by Manisha Sethi
Once I had to drive a Mumbai ATS inspector across the city. He chatted about his B.A. degree (he too had studied Sociology), took an interest in my Ph.D. dissertation (“poor young girls were initiated into nunhood”), recommended the SUV that zipped past us (“value for money”). But we were not out sight seeing. In the rear seat was sitting a young man whose brother had been literally plucked by the ATS from the Delhi Police Special Cell which he was helping track down some suspects. He was then charged with conspiring the July 2011 Zaveri bazar blast in Mumbai. The ATS had now come calling on this young man, to take him to Mumbai, ostensibly to ‘question’ him. But questioning often means warrantless arrests, illegal detention and torture leading to leaked stories in the media and charges of terrorism.
The ATS team had arrived in the middle of a press conference. This effectively frustrated their simple enough plan to carry away Nadeem (name changed) for uninterrupted interrogation in the comforts of their police station. Slightly irritated at our presence, and shivering from the assault of the Delhi December cold, the ACP who headed the team began to enquire from this young man. The gist of his inquisition was this:
“What did your brother tell the Special Cell?”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to pose this question to the Special Cell?”, we asked.
Apparently, the protocol is to whisk away suspects, or even their brothers.
So, now, here we were discussing sociology, Jain nuns and large cars, headed to the Nadeem’s house for a search at the other end of the city. “Why do you illegally detain suspects?”, I turned to a less pleasanter topic. “How would it hurt to send summons to those you wish to interrogate?”
The Inspector looked genuinely hurt. “Illegal detention? Never. We always take the person out for a walk after 23 hours.”
It was one of those tragi-comic moments when one isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Here was an officer of law telling us that the legal requirement of producing an arrestee before a magistrate within 24 hours could be circumvented ‘legally’.
This brief encounter was but a glimpse into the ease with which norms are institutionally subverted. It also gave us a first hand experience of the dread of being pursued. When every knock on the door, every ring of the phone makes your stomach churn; when the grey of the evening appears full of foreboding. But worst of all, the knowledge that no one may be able to help you from being taken away. The stories in Section I bear the imprint of this terror, felt as a visceral force. Some months after the above incident, I chanced upon a letter sent out by an accused in the Mumbai train bombings of 2006. The address was marked Anda Cell, Arthur Road prison. It was a grim chronicle of Ehtesham Qutub’s 75-day-long custody in the ATS. One name leapt out of this letter of horror. It was the name of the Inspector.
He, who had amiably offered expert comments to me on my Ph.D. thesis, sympathizing with girls “who were tortured into becoming nuns,” played a starring role in the letter as the master of ceremonies, conducting and executing a regimen of excruciating pain on the man under his power. This letter appears in “Dr. Narco and other Stories”, which recounts the centrality of torture and cavalier prejudice to the Mumbai train blasts investigations. But this affliction is not unique to the Mumbai ATS; Section I shows these to be fundamental to all terror investigations: the Uttar Pradesh STF working on the Katcheri blasts of 2006, the Special Cell of Delhi Police which abducted the IB’s informers and produced them in a dramatic press conference as Al Badr operatives; the Hyderabad Crime Branch – acting sometimes in collusion, at other times in competition, all tied tenuously by the shadowy Intelligence Bureau.
Nothing compares to the fear of the early days. With time however, the long arm of law manages to transform this palpable terror into a dull, unending ache.
Manisha Sethi is currently Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. She teaches at the Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is also Associate Editor at Biblio: A Review of Books. Her book Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains was published in 2012. Sethi is an activist with Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA).