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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 34

Human Rights in the Time of Patriotism

by Surendra Mohan

Saturday 11 August 2007


Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism in the Time of Terror by Nandita Haksar; Promilla & Co. Publishers in association with Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi; pp. 348; Rs 450.

Nandita Haksar, human rights activist, who has confronted the Union and several State governments in Courts of law in cases of unspeakable atrocities, particularly in the North-Eastern parts of India, has authored an extremely engaging and challenging book. Although the two individuals who are its main objects belong to Jammu and Kashmir and were accused of taking part in the ‘Attack on Parliament’ case, she has discussed human fights and the civil liberties of the entire people in J&K State. But, in the discussion, she has commented on the role of the Courts, the legal fraternity, teachers of law in the Universities, the print and electronic media including cinema and governments and their agencies. She has raised awkward questions and has focussed on the utter insensitivity of these institutions to democratic and human values. She has pointed out that ‘patriotic’ frenzy blinds our governments, the security networks, the academic community and the media to the basic rights of the common citizens of the country.

Haksar contrasts the insouciance of all the above sectors, highly influential and important as they are, with individuals in India as well the United States of America. The attitudes of several citizens of the USA after the ‘Nine Eleven’ in 2001, that is, a few months before the Attack on Parliament in our country, clearly demonstrated their refusal to get swayed by either enmity with or fear from the so-called ‘terrorists’, mainly the Muslims. At home, stories of those courageous human beings who, in the face of bereavement of a dearest son or daughter, expressed fortitude, tolerance and the desire to serve even those who were responsible in bringing tragedies in their families.

The individuals accused of joining the Attack are Prof S.A.R. Geelani of the Delhi University and Mohammad Afzal, a surrendered militant. When the case of Gilani came up, a prominent leader of the Peoples’ Union of Civil Liberties and a dedicated lawyer, N.D. Pancholi, met the accused in the jail. He took up his brief and approached Nandita to join him in defending Geelani. They set up a ‘Prof S.A.R. Geelani Defence Committee’ with the distinguished academic and social intellectual Prof Rajni Kothari as its chairperson. The two lawyers involved some criminal lawyers of repute, particularly the parliamentarian Ram Jethmalani. The Defence Committee launched a vigorous campaign of mass contact in some metropolises of the country and also concentrated on the people in the J&K State. The reason for it was that it had sensed the deep concern that the people there had for the accused whom they had started to identify as martyrs in their common cause.

THE book contains several undelivered letters. They have been brought together in the volume under review in order to expose the larger public to the issues involved which are seminal to the defence of their human rights. The addressees range from the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to the director of a cinematic film on the great martyr Sardar Bhagat Singh. Others are Prof Upendra Baxi, who was Nandita’s teacher of law, and enjoys an international reputation as a fighter for human rights, and Prof Bipan Chandra of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU who was also her teacher and who specialises in modern Indian history. Their silence on the entire episode of the framing of some innocent citizens of India is the centre of her criticism of these scholars. Baxi explained later on the occasion of the launching of the book that he was out of India during those fateful years Barkha Dutt, a socially aware journalist, who too was swayed by the tide of patriotism and threw herself in the whirling current, is also an addressee and Haksar has picked on her for her several failings in reporting the two cases, as is typical of her tribe.

One of the accused, Geelani, who had been sentenced to execution by the trial Court, was later acquitted by the High Court as well as the Supreme Court. Mohammad Afzal, however, has been waiting in the Tihar Jail of Delhi to be executed. It was an utter travesty of justice that while sentencing Afzal, the Supreme Court observed that the public sentiment against the accused was running very high and that letting him off with a lighter punishment would be mocking that sentiment. It was the highest Court of justice in the country and its attitude was sufficient in blunting any meaningful response by any executive institution to human rights. With such a deeply ingrained prejudice at the level of the Supreme Court, no citizen of the country can feel secure against the miscarriage of justice.

Nandita points out in her several letters that the High Court had observed in Geelani’s case that there was not even a prima facie case against him. Yet, no lawyer was willing to come to his defence and they included even those whom she could rely upon. They said that they could not swim against the current. So strong was this current that the authorities in New Delhi, the national Capital, refused her permission to hold a public meeting. When the prosecution put Afzal before the media even a charge-sheet had not been framed against him, there was no outcry at all. A virulent public opinion had, nevertheless, to be conscientised to the requirements of natural justice for the Indian citizens. Hence, a persistent campaign was conducted for months together with the help of pictures, slides, excerpts from news reports, and the sayings of great people. The main focus was on the details of the case and on the thinness of the evidence. It was an excellent collage.

This effort was thwarted by the authorities on several occasions and in several places. The Delhi University was unhappy and did not allow the exhibition to be shown. Sadly, the Teachers’ Union, DUTA, was no less opposed to it though Geelani was one of its members. Teachers of Geelani’s own Dr Zakir Hussian College were with the DUTA. It was ridiculous that the latter was then dominated by the Students’ Federation of India, SFI, the student outfit of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, a party with which Nandita herself had worked. In fact, the prejudice was not confined to one party. The Hindu communal elements of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were the most obnoxious, administering open threats and writing the crudest possible letters to Geelani and Afzal.

