Madani and T J Joseph
Last week, Kerala witnessed two prominent incidents that bore similar and starkly dissimilar dimensions. Prof TJ Joseph, whose hand was chopped off in July 2010 by Islamic militants accusing him of insulting the Prophet, found justice a decade later when six of the assailants were imprisoned by a Special NIA Court. A week earlier, Abdul Naser Madani, languishing in jail as an undertrial since August 2010, returned to judicial custody without fulfilling his intention to meet his ailing father. Justice arrived after a decade’s delay in one case in which the beneficiary was a victim of Islamic militancy. But, justice continued to be elusive in the second case even after a decade in which the sufferer was accused of Islamic militancy.
Kerala appeared rightfully relieved and happy about the first incident where justice came, although delayed. But why did Kerala not appear concerned about the second, where justice continues to be denied even after so much delay? Why did silence hang like a pall on its dominant liberal and secular political parties, enlightened intellectuals, vocal religious organisations, a media that is morally outraged at every breach of human rights, or even a screaming social media? Why has the state appeared largely unconcerned about the unprecedented violation of human rights suffered by a fellow Malayali?
The sight was as disturbing as it was unforgettable. Abdul Nasser Madani, once a thickset and tough youngster, is now reduced to an ailing old man in a wheelchair. Nearly blinded by his acute diabetes and high blood pressure, the cleric appeared thin as a reed. He was being carted back by a band of Karnataka Policemen to Bengaluru without fulfilling his visit’s intention to meet his ailing father. Madani fell sick immediately upon his arrival at Kochi, and his allotted period in Kerala was over by the time he was out of hospital. It had taken a protracted legal tangle against the Karnataka government for him to secure Supreme Court’s permission to make this trip.
Madani has an unenviable place in our country’s history. India has the world’s highest number -3.5 lakhs- of undertrial prisoners, and Madani is the longest-serving among them. The 56-year-old Madani has already spent the entire prime of his life - more than 22 years- as an undertrial without any of the crimes he was accused of being proven. As years passed by and his health steadily irreparably deteriorated, Madani had been fighting the authorities in court for permission every time to attend the most significant events of his life, like his mother’s death, children’s weddings, etc.
I can see many getting restive with the same questions they raised for many years whenever Madani’s human rights are raised. Why should a “terrorist” be granted privileges that the citizens are constitutionally entitled to? Well, the answers, too, are the same. One, every person is deemed innocent until proven guilty, says Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two, every citizen, including those facing criminal charges, is entitled to the rights under the Indian Constitution.
As a victim of our flawed judicial and policing systems, Madani deserves compensation for having been robbed of the best years of his life. According to 2021’s National Crimes Records Bureau Report, as much as 77% of India’s 5.5 lakh prisoners were undertrials, a world record. This is 14.9% more than in 2020. The undertrials’ share was only 68% of 433033 prisoners in 2016. Among 2021’s undertrials, 50% belonged to economically, educationally, and socially backward sections like illiterates (25%), SCs (21%), Muslims (18.7%), and STs (10.5%).
India’s large undertrial population has invited strong disapproval from none other than India’s President and Prime Minister. In April last year, while inaugurating the 39th Conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices, Prime Minister Modi called for the early release of the country’s undertrials. He also said most undertrials belong to disadvantaged groups and requested the Chief Ministers and Chief Justices devise mechanisms for their speedy release. “Every district should have a committee headed by a district judge to examine each of these cases and, wherever possible, release them on bail,” he said.
On last year’s Constitution Day, November 22, President Droupadi Murmu lamented the plight of the undertrials. “I hear these days that we must make more prisons because prisons are overcrowded. If we are moving towards progress as a society, why do we need more jails? We should be closing down existing ones,” she said.
Notwithstanding these calls, the former BJP government of Karnataka, their police, and many national security agencies have left no stone unturned to deny the basic human rights of India’s longest-serving undertrial prisoner for the past two decades. Besides the two prominent cases in which Madani was implicated, there were attempts to book him in new cases though they fell flat in courts.
