13 December-A Reader: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament
By By Arundhati Roy (Intro)
Rs 200; Pages: 256
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
The operative phrase in all of this is 'appeared to be'.
The doubts set in early on, when on December 14, 2001, the day after the Parliament attack, the police arrested S.A.R. 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.
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.
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 on 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, counter-intelligence 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 net. At least half-a-dozen websites are following the developments closely.
And then, there are even more disturbing questions that have been raised, which range beyond the fate of Mohammed 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 Behari 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-Mohammed 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 1999. (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 close circuit TV (CCTV).
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 evidence' of Pakistan's involvement in the attack, and announced a massive mobilisation 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 evidence'?
Question 6: Is it true that the military mobilisation 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 landmines, and how many peasants lost their homes and land because trucks and tanks were rolling through their villages, and landmines 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 Mohammed Afzal? The Special Cell says S.A.R. 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 the Jammu & 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 organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba 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, Thane (Maharashtra), S.M. Shangari, identified one of the attackers killed in the Parliament attack as Mohammed Yasin Fateh Mohammed (alias Abu Hamza) of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, who had been arrested in Mumbai in November 2000, and immediately handed over to the J&K Police. He gave detailed descriptions to support his statement. If Police Commissioner Shangari was right, how did Mohammed Yasin, a man in the custody of the J&K Police, end up participating in the Parliament attack? If he was wrong, where is Mohammed 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, 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 fuelled 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. M.S. 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 those medals in until they really know who the attackers were working for.)
The main strategy seems to be to create confusion and polarise the debate on communal lines. The editor of The Pioneer newspaper writes in his columns that Mohammed 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 called 'You Can't Be Good to Evil', suggests that if Afzal is not hanged there would be no point in celebrating 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 on to 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-Mohammed, 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 on to centrestage is Dy 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 Mohammed Yasin (the man killed in the attack) can be traced to Dravinder. 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 has 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, a freelance journalist, 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 'chootiya' 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."
This is not an empty boast. Dravinder Singh has a formidable reputation for torture in the Kashmir Valley. On TV his boasting spiralled into policymaking. "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-Mohammed 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, S.M. Sahai, Inspector General, Kashmir, J&K 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 J&K 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 judgement, with all its flaws of logic and leaps of faith, does not accuse Mohammed Afzal of being the mastermind of the attack. So who was the mastermind? If Mohammed Afzal is hanged, we may never know. But L.K. 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 L.K. 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 Mohammed 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, and has not had 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 re-trial 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 centre) 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 cowardice and pusillanimity is probably encrypted in all governments. But hope has little to do with reason.
Therefore, this book, offered in hope.
* This article is the Introduction to 13 December: A Reader, The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament, to be released by Penguin Books on December 13, 2006