A Missile in the Living Room

A far-reaching study of the accused in the war on terror

Mumbai Police survey the damage after a bomb blast on 25 August 2003. AP IMAGES/AIJAZ RAHI, FILE
01 February, 2010

THE RDX (RAPID DETONATION EXPLOSIVE) used in the Bombay blasts in 1993 had come to India on boats that had dropped their cargo on the Konkan coast south of Bombay. In a stretch of white sand fringed by coconut groves is a village called Walavati, and I was going there to meet Iqbal Haspatel. He had been arrested on charges of terrorism a month after the Bombay bombings in 1993. When I went to Walavati, the special court was to deliver its judgment in the Bombay blasts trial. This was now 2006. It had been India’s biggest criminal case and the court had taken thirteen years to reach a verdict.

On 12 March 1993, there had been a series of bombings in Bombay—one bomb in the Stock Exchange, another in the offices of Air India, still others, placed in scooters and cars, in crowded areas outside a temple and elsewhere. These resulted in the deaths of 257 people. The bombings were to avenge the deaths of Muslims in riots just a few months before. All this was unleashed by the destruction, at the hands of a Hindu mob, of a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya. In those riots, according to a government-commissioned report, thirty-one police officers had killed innocent Muslims or, sometimes, participated in the riots themselves.

It rained for nearly all of the five hours it took me by car from Bombay to Walavati. The driver’s name was Sharda Prasad Pandey but he was called Doctor because he had been frequently ill as a child. Every few miles, to my great dismay, Doctor would press the brakes, and the car would skitter like water in a hot pan. The painted blue-and-white boards on the Sion-Panvel highway, offering clichés like “Time is Money, but Life is Precious,” suddenly appeared full of wisdom to me. Because of the rain, the hills around us overflowed with water. Small waterfalls dotted the hillsides. An elderly Muslim couple, hiding from the rain under a tree, stood so close to each other that they appeared to be embracing.

Then, when we were about a half hour short of Walavati, the rain stopped. We passed the Little Engels Childrens School, and Doctor expertly splashed a line of school kids with water from a roadside puddle. The traffic had slowed down on the winding road and I watched the cattle, tiny and lithe, grazing on the rain-washed blades of grass.

Walavati appeared—small, neat houses dwarfed by coconut trees, and, stretching around them, fields of paddy and Alphonso mangoes. At the Haspatel home, tea was served and a bed laid out for Doctor in a tiny room toward the front because he wanted to sleep. In the living room, on the desk was a file of yellowing newspaper cuttings. I was looking at a smiling policeman, displaying for the press a cache of captured goods. The photograph had appeared in the national newspapers on 14 April 1993, and the smiling man was Tikaram S. Bhal, who at that time was the Superintendent of Police, Alibaug. TheTimes of India had reported that an “arms haul was reported from Walavati area of Srivardhan late yesterday evening. Twenty-five projectiles and seventeen pipe bombs and ammunition were recovered from the creek. Combing operations were going on...” A missile had been found in the Haspatel living room. In its greater zeal, a right-wing newspaper had claimed that the materials recovered by the police were to be used to demolish the home of the leader of the Shiv Sena. It took four days for the police to realize that the “projectiles” they had found were actually parts of textile machinery and were called “bobbins” or “twist-blockers.”

Iqbal Haspatel holds a piece of textile machinery mistaken for a rocket. {{name}}

About eight years before this episode, a truck had overturned thirty miles away, depositing its cargo into the river that runs past Walavati village. Children had dived in the water and come up with arm-loads of the bobbins that the truck had been taking to a textile plant in Ahmedabad. That is how one of those plastic objects had found a place in the glass cupboard of the front room in the modest home owned by Iqbal Haspatel.

Haspatel is a retired working-class man. He had worked as a gas-pump attendant for seventeen years in Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman, before returning to his family home in Walavati. Three months after his return, upon the discovery of the mysterious projectile in his house, and after every piece of furniture had been ransacked, he suddenly found himself being paraded in the village. Bhal, the police officer, slapped him in front of other worshippers at the mosque and called him a traitor to his country.

Over the next four days, Iqbal Haspatel was interrogated and beaten. He wasn’t alone. His wife, his daughter-in-law, and a six-month-old granddaughter, along with two of his three sons, were also taken into custody. Ten to fifteen people were crammed into a small room in the Srivardhan police station that wouldn’t comfortably house five persons. Sometimes, there were at least twenty-five. The stench of urine alone was a torture.

