorist Squad tortured the accused. ‘In the Mumbai bombings case, the Anti-Terrorist Squad used gas, cockroaches, indigenous waterboarding techniques and electric shocks to [defendants’] genitals to extract confessions. Upon complaint, the judges refused to send the tortured accused into judicial custody across the country. And bail will never be granted because of the risk of public outrage. In cases like these, the process itself is the punishment.’
In the Mumbai bombings case, ‘narco-analysis’ methods, which rely on drugs to reveal unconscious memories or feelings while a person is in a sleep state, were used and later found to be manipulated (despite the fact that results from these methods are inadmissible in court). ‘This was primarily done to build up an opinion on the issue through the media. Material was deliberately leaked to the press by the Anti-Terrorist Squad,’ Sethi stated.
Even the chargesheet that the police filed had loopholes. ‘Former police commissioner A N Roy had mentioned in a press conference after the blasts that pressure cookers were used in the explosions – but this fact was left out of the chargesheet.’
Also speaking at the Press Club event, political prisoner Vernon Gonsalves, who spent time at Arthur Road jail with most of those accused in the Mumbai bombing case, asked the audience: ‘How could these people have carried out the attack when they were all under surveillance by multiple security agencies?’
Gonsalves, who was arrested in 2007 on charges of being a ‘Maoist’, said he ‘had discussions on a wide variety of topics with his friends in jail’. ‘We discovered we were all framed by the same agency and the same officers – ATS Chief Raghuvanshi and Police Commissioner A N Roy. At Kalachowkie police station, where the convicts were tortured, the same officers proudly told us that they had spilt Muslim blood there!’
Gonsalves, who was released 2 years ago, also noted that members of Abhinav Bharat, a rightwing Hindu extremist group that has not been banned by the government but was implicated in the Malegaon blasts in Maharashtra, were getting special treatment in jail, including the Indian Army’s Colonel Purohit, ‘who is a member of the Abhinav Bharat and has trained the Anti-Terrorist Squad. He boasts of his involvement in the blast and the state patronage he receives. It’s clear the political bias of the state has created political prisoners.’
With this government, the number of political prisoners is rising. According to Gonsalves, anyone who opposes displacement policies and the creation of special economic zones, or those who demand justice in Gujarat riots, or are anti-nuclear, are all potential political prisoners.
And minorities are not only being implicated because of their religion, but also because of their caste. Sethi explained that in the 1980s and 1990s in states such as Bihar, there was a series of pitched battles between upper-caste landowners and Dalit workers over wages and land. But the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was applied only to the Dalits when landowners were killed.
It is safe to conclude that unconstitutional laws have been specifically designed to subjugate the weak and serve oppressive organizations run by the state. In tandem, the media is used to fortify the lies and cement guilt even before the case is heard in court. This in turn exerts pressure on the judiciary to produce results in keeping with public opinion.
Researchers and journalists in India have failed to uncover the connections between the machinations of the deep state, state actors who fabricate evidence, and rightwing Hindu terror groups such as Abhinav Bharat, Sanathan Sanstha and Hindu Janjagruti Samiti.