A year after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was voted out of power in India, thousands of Muslims remain incarcerated under the terms of the country’s notorious anti-terrorist legislation. ZAWAHIR SIDDIQUE discusses the plight of Abdul Nasar Madani, an Islamic movement leader jailed since 1998.
In May 2004, when Manmohan Singh took over as prime minister of India, Human Rights Watch immediately warned him: a well-drafted letter from its Asia division executive director Brad Adams addressed a long list of brutal human-rights violations. The anti-terror Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and its indiscriminate use on Muslims and other oppressed groups were highlighted.
The “largest democracy in the world” has a human-rights record that is far from clean. Every year, thousands of people are imprisoned for various reasons, often without charge or trial. Torture and ill-treatment are common, and thousands have died in custody. Thousands more are victims of extrajudicial executions or forced “disappearances.” Armed groups commit grave human-rights violations, including killing, torture and rape, with impunity. Anti-terror laws such as TADA and POTA are used to detain thousands of Muslims and Sikhs. The list of “disappearances” in India has no parallel in history. In Kashmir alone this list exceeds 70,000 since 1989 (not to mention more than 80,000 killed and thousands brutalized in detention-centers during the same period). Infrastructure projects and financial injections can make little difference to the plight of the masses living under such conditions of military repression.
Thousands of Muslims are being held in jails under TADA, POTA and similar legislation. Most of the victims are defenseless. Many cases are not even eligible for trial. One case in particular must be mentioned: Abdul Nasar Madani was arrested in March 1998, and has endured extreme injustice for more than seven years. His prominence, the awareness of human-rights groups and the dedication of his admirers to his cause mean that his case has been brought to light, yet the refusal to try him persists.
Abdul Nasar Madani was born on May 1965 at Sasthamkotta in the Kollam district of Kerala state, South India. He completed his primary and secondary education at Kollam, and took up religious education in one of the traditional religious training centres there. In 1990 Madani began to deliver Friday sermons in a local mosque in Trivandrum, and became the principal of a religious school. During his schooldays Madani’s oratory and his organizational ability were much praised and encouraged by his teachers. He studied the miseries and grievances of Indian Muslims and worked to expose India’s ‘democratic’ facade to its Muslim peoples.
In a short time Madani had begun to mobilize young people, who were impressed by his speeches. He then founded a party, the ISS (Islamic Sevak Sangh), in 1990 in response to the atrocities of Sangh Parivar. As there was a lack of Muslim leadership, young Muslims of Kerala flocked to ISS. Abdul Nasar not only questioned the political sincerity of the local political parties, such as the Muslim League, but also disturbed the Muslim organizations of the status quo, such as the Jama’at-e Islami. His popularity grew as he openly identified Sangh Parivaras enemies of Islam, and also influenced the Muslims of neighboring states, such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The Sangh Parivar was outraged by the rapid growth of ISS-led Muslim awareness. As a result of their attempts to demoralize and destroy the ISS, Madani lost a leg in a bomb-explosion. The events that followed were predictable and inevitable. As its chairman, Abdul Nasar Madani dissolved the ISS on December 11, 1992, when he found out that it was among the five ‘communal organizations’ banned by the government after the destruction of the Babri Mosque by the RSS and other Hindu fascist groups. In its place Madani formed a new political party, the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), which was intended to be a broader organization, including both Muslim youths and other oppressed groups in Indian society, such as the Dalits(‘untouchables’).
On March 31, 1998, Abdul Nasar Madani was arrested at his home. The police authorities refused to give any reason for his arrest. They also denied his advocates the right to see him. In April 1998 the police produced Madani at the Calicut district court and alleged that he had made a “provocative” speech in Calicut in February 1992. In the charges that followed, he was also accused of having “masterminded the Coimbatore bomb-blast” on February 14, 1998. Muslim houses and shops were looted, youths were arrested, and many were severely beaten or tortured to death after the explosion. Muslim organizations such as al-Ummah and TMMK were banned and their activists arrested. Police entered mosques and even destroyed copies of the Qur’an.
