October  2001 
Cover Story

The Politics of a Ban

The banning of SIMI, selectively, while other rabid outfits escape stringent action is the latest example of the fundamentals of composite Indian nationhood being transgressed

By Teesta Setalvad

The bombing of the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on September 11,01 came as a manna from heaven. And the National Democratic Alliance, dominated as it is, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political party that pays less than lip service to the notions of liberty, equity and justice through it’s union home minister, L.K.Advani grabbed this heaven–sent opportunity.

On September 26, his ministry with the full approval of the union cabinet banned the Student’s Islamic Movement of India(SIMI) under the Unlawful Activities Act of 1967.

Advani, while announcing his government’s decision accused it of ‘working for an international Islamic order, supporting militancy in Punjab, Kashmir and elsewhere... and engineering communal riots.’

The notification, banning the SIMI for two years, declared it as an unlawful association under Section 3 (1) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Under Section 4 of the Act, the Central Government is obligated to present it’s case before a Tribunal withing 30 days and justify it’s action. Within hours of the announcement, violence had broken out in both Lucknow and Kanpur and three persons demonstrating against the ban were shot dead by the police in the capital of UP.

Later the same evening, a two-page statement was made public by the home ministry. ‘SIMI is opposed to secularism, democracy and nationalism and is working for an international Islamic order... ‘Recently, investigation of 14 cases of terrorist violence which had caused 15 deaths and injury to 80 others in UP and Delhi in 2000–2001 exposed a deep nexus between SIMI and Hizb–ul–Mujahiddin.’

‘More recently,’ the statement says, ‘SIMI organised protests against alleged burning of Quran in Delhi in March 2001. Its units gave wide publicity to the issue by utilising the Internet.It printed provocative posters in Ahmedabad in August 2001’ Besides, the Home Ministry has also accused SIMI of maintaining links with international organistaions like Muslim Students’ Union, ‘a pro–Hamas union of Palestinian students in India and Pakistan.’ The latest provocation, home ministry officials declared, came when SIMI chief Shahid Badr, speaking in Bahraich in UP, called Osama Bin Laden the ‘‘champion and true saviour of Islam’’ and condemned India for supporting the US. Badr, charged with sedition and inciting communal hatred in UP, is currently in Nepal, it is believed.

As many as 240 activists alleged to be part of the organization were arrested within hours of the government’s action and it’s offices sealed in different parts of the country.

Several issues, arise out of the decision of the government to ban SIMI. Despite the insecurities and attendant hysterias caused by global terrorism and the unpredictable channels of violence used to attain it’s goals, these relate to time-tested questions of state accountability and transparency, basic human dignity and freedom and the principle of non–discrimination.

History has shown that giving the go–byes to these essentials, even in moments of deep national insecurity and trauma can only be at our own peril. The chilling realities of the past weeks only reinforce the need for state and police accountability and transparency to be demanded and get heard, they require us to ask whether any fundamentals related to basic human dignity have been violated by the ban and finally whether the litmus test of non-discrimination has been cleared.

To speak of the first, and doubtless the tribunal that adjudicates on the ban will scrutinize government’s claims, we need to know the case by case investigations that reveal SIMI’s direct connections with criminal and anti–national acts. If there are some, or many, the Indian people need to be taken into the government’s confidence. The past few years especially have seen too many deliberate obfuscations and demonisations by persons in positions of power — the ISI bogey, the madrassa threat—are just two examples of these and the Indian people need to know which incidents exactly SIMI was responsible for and what proof the investigating agencies have to back their claims.

Sweeping generalizations on their ideology, unpalatable and medieval as it is, cannot substitute the need for sound police investigation , untainted by pre–suppositions and bias, that has (according to the home ministry statement) linked SIMI to 14 cases of terrorist violence, 15 deaths and 80 injuries. The fundamental rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution grant individuals liberty of association and movement and the adherence to anti–Constitutional or pan–Islamic ideologies by itself is not an offence. It is only when these ideas, unpalatable as they are get translated into actions, in themselves violative of our exhaustive laws, that prosecution and state action follows.

If the issue is dealing with new types of crime, cross border, transnational crimes and volatile populations — and hence the discomfort with complete transparency, this too needs to be stated so that it can honestly discussed and debated. Do the times we live in actually demand a paradigm shift on the crucial questions of burden of proof—innocent until proven guilty? What are the implications of such a major digression, or change? Can civilization afford to let it happen without a rigorous debate?

