By Imran Khan
The people of Bengaluru, who have been limping back to normalcy after more than 30,000 Northeasterners fled the city amidst rumours of communal violence, are now grappling with the grim scepter of terrorists living in their midst posing as respectable and law-abiding citizens — as journalists, scientists, doctors and students. Last week, the police arrested 18 Muslim men, including two from Hyderabad and Maharashtra, for allegedly trying to assassinate several prominent personalities in Karnataka. The Central Crime Branch of the Bengaluru Police claim that the arrested youths were part of the banned Pakistan-based terror outfits Lashkar-e-Toiba (let) and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (huji) and were running sleeper cells.
The Bengaluru Police, which claims to have seized two 7.65 mm Italian-made Beretta pistols from the accused, have officially charged them with attempting to assassinate journalists Vishweshwar Bhat and Pratap Simha of Kannada Prabha, known for their Hindutva leanings, Bajrang Dal leader Ganu Jartarkar and a Hyderabad-based corporator.
However, statements made by Karnataka Home Minster R Ashok and Union Home Secretary RK Singh hinted at a much larger plot, one that targeted vital national security assets, including the Kaiga nuclear power plant. A series of conflicting reports in the media have speculated on to the terrorists’ alleged plans to carry out blasts at the Ganesh festival in Hubli, to assassinate prominent legislators and even pointed to terrorist camps operating in the forests of Hubli.
All these stories attributed the information to unnamed police sources and a leading English daily claimed that the LeT and HUJI are operating sleeper cells in Karnataka and that their agents have infiltrated the mainstream media. Shiva Sunder, a political analyst, says that unverified leaks from the police and irresponsible media reportage are creating an atmosphere of terror and suspicion in the state. Tehelka looked at the FIR and found that at the moment, the police have little more than two pistols they claim to have seized and the confessional statements of three of the accused. According to Section 36 of the Indian Evidence Act, confessions given to a police officer is not permissible as evidence in a court of law.
Worse, even going by the confessions that form the basis of the FIR, there seems little evidence, at this stage, to link the other accused with the alleged plot, let alone with international terrorist outfits.
According to the FIR and the confessions extracted from the accused, Abdul Hakeem Jamadar and Shoaib Ahmed Mirza, the beginning of the alleged conspiracy stretches back to 2011, when the duo came in touch with a shadowy figure called Zakir alias Ustad. The duo’s confessions paint Zakir as the mastermind of the alleged terror plot. They portrayed Zakir as a fundamentalist ideologue who brainwashed the youngsters with his emotional appeals to retaliate against the persecution of Muslims.
The confession statement says that Jamadar and Dr Zafar Iqbal wanted to travel to Pakistan via Iran to join the Taliban. They took a one-month visiting visa from the Iranian consulate in Hyderabad under the guise of visiting the shrine of Fatima in Iran. Jamadar’s passport (H-8028149) was issued in 2009 by the Bengaluru passport office. The police are yet to get hold of Dr Iqbal’s passport details.
After this point, events took a bizarre turn. The statement says that on 11 December 2011, Jamadar and Iqbal took an Air Arabia flight from Bengaluru to Tehran. And from there it says, ISI agents took them across the border to Pakistan where they met Abdul Wahab, deputy director, ISI, Karachi, Hamid, senior director, ISI, Karachi, and Mustafa, a senior official of ISI, Karachi.
Interestingly, he says that the ISI officials grilled them to find out whether they had any raw connections. They were asked to go back to India and work for the ISI. The ISI agents promised to provide the necessary information and money. Most strangely, the statement says that these wannabe Talibanis denied this offer and further that the ISI tortured them for 10-15 days. Later, the ISI took the duo to the Pakistani border and they were allowed to travel back to Iran. They flew back to Mumbai and came to Karnataka.
According to the confession, the assassination plot was hatched just before Ramzan when Zakir alias Ustad got in touch with Jamadar and asked him to assassinate Pratap Simha, a columnist with Kannada Prabha, and its editor Vishweshwar Bhat. The ostensible reason given to them for the assassination was the anti-minority and pro-Hindutva articles written by the two journalists.
Interestingly, the confessions and the FIR make no mention of how Mirza and Jamadar procured the pistols and ammunition and whether it was supplied by the elusive Ustad. According to the police, while the first pistol was seized from Mirza and Jamadar when the police allegedly intercepted their assassination mission on 28 August, the second was seized from Mohammed Akram, who was held near Bengaluru’s central bus stand on 1 September. The manner as well as timing of the arrests also raises questions. The FIR says that Mirza pulled out the pistol and aimed at the policemen but KV Jithendranath, the head of the police team, pounced and disarmed him physically.
According to the FIR, Mirza and Jamadar’s flat mates, which include journalist Muthi-ur Rehman Siddique, Reyaz Ahmed, Muhammed Yusuf Nalabund and DRDO engineer Aijaz Ahmed Mirza (Mirza’s brother) were arrested at around 3.30 pm on 29 August. However, contrary to the FIR report, a missing complaint filed by residents of JC Nagar area says that the accused were picked up by the police at 9 am.
Meanwhile, the registration number of the stolen Hero Honda Splendor bike (KA-27E 1035), which was used by the duo, has turned out to be a fake. The registration number has been traced to one Datatre Mudri Marthanda Rao in Ranebennur. Rao had bought a Bajaj M80 scooter in 1991. However, the police claim that the number plate was fake and are unwilling to reveal details of the registration number. On 30 August, commending the Central Crime Branch’s feat, DG and IGP Lalrokuma Pachau said that with this arrest “the Bengaluru Police has prevented a major catastrophe”.
However, civil society activists remain skeptical of the police’s claims. The family of the arrested men has accused the police of arresting them on false charges. And Muslim groups have accused the police of fabricating evidence and victimising innocent members of the minority community. They point out to several previous instances where high-profile arrests made by the police resulted in acquittals.
“All these cases follow the same pattern,” says Irshad Ahmed Desai of the Association for Protection of Civil Rights. “Most of the arrested youth were from the lower middle class families of the Muslim community. After their arrests, stories started appearing regularly in the media quoting unnamed police sources claiming that the accused were members of the Indian Mujahideen, let and even the al Qaeda. After spending several years in prison, the courts finally acquitted many of the accused citing lack of evidence.”
Desai cited last week’s acquittal of Faheem Ansari and Sabhuddin Ahmed who were wrongly charged by the Mumbai Police for their connection in the 26/11 case.
In 2008, a month before the BJP came to power in Karnataka; a bomb went off in a magistrate’s court in Hubli where seven SIMI members were to be produced. Police had blamed SIMI for the blast. Later it turned out that the blast was carried out by Nagaraj Jambagi, leader of a criminal gang with links to the Sri Ram Sene. The same year, the police arrested 15 people in Belgaum based on the material found on the hard disk. After spending three years in jail, they were acquitted. While the investigation continues, the jury is still out on whether they have cracked a sinister terror plot that could have threatened the fragile communal harmony of an entire state, or whether the young men arrested and branded terrorists paid for nothing more than who they are.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.