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Blinded by religion

Murali Krishnan, New DelhiJuly 5, 2013

Many innocent Muslims languish in Indian jails on fake terror charges. After the recent acquittal of hundreds after lengthy periods of incarceration, activists put pressure on the government to stop demonizing Muslims.

Muslim woman
Image: picture-alliance/Godong

Nine years after Ishrat Jahan, 19, was killed along with three others by the Gujarat Police - it was conclusively established by an independent investigating agency this week that she was not involved in terror activities - pressure has been mounting on the government.

"The shooting was a staged encounter carried out "in cold blood." The killing was a joint operation between the Gujarat Police and the state's Intelligence Bureau," said the Central Bureau of Investigation in its final report.

Unfair targeting

This high profile case which had the country riveted because of its tortuous twists and turns has galvanized the Muslim community again who are angry over the unfair targeting of Muslims in the name of fighting terror.

Muslims pray outside the Taj Mahal Agra (Photo: +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
India has had a place for Islam for hundreds of yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"What was my sister's crime that she was labeled a terrorist? Who is to blame? She has been vilified right through and now we demand the death penalty for the culprits," Mussarat Jahan, the younger sister of Ishrat, told DW.

Scores of Muslim boys and men continue to be held in jail on false terror charges, say civil rights activists and lawyers. They further argue that acquittals in recent cases by various courts only feed a powerful stereotype that shadow the lives of Indian Muslims, who make up nearly 15 percent of India's 1.2-billion-plus population.

Earlier this year a dozen Muslim youth were let off by a court the southern city of Hyderabad after spending five years in jail on trumped of charges of being involved in a bomb blast in the historic Mecca Masjid mosque.

"They were arrested, tortured and falsely implicated in the case. And ironically they got compensation from the same government machinery which had labeled them as anti-national. It is as though a new wave of counter-terrorism has been launched to terrorize youth belonging to the Muslim community," social activist Shabnam Hashmi told DW.

False terror allegations

When he walked as a free man in January this year, Mohammed Amir Khan, 32, realized how much the world outside had changed. At the age of 18, he was branded a terrorist by Delhi police. The son of a Delhi toy shop owner was accused of masterminding 19 bombings in Delhi and three other places between December 1996 and October 1997.

He spent 14 years of his prime in a solitary cell in the capital's Tihar jail and other state jails. A Delhi court finally acquitted him this year for lack of evidence. But the terrorist tag has left his life in a shambles.

"There are a lot of people like me in jail. Those who are guilty must be punished but let the innocents out. Because it is not the question of one individual, the entire family suffers," he told DW.

Civil right group, Jamia Teachers Solidarity Action recently documented 16 such cases in which individuals were arrested on charges of being operatives or agents for terrorist organizations and were later acquitted in court.

Silhouette of soldier with rifle
Young Muslims in India say authorities unfairly accuse them of involvement in terrorist activitiesImage: Fotolia/Oleg Zabielin

Another compilation titled "What it means to be a Muslim in India today" documents atrocities committed against Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism and testimonies of those who were released after being tortured in jails across the country.

"Is it not strange that whenever there has been a terror attack, a bunch of Muslim boys are arrested and their names aired in the media as masterminds? This current ugly phenomenon of racial profiling has to stop. There is certainly a bias," G. S. R. Darapuri, a former police official, told DW.

The clamor against profiling has forced the government to act with the Home Ministry directing all state governments to set up fast track courts to take up such cases speedily. A huge task is now underway to find out how many Muslim inmates involved in terror cases are in jail and for how many years they have been languishing without being tried.