Within days of the blast at the most holy place of worship for Muslims in Hyderabad on May 18, 2007, nearly one hundred Muslim youth were picked up by the Hyderabad police for questioning. The approach was similar in most cases, extremely filmy, almost designed to put the fear of the law in the youth and their families.
There would be a tap on the door in the dead of night, the person taken out blindfold, subjected to third degree treatment (according to a one-man committee appointed by the Andhra Pradesh Minorities Commission who conducted a probe) and produced ten days later before a magistrate.
All the youth were let off subsequently, with the court saying they had nothing to do with the blast.
The case turned on its head after a chance encounter inside Hyderabad central prison in November 2010 between Shaikh Abdul Kaleem, one of the accused and Swami Aseemanand. Kaleem was accused in the FIR of having brought RDX and provided SIM cards to terrorists who planted the bomb at Mecca Masjid. Kaleem happened to relate his story to Aseemanand and soon after, an apparently repentant Swami confessed to his role in the terror attack.
Wrong, according to Aseemanand's lawyers who say the story about his expressing remorse before Kaleem was false and that he was forced to give a confessional statement. During the trial, the prosecution was unable to bring out any evidence linking the five accused including Aseemanand with the blast, resulting in their acquittal.
After eleven years, the question persists : Who killed nine people in the blast at Mecca Masjid on that Friday afternoon?
For one, it paints the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the country's premier investigation agency when it comes to cracking terror cases in a very poor light. If it cannot crack a case effectively after eleven years, backing its legal team with solid evidence, what good is the agency.
After Malegaon, where the NIA gave Sadhvi Pragya a clean chit in 2016, the Mecca Masjid verdict also puts the agency under the radar. Questions are bound to be asked if the intention is to ensure no one connected to Hindutva organisations are found guilty. Already NIA is being referred to on social media as the `National Institute of Acquittals'.
The resignation by Judge Ravinder Reddy within hours of the verdict, also has led to conspiracy theories galore. Reddy cited personal reasons for quitting his post.
At a political level, the verdict also throws the bogey of `Hindu terror' out of the window. It allows the BJP to allege that the term was coined only to push the Sangh Parivaar on to the back foot. BJP leader Ramchander Rao who is also part of the legal team, alleges that the CBI during the UPA rule framed Aseemanand with an eye to defame the right wing outfits.
It also allows the hardliners in the majority community to emphasise on the accused spending time behind bars for no fault of theirs. It also helps them accuse the liberals and the minorities of a conspiracy to defame the Hindu religion, further underlining the faultlines that already exist.
On the other hand, within the Muslim community of Hyderabad, the feeling of justice being denied is very strong. The sentiment that when members of a right-wing group are the accused, they get away is gaining traction. More significantly, they know this will also send the message that terrorists come only from one community and that is not the Hindu community. These are red flags that point to society getting more splintered.
Fanning it are political leaders of the Muslim community who find it difficult to answer why it is acceptable to them when the investigating agencies are unable to prove the case against Muslim youth resulting in their acquittal and not acceptable when they fail to do so against Aseemanand and company.
The more long-term dangerous consequence is likely to be demonisation of Muslims in the guise of investigation of terror offences. This was pointed out in August 2008 by a report titled `What it means to be a Muslim in India today' prepared by the People's Tribunal on the Atrocities Committed Against Minorities in the name of Fighting Terrorism. It said that this is ``leading to a very strong sense of insecurity and alienation, which may lead to frightful consequences for the nation.''
The Mecca Masjid case is also a textbook case of blundering along in an investigation. Between the Hyderabad police which initially handled the probe to the CBI to the NIA, the three reduced the terror plot to a guessing game, not able to convince the court about any of the accused. The fear is that India may have to pay the price.
Note: Views expressed are author’s own