Iftikhar Gilani: No safeguards in the Official Secrets Act

BY mannika| IN Law and Policy | 03/01/2003
 

Iftikhar Gilani: No safeguards in the Official Secrets Act

 

Between an act that has no safeguards, and journalists who printed or broadcast whatever the police told them, it was tough going.


Mannika Chopra interviews  Syed Iftikhar Gilani.


 
At 35, Syed Iftikhar Gilani, the Delhi Bureau Chief of The
Kashmir Times has had perhaps the most harrowing experience of his life. An unhappy confluence of facts ensured that Gilani was taken from his home in June 2001 by intelligence authorities on totally fabricated charges and put into Tihar Jail for seven months. Not only is Gilani a journalist, a trade he has been practising for the past 13 years, but he is a Kashmiri Muslim and the son-in-law of Syed Geelani, leader of the -Jamaat-i-Islami, an extremist group operating in the Valley under the direct control of Pakistan. (The Jamaat has been advocating Kashmir`s accession to Pakistan
for many decades}.

To many it was only a matter of time that the authorities would come knocking on Gilani`s door but for the journalist and his wife, Aanisa   being jailed under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923 came as a complete shock. In an in-depth interview he talks about the potential dangers the OSA holds for the freedom and independence of the press. Excerpts from the interview.


Q: What were the grounds on which you were charged?


A: I was charged for infringing the Official Secrets Act enacted by the British in 1923. Ironically the same act is still in operation in Pakistan as well. I was charged under section 3 and 9 of OSA. Section 3 pertains to keeping defence secrets prejudicial to the security of the country and section 9 relates to abetting and harbouring a spy or have contacts with an enemy country with a purpose to harm national interests. Section 3 and 9 are interrelated to each other. These are non-bailable sections. Only Section 5 in OSA is bailable. But, we have a case in Tihar under this section for last 10 months. He has been denied bail by CMM and even Sessions court. Unlike other national security acts like TADA which has been now replaced by POTA, or the National Securities Act and the Public Safety Act which has in built safeguards against misuse, OSA has no such preventives. Unlike the other Acts, this act has no provision for a Screening Committee. That means any `incriminating` evidence that has been seized remains with the authorities. If they say the material is damaging then no other official body has the authority to disagree.


Further I was charged under 120 (b) IPC, for conspiracy to disintegrate the country and conspiracy to murder Abdul Gani Lone. The charge was based on two e-mails. Surprisingly one detailing the atrocities of Pakistani forces in Gilgit and another mail from Nusrat Javeed, South Asia Editor of The News asking me to keep track of Abdul Gani Lone and Mohammad Yasin Malik and report accordingly. It was in January last when some talks between the Hurriyat and Centre were in offing.

Further after two months of my arrest another charge under section 292 of IPC was slapped against me. It pertains to selling and exhibiting pornography. It was based on some junk e-mails from anonymous sources they had dug from 10,000 e-mails from my computer, they claim. Also they had planted some pornographic CD. I had no idea about them. I don`t know why the charge was slapped after two months.
 
Q: How often has the Official Secrets Act been used since its inception?
 


A: Over the past 25 years the Act has been used by the Indian government 65 times. But from December 2001 to June 2002 when I was arrested seven cases were booked by the single Special Cell of Delhi Police and most of these cases belonged to Western UP. The nexus needs to be probed, though my episode has plugged it. All those who have been taken into custody have been charged under the clause of espionage. Most of these victims were put in the same ward, jail number 3 in Tihar where I was placed, so I have some background on most of the cases.

They were all the cases booked by a particular inspector of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) Majjid {don’t know his full name} who hails from this area;  and the charges are so flimsy that it is frightening.  It is well known that for his `efforts` Majjid has received a double promotion. Now he has been shifted to the IB department in Srinagar.

Q: Can you outline the specific cases?


A: In one case, Ajay Ghasiram was a stenographer in Parliament was caught selling Standing Committee reports to the Pakistani High Commission officials in December 2001, reports which every journalist knows are available for five rupees outside Parliament. In another on 1, January 2002 a 60 year-old employee of the Border Road Organisation in Deobandh,  Mohammed Islam, was caught with a map of the Jawahar tunnel.  It was also found that he had with him some pamphlets of the Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) which actually were also available in the stall that the BHEL had in Pragati Maidan.

