Untoo, the police and the press

IN Media Practice | 15/06/2005
Untoo, the police and the press 

 

 

 

 

Why did no one from the press attempt to get more information than was given out at briefings? Did any newspaper ask its people in Kashmir to make enquiries about anything connected with this case?

 

 

 

  

Mukul Dube

 

 

A report in the Pioneer of 26 February 2005 begins, "Delhi Police have arrested a former Kashmiri militant and a Pakistani agent, Mohammed Ahsun Untoo, from Church Road in Cantonment Area on charges of spying." Note that the staff reporter describes Untoo thus, implicitly accepting the claims of the police as fact.

Here is how subsequent paragraphs of the report begin: "Police have recovered..."; "Deputy Commissioner of Police (south-west district) Dependra Pathak said..."; "Sources said..."; "The special staff got a tip-off...". Clearly an energetic and mobile reporter. 

 

The report says that Untoo was paid  Rs 6 lakh  by the Pakistan High Commission for handing over "defence secrets". One of the documents "recovered" was a schedule of patrolling drawn up in the late 1950s, which just happens to be available to anyone for the asking. Untoo was charged under two sections of the Official Secrets Act. He was arrested on 12 February, and "on the basis of information received from him", his "associate" Gulam Nabi Nagar was arrested in Srinagar on 17 February. [All spelling errors in the published report have been reproduced faithfully.] 

 

The Asian Age of the same date calls these inDIViduals Mohammed Ahsun Untoo and Gulam Nabi Najar. Untoo is described as "the former launching commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist group" and the other man is "his militant operator", the place of his arrest having changed to Baramulla. The list of "recovered" documents is much the same, but mobile phones "operating from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir", "fake identity cards" and "fake curfew passes" make their appearance.

 

The report in the Hindu of the same date tries to play half-safe but falls on its face. It describes Untoo as "a self-proclaimed human rights activist" but says that he was arrested for "allegedly passing on sensitive information...." A little later we have, "Untoo, a former Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant, had joined the human rights DIVision of the APHC in 1994." It is not clear whether this DIVision of the APHC consists only of self-proclaimed human rights activists or if Untoo is the lone one who sneaked in.

 

This report also contains this fascinating information: "[Untoo] had been arrested ... for being in possession of AK-57 assault rifles. But, he was later acquitted." I call it fascinating because it is the mother of all Rubik’s Cubes. What was Untoo doing with rifles (note the plural)? Was he a gun-smith licensed to stock, sell and repair unlicensed fire-arms? Had the security forces set up a museum of captured weapons and employed Untoo as its curator? We are not told of the charge or charges of which he was acquitted. Why, above all, did the staff reporter of the newspaper put in this singularly meaningless morsel? I can think of no reason other than the opportunity it gave to speak of an arrest and of weapons. Untoo’s acquittal was an unfortunate but necessary footnote.

 

Only one report published on that date, that which appeared in the Times of India, is almost entirely consistent in speaking of statements and claims made by the police. That is, it does not apply the stamp of truth to that which it does not know to be the truth. The first three reports give the date of Untoo’s arrest as 12 February, all speak of Delhi’s south-west police district, the first speaks of the cantonment area and the second speaks of Srinagesh Garden, which is in the cantonment.

 

These reports were published in English newspapers. Of the three reports I have seen which appeared in Hindi newspapers, I shall speak only of the remarkable piece of work which the Dainik Bhaskar had put out some days earlier, on 12 February 2005. [The translation is mine.]

 

"The Crime Branch Joint Commissioner, Ranjit Narain, said that solid clues about the attackers had been found, and they would soon be arrested. He said their links extended to Jammu and Kashmir." We should pay attention to three things here. The first is that "attackers" (plural) were spoken of. The second is that, as this very report said, "Even today, the police could not record Geelani’s statement. They spent the whole day wandering about the hospital."

 

When the police were finally allowed to meet Geelani - they had been held back not by Geelani himself or by cruel fate, as they and the newspapers constantly suggested, but by the doctors treating him - he spoke unambiguously of a lone attacker. How could the Joint Commissioner have said what he did? That is the third thing to which we should pay attention: the dates on which things happened or were said to have happened. We shall now look at claims that Untoo had already been in the custody of the police - but had not been formally arrested - for some days when Shri Ranjit Narain spoke to the Dainik Bhaskar.

 

The Statesman of 17 May 2005 reported that S.A.R. Geelani’s lawyer Nandita Haksar told members of the press that Untoo had in fact been illegally picked up by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police from the Priya Guest House in Paharganj on 9 February. She said he was being tortured so that he would confess falsely to having attempted to murder Geelani.

 

The Asian Age of the same date says that Untoo was "allegedly beaten, tortured and sodomised in police custody." It goes on, "Untoo’s lawyer N.D. Pancholi has filed an application on his behalf seeking protection of his life and enquiry into the torture by the police." Nandita Haksar is reported to have announced that a letter from Untoo, in which he had described the treatment meted out to him by the police, had reached the All-India Defence Committee for Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani. Sampat Prakash, state president of the All Jammu and Kashmir Trade Union Centre, is reported to have said, "Untoo is a well known human rights activist and is the chairman of the Human Rights Forum in J&K." It is not known if he said that that Forum was a bogus organisation which issued fake identity cards to non-existent members.

