The war against terror has taken many forms and shapes since the turn of the century. India was one of the first countries to see major attacks, like multiple bombings in Mumbai in 1993, which repeated again in 2003, 2006 and 2008. In December 2001, terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, while multiple other bombings took place in Delhi in 2005.
While the Indian government has time and again reiterated its stance of zero tolerance toward terror activities and sought to work with other countries to combat the problem, the manner in which it has been handling cases of those accused of terrorism has left much to be desired.
Over the past decade, hundreds of men, almost always Muslim, have been arrested and left in jails for years on end. When even the most basic forms of justice – like a trial within a specified period – are denied, the chances of getting compensation for the years lost in prison are close to zero.
In this regard, a recent announcement by the government of Delhi, India’s capital, to pay compensation of Rs 500,000 (about $7,400) to Mohammed Amir, a Muslim youth who spent 14 years in jail on false terror charges, has been seen as a welcome change. This is the first time that a state government honored a recommendation made by the National Human Rights Commission on such an issue.
However, even this payment took three years to be arranged. In December 2015, the NHRC asked the Delhi government to explain why it should not pay compensation to Amir for wrecking his life. The fact that the man, who was arrested at the age of 18, was paid compensation at the rate of about Rs 99 a day ($1.50) shows how little power India’s premier human rights agency has in the country.
Manisha Sethi, author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law, and Counterterrorism in India, told The Globe Post that the NHRC order was a welcome development, especially since it has directed the police to pay compensation acknowledging its culpability in Aamir’s wrongful incarceration.
“This by itself a moral victory for Aamir and others and one must not undermine this even as we recognize that a large number of those falsely and maliciously accused continue to struggle to return to normal life without any support, not even from the NHRC,” she said.
Sethi, a member of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, has been a vocal supporter of ensuring that victims of India’s war on terror are adequately compensated.
“Aamir’s was perhaps the most celebrated case, receiving unprecedented public attention and yet it took years for something as simple and tokenistic as this compensation,” she added.
Distant Dream of Compensation
For Shabbir Gangawali, a 36-year-old, compensation seems the least of his worries. Shabbir was arrested in November 2008 just for being a Maulana (a Muslim religious scholar) from Bhatkal, a coastal town located in the southern state of Karnataka.
He spent seven and a half years in jail for allegedly playing a role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 164 people dead and 308 wounded. During his confinement, he was beaten on multiple occasions, made to stay awake for days on end and forced to sign false documents. It was in April 2017 that he finally came out of jail, acquitted of all charges.
A year later, little has changed for him, he told The Globe Post. “I am trying to find a job, but even in my own town, it is difficult…I have medical issues as my lungs are partially damaged, and I cannot walk for long because my knees hurt a lot…Who will give me a job?” he asks.
Filing a case against authorities for compensation was the last thing on Gangawali’s mind, however.
“Why will they pay me compensation when they wanted me dead? And who will file a case for me? I have no money, and I cannot imagine going to courts again. If they wanted to treat me fairly, they would have treated the case with utmost seriousness instead of dragging it for years,” he said.
The story of Yahya Kammukutty developed in different circumstances but nevertheless showed a familiar pattern. A software engineer hailing from Kerala, he was arrested in 2008 in Bangalore, India’s IT capital, and accused of organizing terror camps in Karnataka and Kerala.
Seven and a half years later, he was released after the persecution could not prove any charges against him. After earning a handsome salary as an engineer, he was reduced to being a penniless man as he lost all his savings in fighting his cases.
By the time he came out of jail in 2015, almost all his professional knowledge had become obsolete. Today, after nearly three years, he has finally managed to set up a small venture back in his hometown in Kerala. Compensation, he says, is not something that he can “afford” to consider.
“You cannot ask for compensation from people who wish to persecute you for your identity,” Kammukutty said.
“I have finally managed to set up something of my own, and I hope to see this through…did I lose a lot of money because of these false charges? Of course…but I lost a lot of honor and respect too, and I can’t expect the authorities to return that to me. I am not aware of the details of Amir’s case, but I am happy for him. And I hope someday that compensation is not given because of charity, but as a right,” he added.
Compensation Without Apology
Amir said compensation paid by authorities was a welcome step but underscored that at no point did the Delhi Police apologize or approach him to offer any help.
“It was picked up by the NHRC on a suo motu basis, and the case ran for close to four years. It is also not a compensation, but a monetary relief. This amount is, of course, not sufficient…it is indeed odd that while the government has a surrender-cum-rehabilitation scheme for militants in the Northeast of India, there are no such schemes for people who were arrested wrongfully,” he said.
In the past two years, the Innocence Network, an all-India collective of individuals and organizations working for the rights of the people wrongfully prosecuted or convicted especially under charges of terrorism, has been working to address the problem. It has organized various programmes and public hearings to demand a concrete plan of action for compensating the victims.
Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice-Delhi High Court and Chairperson, 20th Law Commission, who headed the jury during one of such public hearings, gave one of the most damning assessments of this situation in his jury report.
“The testimonies laid bare the excessive powers granted to the investigating agency under the anti-terror legal regime. The Jury is constrained to note that these laws have a decided lawless character, and have resulted in the false implication of scores of youth on charges of terrorism,” the report said.
Commenting on the slow progress of the cases, the jury had observed: “Almost all those who testified in the tribunal had suffered long periods of incarceration in the course of their trials. The nature of charges in terror cases, the public sentiment whipped up by the media, and the legal provisions in anti-terror laws, all work to ensure that even if deserving, the accused’s applications for discharge are not entertained; and bail applications are rejected as a maĴer of routine.”
The effort of the Innocence Network is a testimony to how the laws have been created to basically work only against those accused of terror. However, when they are acquitted, there are almost no answers given, no questions asked.
“More than monetary compensation, what the exonerees crave for is a restoration of dignity and acknowledgment of the harms done to them by the state and the system. Nothing can return the lost years and Rs 500,000 is hardly an adequate reparation for 14 years, but it is this recognition by the state’s institution that he was wronged that is important,” Sethi said.
While Amir’s compensation might offer a glimmer of hope, for most of the people arrested on terror charges in India justice might remain elusive forever. In the rare case that it is served, people are just happy to walk free, while authorities are not entertaining questions on the issue.