Hyper-nationalism in the Age of Terror

9/11 triggered the US-led global 'war on terror, 13/12 marked a significant date in the political progression of the Indian state. The attack on the Parliament Building in New Delhi in December 2001 was followed by a diplomatic and military offensive by the Indian government against what it termed "Pakistan supported terrorism". Domestically, the Delhi Police nabbed four people suspected to be involved in planning the attack. Among those arrested was S A R Geelani.

A Kashmiri lecturer at a Delhi University college, Geelani was accused of conspiring in the attack on Parliament and was booked under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). The case against him hinged on what has now been proven to be no evidence at all — a two-minute phone conversation with his younger brother in Kashmir a day after the attack. The police claimed Geelani told his brother that what had happened in Delhi was necessary. Careful transcription of the conversation by leading activists later revealed that there was no reference to the Parliament attack in the conversation, and words attributed to Geelani did not exist in the recording. Geelani was also charged with knowing two of the other co-accused. With all three hailing from the same district in Kashmir and residing in the same area in Delhi, it was not surprising that they knew each other socially — something that Geelani never denied.

Despite the weakness of the government's case, Geelani was awarded the death sentence by a special POTA court a year later. A propaganda and misinformation exercise was conducted by the authorities, ably assisted by sections of the media, to defame Geelani. In response, lawyers, activists, academics, writers, journalists and students started a campaign to support the beleaguered lecturer. The All India Committee for the Defence of S A R Geelani was headed by eminent scholar Rajni Kothari and included author Arundhati Roy, Geelani's lawyer Nandita Haksar and other well-known public figures.

The POTA court's judgement was turned down by the Delhi High Court (HC), which acquitted Geelani. But his troubles were far from over. In February this year, Geelani was shot outside his lawyer's house and was lucky to survive. He is convinced that it was the Special Cell of Delhi Police, responsible for his arrest, which tried to get him killed. Meanwhile, the government appealed to the Supreme Court (SC), which on 4 August 2005, upheld the acquittal of Geelani. But in their judgement, the justices added, oddly enough, the words that there remained "a needle of suspicion" against him. The Delhi Police has now decided to file a review petition in the SC against his acquittal. The sordid, poignant and tragic tale of Geelani continues.

S A R Geelani is, perhaps, Southasia's most visible example of the state labeling those who dissent from the 'establishment' discourse as terrorist. Prior to his recent tribulations, Geelani had always been outspoken about human rights violations and the suppression of popular aspirations by the Indian state in Kashmir. This is what seems to have made him vulnerable to action by a police seeking short-cuts, and a quick and definitive end to the investigations on the Parliament attack. The Geelani case also provides a glimpse into the power of the term 'terrorist' and the dangers inherent in its use.


S A R Geelani spoke to Prashant Jha about being branded a terrorist, his experience with the Indian state, the politics of violence, the meaning of terror, and the Kashmir quagmire.

About his personal and political background, and whether his ethnic identity and views on Kashmir made it easier to label him a 'terrorist'.

I am from Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir and studied in Lucknow and Delhi. The campaign against me definitely stemmed from who I am — a Kashmiri Muslim teaching Arabic at Zakir Hussain College, often wrongly assumed to be a Muslim college. The fact that I had been consistently speaking up against atrocities by Indian security forces in Kashmir made me an even easier target. The authorities, in the aftermath of the Parliament attack, were looking for someone to pin the blame on. I fitted in perfectly with the stereotype of the 'Islamic terrorist'.

Based on his experience, on how the state treats those it deems terrorists and anti-nationals.

The manner in which I was arrested is revealing in itself. 14 December 2001 was the last Friday of Ramadan and I was on a public bus on my way to offer prayers when some police officers in plain clothes intercepted the bus. They asked me to come with them and shoved me into a car parked outside. I was not given the reason for my arrest and was slapped and abused. Despite repeated requests, they did not let me pray. They took me to a private place and asked me to sign a confession admitting guilt for the Parliament attack. I refused and was tortured brutally. I was stripped, beaten up and hanged upside down for hours at a stretch. The police then picked up my family and threatened to rape my wife and kill all of us, including my three-year-old son. Later, in Tihar Jail, I was in solitary confinement in a dark, dingy cell. Days would pass before I saw the sun or was in contact with another human being. Earlier this year, I was shot and had six bullets pumped into me. I have no doubt it is the Delhi Police that engineered the shooting and wanted me killed.

