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- A breathtaking case of arbitrariness gone berserk

The trauma recently gone through by an Indian citizen, Aftab Alam Ansari, is extraordinarily shocking, but not a unique experience, given the pattern of events happening in and around us. To appreciate better the factors underlying Ansari’s travails, it may be worthwhile to recount two tales — one from the distant past, while the other is very much a slice of what can be called a contemporary reality show.

The first narrative occurs in one of the Jataka texts in Buddhist literature. It was a tranquil, ancient country. The king was in his counting house counting out his money. Suddenly he had a shock. A considerable amount was missing from the treasury. Livid with rage, he summoned the police chief: he must immediately catch the culprit, otherwise off with his head. The police chief, trepidation in his heart, summoned his menials: they must catch someone, anyone, pronto. It did not matter whether the person they nabbed was the actual thief or not. What was important was to seize a person, irrespective of who or what he was, so as to propitiate the king. The menials went into action. The first person to catch their eye was a handsome young man, a foreigner, who just happened to be passing by. He was pounced upon, bound hand and foot, produced before the king and ordered to be beheaded before dusk. The tale takes a turn at this point. The capital’s leading courtesan chanced to have a glimpse of the prisoner, and was bewitched. How she manoeuvred to set the young man free and installed him as her lover, together with the denouement of the story, form the corpus of one of Tagore’s better known dance dramas.

The other annal is about something that took place only the other day, in 2003, soon after 9/11. Boston, Massachusetts; a simpleton of south Asian extraction was telephoning an agency to book an airline ticket. He was spelling out his surname which had an ‘l’ in it. The fool absentmindedly mentioned, “L as in Laden.” All hell broke loose, the young girl in the agency office attending to the call swooned and collapsed, a panicky crowd gathered, within a couple of minutes the FBI men were at the residence of the south Asian. He was handcuffed, shoved into a van, driven to prison, locked up in a solitary cell and interrogated non-stop for 48 hours. It was after one full week that he was granted conditional bail.

If the first story suggests that the arbitrary exercise of power by those in authority has a hoary tradition, the second story illustrates the quality of paranoia embellishing official goings-on under the alibi of fighting global terror. With the growing dominance of American power over the affairs of men here, there and everywhere, insensate — and often insane — measures are being enforced for uncovering terrorist suspects. The United Nations may have enshrined an International Charter of Human Rights; each country may have rigid statutes to guard civil liberties; besides, the country’s administrators at various levels are not exactly bereft of common sense either. All these have, however, been reduced to irrelevance. Since the war against global terror has overriding priority, the ordinary decencies of life, the rule of law, the assumed sanctity of human rights, and, as for instance in our case, the carefully drafted provisions of the Constitution and the directive principles of state policy, have been put out to grass. Not surprisingly, every action now tends to evoke opposite, and frequently more than equal, reaction. What is more, in view of the chicken-and-egg nature of their relationship, terror soon loses its distinction from counter-terror.

As the nightmare Ansari has undergone indicates, gross excesses in the exercise of power are at present taken to be passé. Such excesses, howsoever regrettable, are, the authorities would maintain, inevitable in the prevailing circumstances, meaning thereby in the context of the need to thwart terrorism. But should that be the last word? How Aftab Alam Ansari became the target of State persecution, is a breathtaking instance of arbitrariness gone berserk. A series of explosions, resulting in casualties, had taken place a couple of months ago in a number of towns in Uttar Pradesh. The state police started investigations. Pursuing a methodology not to be revealed to ordinary citizens, they stumbled on the possibility of a person with the surname of Ansari being linked with the chain of conspiracy that led to the explosions.

The hunt was on for this mysterious Ansari. These days, West Bengal is the favourite hunting ground of those in authority, for tracking down terrorists and foreign agents, irrespective of which part of the country they might be from. The eastern state has attained this distinction presumably because it shares a long, relatively porous border with a country that has a population with a Muslim majority. Here too, there is a hint of the court’s assertion of American suzerainty over the domain of thoughts and attitudes. The Arabs and the Islamic community are George W. Bush’s — and therefore the US administration’s — pet hates. It would be a shame if, given our global affinity, the ruling American ideology did not lend some colour to our consciousness. The Uttar Pradesh police got in touch with the Criminal Investigation Department of the government of West Bengal. Somewhere during the process of inter-state communication, the elusive Ansari was provided, conceivably by a trick of the subliminal, with the initials A.A., an echo of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The abstract Ansari was now fleshed out as a person with a proper name, A.A. Ansari. Maybe a smart alec CID detective in Calcutta chanced upon the datum that one Aftab Alam Ansari, an employee of the CESC, was a resident of Alambazar in the northern fringe of the city. Alambazar is known to be densely populated by Muslims and, by inference, spies and terrorists sneaking in from Bangladesh. Once an Ansari of flesh and blood with the snugly fitting initials was discovered in the nefarious neighbourhood, the police picked him up, threw him in the can, interrogated him for hours on end, applied ample third-degree torture. The person — how unreasonable — did not confess. He did not confess because he did not know what to confess to. At a certain juncture, both the Uttar Pradesh police and the West Bengal CID gave up. Reluctant apologies followed, including standard expressions of regret from this or that chief minister.

Martin Luther King Jr. used to have a dream. Everybody now knows what the great Afro-American dreamed and to what extent it has been realized. Is it not permissible for a small group of people in this part of the world to have a humbler dream, the contents of which will be as follows? A human-rights lawyer, with both conscience and guts, painstakingly assembles the bizarre details of the Aftab Alam Ansari case, prepares a punctilious brief, appears before the appropriate court, and prays that charges of criminal defamation be framed against the police officers involved and, further, the authorities exercising control over these officers are ordered to pay Ansari financial compensation to the extent of Rs 1,000 crore.

The dream has a most happy epilogue. The learned judge grants all the prayers, and slaps a penalty on the authorities for the amount asked for, that is, Rs 1,000 crore.

Outrageous, a few legal eminences might interject. Other issues apart, the Indian Penal Code, they would perhaps add, does not provide for compensatory damage of such huge amounts. Would such a judicial verdict be more outrageous, though, than the manner the police went about to tyrannize and humiliate Aftab Alam Ansari?

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