The story of Iftikhar Gilani’s days in prison reads like a textbook case of all that is wrong with the criminal justice system in this part of the world. It is also the story of paranoia, prejudice and apathy, all of which found full play in a system that boasts of a functioning and “independent” judiciary and a “vibrant” media trained to examine and analyse the facts of each case. Years from now, retired Intelligence Bureau officials, much-feted retired bureaucrats, and perhaps even honourably retired justices in the know, will reflect on Iftikhar Gilani’s case in their memoirs, and as is the wont of many such eminent retirees, will point to what went wrong, and how it could have, indeed, should have, been set right. ‘Retrospect’ is a comforting, eminently huggable word — it will soothe those occasional pangs of conscience.
For nearly seven months — the time it might take to write half a book, or see your daughter through her final exams and graduation, or launch a successful advertising campaign — Gilani under-went torture and humiliation in Tihar Jail and assaults on his reputation through the shameful conduct of the media. The simple act of downloading a published document, widely available in the public domain, led to a nightmare that began with armed men and brusque officials taking over his house in the middle of the night. Not only did they ransack Gilani’s house and tamper with the data in question, they fed false information to a press, which, barring a few exceptions, lapped it up.
India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is accountable to nobody, was clearly in charge here. The IB officials, using the Income Tax department as a cover for a raid, wanted the police to register a case of espionage under the Official Secrets Act, accusing Gilani of acting as an agent of the Pakistani secret service and passing on information about the deployment of security forces in Jammu & Kashmir. They overruled the objections of the police officers present, who expressed reservations about the allegations, and compelled them to proceed with Gilani’s arrest.
The result was that Gilani was sent to Tihar Jail in west Delhi where he was given the standard treatment, with the tacit approval of jail officials — beatings and humiliation by hardened inmates. This had been preceded by an orientation session at the police station where a knowledgeable police official had described his favourite ‘interrogation’ methods to a dazed Gilani. His reference was to “third degree”, which has almost become a household term in some circles, liberally used even in polite company. Gilani was spared the worst of these methods, thanks to interventions by some friends in the media. As he points out in his book, thousands of others caught in the web of India’s criminal justice system are not so fortunate. They are subjected to some of the most inhuman forms of torture, and the matter of guilt or innocence is moot.
Other outrages however continued against Gilani, and it is to the eternal shame of the politicians, bureaucrats, the police and the criminally irresponsible officials of the IB that they all condoned, and in some cases, even approved the steps that led to Gilani spending seven months in jail. These included an initial false opinion on the nature of the downloaded document provided by the Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMO), and news ‘leaks’ about Gilani’s ‘crimes’ to unscrupulous, unprofessional media persons. All this influenced judges, jail officials and even inmates at Tihar, to Gilani’s detriment.
There followed an relentless cycle of court appearances, rejection of bail applications, and false hopes of release. Finally, however, the case collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, as New Delhi journalist Siddharth Varadarajan points out in his excellent foreword. The Directorate General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) rejected the earlier assessment of the document by the DGMO, and when the court was about to be informed of this revised opinion, the government withdrew the case and Gilani was freed. He was released without so much as an apology, let alone an offer of compensation or promise to bring those responsible to account.
Rights and acquiescence
Gilani’s description of the tribulations of his co-inmates in Tihar is marked by sensitivity, as he brings out the poignancy of many a situation. This is more than can be said about much of India’s mainstream media. Indeed, the author is much too kind to his fraternity, viewing the foibles of some of his fellow scribes with the same semi-detached eye that sized up his own prospects while at Tihar. However, he is sharp-eyed enough to acknowledge the gross inaccuracies in reporting by the media in general inaccuracies that often have grave, far-reaching consequences for the subject of the media’s attention. How many statements and press releases by the police, army, or another security branch of government, are verified before being published as the truth; and how many ‘encounters’ are reported as such simply because the police said so?
Indeed, how many mainstream newspapers and television channels have a policy of double-checking statements and claims from the security forces? Somewhere along the way, the term ‘allegedly’ went out of fashion. And when will the media begin to pay attention to the torture taking place at thousands of police stations and jails across India every single day, and the travesty of justice that takes place in the courts of the land?
