By Aijaz Zaka Syed
17 January 2014
Change has come to India. The great democracy is undergoing an unprecedented churning and a new political narrative is emerging. Pundits agree that the emergence of “common man” has shaken the old, ossified power structures to the core and cynical, old politics and politicians are being forced to embrace the new grammar of change. Yes, change. Change is the buzzword. For some though, the more things change the more they remain the same.
For once, I agree with Narendra Modi. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s concern over the victimization of Muslims and his warning to state governments against the targeting of Muslim youths is nothing but a “brazen and callous attempt to woo the minority community.”
In comments made last week, Shinde expressed concern over the continuing heavy presence of Muslim youths in jails saying he is writing to states to set up review committees to assess the role of minority youths languishing in jails on terror charges without trial.
It prompted the Gujarat chief minister to dash off a strong letter of protest to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying Shinde’s comments on Muslims marked a “new low” and that “even the minority community will raise the questions on the timing of such statements.”
There may be some truth in the Gujarat leader’s contention. With the general elections being less than 6 months away, the home minister’s sudden concern for the “minority youth” may be a desperate attempt by a desperate party for the Muslim vote.
This is not the first that the home minister has raised this issue though. In September, he had written to state governments urging them to ensure no innocent Muslim youth is wrongfully detained in the name of terror.
Shinde had talked of receiving several representations and complaints on harassment of innocent Muslim youth by law enforcement agencies.
Raising concerns over the presence of a large number of Muslims in jails and urging police and investigative agencies against targeting the community, he had noted: “Some of the minority youth have started feeling that they are deliberately targeted and deprived of their basic rights.”
States, including Gujarat, were asked to ensure “strict and prompt action against erring police officers is taken where there is mala fide arrest of any member of minority community. Wrongfully arrested person(s) should not only be released immediately but should also be suitably compensated and rehabilitated to join the mainstream.”
Predictably, Shinde’s missive had raised a storm of howling protests with the opposition BJP and its righteous friends in media accusing the governing Congress and UPA of “appeasement and vote bank politics,”— just as they are doing now.
Predictably, Modi was the first to respond to Shinde then as well dashing off another letter of protest to the prime minister. What had particularly ticked off our friend from Gujarat and the shrill, ever raucous brigade of television warriors was the Center’s suggestion of forming ‘special courts’ to dispose of the gathering pile of terrorism related cases involving Muslim youths.
At the time, they had offered the same argument against Shinde’s call as has been made in the latest of Modi’s salvos. That it is political and constitutional sacrilege to suggest “special treatment” for any particular group or community.
Shinde’s statement could send a wrong message about the country’s criminal justice system and have a demoralizing effect on the law enforcement machinery, wrote the Gujarat leader in his complaint to the PM emphasizing “a crime is a crime irrespective of the birth marks of the criminal and his religious beliefs could not determine the guilt or innocence.”
Moreover, he points out, this approach challenges the constitutional principle of right to equality before law.
I couldn’t agree more. Equality before law — that is the cardinal principle of criminal justice system and not just in India. All are equal before law no matter where they come from, what they look like or what religion they believe in. Justice is equal for everyone.
But what about those who are picked up precisely because of how they look like or which religion they believe in? They are already judged and condemned — before their arrest and even before committing the crime. Some do not even have to wait in detention or go to courts to be judged. Justice is dispensed with instantly by our incredibly efficient and effective police and investigative agencies without troubling courts, as has been the case with Ishrat Jahan and so many other Muslim terrorists in the Vibrant Gujarat.
Yes, a crime is a crime irrespective of the birth marks of the criminal and his religious beliefs. It’s just that most criminals and terrorists happen to be Muslims.
This is why every third inmate in Maharashtra’s jails, a state ruled by the Congress incidentally, happens to be a Muslim despite their population being less than 15 percent in the state. Other states are not far behind Gujarat and Maharashtra in delivering equitable and swift justice to Muslims.
The Delhi Police, which incidentally reports to the Home Ministry at the Centre headed by Shinde, has firmly burnished its credentials in fighting terror at home, rounding up everyone who looks like a Muslim terrorist or could very well be on the way to becoming one.
Moreover, Delhi Police Special Cell specializes in travelling far and wide to hunt for terrorists — from the distant Darbhanga on Bihar-Bengal border to relief camps in the riot ravaged Muzaffarnagar in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. As far as Delhi Police is concerned, if you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist — until proven otherwise.
And this is not the figment of anyone’s imagination. There are countless independent studies to prove the systemic bias of police and other law enforcement agencies against the community.
Statistics provided by various civil society groups and even the National Crime Record Bureau of the Government of India speak for themselves. Thousands of Muslims have been languishing in prisons across the country — many of them for years and without a trial.
Those who arrested them have promptly forgotten about their existence. Even when these cases go to courts, they drag on for years. Meanwhile it’s not just their lives and careers that are wrecked. Their whole families and extended neighborhoods are scarred and destroyed in the process.
I personally know many such families in Hyderabad. Those detained and tortured for years for attacks like Makkah Masjid blasts continue to pay even after being acquitted. Or the fact that the National Intelligence Agency has found the fingerprints of Hindu groups behind many such attacks. Terror never goes away.
So whatever the motives behind Shinde sending up this balloon now or Prime Minister Singh suddenly waking up to the woes of Muslims after ten years in power, there is no denying the fact that something terribly has gone wrong with the way the community is treated by the Indian state.
But instead of addressing the issue, Modi and company — aided by an insensitive, irresponsible media and militant security establishment — rush to raise the appeasement bogey.
Of course, everyone is equal before law in principle. But where do you see this in practice today? We have seen the equality before law at work in Modi’s own case.
After coolly executing the 2002 pogrom in full view of the world and despite being monitored and censured by the highest court in the land for his role and mountains of evidence to nail him, Modi has not just managed to evade the long arm of the law, the man is all but ready to head the world’s greatest democracy.
Do you call it justice? Is this equality before law where an 80-plus woman who saw her husband hacked and burned to death right before her eyes has to run from pillar to post looking for justice for 12 years?
Indian Muslims do not need any special treatment from anyone, Mr. Modi — not from the Congress and nor from the BJP. All they need is justice — and freedom from persecution for being who they are.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs and Editor of ‘Caravan’ online newspaper.