At a time when the world is back to debating terror, it's clear that the ruling regime in India has made certain that things tilt in a certain direction. On December 30, 2014, in what appeared to be a New Year gift, BJP President Amit Shah was let off on all charges linked to the 2005-6 murders of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati. While giving a verdict that seemed to be doing the job of defending Shah at every stage, the judgement held that Sohrabbudin was a crook and hence deserved to be nabbed. In doing so, there was a presumption that the "encounter" that killed him was genuine although the facts reveal that he was abducted and murdered (what followed with his wife Kausar Bi, raped and killed in custody, was truly brutal).
It was in the context of the Gujarat fake encounters that some movement had taken place towards justice for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators. Following the manner in which the Shah case has been managed, the possibility of other cases falling apart is very real. That is one of the reasons why people who engage in such issues must read a recently released book, Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counter-terrorism in India. It's written by activist-academic Manisha Sethi, who has been at the forefront of exposing random arrests in the name of fighting terrorism.
The book is dedicated to the late Mukul Sinha a lawyer whose diligent work actually put together the fake encounter cases that resulted in many Gujarat police-men landing behind bars. Sinha passed away a few months before Narendra Modi came to power. Will his life's work, done while living in Guajarat, now slowly fall apart?
The other reason for reading this book is to think about incidents such as the recent one of a boat blowing up off the coast of India. Frenzied speculation followed on whether it was a terrorist attack stalled by the coast guard or just a random incident built up by the agency? We shall never know, but Kafkaland will make us reflect about how narratives about terrorism are constructed and how ordinary citizens get trapped because of the casual subversion of norms, and a blatant profiling of a community.
Even those who would be on the other side of the ideological fence or see themselves as advocates of the hard state (never mind the collateral damage) should worry about the shoddy standards of investigations that are methodically detailed in Kafkaland. Equally important is to read the disturbing accounts of torture and acknowledge that this is not happening in Guantanamo Bay but in police stations in Mumbai, Delhi, or Hyderabad.
The book is disturbing, dark, farcical, indeed as the title suggests, a journey into a Kafkaesque reality. The author applies a clear headed passion to reveal the often fake idea of "truth" and the many "true lies" about counter-terrorism in India. This book challenges the version that is fed, digested and then regurgitated by the media. Following a terror strike, there are the rather breathless accounts of suspect X being rounded up by ATS Y or Special Cell Z!
In western democracies, the narratives of terror, wars and counter insurgency are (after the hindsight of some years) put to some sort of scrutiny. There is a certain self doubt that appears even in the story-lines and scripts of mainstream television shows such as the US production of Homeland or quite masterfully, in Season 2 of the Danish classic, The Killing (not the US remake).
But our notions of patriotism and nationalism remain relatively brittle, so we do not ask questions. Sethi has done just that and built up an impressive dossier of her own. That's all poured into this book along with an examination of specific laws and finally, an essay on what she calls the "Security Metaphysic".
All in all, it's pretty damning, starting from the cracking first chapter "Dr Narco and other stories from Kafkaland". The work shifts from first-hand accounts to reportage to investigation and opinion, not easy to pull off but Sethi is a deft writer. The Dr Narco chapter tells the tale of how ATS "cracked" the case of the Mumbai train blasts of 2006. Shahid Azmi, on whom the film Shahid was based, briefly appears in this as the lawyer of the accused. Then we meet Dr Malini, known as Dr Narco, an "expert" in brain mapping and narco analysis who could always give the police what they wanted (she was later sacked for forging certificates to get her position).
"The short life of Ghulam Yazdani" is self explanatory as is the chapter "terrorism's true lies". Both tell us about what happens behind bars to the unfortunate people who are often just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and end up filling the demand for an arrest after an incident. Very relevant today is the chapter "Why the Ishrat Jahan Case Frightens our Commentators".
Part II deals with encounter killings, and revisits the events in Punjab in the 90s. One gripping chapter opens with the story of Jaswant Singh Kalra, who was looking into the dead and disappeared and was gunned down outside his home. As we go through this section we understand why the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has only limited powers, how a section of the criminal procedure code encourages the police to create a narrative of guilt for those killed in encounters. This is a book with a point of view that's often ignored for a blind belief in the agencies.
The author is the moving force behind Jamia teachers' Solidarity Association (JTSA), that also brought out a report titiled "Damned, Framed, Acquitted: dossiers of a very special cell". That report had examined arrests by the Special Cell of the Delhi police that were made on very flimsy grounds, often non-existent, and would not stand up to any legal scrutiny. This book has a very definite perspective that challenges the dominant narrative about terrorism that many citizens digest without questioning. The world over we have learnt that if we don't ask such questions, the agencies and the security apparatus, will act with even greater impunity and brutality.
In the past, incidents such as the Mecca Masjid blasts turned out to be acts done by Hindu extremists whose aim was to trap Muslim boys, many of whom were tortured and behind bars for years before being released. Three months after the BJP came to power at the centre, the star accused in the Hindu terror castes, Swami Aseemanand, got bail on the charge of being involved in the conspiracy to bomb the Samjhauta Express. Certainly, those cases too are likely to collapse bit by bit.
It is after all Kafkaland where only one lot of people is profiled as terrorists even if shoddy investigations don't actually lead the police to the real perpetrators of heinous acts. George Orwell had written in his classic 1984: "The Hate had started. The face of the Enemy of the People had flashed onto the screen." Reread your Orwells and get a copy of Kafkaland.