Just another jailed terror suspect till a little over two months ago, Khalid Mujahid has since morphed into a towering, glowering question mark on the murky, uncertain war against terror. It took a mysterious death - Mujahid's own - for that change to happen. In life, Mujahid was a madrasa teacher who had been kidnapped from Jaunpur and falsely implicated in the 2007 bomb blasts of Lucknow, Faizabad and Gorakhpur, or so an independent commission concluded. In death, he is the affirmation of all the suspicions that are being cast on Uttar Pradesh's investigative agencies and police.

Zaheer Alam Falahi, Mujahid's uncle lodged an FIR on 19 May - a day after Mujahid died in police custody while being ferried from a court in Faizabad to his jail in Lucknow, accusing two former DGPs, Brij Lal and Vikram Singh (in addition to Manoj Kumar Jha, then Additional SP of the Special Task Force, Chiranjeev Nath Sinha, then circle officer Chowk, Lucknow and S Anand, then CO STF, and 37 other policemen) and the Intelligence Bureau of criminal conspiracy and murder.

Falahi says, "If he had lived, he would have been the prime witness against all those officers who orchestrated his kidnapping and subsequent implication. It was too big a risk." Post the FIR however, nothing has moved. Till date Falahi hasn't been called upon by the police. On 20 May, the state government announced that it would hand over the case to the CBI for investigation, but nothing was heard of that either.

As of 27 June, Falahi has filed three RTI applications with the central home ministry, the state's home department and the Barabanki police, wanting to know when the formal demand for the CBI inquiry was made and the status of the same. Meanwhile a report from Lucknow's forensic science laboratory has concluded that there was no poisonous or other substance found in Khalid's viscera to point to murder. Randhir Singh Suman, Mujahid's lawyer slams the report as a "cover up".

"If the government was serious about handing over the inquiry to the CBI, why was the viscera examined in Lucknow? There were marks on his neck, blood from his nose and his nails had turned blue - these are not signs of a normal death. Even the post-mortem had concluded that the cause of death could not be ascertained", says Suman.

Khalid Mujahid. Picture credit: Rihai Manch

Why did Khalid Mujahid die?

To understand the questions surrounding Mujahid's death, a recap of the events of the last day is crucial. At 1 pm, Mujahid and three other terror accused - Tariq Qazmi, Sajjadur Rehman and Mohammed Akhtar - were brought to a special court in Faizabad from Lucknow (a distance of 127 kilometres) for a hearing. At 3.30 pm, Suman last saw Khalid "looking fine" as he was escorted by a posse of seven policemen back to the Lucknow jail. At 4.45 pm, according to the police, Mujahid fell unconscious. They were then at Ram Sanehi Ghat, 62 kilometres from Faizabad. At 5.25 pm, after covering another 35 kilometres, the police got Mujahid to the district hospital in Barabanki where he was declared dead.

Before Falahi could reach the scene from Jaunpur, a panchanama had been conducted in the presence of persons unknown to the defence or the family. Who those persons were is one of the questions that Falahi has put to the Barabanki police in his RTI application.

By reacting in fits and starts, the government has fuelled the perception that it is shrouding the truth for fear of what it might lead to. In doing so, it has birthed a deep mistrust among the minority community. It has also, by default, put at risk the lives of all those who are in jail on terror charges.

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Meanwhile, even before the post-mortem was conducted, the DIG (Faizabad) told the media that Mujahid had, in all probability, died of a heat stroke. Mujahid's lawyer, family and members of the Rihai Manch (a forum for the release of innocent Muslims jailed on terror charges) had to threaten the police with a sit-in before they were allowed access to the body before the post mortem, which was thereafter conducted by a five-doctor team (three of them from the minority community) and videographed. Tariq Qazmi, who till then had never been permitted to interact with the media, was brought forth to declare that Mujahid had been unwell for the last few days.

Ironically, Mujahid's life was endangered by the possibility of freedom. In 2008, the Mayawati government had appointed the one-man RD Nimesh Commission to probe the arrests of two men, Khalid Mujahid and Tariq Qazmi, who had been accused of being HuJI terrorists responsible for the blasts in May and November of the previous year. The report, handed over to the present government in 2012, reiterated what the two had always claimed . that they had been kidnapped from Jaunpur and Azamgarh respectively on different dates and then shown as arrested with incriminating evidence from the Barabanki railway station, a few days later. The report called for identifying those responsible for the arrests, and concluded, "Till the involved ... are not identified, responsibility cannot be fixed and action against them cannot be recommended."

The report was not released by the government. In fact, responding to an RTI query filed in November of last year, the state's Home department said in March 2013 that it did not know the whereabouts of the report.

The report was crucial to the Samajwadi Party government fulfilling one key promise of its election manifesto - the release of innocent youth jailed on charges of terror. When activists mounted pressure on the government to act on its word, on 3 May, 2013 it moved a plea in the Barabanki court for the release of Mujahid and Qazmi. The court rejected it on the basis that the government had not substantiated its claim of the withdrawal being necessary for "social harmony". It was reported that the judge said, "Today they want to drop charges, tomorrow they will offer them Padma Bhushan".

