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26 April, 2010

Praveen Swami’s not so fabulous fables

The following is a statement released by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association:

If there is one infallible indicator of what the top Indian Intelligence agencies are thinking or cooking up, it is this: Praveen Swami’s articles. Each time the security establishment wishes to push a certain angle to this bomb blast or that, Swami’s articles appear magically, faithfully reflecting the Intelligence reports. After the Batla House ‘encounter’, he launched a tirade against all those who were questioning the police account of the shootout labelling them all ‘Alices in Wonderland’. He went so far as to identify ‘precisely’ how Inspector Sharma was shot by claiming that "abdomen wound was inflicted with [Atif] Amin's weapon and the shoulder hit, by Mohammad Sajid".

And no sir, Swami’s conclusion was not based on postmortem reports of the killed, fire arm examination report or ballistic report but on this innocent fact: “the investigators believe that…” He certainly brings in a whole new meaning to ‘investigative journalism’.

Swami, however, felt no need to pen an article when the postmortem reports of Atif and Sajid revealed that they had been shot from close range and that neither of them sustained gunshot wounds in the frontal region of the body—an impossibility in the case of a genuine encounter. Was it because the police and the Home Ministry chose to remain quiet after the revelations—hoping that the storm would blow over?

Flip-flops on German Bakery Blasts

And meanwhile there was the German Bakery blast in Pune. Writing less than a week after the blasts, Swami hinted at the possible involvement of the Hindutva groups, namely Abhinav Bharat (“Hindutva Terror Probe Haunts Pune Investigation”, 19th February 2010). Indeed, this was mood in the ATS (though this was no deterrent to the large-scale illegal detention and brutal interrogation often at private premises, of scores of Muslim youth in Pune.) Even the following week, the Home Department officials were not ruling out the possibility of the involvement of the Right-wing Hindutva groups. But that was February. By March, political impatience at the probe taking such a turn was palpable. Responding to a riled Shiv Sena in the legislative assembly, Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil thundered: “I will inquire if Raghuvanshi really indicated to the media about involvement of Hindu organizations in the Pune blast and if he did, action will be taken (against him)." As if on cue, two days later, Rakesh Maria was installed as the new ATS chief. This was of course only after a few months when Vinita Kamte, widow of the slain ATS officer Ashok Kamte, made serious allegations casting aspersions on Maria’s role in responding to the then ATS chief Hemant Karkare’s call for reinforcements during 26/11.

CCTV Footage

Since its start, the probe had little to go on by way of leads except for the CCTV footage. While the Pune police commissioned experts to draw sketches of the suspects based on this footage, ATS dismissed this exercise as “anything but useful” as their source, the CCTV footage, was itself grainy. (Siasat, April 12). Where does Swami stand on this? He wrote in his 19th February piece: “All that investigators have by way of suspects are three men recorded holding brief meetings before the blast by a poor-quality closed-circuit television camera. From the videotape, it is unclear if the men had anything to do with the attack.”

Exactly a month later, Swami conveniently develops an amnesia about Abhinav Bharat and even about the poor quality of CCTV footage. What was earlier ‘unclear” and hazy has in one month segued into solid shape: in the form of top Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative Mohammad Zarar Siddi Bawa ie., Yasin Bhatkal. Suddenly imparted with enlightenment, Swami writes dramatically of how a closed circuit television camera ... “recorded evidence that Bawa had returned to India—just minutes before an improvised explosive device ripped through the popular restaurant killing seventeen people and injuring at least sixty.” The poor quality (by Swami’s own admission) and useless (by the ATS’s admission) visual evidence has morphed into precious footage of Bhatkal, “the fair, slight young man with a wispy beard” … “dressed in a loose-fitting blue shirt, a rucksack slung over his back.”

Clearly, Swami’s changing perceptions about the CCTV footage is in accord with the shifting attitude of the ATS itself. The ATS began by keeping the option of probing Abhinav Bharat open; developed cold feet, preferred to lapse into the usual Lashkar-IM litany, ‘rediscovered’ hitherto worthless footage and resurrected the IM. In an unequivocal reference to the manner in which innocent Muslim youths were arrested earlier by the ATS in its pre-Karkare days, a senior officer of the Pune Police admitted that “There have been some arrests in the Pune blast incident just as in the case of the 2006 Malegaon explosions. But we would never know whether those arrested were actually the men who triggered the blasts.” (Siasat, April 12, 2010). Rumours that the probe might be handed over to the National Investigative Agency must have also pressured the Maharashtra ATS to show ‘results’—and viola, within two weeks of taking over, Maria submitted a preliminary report to the state government identifying the hand of Bhatkal and IM in the blasts. This was of course promptly and proudly relayed by R.R. Patil to the legislative assembly (surely to the relief also of the Shiv Sena legislators). Is it a coincidence that the Pune Police Commissioner has been transferred, ostensibly for the rising crime graph a couple of days ago? It seems improbable that the running battle between the Pune police and the ATS—whose current chief Maria had thrown a tantrum following Vinita Kamte’s accusation, demanding the support of the state Home Ministry—had no role to play in this.

The Bangalore Blasts

When two crude bombs went off outside the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium ahead of the match between Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore on 17th April, Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya announced that the State Police were investigating the alleged involvement of the cricket betting lobby. He forcefully denied any link with the earlier blasts in the city in 2008.

But Yasin Bhatkal seems to have preoccupied Swami’s mind on 19th April for he evokes him again in connection with the stadium blasts (“Stadium Blasts herald new IM offensive”). Citing the ever cooperative ‘investigators’, he says that the ‘similarity in design’ and the manner in which some bombs failed to explode are a sure indicator of the IM hand. Beyond this, he has nothing to link Bangalore bombs to Bhatkal. But good stories can always compensate for lack of facts. His piece, “To Bangalore with Hate” on 21st April (which has charming subtitles such as Jihad at ginger plantation”), is no less crude than the two bombs at the stadium. Swami here details the biographies of SIMI activists in South India, making the link, ever so cleverly, between SIMI—and yes, IM—and the stadium blasts, without providing any evidence of their actual linkage. Life stories of these men are proof enough, he assumes.

It is quite clear that Mr. Swami has provided a (sometimes entertaining) dramatized version of the charge-sheets files by the various police departments across the country. While it may make for a good script, we do hope that Mr. Swami understands what charge-sheets are: a list of charges or allegations, which the police has still the burden to prove in a court of law--not irrefutable or established truth. Perhaps, Mr Swami fancies himself a literary genius who believes in narratives acquiring their own lives. In which case, he has manufactured a large corpus of mediocre short stories.

Courtesy: Countercurrents