The book details the background of Geelani’s family and his own activities in Delhi. His father was a confirmed secular-minded person and a devout Muslim. But he was tortured by the police even in his old age. Geelani was an enthusiastic participant in the meetings of the PUCL and other human rights groups and moved in liberal circles. Even when he witnessed the most brutal torture of an urchin, he kept his balance. The leaders of the DUTA were aware of these facts. The USA’s propaganda in the wake of ‘Nine Eleven’ was bought wholesale by the Indian elite whose Islamophobia used to be oiled every now and then by media reports about the extremists’ activities in J&K and the frequent riots in the country. Then, there is Pakistan across the western border. In the aftermath of the Attack on Parliament, a state of war was created by India which continued for several months on the Indian demand for the extradition of twenty Indian terrorists whom Pakistan had given shelter.

THE book relates the prosecution of Afzal also in detail. It brings out not only how the judiciary functions. His harassment by the police and the jail authorities has angered the author so much that she has spared no words of contempt against them. After Geelani was acquitted by the Supreme Court, he was shot and wounded by some unidentified gunmen. The occasion was an intended visit to his lawyer Nandita Haksar. He knocked at Nandita’s door while bleeding profusely, and had to be rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at some distance. On such occasions, Nandita’s and her husband’s sense of timing and refusal to be overwhelmed by such gruesome tragedy has served her well This is the well known state of ‘Sthit Prajnya’. The government let the criminal incident pass without any follow-up. Nandita and her husband retired to Goa in order to have peace of mind and to help soothe her frayed nerves. The intelligence agencies, however, took the fullest care of them and there could be no rest.

An acute confusion in Nandita’s mind was why the CPI-M, the party she had admired, had repulsed all thought of assisting Geelani and Afzal. How could an international and humanist ideology become so utterly insensitive as to become blatantly nationalist, to the extent of justifying even a judicial murder, which will come about when Afzal is hanged? Her discussions with several persons who had thought over this perplexing phenomenon and particularly Geelani’s brother Bismillah, a graduate student, helped to find some answers. Marxists had always thought of religion as part of the ‘superstructure’ which stood above the ‘structure’ and was determined by it. The ‘structure’ consists of the means and the relations of production. Religion, as such, like art and literature, has no independent existence. Therefore, no event can be judged on the basis of religion shorn of the ‘structure’ which determines it.

This attitude was not much different in its effect from the attitude that the leaders of the freedom struggle had adopted then that the Hindu- Muslim problem which had been created by the imperialists in their policy of ‘Divide and Rule’, would evaporate after India won her freedom from them. The same was their approach to the caste issue, although Gandhi had suffered from an acute sense of shame owing to the practice of untouchability. The aetiology of caste or religion worked out by Dr Ambedkar was not acceptable to the Marxists or the nationalists. Had they delved deep into these phenomena, possibly they could have saved India from being partitioned. Ethnic identity and pride are similarly dismissed by these intellectuals. Haksar cast off that attitude and decided on a broad-based humanistic under-standing of religion, caste and ethnicity. Possibly, close working with the Nagas taught her all these things.

The total lack of understanding of their cultural heritage by the people of her generation had also started to worry Nandita. She herself knew nothing of Kashmir’s history or its culture and traditions. Among Kashmiris, her own community, she looked like a stranger. She felt that the issues of an appropriate understanding of religion and ethnicity, and the deep insight into a community’s culture etc. were bound together. Yet, while she grasped the need for developing such holistic understanding and respecting religion as such, she found that all religions, which propagated a noble moral code, had lost their way into obsolete and obscurantist ways of thought and practice. She abhorred these distortions in the religions, and also felt that they had stagnated overtime. However, it was not left to her to free these religions from such evils, but to leave them to the reformists in respective religious communities. Any attempt in this direction by an outsider would be interference and the State’s effort as imposition from above.

The book includes a poignant letter to Bismillah in which Haksar discusses all these issues and bares her heart. Another letter is to the younger generation by which she tries to transmit her new understanding to them. While all these chapters show rigour of analysis, compassion is never far behind. Allusions to the teachings of the Upanishads, the Koran, Buddhism and the Bible can be found every now and then. They help the reader in going forward in the debate. References to literary writings from Kalidasa, Shakespeare or some Urdu poets will also be found which the author uses to buttress an argument or to help illuminate an insight. That an activist, who has struggled in the defence of human rights for the Nagas and the Kashmiris and who is now concerned with 34 Burmese freedom fighters locked up in a Kolkata jail since 1998, should have found time to study the scriptures and literary works of old and new authors boggles the mind.

But, in spite of a stressful life and worries of a whole world, Nandita retains an obsessive optimism. The book ends with a song which invites the reader to travel with her into a world where there are no sorrows and tears and where only love prevails.

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