On 7 June, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court stumped the government's plea for release of 19 terror accused, on the basis of a PIL reasoning that the government had to take permission from the Centre before doing so. Clearly the "social harmony" plea did not move the court.

Another application filed by the government with the Gorakhpur court in May blew holes in the investigations. The application stated that in the absence of eye witnesses, the accused were not identified and the photographs which were used for identification were not part of any case diary. Given these facts, there was "little possibility" of the success of the prosecution. It reiterated that taking back the cases was essential for "public policy" for if the accused are found 'not guilty' a wrong message would be sent out to the public. It is critical to note the use of the word "if" as also the emphasis on sentiment as opposed to fact.

The spate of pleas made the state government appear desperate to be doing something - or rather, doing anything to act on its promise to a critical section of the electorate. Yet, by refusing to supplement its applications with the report of the Nimesh Commission and acting on the report's recommendation for investigation into those responsible for the botched arrests, it weakened its own case.

In order to be legally sound the government should have evoked Section 173(8) of the Cr. PC for further investigation; instead it filed an application under Section 321 that deals only with withdrawal of prosecution, thus making it easier for the court to reject it. Another approach could have been to ask for expedition in the conclusion of such cases, and not wilfully withdrawing prosecution midway.

The reluctance for re-investigation stems, it seems, from a fear of what might be revealed. Rajeev Yadav, spokesperson of the Rihai Manch says, "This will not be a one-off re-investigation. Policy questions will be raised on why the intelligence agencies are doing what they are. What pressures are they working under? How are explosives and weapons being recovered from those who are arrested? The consequences could be disastrous."

A relook into the cases is also likely to have a domino effect, for if accused like Mujahid and Qazmi are found innocent, what of those who were said to have been arrested on their testimonies? And subsequently, what of the police, STF and ATS claims of successfully tackling terror cases?

Shanawaz Alam, organisational secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) says, "The key objective is investigation, not simply releasing everyone who is in jail. We need to know who did what, because it is a fact that the blasts happened and people died. The re-investigation will turn the spotlight on the motives of the state's police forces. Hence the state government is indulging in these gimmicks".

However Vikram Singh, who was the state's DGP in 2007, stands by the arrests. "We broke the bone of the terrorists. UP has been quiet ever since. We are on a high moral and legal ground. The apologists seem to be going overboard in displaying their misplaced sympathy for terrorists and anti-national elements", he says. The argument against relooking at the cases is also that that it will demoralise the state's investigative agencies and the police force.

JNU's Revolutionary Cultural Front stages a play at the site of the Rihai Manch dharna in Lucknow. Picture credit: Puja Awasthi

Crying for the truth

In an already fraught environment, where the ugly role of intelligence agencies has been revealed elsewhere and where statements to the effect that the 2001 Parliament attack was orchestrated by the government are floating around, further questions on how the dots in the war against terror are being connected could invoke deep mistrust in security and intelligence agencies.

It also underlines the poor quality of investigations into terror cases, where the accused are often let off for lack of evidence. Or worse still, imprisoned for minor charges but let off on the more serious ones. Take, for example, the case of Walliulah Obaid Qazmi who was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2009 for the Varanasi bomb blasts of 2006. While he was convicted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the graver one of waging war against the state, criminal conspiracy and sedition was waived. The debate on whether he got away lightly because of sloppy investigation or paid for a crime he did not commit was bitter.

Meanwhile, every day the Khalid Mujahid saga is layered afresh - more with fiction and emotion than with fact - at the indefinite dharna that started on 22 May opposite Lucknow's Vidhan Sabha. One day, the pain of his non-existent children is invoked from the dais. On another, a loud rumour about the government trying to buy off the leaders of the protest swirls through the protestors. On a third, a 10-year-old, with a placard asking for the removal of "sampradayak" (communal) judges draws wild cheers as he repeats with great emotion what he has heard other speakers mouth, regardless of whether he understands any of it.

One section of the media berates the government for being scared of the truth; another accuses the supporters of the dharna of playing virulent communal politics. Elsewhere the BJP decries the government's "naked minority appeasement" while clerics give a "clean chit" to the government in the matter.

There are chilling undertones to this agitation and its spin offs. In death, Mujahid has become the mascot of all that is wrong with the imprecise war against terror. Many claim to be speaking for him. By reacting in fits and starts, the government has fuelled the perception that it is shrouding the truth for fear of what it might lead to. In doing so, it has birthed a deep mistrust among the minority community. It has also, by default, put at risk the lives of all those who are in jail on terror charges.

The questions reach beyond the death of one Khalid Mujahid. They go to the root of how terror is being re-fashioned as a political issue; how a dangerous mix of hope and denial is being used to frighten all communities. They reflect on how fresh political agendas are being set for the decades to come, who reaps the greatest yields of such agendas, and how shadowy terrorist modules are being birthed.

Terror was never an easy foe. By hoisting half-truths on its soldiers and those who fight them, its evil is fed. The longer the questions of Khalid Mujahid's death and its larger implications are ignored, the harder the fight becomes.