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DAWN - Features; 2 May 2005

Published May 02, 2005 12:00am

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Parables from an Indian Abu Ghraib

By Jawed Naqvi


ABU GHRAIB is not an American invention. Pakistanis have seen it in Pakistan, Bangladeshis in Bangladesh and of course Nepal and Sri Lanka have witnessed a long history of political vendetta that has resulted in torture, incarceration and murder of political opponents. If the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy can torture and maim prisoners, India, the world’s largest democracy, is not far behind.

Anyway, I do not wish to stand between the readers and what IftikharGilani has to say in his memoirs of the seven months that he endured in an Indian prison. But since it is physically not possible to cram in all the 148 pages of “My Days in Prison”, published after a long and avoidable delay by Penguin Books, let me quickly share with you what Iftikhar has personally told me about the background to the book.

This is not the book he wrote. It has been heavily edited for a variety of reasons, not the least of which seems to be the need to keep in good humour the intelligence outfits, the police and the lower level of judiciary that turned a simple, diligent, hardworking journalist’s world upside down.

Iftikhar expects to translate the complete story of his illegal imprisonment and torture at Delhi’s Tihar Jail into Urdu some time soon. As we all know, on June 9, 2002, at 4.30 am, Iftikhar Gilani was picked up from his residence on the spurious charge of spying for Pakistan. The government withdrew the case in January 2003. And just as mysteriously no one knows the true reason for his incarceration, nor about who got him into such a serious life-threatening trouble or even who in the political establishment eventually bailed him out without explanation.

That despite his ordeal Iftikhar kept a detailed mental note of his experiences at Tihar and in the unbelievably callous courtrooms is the strength of this book. That he kept his sense of humour intact even as he endured what must be tantamount to third degree torture suggest Iftikhar’s strength of character.

On the torture methods used on other inmates: “What was shocking was that these torture techniques are not used as a last resort to break a stubborn criminal’s silence. They are applied in the first instance itself. To give you an idea of some of these horrors, I will briefly describe a few. One method is to tie the individual’s hands behind his back, then place a pipe or rod behind his knees and lift him up with the help of the rod, just above the ground level so that the knees support the entire body weight.”….But torture need not be only physical. For many, their threshold of pain may be very high but the humiliation of being paraded naked before members of one’s own family and friends and the interrogators is far more difficult to endure… Thank God I was not subjected to any of the above treatments.”

On the judicial process: “I was produced before Sangita Dhingra Sehgal, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM), Delhi. She asked me about the document recovered from me. I told her that these people were needlessly excited over a published document. It was not a secret one, I added. But my statement was not recorded. The court remanded me to police custody for five days.”

On intelligence personnel handling him: “The five-day police remand had been sought at the behest of Intelligence Bureau (IB) officials, I found out later. Their intention was to take me to Jammu and plant some RDX on me and then show that they had recovered RDX from me. Arrangements for the RDX as well as independent witnesses had already been made. In the meantime, the IB had managed to obtain a doctored opinion on the document from the DGMI (Dirctorate General of Military Intelligence). A deputy commissioner of police saw this communication from the DGMI and informed the IB officials that they could abandon their plans to take me to Jammu. The opinion from the DGMI was enough to keep me behind bars for a full five years.”

Human excreta and patriotism: “The toilet was filthy as a public lavatory at a bus station. Before I could say anything, Rajesh (an inmate) ordered me to take off my blood-soaked shirt and clean the toilet with it. I had no choice but to obey him. It took me almost an hour to clean the toilet…The shirt was so filthy that I almost vomited. But I was forced to wear it for the next three days… …Only later did I learn that Rajesh and Ramu, who sought to give me lessons in patriotism right through my stay in Tihar Jail, had been convicted for far more heinous crimes. Rajesh was facing charges of triple murder and was later sentenced to a total of eight years of rigorous imprisonment. Ramu, an under-trial, was accused of rape and later sentenced.”

