Arundhati Roy On The Men Who Knew/Know Too Much

RAIOT NOTE: Over the last two days we’ve been hearing about the arrest of a senior police officer—Davinder Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) who was working with the Anti-hijacking unit of the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP), at the Humhama Airport, Srinagar. Last year he received the President’s medal for gallantry.

Davinder Singh

More recently he was a part of the reception committee to welcome the fifteen members of the EU Parliament who visited Kashmir in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 (and probably wanted to experience at first hand the spectacle of its locked down population and jailed leaders). Davinder Singh was arrested in southern Kashmir on Saturday (Jan 11th) in an operation by his colleagues of the JKP, who intercepted the car he was riding in with two very senior militants and a cache of weapons. The police have said his is a “heinous crime” and that they are treating him as a militant.

Most people may not know who DSP Davinder Singh is. But for many long years he has loomed over those who have studied and written about the December 13, 2001 Parliament Attack – a malign presence whose impunity knew no bounds. Asked at a press conference on Sunday (Jan 12) about Davinder Singh’s role in the Parliament Attack, Kashmir’s Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar said, “There is nothing as such in our records nor do I know anything about it… We will question him on this.”

Afzal Guru

This ignorance cannot but be a posture. Those questions have been asked by others thirteen years ago. Some of the critical people who could have answered them aren’t here anymore. Afzal Guru has been hanged (to “satisfy the collective conscience of society”). S.A.R Geelani is dead. For the Police and Intelligence Agencies to pretend that Davinder Singh’s activities have hit them like a bolt from the blue is extremely hard to believe. So, the question is: Why now? What new plotline and bad script are we going to be expected to swallow?

Here RAIOT republishes Arundhati Roy’s introduction to 13 December, A Reader: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament (Delhi, Penguin India, 2006). It was published six years before Afzal Guru was hanged. And Davinder Singh has a starring role in it. Today, thirteen years later, the thirteen questions she poses in this piece remain unanswered.

Like Afzal Guru all those years ago, today it is Davinder Singh who is the Man Who Knows Too Much. Will they silence him? Will they cut him loose? Or will he come out as the hero of a deep counter-intelligence operation that even his colleagues didn’t know about? Nothing can be taken at face value. What is the next chapter going to be?

Note: Afzal Guru has spelt Davinder Singh’s name as Dravinder Singh in his letter of to his lawyer Sushil Kumar. Arundhati Roy has retained those spellings in her piece.  Footnotes to the essay are available in full in My Seditious Heart, a collection of Arundhati Roy’s essays.

BREAKING THE NEWS

Arundhati Roy’s introduction to 13 December, A Reader: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament

This reader goes to press almost five years to the day since December 13, 2001, when five men (some say six) drove through the gates of the Indian Parliament in a white Ambassador car and attempted what looked like an astonishingly incompetent terrorist strike.

Consummate competence appeared to be the hallmark of everything that followed: the gathering of evidence, the speed of the investigation by the Special Cell of the Delhi police, the arrest and chargesheeting of the accused, and the 40-month-long judicial process that began with the fast-track Trial Court.

The operative phrase in all of this is “appeared to be.” If you follow the story carefully, you’ll encounter two sets of masks. First the mask of consummate competence (accused arrested, “case cracked” in two days flat), and then, when things began to come undone, the benign mask of shambling incompetence (shoddy evidence, procedural flaws, material contradictions). But underneath all of this, as each of the essays in this collection shows, is something more sinister, more worrying. Over the last few years the worries have grown into a mountain of misgivings, impossible to ignore.

The doubts set in early on, when on December 14, 2001, the day after the Parliament attack, the police arrested SAR Geelani, a young lecturer in Delhi University. He was one of four people who were arrested. His outraged colleagues and friends, certain he had been framed, contacted the well-known lawyer Nandita Haksar and asked her to take on his case. This marked the beginning of a campaign for the fair trial of Geelani. It flew in the face of mass hysteria and corrosive propaganda enthusiastically disseminated by the mass media. The campaign was successful, and Geelani was eventually acquitted, along with Afsan Guru, co-accused in the same case.