I have seen extreme prejudice against Madani, especially from many outside Kerala whose subconscious fears were stoked by the cleric. It is the same with the Malappuram district also. Many in the north see Madani in the image of Osama bin Laden or Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, founder of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba. Malappuram has often been portrayed like a Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir region! They simply ignore that no charge has been proved against Madani or that Malappuram hasn’t seen terror incidents on a scale comparable to even Tamil Nadu. Yet, the stereotypes refuse to die down.
Certainly, during his youth, Madani had made inflammatory speeches, although they may pale in comparison to today’s Sakshi Maharajs or Sadhvi Pragyas. The 24-year-old Madani, a cleric running an orphanage in his village, Anwarssery, in Mynagappally, Kollam, founded the Islamic Sewa Sangh (ISS). This was in response to the growing power of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during the early days of the Ayodhya movement. Known for his rabble-rousing speeches, Madani lost his right leg in a bomb attack in August 1992 in Anwarssery, allegedly by RSS workers. The Babri Masjid demolition happened four months after, and Muslim outfits and their leaders expectedly raised loud protests. With his fiery oratory and victim image (owing to his lost leg), Madani was at the forefront of the protests, especially in central and South Kerala. With the Muslim League conspicuously absent from the campaign against the demolition, Madani nearly monopolized the platform to become a “cult figure” even among Muslim youths in north Kerala. Once ISS got banned post-demolition, Madani founded the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and strategically moved away from the Islamic platform to a Muslim-Dalit front project. I remember interviewing him for the first time during those days at the hotel Fort Manor in Thiruvananthapuram and getting impressed by the young cleric’s communication skills. The next few years saw him growing further as one of the most sought-after speakers, with audio cassettes of his speeches selling like hotcakes. He openly brandished his clout and wealth by being amid a posse of uniformed bodyguards. It was when anti-Muslim and pro-Hindutva sentiments grew in the country, including Kerala. Films like Roja in Tamil (1992) or Dhruvam (1993) in Malayalam portrayed dreaded Islamist villains in Madani’s image.
On March 31, 1998, Madani was arrested by Kerala Police and handed over to Tamil Nadu in connection with the Coimbatore bomb blasts of 1998, in which 58 persons were killed. In 2006, the Kerala assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for Madani’s release. In October 2007, after spending over nine years as an undertrial in Coimbatore jail, Madani became the only one among the 14 accused to be acquitted of all charges by a special court. The angry BJP leaders, even at the centre, openly vowed to get Madani back in prison.
Released from prison, Madani appeared a changed man, physically and mentally. He reiterated his farewell to religious extremism and declared to work in the legitimate political and social realm. Politically, he moved away from Congress to be closer to the CPI(M). But as if on cue, Kerala media soon began to fill with several stories linking Madani and his wife, Sufiya, to multiple terror incidents. In 2009, Sufiya was arrested in connection with burning a Tamil Nadu bus in 2005 at Kalamassery to protest Madani’s arrest. On August 17, 2010, Madani was arrested from Anwarssery in connection with multiple bomb blasts in Bengaluru in July 2008, killing one person. In 2013, T.G. Mohandas, a Hindutva propagandist, filed a case against Madani, accusing him of plotting to kill RSS leader P Parameswaran and Fr. KK Alavi, a Christian priest who converted from Islam. Later the case was dropped after the Kerala Police found the charge baseless. In 2014, the Karnataka government submitted to the Supreme Court that the trial in the Bengaluru blast case would be completed in six months.
Although he was shifted to house arrest under judicial custody later and his wife allowed to stay with him on account of his poor health, Madani was disallowed to leave Bengaluru. He fought stiff opposition from the Karnataka government and Police several times to secure courts’ permission to visit Kerala to attend his children’s weddings or visit his ailing parents. In 2021, the Supreme Court refused to relax his bail conditions when Chief Justice S.A. Bobde called Madani “a dangerous man”.