Escape From the POTA Archipelago

Mufti Abdul Qayyum, a relief-camp worker, was charged by Gujarat police with conspiring in a terrorist attack. Credit: Raghu Karnad

Mufti Abdul Qayyum, a relief-camp worker, was charged by Gujarat police with conspiring in a terrorist attack. Credit: Zahir Janmohamed

Ahmedabad: On May 16 last year, Abdul Qayyum was in jail waiting for two serious verdicts to be announced. The less serious one was the decision of India’s electorate on who would form the next national government.

The other judgment concerned a Modi regime as well – but his incumbent regime in Gujarat, rather than his imminent one in Delhi. The same day, the Supreme Court of India would be ruling on Gujarat’s flagship terrorism prosecution, a case that had lasted nearly 12 years, almost the full duration of Narendra Modi’s chief ministership.

Qayyum was at the centre of the case, accused of inciting and aiding a fidayeen attack on the venerated Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, in September of 2002. Thirty-three people were left dead in the raid, and 86 grievously injured. In Gujarat courts, Qayyum had been charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), been found guilty, and been sentenced to death.

It hadn’t mattered to anyone, so far, that he was innocent.

Descent into the darkness

This year, on May 8, Abdul Qayyum released a memoir of his ordeal, roughly translated and published in English as Eleven Years Behind Bars.

His narration begins in August of 2003. Qayyum was busy in his work as a mufti, a legal counsellor, and as an organiser at relief camps for Muslims who had lost homes, or been expelled from them, in the riots of 2002.

Nearly a year had passed since the Akshardham attack, with little progress in its investigation. On August 17, 2003, Qayyum was summoned to meet ACP GL Singhal of the state Crime Branch. As he was driven to Ahmedabad, he writes,

I was sunk in my worries. The car was speeding [on] its way, and faster than the car’s speed was the speed of [the] thoughts… passing through my heart and mind. ‘What will happen now? Why am I being called? How will they treat me?’
… While going with the police officers, I waved goodbye to my family from the courtyard, as my house was adjacent to Hajji Sakhi’s Mosque. Who knew this goodbye wave was not for two or four days, but this separation would last eleven years.

The following day, he was brought before ‘red-bearded’ DG Vanzara, Singhal, and other officers in Vanzara’s office. He was made to sit on the floor, near their shoes. After a few questions, Vanzara said, ‘Call the ‘club party’’ – a team of policemen who arrived to begin what would be a long routine of custodial beatings.

I don’t know how many times he struck me. Finally he got exhausted. He was out of breath, so he had stopped at the time when Vanzara came to his [point], [and] asked me directly: Tell me who attacked the Akshardham temple.
At the time I was totally astonished, shocked and utterly speechless… [Then] I shouted very loudly, with my total strength, ‘I swear by God, I don’t know anything. I am innocent in this matter.’
Vanzara… told Vanaar, ‘Beat him.’

The battering continued, Qayyum writes, ‘in such a frenzy and insane manner that my clothes were saturated with blood’. The palms of his hands were smashed, ‘so much that the colour got changed and both palms became green’ and that later, he was unable to feed himself because ‘my hands and legs [were] swollen like a ball’.

After two days, Qayyum broke.

At last when harassment and third-degree violence became unbearable… I told, ‘Okay sir, I am ready to do whatever you say.’

Now they stopped beating me, [and] we were given [a] chance to discuss among ourselves, to decide [our] actions… as if we were deciding on characters.

Dictating his own fate

An Urdu letter which Qayyum was forced to copy, which police 'discovered' on the dead gunmen. Circled words were flagged by the prosecution's handwriting expert. Credit: Raghu Karnad

An Urdu letter which Qayyum was forced to copy, which police ‘discovered’ on the dead gunmen. Circled words were flagged by the prosecution’s handwriting expert. Credit: Zahir Janmohamed

Qayyum and the other accused were not only permitted to decide their own roles in the terror attack; some of them were invited to choose which attack they had committed.

Our companion Salim bhai was told to choose any one case, from Akshardham, Godhra kand and [the assassination of] Haren Pandya. Once I was also asked by Singhal: He showed me a round ball-type thing and he told me it was charas (cannabis), should I accuse you in charas case?

Qayyum remained captive in the crime branch office, he writes, blindfolded and manacled almost continuously. During this period, the crime branch assembled their story, weighing different possibilities, and frequently consulting Qayyum on details, to create a water-tight account.

Two letters were allegedly found in the pockets of the dead gunmen at Akshardham – letters urging violent reprisals for the riots of 2002. Qayyum was forced to copy them out, in identical hand-writing, as evidence that he personally wrote the ones recovered from the bodies. ‘I assume they would have made me write these letters 40 to 50 times.’