Geelani’s acquittal blew a gaping hole in the prosecution’s version of the Parliament attack. But in some odd way, in the public mind, the acquittal of two of the accused only confirmed the guilt of the other two. When the government announced that Mohammad Afzal Guru, Accused Number One in the case, would be hanged on October 20, 2006, it seemed as though most people welcomed the news not just with approval, but morbid excitement. But then, once again, the questions resurfaced.

To see through the prosecution’s case against Geelani was relatively easy. He was plucked out of thin air and transplanted into the centre of the “conspiracy” as its kingpin. Afzal was different. He had been extruded through the sewage system of the hell that Kashmir has become. He surfaced through a manhole, covered in shit (and when he emerged, policemen in the Special Cell pissed on him). The first thing they made him do was a “media confession” in which he implicated himself completely in the attack. The speed with which this happened made many of us believe that he was indeed guilty as charged. It was only much later that the circumstances under which this “confession” was made were revealed, and even the Supreme Court was to set it aside saying that the police had violated legal safeguards.

From the very beginning there was nothing pristine or simple about Afzal’s case. Even today Afzal does not claim complete innocence. It is the nature of his involvement that is being contested. For instance, was he coerced, tortured, and blackmailed into playing even the peripheral part he played? He didn’t have a lawyer to put out his version of the story or help anyone to sift through the tangle of lies and fabrications. Various individuals worked it out for themselves. These essays by a group of lawyers, academics, journalists, and writers represent that body of work. It has fractured what—only recently—appeared to be a national consensus interwoven with mass hysteria. We’re late at the barricades, but we’re here.

Most people, or let’s say many people, when they encounter real facts and a logical argument, do begin to ask the right questions. This is exactly what has begun to happen in the Parliament attack case. The questions have created public pressure. The pressure has created fissures, and through these fissures those who have come under the scanner—shadowy individuals, counterintelligence and security agencies, political parties—are beginning to surface. They wave flags, hurl abuse, issue hot denials, and cover their tracks with more and more untruths. Thus they reveal themselves.

Public unease continues to grow. A group of citizens have come together as a committee (chaired by Nirmala Deshpande) to publicly demand a parliamentary inquiry into the episode. There is an online petition demanding the same thing. Thousands of people have signed on. Every day new articles appear in the papers, on the Internet. At least half a dozen websites are following the developments closely. They raise questions about how Mohammad Afzal, who never had proper legal representation, can be sentenced to death, without having had an opportunity to be heard, without a fair trial. They raise questions about fabricated evidence, procedural flaws, and the outright lies that were presented in court and published in newspapers. They show how there is hardly a single piece of evidence that stands up to scrutiny.

And then, there are even more disturbing questions that have been raised, which range beyond the fate of Mohammad Afzal.

Here are 13 questions for December 13:

Question 1: For months before the attack on Parliament, both the government and the police had been saying that Parliament could be attacked. On December 12, 2001, at an informal meeting, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned of an imminent attack on Parliament. On December 13, Parliament was attacked. Given that there was an “improved security drill,” how did a car bomb packed with explosives enter the parliament complex?

Question 2: Within days of the attack, the Special Cell of Delhi police said it was a meticulously planned joint operation of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba. They said the attack was led by a man called Mohammad who was also involved in the hijacking of IC-814 in 1998. (This was later refuted by the CBI.) None of this was ever proved in court. What evidence did the Special Cell have for its claim?