Keeping humour intact: “A swamiji, an under-trial in a rape case, was assigned to teach undergraduate classes. Instead of imparting some spiritual lessons, the swamiji would provide tips to those held under rape laws and ask his students, accused of similar crimes, to describe in graphic detail their experiences, much to the lascivious delight of the class.

“Some of these lessons had their lighter moments. Once a car thief was boasting of his achievements when a newly admitted prisoner said that his car, a Honda City, had been stolen from Karol Bagh, in west Delhi. “Was it a white car?” asked the teacher. “Yes,” said the inmate enthusiastically. “Was an Esteem also stolen on the same day from the locality?” “Yes. Yes,” the intimate was quite astonished. “Well sorry, but I sold both the cars for a lakh and a half.” Iftikhar’s seven-month nightmare was shared heroically by his wife Aanisa and a young daughter who bore the brunt of the slings and arrows from neighbours and their children who saw them as no more than social pariahs.

* * * * *

A SLIP of the tongue by former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha last week brought down the heat generated by charges and counter-charges on a recent train accident. While asking Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav to resign on moral grounds, Mr Vajpayee said he had been a member of the House for the last 50 years. And then he went on: “...Maine hamesha sansad ki garima aur maryada ka ullanghan kiya (I have always violated the dignity and decorum of parliament).”

Amid peals of laughter, some members from the ruling coalition could be heard saying: “For the first time, he has spoken the truth.”—Email: jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Upcoming LB polls

By Karachian


Karachi nazim Naimatullah Khan told a cheering throng the other day that he would contest the next local body polls. In a recent newspaper interview, he said that he would put up his candidature only if he received permission from his political party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, whose Karachi chapter he headed till the 2001 local body elections.

His detractors wondered why his open admission about affiliation with a political party did not incur the opprobrium of the National Reconstruction Bureau whose Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2001 stipulates that a nazim must be elected in non-party polls and owe allegiance to no political outfit.

In any case, the nazim made out a strong case for the monitoring of the local body polls by the army. His suggestion makes sense on two counts. First, the army could prevent a breakdown of law and order that often accompanies electioneering and polling in the city. Second, the army could also ensure transparency in the election, especially because police are not known to be free from the taint of partiality.

However, analysts would take issue with the nazim over his assertion that it was not the Muttahida Quami Movement’s boycott of the 2001 local body polls which enabled the Jamaat-i-Islami – which contested the elections under the name of the Al-Khidmat group – to romp to victory. To make his point, he said that Muttahida-backed candidates lost the recent by-elections in the Site and Malir towns.

His arguments do not stand up to close scrutiny, however. First, the Muttahida did not put up a candidate in the Site town by-election. Second, the success of a Jamaat-backed nazim in the Malir town by-poll is attributable to the indirect election mechanism employed for the election of nazims under the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2001. Since the Muttahida had boycotted the 2001 local body polls, it did not have the support of the councillors who constitute the electoral college for the election of a nazim. Third, the nazim omitted to mention that the Muttahida won most seats in the local body by-elections held in 2004.

Political observers maintain that instead of hoping for a sharp decline in the Muttahida’s popularity, the nazim should draw the attention of the electorate to the curious decision of the MQM to boycott the 2001 local body polls. The Muttahida stayed sway from the electoral process ostensibly for three reasons. One, it had serious misgivings about the manner in which the constituencies in Karachi had been redrawn by Islamabad-based political engineers. Two, it demanded that cantonment areas should also be part of the devolution process. Three, it asked for greater provincial autonomy.

It is plain that all the three demands of the Muttahida remain unmet to this day. And yet it seems determined, indeed eager, to contest the next local body elections, giving rise to speculation that political exigencies rather than lofty ideals compelled it to boycott the polls in 2001.

The idiot box

A friend who watches soap operas aired by many Indian channels in the evening on a daily basis says she is most upset with Pakistani television channels which have lost their touch in their zest to ape the Indians.

