Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh): Iqbal Jakati was no stranger to hardships and disappointments, struggling for many years to find his calling, but life seemed bleak to the journalist from the northern district of Belgaum in Karnataka following four years of wrongful incarceration on terror charges in August 2008.
In a recent conversation with Article 14 in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, the 50-year-old father of three children recalled he was downcast and afraid of what the future might bring but determined not to let the state-afflicted ordeal silence him.
Quite the contrary, Jakati’s anger propelled him to do what he had always dreamed of: journalism to report on the Hindu right and the persecution wrought in the era of majoritarianism.
Six years after he entered the fray of digital media as an independent journalist, Jakati’s YouTube channel, Ittehad News, has amassed 67,000 subscribers and nine million views.
“The YouTube channel has got a huge response,” said Jakati. “I was openly critical of the BJP and the RSS, and people liked it,” he said, referring to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, now in power at the Centre and in Karnataka, and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
While his arrest and incarceration from 2008 to 2011 happened during BJP’s first stint in power in Karnataka followed by five years of the Congress Party, Jakati said the BJP’s second time in power had escalated the persecution of Muslims in the state.
Jakati has reported on a wide range of issues, including attacks on press freedom, the job crisis, the false conspiracy of ‘love jihad’, and incidents of communal violence. Jakati has also produced a short documentary on stories of Hindu- Muslim unity in his home district.
Jakati’s inspiration is Ravish Kumar, the primetime news anchor for NDTV India. He says Kumar is the “last man left in the mainstream media who is doing journalism”.
“The Hindutva forces are doing things which are anti-constitutional, and they are targeting minorities while the mainstream media and government is helping them,” he said. “Through my journalistic work, I am doing my bit to challenge it.”
In 2015, the Karnataka police registered a cyber crime case against Jakati, alleging that his posts disturbed law and order after he posted a video about an attack on a Muslim cleric on his Facebook page. While he could not recall details of the case, Jakati said that he took down the post, and the police dismissed it after intervention from the local MLA (member of legislative assembly).
“I told them I am doing everything within the folds of the Constitution and democracy,” he said.
Indian Muslims In Jail
The Muslim prison population remains consistently higher than the Muslim population in India, 14.2% of 1.2 billion people.
The data showed that 15.9% of the convicts (a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced), 19.44% (a person who is currently on trial) community, and 27.7% (any person held lawfully in custody) are from the Muslim community.
The conviction rate under the UAPA has remained low. As per government data, only 80 people were convicted out of 1,321 arrested under the law in 2020, a conviction rate of 6%. In 2018 and 2019, the conviction rate was 1.7% and 2.46%, respectively.
In a study done by FactChecker.in published in November 2021, 10,522 people were arrested in the last seven years, but only 253 were convicted (2.40%). On average, 985 cases under UAPA are registered every year, and the number of pending cases rises by 14.38% every year.
Responding to questions about the conviction rate under the UAPA in the Rajya Sabha last month, Union Minister Nityanand Rai said the conviction rate of cases filed by the Centre, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party since 2014, was 94.17%. The conviction rate in cases registered by the states under UAPA during 2018-2020 has been low.
Rai, the minister of state for home, said the conviction rate for “jihadi terrorism” and “Left-wing extremism” in cases registered by the Centre was 100%.
Since his release, Sheikh has been running a campaign, “Acquit Undertrial”, for Muslims who have been wrongfully incarcerated, where he highlights cases of Muslims wrongfully accused of terrorism.
On his YouTube channel, which has 1.95K subscribers, Sheikh tells stories about people like Jakati. He recently authored a book Begunah Qaidi on Muslims wrongfully incarcerated in terror cases.
The 9/11 terror attack in the United States, Sheikh said, made it easier for the Indian state to go after Muslims and jail them in terror-related cases because of the narrative on the global war on terror.
After he was released, Jakati said he had thought about holding a press conference where he could raise questions about his wrongful incarceration. Still, his lawyer and friends had advised against it.
“They were very scared,” he said.
In May 2008, the Karnataka police registered two cases of criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, to spread communal hatred and planning bomb blasts in Belgaum, invoking India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, which makes it harder to get bail.
The first case was registered on 14 May 2008 against seven Muslim men at the Mal Maruthi police station and the second one against 15 Muslim men, including the seven in the first one, at the APMC police station.
In the two cases, the police alleged that the accused including Jakati had hatched conspiracies to disturb communal harmony in Belgaum and resorted to activities prejudicial to national integrity and security.