Related to this is critical, international accountability. In support of claims by governments and investigating agencies to book cross-border crimes and check ethnic genocides, a global movement demanding the setting up of an International Court of Criminal Justice has become more and more vocal. So far, the two staunchest opponents to this idea –that could be an effective check on cross-border terrorism have been India and USA. Why?

Secondly, is the critical issue of human liberty and freedom. In the euphoria of such expansive state actions — as we have witnessed before in the decade–long sway of TADA in Punjab, Gujarat, Jammu and Kahsmir and Andhra Pradesh, it is the voiceless and underprivileged who are made victims of harsh laws. In the ten years that we had TADA in force, it was almost never (99 per cent of the time) used against ‘terrorists’ but civilians protesting or challenging state policy. It had a less than four per cent of conviction rate. Already there is an eerie national consensus on the need for a New TADA. In the aggressive political climate that we witness today, we need to be sure that the arrests that follow the ban on SIMI — and any detentions made under preventive detention laws in future— are responsible actions not malicious and deliberate acts aimed at further alienating a large section of our population.

For over six months now, two states from western and central India — Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh — have been pushing hard for the ban on SIMI. In fairness, their stance was more nuanced and therefore, also more logical. While unequivocally demanding a ban, they were clear that it was not only SIMI that required such stringent measures or not only SIMI that threatened the fabric of Indian society. The Bajrang Dal too, in the assessment of the investigating agencies of both these states is also a terrorist outfit, who’s activities need to be curtailed and the outfit therefore, banned. And herein we come to the final issue, that of non–discrimination.

Fundamentally, it is on this critical issue that the government has failed the litmus test. The government order declaring the ban reveals a selective application of the law. In this order, the government speaks of the ‘alleged’ burning of the Holy Koran in March 01 as if it was an incident that did not take place. While the SIMI role in capitalisiing on the shameful incident is there for all to see, (see CC, May 2001), what escalated the violence was the brutal murders of protestors by the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) found in many volatile situations to operate with a sharp bias against the minorities. Besides, the arrests made by Delhi Police Commissioner of BD and VHP activists deliberately burning the Koran in March 01 as provocation is an incident that did take place.The Coimbatore blasts, in which SIMI is supposed to have a role are mentioned, but the brutal riots against the city’s minorities three months previously consigned to distant memory.

In both the language of the order and the action in banning SIMI alone, the government has erred gravely. Worse still, it has revealed itself, for all to see, in a partisan role. If we leave aside for a moment whether a ban is principally desirable or pragmatically effective, it is the basic principle of governance based on citizenship, not religion or identity, that the Indian Constitution and it’s polity are wedded to that stands violated by the ban on SIMI, selectively.

Quite apart from empirical evidence of the clearly disruptive and violent activities of the Bajrang Dal collected by the police and investigating agencies in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajsathan and Madhya Pradesh (distributing Rampuri knives disguised as trishuls — see special report), the tone of Advani’s response when he laughed off the question of a demand on a ban on the BD as a joke bears mention.

Completely discounting the evidence collected by the state investigating agencies that was conveyed to him at a national meeting of all DGPs in early September, Advani said, "nobody has so far come with any evidence suggesting that it is involved in terrorist and anti–national activities or has engineered bomb blasts or a secessionist movement". Taking Advani’s statements to their logical conclusion was the vice president of the BJP, V Rama Rao who said, "It was bad to equate the action of organisations of Hindus with Muslim extremist outfits."

Individuals, organizations and outfits, far more visible and publicized than SIMI have over the decades made loud and sharp statements that provoke notions of equity, are sectarian and certainly violate the Indian Constitution. The list is too long to include them all but the BD and the Shiv Sena are two notorious examples. The involvement of the RSS, Hindu Munani, Jan Sangh and other collaborators, in provoking communal violence, has been documented by innumerable judicial investigations (see CC, March 1998) Since the Indian state neither acts against these outfits for criminal actions nor considers banning them ‘because it is bad to equate action of Hindu organizations with Muslim extremist outfits’ we appear to have digressed one more fundamental of Indian citizenship and nationhood.

In the sharply polarized and hate–filled public atmosphere, this latest state action applied selectively, bodes ill. 


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