On February 14, 2003, the Network of Women in Media, Mumbai, invited Syed Iftikhar Gilani, Delhi bureau chief of Kashmir Times to speak. Gilani was arrested in June 2002, following an income tax raid on his house after his father-in-law, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, member of the Hurriyat Conference, had been charged and arrested.
In the course of the raid, the tax authorities apparently came across material which they, and the police claimed, was classified. Without proof, Gilani was remanded to police custody, then judicial custody and then charged under the Official Secrets Act. If the case had been moved against him, Gilani would have faced a minimum of 14 years in jail. Fortunately for him, an expose carried in the Indian Express, and follow-up by his family and other supporters, established conclusively that the so-called “classified” documents in his possession were reports that are freely available on the internet.
The NWMM felt that Gilani’s experience has great relevance in the context of a free press. If the government can use the Official Secrets Act to intimidate and arrest journalists, then we have to look at the provisions of the Act to see whether it should be amended or even scrapped. Therefore, to initiate a discussion on these larger issues, we invited Gilani. We also invited human rights advocate Mihir Shah to speak about the Official Secrets Act and the provisions of this law that are liable to be misused.
The excerpts below are from Gilani’s talk which he gave at the NWMM event. Running through his anecdotes and insights are the serious issues he raises about the way the media functions, and the vulnerability of journalists to arbitrary arrest – issues which need to be debated further. We also need to look closely at the Official Secrets Act and other such laws that run contrary to concepts of Freedom of Information and a free press. In the discussion that followed, several people spoke about the need to talk more on these issues.
In Gilani’s Words
“My seven month incarceration in Delhi’s Tihar Jail has raised many questions of particular relevance for the media and citizens in general. The fact that the State can persecute anyone on flimsy grounds is not a good omen for the health of our systems and democratic credentials of this country. I was charged under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), which demands a punishment of 14-long years. This shows how easily such serious charges can be slapped on anyone. This is a dangerous precedent for the future of a free press and civil liberties.
“Besides the Section 3 and 9 of OSA, I was also held under 120 B of IPC (Indian Penal Code), that is criminal conspiracy against the country. And what was the proof for this. Anyone with just an iota of information about Kashmir, will simply laugh at the intelligence of our intelligence agencies. It was a press release sent to my mail box by an office bearer of Balwaristan National Front, an organization fighting against Pakistani rule in Gilgit in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This document, which should have brought cheers to our establishment, was also used to persecute me.
“Unfortunately even the honorable court of chief metropolitan magistrate of Delhi rejected my bail application on November 13 last year on the basis of this document and said that this e-mail shows ‘my inclination towards liberation of Kashmir’. I don’t know whether to laugh and weep at this state of knowledge about thegeography of our country by the prosecuting agencies.
“My message to journalist friends is that if they can do it with me, they can do it with you tomorrow. My case should be a wake-up call for all journalists and concerned citizens. I was lucky to be in the capital of the country and have friends who had the reach in the Government to persuade its political leadership to see the facts. I, however, shudder at the fate of the citizens living in small towns who may be wronged by the arms of the Government who are supposed to protect them. Who will speak for them?
“My case is also a severe indictment to the working of our systems of governance. It is a lesson for police, intelligence agencies and to our legal system. The day I was released, I expressed thanks to the political leadership of the Government for seeing through the dirty and cruel game the Intelligence Bureau (IB) played against me with the help of certain bureaucrats. I believe we have better systems available compared to other developing countries across the world. But, we need to overhaul them and protect them from the whims of vested interests.
“I should have that much authority to tell my fraternity also to draw some lessons from my episode. The way my younger brothers and sisters in the media traduced me during the initial days of my arrest. They allowed themselves to become pawns in the game of prosecution. I can understand their problems. I have passed through the phase of covering such incidents. A major problem with crime reporters is that they cannot get the version of the accused. But, in my case, it was not such a difficult task. My wife and lawyer were readily available to them.
“On June 10, I was produced before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate. When the police finished its version and asked for remand, the magistrate asked me, ‘Young man what you have to say.’ I submitted, ‘Madam, these are frivolous charges and they are unnecessarily excited over a published document. I can produce the published copy of the document, if allowed.’ The next day, the crime reporter of The Hindustan Times published that I have confessed before the court that I was working for the ISI. Syed Ali Geelani was so happy with my espionage work, that he gave his daughter to me in marriage. To top the dishonesty, the lady reporter had even quoted me in her report saying I gave all this stuff to her exclusively.
“In fact, I was in police custody and had never interacted with her. This deliberate damaging report created havoc for me. It dampened the spirits of my friends who were demanding my release. Journalists in Srinagar had come on roads a day before. But, after the publication this report, they thought everything is now lost, since I had reportedly confessed before the magistrate. My wife, through some friends met Ms. Shobhana Bharti, HT’s managing editor. Two days later, they published her version. But, the damaging report had done its work.