In the first case, police alleged that one Liyaqat Ali, a main accused, assembled “like-minded co-accomplices and distributed compact discs (CDs) of most barbaric scenes” on “atrocities on Muslims viz demolition of Babri Masjid, Godhra killings, Mumbai serial blasts, atrocities committed by Indian army in Kashmir”.
The chargesheet alleged that for travelling purposes, Ali tried to procure registration certificates of vehicles through “dishonest means”, and Jakati helped him by procuring the registration certificate (RC) of a car of one Vishwanath Virupakshi Kamagouda and enabled Ali “to plant the said RC Book for any vehicles to be stolen, for carrying out their activities of conspiracy”.
In addition to the UAPA and criminal conspiracy under the IPC, the two cases invoked sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 124-A (sedition) and the Explosives Substances Act, 1908.
According to the chargesheet filed in the second case, the police claimed to have recovered, during a raid at the home of the main accused, Nasir Patel, a hard disk containing speeches of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden “exhorting Muslims to fight against injustice”.
The hard disk also contained violent activities of the Taliban, an interview of a Muslim youth justifying the Mumbai serial blasts, which were done in retaliation to the demolition of Babri Masjid and the 2002 Gujarat riots, and the video on the preparation and use of rocket RDX, used in explosives.
The chargesheet further alleged that Patel came in contact with other accused due to “socio-religious proximity”. The email exchanges between the accused showed messages asking Muslims not to sing songs like Om Shanti Om and Hare Ram Hare Krishna.
“There was a meeting of minds of the accused on jihadi literature… and they were able to disseminate information to cause communal hatreds and assertions prejudicial to national integration,” the chargesheet said.
‘I Saw Breaking News Saying Lashkar-e-Taiba Terrorist Arrested’
After two months of working as a car salesman with his brother in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jakati said he saw Indian news channels reporting that the Karnataka police were accusing him for terrorism in Karnataka.
The police, Jakati said, started coming to his home and harassing his family. His father, a retired government school teacher, whose leg was amputated in 2006 due to gangrene, was bedridden at the time and told him to return. His brother offered to pay the legal fee.
“My father called me and asked if I'm innocent and said if I'm innocent, I should return home and present myself before the police,” he said. “We were living a middle-class life.”
Jakati told his father that he was innocent. He even spoke with the investigative officers on the phone, who, he said, assured him that he need not worry and they would leave him after an enquiry.
Jakati was arrested on 3 August 2008, three months after the registration of two cases, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai when he returned from Sharjah.
“The airport was under siege. When I reached immigration, a siren was blown and I was nabbed,” he said. “Within 10 minutes, I saw breaking news on TV [at the police station], saying Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist arrested.”
Jakati recalled that he was held in the custody of the Mumbai police for 18 hours, during which police officers from different states interrogated him.
“They would ask me if I have travelled to Pakistan for arms training,” said Jakati, alleging that personnel of the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad kicked him, asked him to recite Vande Mataram, and threatened to kill him in a staged encounter.
“They took me to a deserted road and asked me to get down from the vehicle and run,” he said. “I told them to kill me inside the vehicle only. They scared me to get desired statements, but I maintained my innocence.”
When the Mumbai police handed him over to the Karnataka police, Jakati said they drove eight hours to Belgaum, where he was presented to the magistrate after four days of detention. He alleges that during the interrogation, police personnel kicked him and beat him with sticks.
“They even brought a Muslim officer to interrogate and torture me,” he said. “They named me in cases filed for protest by Muslims on different issues at different times in different police stations.”
After the court sent him to judicial custody, the physical torture stopped, but he was subjected to a narco-test, said Jakati.
“They said that I wanted to show that we can strike the justice system,” he said. “When they were interrogating me, I could sense they felt they had caught the wrong man.”
Charges Were Baseless
The trial in the two cases lasted for three more years before the 15 accused, including the main accused Liyaqat Ali and Nasir Patel, were acquitted in November 2011.
“The cases against Jakati and others were baseless. However, UAPA made the bail difficult, but eventually, it was the sessions court that said that charges would not hold up and acquitted all of them,” said Zaheer Abbas, Jakati’s lawyer.
Abbas said the evidence produced against the accused neither showed they were members of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, banned by the India government after 9/11, nor prove they entered into any conspiracy for spreading violence in Belgaum.
The trial in both cases was conducted jointly. 43 witnesses were examined and 145 documents were produced by the prosecution. The trial concluded on 28 May 2011.