On what gave him the courage to carry on.

Apart from the fact that I am innocent and was framed, I realised that the plot was to malign the Kashmir movement. I decided to bear with the physical and mental pain and keep fighting, because the crime would have been attributed not only to me but also to Kashmiris.

There would also be heightened suspicion against Indian Muslims.

I did not want to give the state a chance to defame the Kashmiri people and their movement, or target Indian Muslims.

His reaction to the Supreme Court's reference to a 'needle of suspicion' against him.

Both the Supreme Court and High Court have said that there is no evidence against me. The SC judgement in fact contradicts itself. If there is no evidence, what is the basis for the so-called suspicion? I considered it a politically motivated reference to save those police officers who had falsely implicated me. Justice is not merely freeing the innocent but punishing the guilty. The judgement lacks justice as it let free those who had fabricated an utterly false case against me.

On whether there is a tendency to toe the establishment's line when 'terrorism' is invoked.

Absolutely. An air of hyper-nationalism is created when the term terror is used. I experienced silence and complicity everywhere – in Delhi's Safdarjung hospital where a doctor produced a medical certificate stating that I was fine, without checking me at all and despite clear marks of torture on my body; in the lower court when the judge on the first day of the proceedings told a co-accused, who was weeping, that she should have thought of the consequences when she hatched the conspiracy – in effect delivering the judgement before a single argument had been presented; in the media which uncritically played up and reported false stories fed to them by the police. If those reports were to be believed, I had al-Qaeda links, had confessed to the crime, and had bought a posh flat in South Delhi immediately before the attack. Even after I was acquitted by the High Court, I was called a terrorist and my car was stoned in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus.

On the obliteration, post 9/11, of the distinction between 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter'.

That distinction will always remain, regardless of what the powerful states want. Terrorism is when innocent people are targeted – either by the state or private parties. But if a person takes up the gun in self-defence or to achieve his rights when there has been suppression, that is not terrorism. What is important to understand is why people take up the gun. In India, movements in Kashmir and the Northeast are deemed to be terrorism but all that the Kashmiris are asking for is the right to self-determination, a promise made to them at the United Nations. The struggle against colonial occupation, as is the case in Kashmir, cannot be called terrorism. To look at the duplicity of states, turn to Iraq. When the US kills, they are liberators and when an Iraqi resists, he is a terrorist.

On whether the politics of violence brings in its own set of problems, including deaths of innocents, and denial of negotiated solutions.

It is the violence of the state and its attempts to suppress democratic voices that leads to problems. Of course, violence should ideally be shunned. But one has to ask why people adopt violent means. When a person takes up the gun, he knows he has to fight against a trained military. He also knows that the act of picking the gun has probably reduced his life span. The problem is that states pay no heed to aspirations when peacefully expressed. If you want people to shun arms, the state has to first shun its own violence and pay attention to demands when democratically expressed.

On what needs to be done in Kashmir.

The aspirations of the people of Kashmir must be taken into account. India and Pakistan have a stake in the Kashmir issue because both sides occupy portions of the land. But this land belongs to the people of Kashmir. They are the principal party. The Kashmir issue needs to be resolved respecting the sentiments of the Kashmiri people. The money both countries are wasting on defence and in places like Siachen is precious and should be diverted for development.

On the root cause of political violence in India.

It is the complete decay of democratic institutions in this country, from top to bottom, which is leading to violence. At a distance, Indian democracy may look rosy and wonderful but if you come in close contact with institutions and structures in India, it is a disaster. The state is unwilling to consider even democratic demands for land reform and fair wages. The weakening of democratic institutions and the shrinking of democratic space is what has led to people taking up arms.

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