You’ve read these stories before — young Muslim men picked up by the police for suspected terrorist activities. There are three elements here. The families of those arrested; the statements given by the police. And finally, journalists trying to make sense of it all.
Huddled in the dark, dingy back room of their home in Nathaur (25 kilometres from Bijnor city in Uttar Pradesh), a grief-stricken family sits scared and bewildered. A cow and a calf are grazing on fodder in the background; seated on a charpai in front are 48-year-old Shamshad, his mother, wife Nazma and their daughter Shaheen.
As Shamshad, a slim, wiry man, sits silently trying to compose himself, Nazma prays – her hands joined together, palms facing heavenwards. “Ya Allah reham kariye(Allah, please have mercy),” she repeats constantly, pausing only to take a breath. Beside her, Shaheen sobs inconsolably. “When will he come back home?” she wails. Hearing his daughter’s plaintive cries, Shamshad breaks down, albeit quietly.
Shamshad’s son, 22-year-old Nazim, was arrested from Mumbra in Maharashtra’s Thane district on April 20 for supposedly being a part of a terror module. Nazim was one of four people arrested in a nationwide operation involving the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), Punjab police, Maharashtra ATS, Delhi police’s Special Cell and other regional police outfits. Apart from Nazim, another resident of Bijnor district, 25-year-old Faizan, was arrested on the same day from Barhapur village. Six other suspects were also detained for questioning. According to then-UP Additional Director General (law and order) Daljit Chaudhary “they [suspects] were definitely influenced by the material available on the internet,” suggesting they were ‘radicalised’ by watching Islamic State (IS) propaganda online. Two days after the arrests, Chaudhary was transferred to the position of ADG, Economic Offences Wing.
According to a press statement released by UP ATS after the operation, the suspects were conspiring to “harm the country’s security and harmony”. “To achieve these aims, they were procuring illegal weapons and money,” the statement goes on to note. It mentions that the suspects have been booked under section 18 of the Unlawful Acts (Prevention) Act (organising terrorist camps, recruiting of any person or persons for terrorist act) and various sections of the Indian Penal Code including 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy), 122 (collecting arms, etc., with intention of waging war against the Government of India), 153 (b) (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), among others.
UP ATS IG Aseem Arun claimed that important documents relating to the IS were seized from them.
The families of the youth have reacted to the arrests and allegations of ‘radicalisation’ with shock and incredulity. Saying that they did not notice anything to suggest Nazim was ‘radicalised’, Shamshad said members of Nazim’s peer group also had no clue. “If not us, then his friends, those who are his age, they would have come to me and said ‘your son is doing such things’. But nobody ever came to me,” he told Newslaundry. To be fair to Shamshad, there is nothing to suggest that he followed Nazim’s online activities closely. Regardless of the facts of the case, the grief and uncertainty the family is going through is heartbreaking.
Thirty kilometres away in Alipura village, Faizan’s father Mohammad Farooq, a labourer, had a similar response. Seated outside his dilapidated house, its brick walls untouched by paint, he said, “We never saw anything at all which would tell us he was doing such things.” Faizan, he added, had “completed a course to become a mufti three years ago from Hyderabad.” After completing the course, he returned to Bijnor and took up a job as the preacher in several villages, finally settling in the village of Barhapur.
UP ATS has claimed that provocative speeches of a Muslim cleric Mufti Abdus Sami Qasmi Qureshi exhorting young men to join the ‘war against non-believers’ were found on electronic devices recovered from Faizan. His family and neighbours, however, said that Faizan did not use any device apart from a feature phone since the last year and a half. “He used to have a big phone [smartphone] but he got into an altercation with a local due to something he posted on Facebook. Since then, he only used a small phone,” Farooq said. It is, however, not possible to rule out that Faizan owned a smartphone unbeknownst to his family.
Farooq also said that in his sermons as well as his interactions outside the mosque, Faizan hadn’t exhibited hatred or anger towards any person or religion. “Whenever he used to come here [Alipura], he used to share his thoughts about religion, about namaaz, about fighting evil and moving towards good – that’s what he would talk about.”
Meanwhile, Nazim has been accused by UP ATS of financing the the group’s activities. There is, however, considerable confusion about the amount of money Nazim had procured and its source. A Times of India report states that “Nazim had managed to collect Rs 40,000 to buy firearms” while an Indian Express report quotes an ATS officer saying that Nazim had paid Rs 22,000 to a person from Bijnor who was responsible for purchasing firearms on the group’s behalf. To add to the uncertainty, another ATS officer told The Hindu “cash totalling a five-digit number had been seized during the raid on [Nazim] Ahmed’s residence”.