The Belgaum sessions court, after hearing both sides ruled that the prosecution failed to prove that accused were members of SIMI, that they entered into any criminal conspiracy to provoke communal hatred, procured explosives for making bombs, or committed any of the alleged offences.
The accused were released in November 2011 following acquittal orders by the principal sessions judge in Belgaum.
On 8 February 2017, the Karnataka High Court rejected the appeal by the Karnataka government against the lower court’s order.
“My Family & I Were Treated As Untouchable’
The four years in Belgaum jail were the most difficult of his life, but Jakati said the treatment by his community hurt him the most.
“My family and I were treated as untouchable by Muslims in my locality. It was very painful. No one was talking to my family,” said Jakati. “Our relatives maintained a distance. No one was ready to come near us.”
His neighbours and relatives kept their distance when he returned from prison, Jakati said.
“They would change their paths after seeing me. I approached people for a job but everywhere, I was rejected. The narrative and my portrayal as a terrorist by the media had left an imprint on the minds of people in a small town like Belgaum where all of this was a new thing,” he said.
His father’s health deteriorated further because he was deeply affected by the terror charge that tainted their family, Jakati said.
The retired government school teacher died of diabetes four months before Jakati was freed and returned home.
“I was dying every moment inside the jail for four years, but no Muslim group even uttered a statement, let alone a protest. Some people promised they would fight a legal battle for free, but all those claims were hollow.”
For eight years, when he started as a journalist after completing class 12 from Belgaum, Jakati wrote film reviews and profiles of actors for a local Marathi newspaper.
Deeply affected by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, Jakati switched from Bollywood to politics, training his guns at Hindu nationalist parties and groups.
Jakati said that he wrote for a “largely secular” newspaper based in Belgaum owned by Hindu Brahmins, who paid him Rs 150 for every piece, but after a dozen articles on Hindutva politics, they asked him to stop.
Disillusioned and out of money, Jakati gave up writing and enrolled in a college for a B. Com degree, in part due to the poor financial condition of his family.
During his college years, he also took up a part-time job as a sales executive in an advertising agency in Gulbarga town, making calls to potential clients. He left after a few years and worked in a cigarette factory in Belgaum city for two years before opening up a small confectionery business.
Jakati was married in 1998.
A few years later, with his confectionery business running in losses, Jakati travelled to Dubai in search of a job but returned home without success and ended up working as a car salesman in an automobile company in Belgaum. Recalling that the Tata Indica car was popular at the time, and he ended up selling many of them, Jakati said that he managed to impress his boss and was promoted to a team leader.
At the same time, Jakati got involved in social work, helping organise football matches, raising money for the marriage of women from low-income families, paying for destitute school children and volunteering in times of floods. The local police, however, kept summoning Jakati for questioning. This caused problems.
One day, nearing the end of 2007, the automobile company asked him to quit. “I was shocked, but my boss said that they have been informed by intelligence agencies that I was involved in anti-social activities,” he said.
Shortly after he was fired, Jakati moved to Sharjah and joined the same automobile company where his brother was working. “I landed a job quickly due to my four years experience here and got the visa easily,” he said.
Living On The Edge
When he came out of jail, the isolation he felt from society and the fear the police could pick him up at any time, Jakati said, made him feel like he should join a political party.
While joining the All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), led by
Assadadudin Owaisi, a parliamentarian from Hyderabad, Jakati, got a Hindi-language newspaper Paigam Itehad (The message of unity), registered in Belgaum.
Launched by Owaisi at a function in Hyderabad in July 2013, Paigam Itehad started with son and nephew, with some members of his community, including a few who went to jail with him, supporting him financially.
“I would sit outside Jamia Masjid in Belgaum to sell the newspaper, but there were few buyers because of my image,” he said.
His association with AIMIM invited trouble from Karnataka police, Jalati felt.
“Whenever there would be some event like an election, I would be kept in preventive detention for a day,” he said.
In 2015, following clashes between the police and Muslim taking out a procession during Eid in Belgaum, Jataki was arrested and jailed for two weeks.
“I was sleeping at my home during clashes, yet I was booked and jailed,” he said. “The reality is that the police did not like my reporting since I was critical of the government.” (The Congress Party was in power at the time).
As he continued reporting on the Hindu right, Jataki distanced himself from the AIMIM to maintain his neutrality.
“I continued to write against BJP and RSS,” he said.
(Zafar Aafaq is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)