By NEELABH MISHRA
Reporting the Ajmer blast case, the media asked no questions
They say no one goes to the famous dargah sharif in Ajmer without an inner call from Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the 12-13th century Sufi saint whose grave and shrine it is. His devotees, therefore, may not be able to come to terms with the death of Mohammed Salim, who died in the explosion that took place in the dargah on October 11, 2007. Ignominy, worse than death, was also his portion. A piece of wire allegedly found in Salim’s pocket was used by the police as a pretext to declare him a Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami (HUJI) terrorist who died in his own attempt to spread mayhem. Needless to say, Salim’s family was denied the Rs 5 lakh compensation announced for those who died in the blast. When his father took the body home to Hyderabad for the last rites, he was bowed under the shame of being called a terrorist’s father.
Three years on, the arrest of Devendra Gupta and his accomplices—all either Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members or sympathisers—has cleared Mohammed Salim’s name. The compensation money, though, is still tied up in red tape.
If this is the fate of a Muslim who died in a blast with which he had nothing to do, what to expect for those Muslims who were rounded up as suspects, detained illegally, and tortured for days for what the police now says was a Hindutva terror plot? Maulana Shameem of Khandela and Maulana Khushibur Rahman of Sardarshahar—both towns in north Rajasthan—were illegally detained and tortured for days. A dozen other maulvis and madrassa tutors were subjected to intense interrogation, again in illegal detention. Hundreds of Bengali Muslims in Ajmer were declared Bangladeshis with HUJI links and the slums they lived in were cleared for land sharks to move in.
Sadly, the media—through not being sceptical and asking the right questions—was complicit in these atrocities. Those arrested were immediately painted as fearsome terrorists. Fantastic stories were written and broadcast on the strength of quotes from anonymous police and intelligence sources. These stories gathered weight from the endorsement of the HUJI-LeT theory by no less a person than Shivraj Patil, the then Union home minister.
Those who raised questions then about the human rights of the suspects who no longer are suspects were branded supporters of terrorists both by the police and the media—just the way they are now being called Maoist sympathisers when they question indiscriminate sweeps on tribals by security forces pursuing Maoist rebels.
Another loaded question is: would Islamist jehadis target mosques? They could—inter-sectarian attacks are fairly common outside India and a classical Islamist will conceivably not be especially comfortable with dargahs. Still, the question does offer a natural source of doubt. But any expression of it, or suggestion of a Hindutva angle—despite the fact that the Nanded/Kanpur bomb incidents had already come to light—was mocked at as a conspiracy theory.
Yesterday’s conspiracy theory is today the establishment’s truth about the Ajmer blast, as with Malegaon. Devendra and Sanjay Gupta, Vishnu and Chandrashekhar Patidar and Lokesh Sharma, now named in the Ajmer case, have been found to have links with the RSS and some extremist Hindutva groups. As an organisation, the RSS has denied involvement with any terrorist act. But it has also admitted that some of these suspects had been its members. Now, police are investigating the link between those arrested for the Ajmer blast and Malegaon suspects Sadhvi Pragya Singh, Lt Col Srikant Purohit, Maj (retd) Ramesh Upadhyay, Swami Dayanand and Swami Aseemanand. The Rajasthan police is also investigating possible links between the Ajmer, Goa and Mecca Masjid blasts: for instance, the likelihood of a SIM card being used to trigger them.
But there’s a crucial difference in the coverage of these cases. The Muslims who were illegally detained and tortured were immediately profiled as terrorists; fantastic profiles of The Jehadi Terrorist, his background, upbringing, indoctrination and training were on the front pages and on hour after hour of airtime. The Hindutva extremists held in the same cases, however, are being referred to just as suspects. Nowhere to be seen is the thriller vocabulary of ‘modules’, ‘sleeper cells’ and ‘concentric circles’. No wonder the common Muslim feels discriminated against.
Therefore, a cautionary note for the media is quite in order: Do not unthinkingly accept axiomatic government handouts and join it in hounding those who speak up for human rights. Instead of beating down the doubting Thomases, ask the right questions yourself. You may well end up saving the irreparable human cost innocents—like those held and tortured for the Ajmer blasts—are forced to pay.