Gilani’s reactions to the arbitrary actions by the officials raiding his home points to a specific reality, that few citizens of the largest democracy in the world are actually aware of their rights when confronted by any coercive authority. He signed the search ‘authorisation’ and other documents presented to him without reading them. When he did realise that this was much more than a simple search by the income tax authorities, Gilani did not demand to consult a lawyer. He did not even ask to see a lawyer when he was told that he would be held at the police station for the night. It was much, much later that he realised that the entire roughshod operation was illegal. He never thought to ask why IB officers and others of indeterminate status were part of an Income Tax Department team, and why they remained even after nothing incriminating was found by way of concealment of income or money.
The instinctive reaction of citizens everywhere, elsewhere in Southasia as in India, when confronted by a policeman’s knock is complete and unqualified acquiescence. Few understand that they have enforceable rights against arbitrary actions by the state, and so they never demand warrants and authorisations. The awe of authority is so great that few ever think of resistance. All of which points to the urgent need for human rights education, which should be spread not only among lawyers and university students; rights awareness must begin in schools. While schoolchildren are made to cram enough about their moral and civic duties, they are not informed about the rights of citizens. The result —well-educated, well-informed people like Gilani are at a loss when confronted by illegal search and seizure
Courts of despair
And so on to forgiveness. Gilani has been able to transcend his rage and anguish to write a dispassionate personal record. He comes across as a gentle, dignified man, not given to outbursts. This lack of rancour, and the author positioning himself as an objective observer, makes the book an efficient record of facts and experiences and provides the space to document the stories of others in similar situations. But the complete absence of indignation rankles. Surely, at the end of it all, the book’s conclusion required a strident demand for justice. Surely, it is possible to express outrage without being shrill, to demand accountability for its own sake, out of a sense of fair play, and not necessarily out of a desire for revenge.
Is this zen-like detachment a reflection of Gilani’s temperament? Perhaps. Or perhaps, after long, hopeless days in jail and surreal encounters with the lower judiciary, he has stopped harbouring any hope of those responsible for his plight being brought to justice. It may thus be that the lack of obvious bitterness is a result of despair for the country and system.
One awaits the memoirs of Sangita Dhingra Sehgal. It is only then perhaps we will get some explanations as to why she, as Chief Metropolitan Magistrate before whom Gilani was hustled in June 2002, did not record his statement. And why she did not consider using her official telephone line to connect to the Internet to verify for herself if the allegedly secret information downloaded by Iftikhar was in the public domain or not.
The judiciary, touted as the only standing pillar of an otherwise insensitive state, revealed its hollowness in the Gilani case. Let us keep in mind that very few criminal cases ever reach the elevated strata of the High Courts or the Supreme Court of India. Most such cases involve poor, uneducated people who rarely, if ever, have the capacity to see their cases through the full range of available judicial remedy mechanisms. Thus, it is at the level of the trial courts that their fates are decided, often for keeps. Prison officials and police often ‘forget’ about undertrials awaiting court decisions, those arrested for petty offences languish in prisons for years because the bail amount was set too high, and others have no means to hire capable lawyers who might point out a thing or two in their clients’ favour in front of hard-to-please judicial officers like Sehgal.
Life goes on, meanwhile, for the protagonists. The .two IB officials who took control of Gilani’s life and turned it upside down on that fateful Sunday are said to have been given plum UN peacekeeping assignments in Kosovo. Nobody in the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, took moral responsibility for this gross miscarriage of justice that took place during its days in power. Most significantly, no one among the television or print media asked the then Home Minister a crucial question: Mr. Minister, your ministry’s action has caused great hardship to an innocent man, do you intend to resign? The question would have been legitimate.
Members of the present United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi were in the opposition when the forgiving Gilani lived his nightmare. In fact, many of them had come to his moral support and aided his family through the dark days. Even they have not stepped forward to offer justice to Gilani by going after the guilty.
Put this behind you, some well-wishers urged Gilani at the end of his ordeal. While he has come out with his book, it unfortunately appears that Gilani has decided to take the counsel to heart. Had he taken legal recourse in addition to writing this valuable memoir, he would be representing many, many Indians to whom injustice is done by their government, police and courts.