Question 3: The entire attack was recorded live on closed-circuit television (CCTV). Congress Party MP Kapil Sibal demanded in Parliament that the CCTV recording be shown to the members. He was supported by the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptullah, who said that there was confusion about the details of the event. The chief whip of the Congress Party, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, said, “I counted six men getting out of the car. But only five were killed. The closed-circuit TV camera recording clearly showed the six men.” If Dasmunshi was right, why did the police say that there were only five people in the car? Who was the sixth person? Where is he now? Why was the CCTV recording not produced by the prosecution as evidence in the trial? Why was it not released for public viewing?

Question 4: Why was Parliament adjourned after some of these questions were raised?

Question 5: A few days after December 13, the government declared that it had “incontrovertible proof” of Pakistan’s involvement in the attack, and announced a massive mobilization of almost half a million soldiers to the Indo-Pakistan border. The subcontinent was pushed to the brink of nuclear war. Apart from Afzal’s “confession,” extracted under torture (and later set aside by the Supreme Court), what was the “incontrovertible proof”?

Question 6: Is it true that the military mobilization to the Pakistan border had begun long before the December 13 attack?

Question 7: How much did this military standoff, which lasted for nearly a year, cost? How many soldiers died in the process? How many soldiers and civilians died because of mishandled land mines, and how many peasants lost their homes and land because trucks and tanks were rolling through their villages, and land mines were being planted in their fields?

Question 8: In a criminal investigation it is vital for the police to show how the evidence gathered at the scene of the attack led them to the accused. How did the police reach Mohammad Afzal? The Special Cell says SAR Geelani led them to Afzal. But the message to look out for Afzal was actually flashed to the Srinagar police before Geelani was arrested. So how did the Special Cell connect Afzal to the December 13 attack?

Question 9: The courts acknowledge that Afzal was a surrendered militant who was in regular contact with the security forces, particularly the Special Task Force (STF) of Jammu and Kashmir police. How do the security forces explain the fact that a person under their surveillance was able to conspire in a major militant operation?

Question 10: Is it plausible that organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed would rely on a person who had been in and out of STF torture chambers, and was under constant police surveillance, as the principal link for a major operation?

Question 11: In his statement before the court, Afzal says that he was introduced to “Mohammad” and instructed to take him to Delhi by a man called Tariq, who was working with the STF. Tariq was named in the police chargesheet. Who is Tariq and where is he now?

Question 12: On December 19, 2001, six days after the Parliament attack, Police Commissioner S. M. Shangari, Thane (Maharashtra), identified one of the attackers killed in the Parliament attack as Mohammad Yasin Fateh Mohammad (alias Abu Hamza) of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who had been arrested in Mumbai in November 2000, and immediately handed over to the Jammu and Kashmir police. He gave detailed descriptions to support his statement. If Police Commissioner Shangari was right, how did Mohammad Yasin, a man in the custody of the Jammu and Kashmir police, end up participating in the Parliament attack? If he was wrong, where is Mohammad Yasin now?

Question 13: Why is it that we still don’t know who the five dead “terrorists” killed in the Parliament attack are?

These questions, examined cumulatively, point to something far more serious than incompetence. The words that come to mind are “complicity”, “collusion”, and “involvement”. There’s no need for us to feign shock, or shrink from thinking these thoughts and saying them out loud. Governments and their intelligence agencies have a hoary tradition of using strategies like this to further their own ends. (Look up the burning of the Reichstag and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, 1933; or Operation Gladio, in which European intelligence agencies “created” acts of terrorism, especially in Italy, in order to discredit militant groups like the Red Brigade.)

The official response to all of these questions has been dead silence. As things stand, the execution of Afzal has been postponed while the President considers his clemency petition. Meanwhile the Bharatiya Janata Party announced that it would turn “Hang Afzal” into a national campaign. The campaign was fueled by the usual stale cocktail of religious chauvinism, nationalism, and strategic falsehoods. But it doesn’t seem to have taken off. Now other avenues are being explored. MS Bitta of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front is parading around the families of some of the security personnel who were killed during the attack. They have threatened to return the government’s posthumous bravery medals if Afzal is not hanged by December 13. (On balance, it might not be a bad idea for them to turn in those medals until they really know who the attackers were working for.)