“One recalls how the streets of Karachi used to wear a deserted look when drama serials like ‘Waris’ and ‘Tanhaiyan’ were televised in the past. But nowadays one fails to distinguish between Pakistani dramas and Indian soap operas – both are long running, have heroes having extramarital affairs, leading ladies dressed in saris, loud makeup and loud music,” she complains.

She deplores that local performers even copy the pronunciation of artistes from across the border. “Now when a thing is bad, it is ‘khharab’ and not ‘kharab’. When an object is missing, it is not ‘ghaib’; it is ‘gaib’. The Indians may speak the Hindustani language this way, but we certainly mind out ‘khh’ais’ and ‘ghain’s’,” she insists, adding that children also pick up awful accent from TV plays.

Aiwan-i-Riffat again

The government has talked about restarting construction work on “Aiwan-i-Riffat” — which will house a three-storey auditorium with a seating capacity of 1,800, a fine arts library and Fyzee Rahamin art gallery – for the umpteen times. So, cynics were unimpressed when early this month the city government announced that the reconstruction work would begin within 15 days. And, sure enough, the city government has once again failed to live up to its word.

If the reconstruction work does not start this year, it will be the eighth year running when funds earmarked for the construction of “Aiwan-i-Riffat” – Rs7.5 million or thereabouts — are allowed either to lapse or be appropriated for projects considered more important by the authorities concerned.

While some of the personal effects of Turkish-born Attiya Fyzee (1877-1967) and her husband’s paintings are being displayed at the Mohatta Palace Museum, it would be appropriate if other artefacts, including letters by luminaries like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Shibli Nomani, Jigar Muradabdi, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauher and George Bernard Shaw, coins from various countries, medals conferred upon Attiya Begum and her sister Nazli Raffiya by the Sultan of Turkey in 1908, specimens of calligraphy, handwritten copies of the Quran from Turkestan and Egypt, jewellery made from gold, pearls and gems and royal attires could also be put on display at a permanent gallery in “Aiwan-i-Riffat.”

But for this to happen, the authorities concerned need to have a strong commitment to culture, which seems to have taken a back seat under the Jamaat-i-Islami-led city government.

Books open doors

A colleague recently visited a local private school on an open day. The school had put up an exhibition based on the theme of “Books open doors”. Children from classes three to six had been assigned a variety of topics ranging from bedtime stories, science and technology, religions of the world to dictionaries and encyclopedias and such other subjects related to books.

As one entered the premises, a girl who must have been hardly 10 welcomed guests and gave a talk on Hinduism, its deities, festivals, foods eaten at these festivals and other related information. Moving forward, some other students talked about the obligations of Muslims. Further ahead, one was told what our religion taught us and its obligations.

In one corner, children stood dressed as different characters from fairytales like “Snow White” and an old grandma telling stories to her grandchildren. In another corner, the students of class III were dressed as what they wanted to be in future like a doctor, an astronaut and even a fashion designer and stressing the fact that whatever you want to be in life, books will help you.

One group of students had enlivened Julius Caesar and the ancient Romans, and another group comprised of scientists and mathematicians like Madame Curie and Ibne Sina.

Those who were not dressed as personalities had so much to tell about whatever job they were assigned; for example, one student had learned new words that have been recently added to the dictionary. Even though some students had similar topics like dictionary and encyclopedia, there was no sense of repetition of information as the young ones had worked hard to collect new information about the opics assigned to them.

The maths teacher had prepared her students to deliver a talk on ancient tools of calculation like the abacus and some children had learned various tricks that are used in mathematical calculations, for example in calculating one’s age.

There was even a pair of students who had dressed as a computer virus and the anti-virus and were shown to be fighting with each other.

In an age when cable television rules and individuals from all ages and especially children are so much under the influence of the broadcast media, this visit was a rather satisfying enriching experience as the students had worked efficiently to make one believe that “books do open doors”.

— By Karachian

email: karachi_notebook@hotmail.com


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