Actually he was implicated on the basis of information provided by a relative , Haji Samiuddin, who himself had been under surveillance. On the basis of this `information` Mohammed Islam was caught and Samiuddin released. While searching Islam`s his house they also `found` a map of Delhi cantonment area and so he was prosecuted on the basis of possessing defence documents.

The third case involved a sub-inspector of the Uttar Pradesh police from the Local Intelligence Unit. His name is Wazi Akhtar Zaidi and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) said that he supplied a list of MQM activists based in Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan. They were never able to find any proof but what they did `find` is a map of the Meerut Cantonment area in his house and on the basis of that he has been put into Tihar. He has had no hearing.

The fourth case--I forget his name--was when a small time smuggler was apprehended. He used to smuggle paan leaves and Chinese goods to Pakistan which he used to bring from Thailand. He was coming from Thailand to Delhi and was going to his hometown in Bulandshar. He tells me that the police put a blank piece of paper in front of him told him to write Dhaula Kuan in one corner and Delhi Cantonment on another. Then he was asked top draw a line connecting the two. On the basis of that map he was taken into custody.
 
Balram Singh was caught in May 2002 and booked under section 5 of the OSA. This section is applicable to government servants or armed forces personnel having access to classified documentation. Balram Singh is an IAS officer had they found a floppy with details of a T-72 tank on it. These same details appeared in Frontline magazine. If you are apprehended under this section you can apply for bail but both the Session Court and the High Court refused him bail. 

Later Saini and Hari Om both officers of the Indian Air Force were also found possessing material detrimental to the defence of India. In between Hari Om and Saini I was detained under the same charges.

Q: Have any journalists been implicated under this Act? How real is the danger for them?

A:  As far as I know I am the first. The danger is very real should the state want to exercise the powers given to it under the OSA. That is why I really want to start a debate on this issue. For instance, if you were to receive, in the post, a copy of the map that appeared in the India Today cover story on how India nearly went to war you could be in trouble. The letter doesn`t even have to reach you. You don`t even have to know the sender. Any envelope addressed to you containing what the officials think is material harmful to the defence of India to you, can be intercepted by the IB and you can be imprisoned. It`s that simple. 


Q: Did you think the OSA would be used against you?


ANot in my wildest dreams even though I am related to Syed Geelani. Because if anybody had scanned the kind of pieces I have written for my paper, The Kashmir Times, they would see that my personal position has always been against what the Hurriyat believes in. I have done a whole series on how money coming from outside is funding militancy in the Valley.

Yes, when I did a story on the unilateral cease fire that was announced in September 2000 by Majid Dar, then the Supreme Commander of the Hizub ul Mujahideen,  and exposed how had been backed by RAW I did feel that the government would be upset. Besides the Majid Dar report, it was my story on terror funding which appeared in Kashmir Times and Daily Times in April first week, that had infuriated the agencies. But I never believed that they would take a step like this. Even when my wife`s relations were being rounded up in Sopian, her ancestral home in the Valley, I didn`t feel I would be penalised.

Q: What is the way out given there is a fragile security situation in Kashmir and that there are possibly Indians working against the system within this country? 

 

A: There are already security acts in place which can be used in such situations. The misuse of OSA is so huge that it needs to be amended in its current form. The Parliament needs to make critical changes. For example if some evidence is found on somebody then a Magistrate needs to be present to verify the authenticity of the evidence if not immediately then within a stipulated time period. You should not be allowed to seal the evidence forever.

It is so easy to plant evidence. Just look at these cases that I have mentioned. How is it that a map of a cantonment area is conveniently found in most of the cases? Surely a genuine spy would be looking at other areas.
 
Then there should be a screening committee or a judicial bench to hear the case again within a time period. Otherwise you can rot in jail. Had I not been a media person and had the media not acted collectively to expose my case I could have been in jail for five years without hope of a hearing. In my case the military intelligence had gone on record saying the so-called incriminating article which had been found on my computer was not a violation of any defence documents.