The main strategy seems to be to create confusion and polarize the debate on communal lines. The editor of The Pioneer writes in his columns that Mohammad Afzal was actually one of the men who attacked Parliament, that he was the first to open fire and kill at least three security guards. The columnist Swapan Dasgupta, in an article titled “You Can’t Be Good to Evil,” suggests that if Afzal is not hanged there would be no point in celebrating the victory of good over evil at Dussehra or Durga Puja. It’s hard to believe that falsehoods like this stem only from a poor grasp of facts.

In the business of spreading confusion, the mass media, particularly television journalists, can be counted on to be perfect collaborators. On discussions, chat shows and “special reports,” we have television anchors playing around with crucial facts, like young children in a sandpit. Torturers, estranged brothers, senior police officers and politicians are emerging from the woodwork and talking. The more they talk, the more interesting it all becomes.

At the end of November 2006, Afzal’s older brother Aijaz made it onto a national news channel (CNN-IBN). He was featured on hidden camera, on what was meant to be a “sting” operation, making—we were asked to believe—stunning revelations. Aijaz’s story had already been on offer to various journalists on the streets of Delhi for weeks.

People were wary of him because his rift with his brother’s wife and family is well known. More significantly, in Kashmir he is known to have a relationship with the STF. More than one person has suggested an audit of his newfound assets.

But here he was now, on the national news, endorsing the Supreme Court decision to hang his brother. Then, saying Afzal had never surrendered, and that it was he (Aijaz) who surrendered his brother’s weapon to the BSF! And since he had never surrendered, Aijaz was able to “confirm” that Afzal was an active militant with the Jaish-e-Mohammad, and that Ghazi Baba, chief of operations of the Jaish, used to regularly hold meetings in their home. (Aijaz claims that when Ghazi Baba was killed, it was he who the police called in to identify the body.) On the whole, it sounded as though there had been a case of mistaken identity—and that given how much he knew, and all he was admitting, Aijaz should have been the one in custody instead of Afzal!

Of course we must keep in mind that behind both Aijaz and Afzal’s “media confessions,” spaced five years apart, is the invisible hand of the STF, the dreaded counter-insurgency outfit in Kashmir. They can make anyone say anything at any time. Their methods (both punitive and remunerative) are familiar to every man, woman, and child in the Kashmir valley. At a time like this, for a responsible news channel to announce that their “investigation finds that Afzal was a Jaish militant,” based on totally unreliable testimony, is dangerous and irresponsible. (Since when did what our brothers say about us become admissible evidence? My brother for instance, will testify that I’m God’s gift to the universe. I could dredge up a couple of aunts who’d say I’m a Jaish militant. For a price.) How can family feuds be dressed up as breaking news?

The other character who is rapidly emerging from the shadowy periphery and wading onto centre stage is Deputy Superintendent of Police Dravinder Singh of the STF. He is the man who Afzal has named as the police officer who held him in illegal detention and tortured him in the STF camp at Humhama in Srinagar, only a few months before the Parliament attack. In a letter to his lawyer Sushil Kumar, Afzal says that several of the calls made to him and Mohammad (the man killed in the attack) can be traced to Dravinder Singh. Of course no attempt was made to trace these calls.

Dravinder Singh was also showcased on the CNN-IBN show, on the by now ubiquitous low-angle shots, camera shake and all. It seemed a bit unnecessary, because Dravinder Singh has been talking a lot these days. He’s done recorded interviews, on the phone as well as face to face, saying exactly the same shocking things.