Meanwhile Qayyum received electric shocks to his genitals, and had petrol poured in his anus. He met other officers, including from the IB, none of whom listened to his pleas. Qayyum had trouble using the toilet: ‘My salwar used to stick to [my] skin very badly… While removing it, my wounds used to bleed and pus used to come out.’

Once the police’s story came together, however, the torture reduced. ‘Now the whole day they let me sit in Vanaar’s office, and they made papers ready and used to ask me only some questions,’ he writes.

On August 28, the investigation of the case was officially transferred from the Anti-Terrorist Squad to Singhal and the Crime Branch. On August 29, the arrests of five of the accused, including Qayyum, were recorded, even though Qayyum had been in detention since the 17th, and the others for even longer. On August 30, they were brought before a magistrate and finally charged under various criminal statutes, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Going through hell in paradise

In a curious diversion, the following month, Qayyum took a trip to Srinagar along with Vanzara and several other officers. The objective was to pick up another accused, named Chand Khan, whom Qayyum would have to identify as a collaborator, though he had never seen him before.

Qayyum had been on an airplane before, when going on Hajj. The police officers had not.

Their happiness and our sadness was worth seeing. They even did not know [how] to tie their seatbelts. They told me [to call] for food, drinks and chocolates also – I pressed the button given on the seat, so the airhostess or steward came to our service.

I was the only leader of this caravan, so I ordered, give water to so-and-so, give chocolates to so-and-so. And the officers would see my face in astonishment.

At the Special Operations Group camp, in Sherghadi, Srinagar, Qayyum and two other accused were brought into an interrogation by Kashmir police. On being presented with Chand Khan, though, they refused to recognise him.

The Crime Branch officers didn’t miss the opportunity to see Srinagar’s attractions, and Qayyum ‘got a chance to view the beautiful and exhilarating scenery of Kashmir.’ Together they ate wazwaan, strolled around the Shalimar Bagh, and admired the fountains of Chashme Shah.

On their return to Ahmedabad, the accused were produced before a POTA court and case hearings began.

Decisions at gunpoint

On September 18 – one month since his secret detention – Qayyum was given a demonstration of what could happen if his cooperation in court were to slip. That night, he was sleeping cuffed to the desk in Vanaar’s office.

I was just asleep after great difficulty when one of the officers awakened me by kicking me [in] my back with [his] shoes. Singhal was standing in front of me and the best kind of ‘Oudh’s fragrance’ was [wafting] from his clothes…
VD Vanaar took me along and said, ‘Come on, it’s Sahab’s order [that] today your ‘encounter’ is to be done’.
I was told, ‘You offer namaaz/salah for the dead – today offer namaaz for yourself.’

Qayyum was thrown into a Tata Sumo, its other seats filled with police. It was 2am. Vanaar told the driver to head to Kotarpur. As they drove off, Vanaar swore at him heavily, then pulled out a mobile phone and told Qayyum to call his family ‘for the last time’.

Vanaar took out his revolver at one or two places on the way, cleaned it, inspected it and tried to fire in the air, but it could not be fired…
[Inspector] RI Patel said, ‘Check the other revolver.’
Vanaar said it is [a] government revolver; the account of bullets will have to be given and there will be a mess.

The Sumo drove on, while Vanaar allegedly boasted of ‘his mastery in encounters’ and said,

‘Even after so many encounters, what harm [have] the government and courts done to me? On the contrary I was given [a] bravery medal and Rs 51,000 as an award. Today this encounter of yours is the sixth one.

The vehicle stopped by the side of a canal, from which Qayyum could see the lights of the airport.

After getting me down, they said, ‘Come on, run.’
I said, ‘I will not run.’
They said, ‘If you will not run, we will shoot you.’
I said, ‘Shoot me.’
Vanaar took out the revolver and told his companions to move aside a bit. He aimed the revolver at my head…
In the dark atmosphere of the night, one blast was heard… and a line of fire passed by my head. I was standing, alive, dumb with amazement and astonished, because the bullet did not strike my head.

Five more shots were fired, Qayyum writes, to the right and left of his legs and head.

[The] inhuman sound had awakened the tired, dumb birds before time.
Vanaar said, while rotating his revolver in his hand, ‘Now one bullet is left, which is sufficient for you.’

Right then another officer, AA Chauhan, stepped forward to ask for Qayyum to be spared. He turned to Qayyum and appealed to him, ‘If you confess all that which the superior officer says, then I can save your life.’ Chauhan called a number on his mobile phone.

Then [he] handed the phone to me, [saying], ‘Hold, talk with Sahib.’

From the opposite end, [he heard] Singhal’s voice.

He asked, ‘Are you ready to do whatever we say?’
I said, ‘Yes sir.’
He said, ‘And the letters were written by you?’
I said, it is right.
… They took me back alive to the Crime Branch.