“On June 9, Income Tax actually the IB had started raiding my three bed room apartment 4:30 a.m. Next 18 hours they ransacked everything. Sometime in the afternoon they locked me and my wife in the bedroom. Quite surprisingly, it was around 7 p.m. when we were asked to come out in the lounge and someone from the raiding party switched on the TV. It was then we came to know that a so-called incriminating defence document and a lap-top computer has been found in my residence. I was shocked to see how the television networks were relaying the news. Some said I had run away from my residence and was absconding. Other networks referred to my wife as absconding. When I insisted on the veracity of the TV news, an officer satisfied me that no such document has been found and it was the imagination of news channels. He even mocked that despite being a journalist, I don’t knew that Income Tax has no arresting powers.
“This is food for thought for my seniors in the media. Should we allow ourselves to be pawns in the hands of prosecutors? The way publicity seeking prosecutors after alerting camera crews parade the supposed malefactors. The New York Times columnist Nat Hentoff has invented a term for it and called it ‘perp walk’ akin to ‘cat walk’. He writes under such circumstances, even Mother Teresa would look extremely suspicious especially if her hands were cuffed behind her back.
“The alleged classified document recovered from my computer was actually an article I had downloaded from the internet way back in 1998 from the web site of Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. The document is still on their website. The height of dishonesty on the part of the raiding team was that they had deleted the actual article and made their case on the basis of annexure of this article entitled a Review of Indian Repression in Kashmir, published in 1996. The annexure had given details of military troops deployment in Jammu and Kashmir sourced to information provided by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan and a 1990 document published by a Paris based human rights organization FIDH.
“On June 10 just before I was to be produced before the magistrate, the prosecution came to know that this was a published document and is available in various libraries in Delhi itself. Later in September Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body held unanimously that the information which is publicly displayed on the internet cannot be treated as confidential and the reproduction or possession of such matter may not attract provisions of the OSA. Even the Press Council observation failed to come to my rescue and I continued to suffer in prison.”
(And here, in his own words, are Gilani’s experiences of the night he was arrested and then taken to Tihar jail):
“Till June 9, I had lived a placid life with my family at my residence in Delhi. Almost till past midnight I was writing my weekly column for The Friday Times. Just after two-hours of sleep, in the wee hours, my wife Aanisa woke me up, saying someone was knocking at the door. Perplexed at being disturbed at this hour, I opened the door. Suddenly, two uniformed men with SLR rifles in their hands pushed me inside and covered me from both sides. With their guns pointed towards me, almost 10-15 people barged inside. An officer gently informed that they belonged to Income Tax and had authority to raid my house. Later I found, it was actually the IB conducting the raid. Around 10:30 in the evening they handed me over to Delhi Police, but not without some drama. Delhi Police had initially refused to arrest me. But, after sometime they relented and I was asked to accompany them to their Special Cell at Lodi Road. Next day on June 10, I was formally arrested and finally shifted to Central Jail No.-3 of Tihar on June 18, where I had to spend next seven months.
“The moment, I alighted from the jail vehicle, there was an uproar just inside the main gate adjacent to Superintendent’s office. ‘He has come! There he is!’ scores of voices rose. They were men in plain clothes, some convicts, some jail officials and some undertrials. And they attacked me. I was beaten badly till I went unconscious and my nose and ears started bleeding. I was taunted as a terrorist, a traitor.
“A senior inmate accused of triple murder ordered me to clean the toilet. Obeying his orders, while looking for a cloth, he yelled to wash the dirty toilet with my shirt. I had to wear that stinking shirt for next three day in the sultry heat of June. Straight after admission formalities I was led to a block where only convicts awaiting the death sentence and dreaded criminals are lodged. They call it ‘high risk’. Then, during a meeting with the Jail Superintendent , I pointed out that I did no deserve to be in that section. He then ordered his subordinates to shift me to ‘Mulahiza’ or ward no. 10 meant for first timers.
“Next two months I spent days there sleepless on the rough prison floor. The inmates were hostile and aggressive in their attitude towards me. The Hindi newspapers the prisoners could lay their hands on had painted me as a villain. It added to the animosity towards me. I used to pray the next morning that particular Hindi newspaper did not land at Tihar or ceases publication. But all prayers recoil from the high walls of jail and the newspaper would again land up next day with more sensational and irresponsible stories against me.
“A typical day would start early, at 5:30 a.m. with a coarse call of ‘utho, utho’. Next a badly made cup of tea and two loaves of bread. It used to take some effort to eat the inedible jail food. A fellow prisoner referred to a superstition. ‘You are destined to eat a fixed quantity of food in jail. Eat it fast and you will be out fast,’ he said. I felt like believing it, even his superstitious though sympathetic words. Anyhow, I ate that food and awaited my release. Every day passed with the hope of this elusive dawn. And I spent my days doing manual labour in the ward I was lodged in. I had to clean the toilets, serve food and wash clothes and floor. There was a definite message inside that I should be harassed as much as they can. When some newspaper would publish some story against me, I would be summoned and asked to clean the toilet. In Mulahiza ward average population used to be around 500. Cleaning soiled and stinky toilets used by over 500 inmates was definitely a daunting task.