Even after all these years, the Haspatels have received no apology from the police, nor have they been compensated for the damage done to their house. The valuables taken from their home, including gold jewelry, were never returned. What the family talks of most about their experience during their detention is the extraordinary presumption of guilt on the basis of their faith. This presumption was shared by all ranks. One of the interrogators hit Iqbal Haspatel and said, “Kidhar hai tumhara Allah? Bulao tumhare Allah ko.” (Where is your Allah? Call your Allah.) His family recalls a constable named Lohare who would, after each beating, inquire what their God had done to protect them against the police. The villagers were so scared that they threw away even their kitchen knives.

Tikaram S. Bhal, then Superintendent of Police, Alibaug. {{name}}

Mubeen Haspatel is the second of Iqbal’s three sons. He speaks slowly, and with some difficulty. On the evening of 13 April 1993, when he was taken to the police station with the rest of his family, he was allowed to keep his underwear on, but after that day he remained there without a shred of clothing on him. The policemen beating Mubeen used a strip of rubber, cut from the belt in a flour-grinding machine, on which with chalk they had written Satya Katha (Truth Telling). They trussed him on a pole—as one might tie together on a wire the wings of a bird being roasted over a fire—and hit him till he flipped over. Mubeen’s hands were put on a table and they were ground under wooden staves; the knuckles are now misshapen and one of them has disappeared. So many years later, his back still has black scars. After each bout of torture, the young man would collapse. It was during those days that Mubeen started having fits, and they continue to attack him today, particularly when he finds himself in any situation of stress. There were times during those days when his torturers would bring him, bruised and naked, to stand in front of his female relatives. His groin had been burned black. His elder brother told me that each policeman would put out his cigarette on Mubeen’s private parts. He said, “They wanted to make him useless for a woman.”

Mubeen Haspatel survived extreme torture at the hands of the police, and has the scars to prove it. {{name}}

Iqbal Haspatel would come back from his own session with the interrogators and find his son lying unconscious on the floor of the cell. After telling me this Haspatel fell quiet and then Mubeen stuttered and tried to finish his story. When I was listening to Mubeen, a man leaned closer to me and, speaking in a confidential tone, said, “What the Americans were doing in Abu Ghraib, they learned from our policemen here.” The man’s name was Abul Jalal. He owned a poultry business and was the only one in the room with a little education. It was he who had told the police that the object they had mistaken for a projectile was only a piece of a textile machine. When I heard his remark about Abu Ghraib, I thought that he was telling me that even in this tragedy there was glory. It was we who had taught the Americans, we had given knowledge to the dominating West, to the West that usurps for itself the role of the provider. But I then realized that Jalal, the poultry farmer, was only trying to link what had happened in Walavati to the wider world. Abu Ghraib was a name that people all over recognized. The torture practiced there had attracted universal condemnation. Could Walavati, too, please get its fair share of outrage if not justice?

I’m telling you this here so that you can see how ordinary men and women whose lives are entangled in the war on terror tell stories about themselves and their place in the world. Theirs are stories that bring together, whether as acts of fancy or as pictures of grim reality, different parts of our divided world. Of course, as any writer knows, a story might begin at one place and then through an extraordinary, unexpected turn end up somewhere else entirely. Abul Jalal was undeniably a minor fabulist, spinning a striking tale that tied his village to a distant prison where a people, and arguably, a faith, were being treated as the enemy, to be broken and humiliated. I think of him as a humble participant in the struggle over the meaning of September 11 and its global aftermath.

Indian Muslims in Delhi protest the torture of Iraqi prisoners in 2004. REUTERS/KAMAL KISHORE

Every time we watch the news these days we are reminded that an authoritative, influential story told about the reasons behind what occurred on a Tuesday morning in September has resulted in an array of far-reaching and devastating consequences. The disaster in Iraq is perhaps the most visible effect of the powerful story that began to be told soon after the attacks. We were told that the war on terror was being fought against an enemy that was at once more singular and shadowy. This war attested to the arrival of a murkier world, where not only morality but even identity got blurred. In this realm of fictions, the wizards of truth were adept at practising magical acts of deception. In February 2002, here is how Donald Rumsfeld offered in his smirking, didactic way the map of the new world: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unkowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unkown unkowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.” The individual vanishes in a dark place of secrets. Or we watch him disappear on the brazen stage of propaganda. The particulars of an individual life are sometimes all