The book then describes Qayyum’s narcoanalysis test, and reproduces his written confession, in which he admits to being part of a conspiracy involving funding from Saudi, fidayeens from Pakistan, and collaborators in Kashmir, Hyderabad and Gujarat.

Qayyum was personally implicated in giving shelter to the fidayeens, and writing two letters recovered from their bodies, promising that ‘the blood of Hindus will be shed, the blood of police will be shed, and the souls of martyrs will have peace.’

Out of hell, into purgatory

The story of Adambhai Ajmeri, another of the men sent to Death Row, but acquitted by the Supreme Court on May 16, 2014.

By now, Qayyum was being held in the high-security ward of Sabarmati Central Jail, an old British-built jail in Ahmedabad where the yards are named for previous inmates – Tilak Yard, Sardar Yard, Gandhi Kholi.

He would spend close to a decade in the jail, sustained by the ‘Aab-e Hayat’, the holy water, of letters and family visits. He also had one visit from the Pramukh Swami of the Akshardham Mandir, arranged by the jail superintendent, the IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt. Qayyum would see six other superintendents pass through the post.

Over this period, he was convicted by the POTA Court, and sentenced to death, along with two others, Adambhai Ajmeri and Chand Khan. The three would appeal to the Gujarat High Court, which kept its judgment mysteriously pending for 26 months, and then confirmed the death sentence – along with the police’s account of the pan-national conspiracy. Qayyum’s appeal moved slowly up to the Supreme Court.

Outside the prison walls, Qayyum writes, ‘the world… went on [at] its own velocity and speed.’ Qayyum’s children grew, and became teenagers. His parents aged; his father died. His request to join the funeral was denied.

In 2007, Vanzara, trapped in a web of extra-judicial killings, was arrested by Central Bureau of Investigation and jailed himself. He would end up as an inmate in Sabarmati Central Jail, too.

May 16, 2014

Mufti Qayyum, acquitted by the Supreme Court after eleven years behind bars. Credit: Raghu Karnad

Mufti Qayyum, acquitted by the Supreme Court after eleven years behind bars. Credit: Zahir Janmohamed

In the year 2014, at last, the date of the Supreme Court’s ruling was announced. On May 16, while India waited to hear who had won the General Election, Qayyum waited to hear if he would live or die.

In the [morning], approximately from 8 o’clock, the trend and the results of the election started coming. Our companion Azam Khan had two to three times given [us the] news that BJP was moving forward … [By] 10 or 11 o clock, the matter was all clear. Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, a BJP government was going to be formed.

Unable to stomach the result and all the talk about it, Qayyum retired into the jail barrack to distract himself with ‘Crazy Prisoner Yonus Jamalpur’.

At 3.45, when I was having tea with Yonus, suddenly Adambhai, Sabirbhai and many Muslim prisoners rushed into my barrack, shouting… Allahu Akbar! We are all released! We are all released.

In its verdict, the Supreme Court bench identified numerous contradictions between the claims of the prosecution and the confessions extracted from the accused; overall, it said, there was ‘no independent evidence to implicate the accused persons for the crime’. It accepted the defence argument that letters being recovered ‘in perfect condition’ when the fidayeen’s ‘clothes were full of blood and mud’ – and riddled with bullet holes – ‘was highly improbable and difficult’.

The bench reached ‘the conclusion that there was a serious attempt on the part of the investigating agency to fabricate a case against the accused persons and frame them.’

They went on to express their ‘anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the Nation. Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them.’

Qayyum expresses a similar thought:

Our freedom was half justice – did the Swaminarayan people, and other Hindu people who died, have justice? Crime Branch has also betrayed them.

When Qayyum stepped out of the jail, onto a carpet of flower petals, he was rushed by friends and reporters, though he notes that, ‘in [the] next day’s newspaper and electronic media, very little space was given to the news.’

As Ahmedabad celebrated the elevation of its Chief Minister to New Delhi, in the colony of Dariyapur, people burst crackers and celebrated Qayyum’s freedom. Once the celebrations had quietened down, Qayyum slipped away to his father’s grave at the Musa Suhag graveyard, and wept.

He remembered another dream he had had in prison.

… That I am outside, and there is a [such] a big crowd of people, that your feet and the ground cannot be seen. There is no strength to walk in my legs, and I have just touched my feet to the ground, like the long wooden poles of crutches, and I flowing on the flood of [the] public with the support of their shoulders. Today Alhamdulillah, I see with my own eyes the interpretation of my dream being completed.

After that I went to Adam Shah Mosque. I prayed there also, and then took my way home.

Post-script 1: Lawyers for Abdul Qayyum and the other victims plan to file a suit requesting compensation for their torture, prosecution and eleven-year imprisonment.

 Post-script 2: DG Vanzara was allowed bail and released from jail this February.