“In ‘Mulahiza’ ward, it is mandatory to attend classes from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Jail authorities may have evolved this idea to impart education to illiterate prisoners. I used to sit in graduate class. There were no permanent teachers here. The inmates would stand and share their own experiences. A car thief would lecture on opening of car locks. Another one accused of defaulting loans would teach how to defraud banks. A pickpocket would inform the virtues of his fingers. A ‘swamiji’, who was assigned to teach undergraduate classes, instead of imparting some spiritual lessons would provide tips to those held under rape laws. His students would take lascivious pleasure when Swamiji would ask someone accused under molestation or rape to narrate his experience.
“Once when a car-thief was boasting his own achievements, one of the newly joined prisoners said a few months ago his Honda city car had been stolen in Karol Bagh. To this teacher inquired whether it was white and whether another Esteem car was also stolen that day in that locality. Yes, yes, was the reply by the amazed prisoner. ‘Ok but sorry, I sold both of them at Rs. One-and-half lakhs?,’ replied the teacher to the perplexed student who threw all the caution and menacingly walked towards the teacher before they were separated. Pickpockets used to have a field day in the ward. Once one of them stood up and passionately pleaded to the fellow inmates to cooperate with him to practice his trade otherwise, his fingers would get rusty!
“Some relief came in August. I was shifted to another ward, known as the IGNOU ward. The educated prisoners were lodged here. Corporate captains arrested for frauds to the tune of hundreds of crores of rupees were there. It was better there, as these rich men had managed to get in things of daily use.
“We still slept on the rough floor. It had become part of the routine. The back
did not hurt anymore. The flesh was no longer sore. In the IGNOU ward, we had a library, which had some obsolete books donated by someone. There were a few computers, which never worked. And there was television. The jail authorities had impressed a visiting delegation of Afghan policemen by showing them the portion of the jail with the library and computers. I told a jail officer, ‘Don’t paint such a bright picture. If they tell their countrymen these stories, they will run to India, sell drugs and hope to be lodged in this jail.’
“One day when I was ill, I was taken to the jail hospital. It had a bed, mattress, and cushion. I had forgotten about all those things that exist in our daily life. I actually could not get any sleep on that comfortable bed that night. Unfortunately, the jail doctors also refuse to treat the accused as patientsor humans. They are so ‘adept’ in their profession that by just watching the footsteps of an accused patient, they would handover a long list of medicine, without hearing his problems or listening to his heartbeat or seeing the face of patient. In the emergency ward, two of the fellow patients were being pumped oxygen through masks. In the morning, a convict working in the hospital, came and removed mask from one of the patient and asked him to clean the floor. After some time he returned and ordered another masked patient to clean the bathroom. Next came milk, the only luxury in the hospital. Rather than distribute it to patients, the milkman dumped the jug in the middle and asked us to finish it quickly. With just one plastic glass, five patients– two infected with TB – had to drink this milk.
“The system of ‘mulakat’ is also horrible. Almost 60 inmates are allowed to meet relatives at a single time across two iron grills and equal number of iron meshes at a distance of two feet. One has to only cry to be audible in the room. After my charges were withdrawn in court, the news had reached my ward through radio. I was accorded a hero’s welcome as I returned from the court. My fellow inmates had arranged a special greasy and spicy food for me. The gesture totally moved me, as only the one with jail experience can understand how much they could have toiled to get this food.
“With long hours of duty coupled with a meager salary, most of the jail staff is inclined to live virtually on dead flesh and take advantage of predicament of inmates. They will go to any extent to extract money from undertrials.
“A racial discrimination also exists in jail. Foreign inmates are provided milk and bread in the morning and are not locked during the day. They can roam around from one ward to another without any hesitation. The facility is not extended to Indian prisoners.
“The depressing environs apart, jail life is not without comical anecdotes. Father Paddy who regularly visits jail alongwith religious leaders of other communities to impart spiritual education to inmates seems way ahead from his counterparts. If the Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists are not listening , I want to reveal that the Holy Bible is the most sought after commodity in Tihar jail. Father Paddy’s stocks of the Holy Book get exhausted within a few minutes once he visits the jail once in a week. Little does the poor priest know that the inmates, rather than reading and seeking spiritual guidance from the Book, use its fine white paper to make ‘bidis’. I had to guard my Collins Cobald English Language Dictionary round the clock, because, its paper also qualified for bidi making. Since tobacco is a contraband item in the jail, smuggling cigarettes and pouches of tobacco is the most profitable business. A pouch of tobacco costing Rs. 2 in the market can sell upto Rs. 400 within the four corners of jail.
“Hardly a bucket or mug is found in the bathrooms in the wards. It is not that Tihar officials don’t purchase them. They do. But, since lighting a fire is prohibited in the barrack, inmates use plastic bathroom buckets as fuel to warm and fry tasteless dal and sabzi provided by the Jail langar. One only appreciates the innovations, genius and adaptability of the inmates. Tihar has also its own stock market as well. Currency notes are strictly prohibited inside the jail and only the authorised paper coupons of Rs. 10 and Rs. 5 can be exchanged in the canteen or to grease palms etc. If someone manages to smuggle a Rs. 500 note inside, it fetches coupons worth 750. But the rate changes from day to day depending upon how many Rs. 500 notes, known as ‘Gandhis’, have been smuggled inside.”