And it is so strange that all at once there are two Acts in India that contradict each other. The Right to Information Act (RTIA) has been passed which supposedly grants any citizen of India access to information but at the same time you have OSA which has a totally different approach.  You can`t have both working at the same time. The RTIA assures that anyone can access information except relating to defence and restricted documents.

Q: Even the charges against you were not dismissed.  Why is that?

 

A: Yes, because basically I feel that some bureaucrats bungled. Some IB types finding no evidence apparently asked Delhi Police to plant evidence which they refused. Apparently the Home Minister, L.K. Advani, asked for my file 17 times and asking for the facts and 17 times the file came back without any proof of my guilt. Once they bungled they dug themselves further into a mess.


Q: How so?


A: Well by planting silly stories about me that certain sections of the press readily lapped up. 


Q: Can you give specific instances?


A: Yes and this is something that needs to be looked at for the greater good of the credibility of the media. Very clearly the press was being fed by the police and they were using the information without even bothering to cross check. Did they even bother to find out why the raid ostensibly has been done by the Income Tax authorities and if that was so why officials from the IB had accompanied them?  If it was a simple income tax raid why 50-60 people had descended into my small apartment, why the whole area had been sealed?  Why the CRPF had come with SLR to conduct an income tax raid? 

For instance the raid in my house started at 4.30 a.m. on June 9  and my wife and children were at home. By eleven `o` clock in the morning news channels were already airing stories about my `guilt`. Nothing had been found then. It was only in the evening that the 1996 article published by the Institute of Strategic Studies, the equivalent of the Indian IDSA in its journal on troop deployment was found as evidence enough. Even then the main article on human rights violation had been deleted by the IB and only the annexure on troop deployment was used against me. 

Then by seven in the evening the Aaj Tak correspondent Deepak Chauraisa stood outside building, posing in front of my mail box which has my name on it, (nobody was allowed inside my flat because it had been sealed off) and reported `live` that I was absconding. This when I was still in the house. He kept saying "sansadi khabar ayee hai " (sensational news has come in) that the police had discovered a laptop with incriminating evidence. I don`t even own a laptop.


 It was by 10.30 p.m that I was formally arrested and it was only one journalist and I want to place this on record, Asha Khosa from The Indian Express, who cross-checked. She spoke to me in Kashmiri a few minutes before I was taken away and I was able to tell her the real situation. I was taken away from my house around 11 p.m on June 9.

Dainik Jagran continuously published scurrilous reports and I had to face the music inside Tihar jail because that was the only paper most inmates read. A ruffian who has triple murder charges against him would attack me telling me I was not an Indian that I was a traitor after he read these reports. He used keep threatening me that I would be given a lesson and hit me. Some Hindi and Urdu papers {PC} would use incorrect stories with headings like " Iftikar Griphtaar, Aanisa Faraar (Iftikar imprisoned and Aanisa absconding}.


But what really affected my family and me most was a was a four column story printed in Hindustan Times on June 11 saying I was an ISI agent. It was a by-lined report by Neeta Sharma. Surprisingly, the reporter quoted me saying that I had confessed to being an agent, and to my illegal activities when I was appearing at one of the hearings at the sessions court. Later a police official asked me whether I had spoken to any reporter which I had denied.

This really hurt my family and me. The next day my wife went to speak and complain to Shobhana Bhartia, Executive and Editorial Director  of HT and told her all this was untrue and they should print an apology which the paper did.

And then Rashtriya Sahara on June 11 published my wife’s photograph coming out of the Special Cell after meeting me but captioned the headline that Aanisa is absconding. This is something very serious, I feel and we journalists must do something about it. Many people in Tihar complained to me about this irresponsible reporting.


Q: Has your faith in the Indian media been shattered ?


A: No, not at all. On the contrary I never knew that I had such friends in the media. Their support, the support of my paper is something I can never forget and pay back. That is why I want to take the discussion of the OSA into the public. Today it is me; tomorrow it can be you for even speaking to me.
 

Contact: mannika@vsnl.com

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