 

The Hindu of the same date reported that "social activists from various organisations ... demanded that Mohammad Ahsan Untoo ... be immediately released." His lawyer, N.D. Pancholi, was reported to have said at a press conference, "He has told us that he was picked up by the police on February 9. But the FIR against him has only been lodged on February 12. Why this gap? And he was tortured and sodomised." The report says also that Untoo was "compelled to sign on blank pieces of paper."

 

The Indian Express of 16 May had given Daryaganj, not Paharganj, as the location of the Priya Guest House. It had also said that Untoo’s letter had been smuggled out. It had reported that the police had described Haksar’s claim as false, given that the FIR in the case had been registered at the Delhi Cantonment police station. It had not, however, reported Haksar or Pancholi as having said that the FIR had been filed in Visakhapatnam. They had said that Untoo had been in illegal detention for three days. Assuming that the FIR was filed three days late, what was to prevent its being filed several miles away from the place where he had been picked up? If space can be changed, so can time.

 

The police version may be true, of course: after all, there is an official document to show that it is true. Anyone who claims that it contains lies must prove that. If such a person presents an alternative document, the truth of that document - not an official one - must be established. The advantage always lies with those who have the majesty of the Indian State behind them.

 

12 February, which is the day on which the police claim to have arrested Untoo, was a Saturday. He was therefore produced before the duty magistrate the next day, a Sunday. Apparently this procedure has become routine in such cases. The accused, being surrounded by policemen who may well have been physically unpleasant to him or her, is usually too frightened to say anything to the magistrate, who therefore records only what the police say. It is part of the job of a magistrate to ask after the condition and welfare of the person being produced: but it appears that in this instance, the duty magistrate did not do this. Untoo could not say to the representative of Justice what appears in the next paragraph.

 

The application mentioned in the Asian Age of 17 May (see above) was either not filed or else not heard.  It  contains these complaints: that Untoo was stripped and beaten; that a scavenger was made to sodomise him; that alcohol was forced down Untoo’s throat and he was compelled to sign blank pieces of paper; that the magistrate before whom Untoo was produced on 13 February "did not give an opportunity to [him] to complain about the torture"; that the police denied him access to a lawyer as well as medical assistance; and that there had been reports in newspapers which said that Untoo had been arrested in connection with the attempt on S.A.R. Geelani’s life.

 

Despite the efforts of the police, though, Untoo did not "confess" to having made an attempt on Geelani’s life. Possibly because setting him free could have created all manner of problems, the Delhi Police put together an assortment of papers - unless it keeps such things ready for such situations - and booked him under the Official Secrets Act.

 

Untoo’s lawyer, N.D. Pancholi, had spoken to the press. This is evident from the fact that at least one newspaper knew about and mentioned the "Application for protection of life ..." just described. Geelani’s lawyer, Nandita Haksar, had spoken to the press. Sampat Prakash had spoken to the press. Why, then, were the complaints listed above buried by all but a few newspapers? Why is it that no one from the press appears to have attempted to get more information than was given out to all who attended the briefings? Did any newspaper ask its people in Kashmir to make enquiries about anything connected with this case?

 

Was Untoo really "masquerading" as a human rights activist? Were identity cards really "recovered" from him, and were they really "fake"? What of the "large number of secret military documents, maps", etc., also "recovered"? Was Untoo carrying them on microfilm or on compact disks? In half a dozen suitcases on the back of a camel secretly brought in from across the border, perhaps?

 

If indeed the police did any of the things which are listed in N.D. Pancholi’s application, it is a serious matter in a country which calls itself a democracy. If indeed the magistrate before whom Untoo was produced failed to do his or her duty, that is a considerably more serious matter, since it reflects on our judiciary, to which was given both an independent place and great power in 1947 and in 1950.

 

I do not know if the press is unaware of these matters. I do not know if the press considers these matters inconsequential. I do know, though, that in either eventuality, the press must be called, at the very least, irresponsible. It could be given a good many worse names. So far as I can see, it took the easy route: don’t think, just swallow and regurgitate. Practise your vaunted "investigative journalism" only where unimportant, expendable people are not involved. Go where the gold is.

 

Many have been saying, and for long - the press statement released on 16 May by Sampat Prakash was hardly the first example - that it has become the policy of the Indian State to "catch and frame" or "catch and kill" Kashmiris. It is legitimate to ask if there has been no change in the attitudes and biases - or the policy - of the Indian State despite the change of government at the Centre a year ago.

 

The press cannot claim that it is not involved here. Does it not see Kashmiris as Indians and, for that reason, people to be respected and cared for by the Indian State? Is it the same press which, three years ago, roundly castigated Modi, Gujarat and the Sangh Parivar for having committed crimes against humanity in their own country? Is it now so obsessed with the stock market, fashion, motor cars and the shenanigans of political leaders who have no discernible ideology, that it has decided that such ideals as truth and justice are archaic and no longer of any consequence?

 

Contact: Mukul  Dube -uthappam@gmail.com

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