Eighteen-year-old Hasan, who lives only a couple of doors down from Nazim’s home, said the two were childhood friends. He recalled that after a stint working in Saudi Arabia, Nazim had returned home eight to nine months ago. On his return, he noticed his friend had grown more devout. “When he was there [Saudi Arabia] he went to the Haj [pilgrimage] and started keeping a beard. He also began observing namaaz five times a day,” Hasan said. But apart from that, he did not notice any changes in Nazim’s demeanour to suggest he was ‘radicalised’ or planning a terror attack. “After he returned, he stayed with us, attended a few weddings and then decided to go to Mumbai for work in March,” he told Newslaundry.
He also found it difficult to believe Nazim had managed to collect a sizeable sum for terror activities. “The family is under a lot of debt as two of their daughters married recently,” he remarked. As if to prove his point, he waved towards a patch of wall next to the main gate of Shamshad’s house, where the words “Yeh makaan bikau hai[this house is for sale]” are written in black paint. Hasan’s protestations aside, terrorist conspiracies are not always self-funded.
While confirming that Nazim did use a smartphone, his friends and family said they had no inkling he was being ‘radicalised’ via Facebook, as the UP ATS has claimed. The family has also not been in contact with Nazim since his arrest. “We haven’t heard from the police since the call informing us of his arrest,” Shamshad said. The family doesn’t know where he is being held or what the charges against him are. “If he is innocent he should be set free but if he isn’t he should be punished,” Shamshad said, adding that “main galat ka saath nahi deta (I don’t support any wrongdoing)”.
Faizan’s family has been slightly luckier in this regard. Farooq travelled to Lucknow on April 26 to see his son at the ATS police station in Lucknow. “He seemed fine,” Farooq said of Faizan. “The police asked me why I didn’t do anything to prevent this to which I said that since he finished studying he was working and I didn’t have any idea he could be involved in all this,” he told Newslaundry. Echoing Shamshad, Farooq also expressed a wish for justice to be done at the earliest. “If he is guilty, then he should be imprisoned,” he said. “But you won’t find anyone in this village or anyone who knows him who can find a fault in him. And if he has made a mistake, we wish to get chance to work with our son and ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
UP police, for its part, has given certain differing statements regarding the case. While the official ATS press release doesn’t mention the suspect’s affiliation to any particular terror group, news reports quoting ATS sources described Nazim as an “ISIS recruiter”. While admitting the role of IS propaganda in the youths’ ‘radicalisation’, former ADG Choudhary had stated after the arrests that those arrested were self-radicalised and do not have liaison with any terrorist group. But, he did add, the three men are suspected to be part of a terror module involved in a “possible criminal conspiracy”.
Nearly two weeks after the arrests, the police have yet to announce if they have found any evidence during the ensuing investigation, even though Choudhary had admitted after the arrest that “in the searches conducted, no incriminating evidence [was] found as yet.”.
When Newslaundry reached out to UP ATS Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Sheshmani Upadhyay to ask about the nature of evidence to chargesheet the youths, he directed us to the ATS media cell. However, media cell in-charge Santosh Tiwari refused to comment for the story or answer our queries. When we contacted Upadhyay again, he didn’t take our calls and did not reply to text messages. Newly appointed ADG (law and order) Aditya Mishra also did not respond to requests for comment despite numerous calls and messages.
Therein lies the problem. The police cannot give minute details of their investigation, since it would obviously jeopardise further arrests. But giving sketchy and confusing statements to journalists creates an atmosphere of suspicion.
In the meanwhile, the families of the arrested men have to rely on bits of information they can glean from reports in the media, something which isn’t heartening in the least. Nazim’s sister Shaheen was particularly distressed by the reporting, saying “Media me kaisi-kaisi baate kar rahe hai uske bare me (The media is saying all sorts of things about him)”. Virtually all media platforms branded the youth as suspected ‘IS terrorists’ or ‘IS operatives’, without mentioning the UP ATS press release and former ADG’s statement quoted above that denied any connection.
A report in the Hindustan Times went as far as claiming the suspects belonged to the ISIS Khorasan module, while an Indian Express story claimed the suspects were planning to attack Pakistan-born Canadian writer Tarek Fatah. A story published on the Rajasthan Patrika website alleged that interrogations with the suspects revealed they were planning to attack places of worship in Mathura, Ayodhya and Varanasi.
These stories cite ATS officers as the source of information. As a result, even though the investigation has barely begun, media reporting on the case has presumed the men guilty. Or, does innocent until proven guilty have no weight at all?