Weeks before the sting operation, in a recorded interview to Parvaiz Bukhari (at that time a freelance journalist based in Srinagar) he said:

I did interrogate and torture him [Afzal] at my camp for several days. And we never recorded his arrest in the books anywhere. His description of torture at my camp is true. That was the procedure those days and we did pour petrol in his ass and gave him electric shocks. But I could not break him. He did not reveal anything to me despite our hardest possible interrogation. We tortured him enough for Ghazi Baba but he did not break. He looked like a “bhondu” those days, what you call a “chootya” type. And I had a reputation for torture, interrogation, and breaking suspects. If anybody came out of my interrogation clean, nobody would ever touch him again. He would be considered clean for good by the whole department.

On TV this boasting spiraled into policy-making. “Torture is the only deterrent for terrorism,” he said, “I do it for the nation.” He didn’t bother to explain why or how the “bhondu” that he tortured and subsequently released allegedly went on to become the diabolical mastermind of the Parliament attack. Dravinder Singh then said that Afzal was a Jaish militant. If this is true, why wasn’t the evidence placed before the courts? And why on earth was Afzal released? Why wasn’t he watched? There is a definite attempt to try and dismiss this as incompetence. But given everything we know now, it would take all of Dravinder Singh’s delicate professional skills to make some of us believe that.

Meanwhile right-wing commentators have consistently taken to referring to Afzal as a Jaish-e-Mohammad militant. It’s as though instructions have been issued that this is to be the party line. They have absolutely no evidence to back their claim, but they know that repeating something often enough makes it the “truth.” As part of the campaign to portray Afzal as an “active” militant, and not a surrendered militant, SM Sahai, inspector general, Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir police, appeared on TV to say that he had found no evidence in his records that Afzal had surrendered. It would have been odd if he had, because in 1993 Afzal surrendered not to the Jammu and Kashmir police, but to the BSF. But why would a TV journalist bother with that kind of detail? And why does a senior police officer need to become part of this game of smoke and mirrors?

The official version of the story of the Parliament attack is very quickly coming apart at the seams.

Even the Supreme Court judgment, with all its flaws of logic and leaps of faith, does not accuse Mohammad Afzal of being the mastermind of the attack. So who was the mastermind? If Mohammad Afzal is hanged, we may never know. But LK Advani, leader of the opposition, wants him hanged at once. Even a day’s delay, he says, is against the national interest. Why? What’s the hurry? The man is locked up in a high-security cell on death row. He’s not allowed out of his cell for even five minutes a day. What harm can he do? Talk? Write, perhaps? Surely (even in LK Advani’s own narrow interpretation of the term) it’s in the national interest not to hang Afzal. At least not until there is an inquiry that reveals what the real story is, and who actually attacked Parliament.

Among the people who have appealed against Mohammad Afzal’s death sentence are those who are opposed to capital punishment in principle. They have asked that his death sentence be commuted to a life sentence. To sentence a man who has not had a fair trial or the opportunity to be heard to a life sentence is less cruel but just as arbitrary as sentencing him to death. The right thing to do would be to order a retrial of Afzal’s case, and an impartial, transparent inquiry into the December 13 Parliament attack. It is utterly demonic to leave a man locked up alone in a prison cell, day after day, week after week, leaving him and his family to guess which day will be the last day of his life

A genuine inquiry would have to mean far more than just a political witch hunt. It would have to look into the part played by intelligence, counter-insurgency, and security agencies as well. Offences such as the fabrication of evidence and the blatant violation of procedural norms have already been established in the courts, but they look very much like just the tip of the iceberg. We now have a police officer admitting (boasting) on record that he was involved in the illegal detention and torture of a fellow citizen. Is all of this acceptable to the people, the government, and the courts of this country?

Given the track record of Indian governments (past and present, right, left, and center) it is naive—perhaps utopian is a better word— to hope that it will ever have the courage to institute an inquiry that will once and for all uncover the real story. A maintenance dose of pusillanimity is probably encrypted in all governments. But hope has little to do with reason.

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Arundhati Roy Written by:

Arundhati Roy is a novelist born in Shillong. Her latest novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is out in paperback.

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