Although Madani was initially jailed in Kerala, he was transferred to Tamil Nadu jail because the Coimbatore magistrate demanded it. According to Mohammed Bilal, who was an RSS worker before he accepted Islam, the arrests of Madani and one of his close associates were a well-planned conspiracy of the Brahminist political leadership. Worried about the Muslims’ increasing politicization and awareness, the authorities ordered the police to charge him under the dreaded National Security Act (NSA) to ensure that bail would be denied to him. Protesting this move, his wife approached the Supreme Court and filed a case against the government. The Supreme Court then dropped the charges against Madani because the government failed to produce any substantial evidence against him. However, L. K. Advani, then home minister of India, rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict, and vowed that he would never let Madani go free. This is yet another instance of Sangh Parivar’s openly defying the Supreme Court.
Abdul Nasar Madani has now been in solitary confinement in Salem jail for seven years. He has still not been tried, and is denied bail. He had to wait for two years after his arrest before being formally charged. The 16,480-page charge sheet (weighing more than 50 kg) was prepared in Tamil, a language that Madani does not understand. Madani was even denied bail to attend his grandmother’s funeral. His deteriorating health demands attention, and seven years is a long time to detain anyone without trial, let alone a scholar-reformist. Madani’s upper body is restricted by chronic spondylosis and he is disabled because one leg was amputated after the RSS-masterminded bomb-explosion in 1992. He is also diabetic and suffers from hypertension. He was 33 years old when he was arrested in 1998 and now, at 40, he weighs only 43 kg (having lost more than 50 kg in seven years). Madani’s wife Soofia has herself experienced harassment by jail-personnel; she has been forced to restrict her visits to see her husband. Her perseverance to survive with two children and her relentless fight for justiceare a testimony of monumental sabr.
Madani has been advised by medical experts to obtain extensive treatment for his many illnesses. In April, as a result of the demands of a couple of MPs in the Indian parliament, home minister Shivraj Patil agreed that “it was the duty of the government to provide proper medical care and promised to take necessary steps in this [Madani’s] regard”. On May 11, the Supreme Court directed the Tamil Nadu government “to provide proper medical treatment” for Madani. By contrast, justice for Madani is not even a realistic prospect.
The Bangalore-based fortnightly Dalit Voice reported in February: “The Manmohan Singh Government and the Union Law Ministry must know that Madani’s is the one single case in India where justice is denied, delayed and destroyed just because he is an honest but revolutionary Muslim.” This sort of appraisal for a Muslim leader, from other downtrodden communities, is a rare instance of credit granted to Indian Muslims as their due. Madani’s vociferous speeches in the 1990s encapsulated the message of “power for the downtrodden”, the contents of which obviously had to condemn the abuse of state power and even the so-called Muslim leadership.
So is Madani’s predicament inevitable and without help? Surely this is what any Muslim leader aspiring to reform an oppressive society should expect, but it is the lack of public awareness that is frightening. Some efforts have been made recently to counter this vacuum. A Dubai-based human-rights group, Forum for Solidarity on Abdul Nasar Madani(www.abdulnasermadani.4t.com) has been working to address Madani’s case at various diplomatic levels. A disaster-management group, ResQ International, which was also involved in the post-tsunami relief-work in India, has recently conducted a national event in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, to raise public awareness of Madani’s plight; another national event inNew Delhi is being planned for the immediate future. Such events should help to increase public awareness, and this in turn should favour Madani
The Coimbatore explosion case is a rare case in the history of India’s judicial system: it is the first time that defendants (more than 300 of them, including Madani) have been held in detention for more than 2,500 days without trial. A report in the Tehelka News, on May 21, revealed: “for the last seven years he [Madani] has been confined to a jail room...For five of those years there wasn’t even a charge sheet. When his trial did begin, he was prevented from attending most hearings on the grounds that his presence in court would be a threat to law and order. He was denied parole to attend his mother’s last rites [i.e. janaza]. He continues to be denied bail for treatment that, it appears, he has urgently needed for several years now.”
Human-rights groups and intellectuals are bound to raise their voices against injustice. But the fact remains that in general they cannot rise above the power of the state. Muslim leaders have to act and speak against every form of injustice. Unfortunately Muslim leaders in India are unwilling to address vital issues. The sooner the masses realize this reality and act by themselves, the better.
Abdul Nasar Madani is not the first Muslim “prisoner of faith”. The names of some, such as Sheikh Omar Abdurrahman in the US, are better known than those of others. But there is a significant lack of awareness in the Muslim world of the Muslim scholar-reformer who spoke and acted for the downtrodden in India: Abdul Nasar Madani. The Muslims of the world must embrace the cause of this prisoner of faith and make it their own.