New Delhi: In the chilly winter of 1998, shops shut early in Sadar Bazar, the area near Old Delhi where Mohammad Aamir Khan – then 18 – had spent most of his life. On the night of February 20, Aamir’s mother had dinner ready, and she asked him to eat before he went out to buy some medicines. But Aamir was worried the shops might close. He told his Ammi that he was going to offer night namaz from where he intended to go to the medicine shop.
As he stepped out onto the dark, empty road and headed for Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, he saw a white gypsy approaching. It slowed down in front of him. He tried to ignore it.
All of a sudden, someone pushed him with great force; hands from inside the jeep yanked him in. Aamir was blindfolded and his hands were bound behind his back. “It all happened so rapidly,“ he told The Wire, “It’s taking me longer just to narrate it.“
That was the beginning of Aamir’s 14-year nightmare, which he has recounted in a recently published memoir, released on February 20 by Speaking Tiger, Framed as a Terrorist: My 14-Year Struggle to Prove My Innocence, co-written with Nandita Haksar.
The memoir opens with him recalling his last meeting with his father, at the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital, where he was allowed to visit by the court in 2001. The doctors suggested that Aamir’s father required an immediate surgery and he tried to persuade his reluctant father to undergo it.
He was lying on the hospital bed. I knew he won’t survive. That is why he had been brought there to have a last meeting. Abbu’s eyes were filled with indescribable sadness but when he looked at me I could feel the warmth of his infinite love.
…Abbu was not afraid of dying. It was living that had become hell. His son was accused of planting twenty bombs in trains, buses, bazaars of Delhi, Sonepat, Rohtak and Ghaziabad…
Aamir stood in handcuffs, in silence, as his mother looked on, “tears flowing down her plump cheeks.”
I could not even kiss her. I should have been the one to offer her comfort. Abbu and Ammi watched as the police dragged me away. And then I heard Abbu’s voice: ‘Beta mai tumhari tareekh par nahi aa saka [My son, I could not be there at your trial].’ Those were the last words he spoke to me.
The nightmare had begun in 1997, when he planned a visit to Pakistan to see his older sister, who had married into a family from Karachi.
I was also excited about visiting another country. For me Pakistan was as foreign a country as Germany, except that in Pakistan they spoke the same language as us.
After receiving his travel documents in November 1997, Aamir writes, while walking towards the bus stop to return home, he was approached by a man introducing himself as ‘Guptaji’ from the ‘Intelligence Department’. At their second meeting, Guptaji asked Aamir if he was willing to help his country.
What he suggested involved Aamir taking photographs of the Naval Headquarters at Karachi’s Shah Faisal Road. He also told Aamir that a man named Chaudhary would meet him in Karachi and hand over a bag of documents.
In Karachi, Aamir took his camera and ventured out on a couple of occasions to try and get some of the images Guptaji had asked for.
When I saw the security arrangements there, I was terrified. If I got caught I would land in a Pakistani jail and the thought made me shit–scared. I then returned to the safety of my sister’s home… I realized I didn’t have the stuff of which spies are made.
On February 5, 1998, Aamir met Chaudhary and was handed a leather bag. He left Karachi on February 11 with his assignment half-finished, but with the bag in hand. In the queue at Wagah station, on the Pakistani side of the border, he watched as the bags and suitcases ahead of him were thoroughly searched.
I broke out in a sweat. I imagined myself in a Pakistani Jail. Then I remembered my promise to Guptaji. But there was no way I could see of getting past Customs and my fear of getting caught was rising. I panicked. I went to the back of the queue and then I saw toilets at the other end of the platform… With all my strength, I threw [the bag] onto the top of the roof of the toilets… No one seemed to have noticed. My heart was still thumping when I joined the line of passengers.
Aamir was not home for long before he was abducted and after driving for about half an hour his abductors took him to a room. Immediately he was asked to take off his clothes. For a week, he writes, he was kicked, slapped, elbowed, boxed and his hair pulled.
Next day they came with a lot of blank papers and told me to sign them… I knew it is wrong and dangerous to sign on blank pieces of paper. I do not know how I found the strength to protest, and refusedto sign… I was wondering what they could do with them. I did not have any land which could take away through fraud. Nothing else occurred to me…
Aamir hadn’t yet realised that his kidnappers were not a criminal gang – they were the police.
They brought some instruments and started pulling out the nail of my toe. Blood came out. I screamed but did not sign… My tormentors threatened to pull out the nails one by one till I signed the papers.
He didn’t realise he was in police custody until they brought him out to be produced before the court on February 28, 1998.
Before taking me to the van I was warned to keep quiet, ‘Don’t say anything about the beating because you will have to come back here. We will pick up your parents.’ The thought that these vile people could harm my Ammi and Abbu gave rise to a deep fear in the pit of my stomach.
For the first time, things were becoming clear. The court allowed a ten-day police remand, and he was taken back to Inter-State Crime cell in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.
The police told me that I had to admit to being involved in bomb blasts… that I had to admit to the charges and since the case was false I would come out in a few years. When I resisted I was beaten. I was made to lie on my stomach and my legs and arms were pulled together… They really broke both my body and spirit.
Aamir recalls the first time his parents visited him in jail. Once his emotions receded, their presence terrifiedhim – he could only think how the police might harm them as well. One thing his father said stayed with him, though. “After seeing me in the jail my father said that his son cannot be a traitor, he cannot betray his own country,“ Aamir told The Wire. “His words resuscitated me.“
In the course of his imprisonment that lasted 14 years, not only did he become a target of other inmates, he also fell prey to a new perception of Muslim terrorists that took hold after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Indian Parliament in 2001. By that point, Aamir had already been acquitted in twelve cases, where court proceedings had moved briskly. However, seven other cases remained. Aamir was falsely implicated in as many as 19 cases. He was forced to admit his involvement in the bombings that took place in New Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in 1997-98.
I would lie awake at night and often cry myself to sleep. I just saw the lights of the tower and heard the sound of the boots of the guards and I thought my entire life would pass within these walls.
While Aamir faced prejudice both in the jail and the court, his parents were stigmatised in their own locality. Advocate Firoze Ghazi, who secured Aamir’s acquittal in a number of cases, has a first–hand account of how Aamir’s father was shut out. “One day I went with Aamir’s father to offer namaz in his locality,” Ghazi said. “I saw the social boycott that our own community had unleashed upon him. People didn’t even answer his salaam. They turned their backs on him.”
“See, Ghazi Sahib, what my own community is doing to me,” the father told the advocate. “The court has yet to give its verdict but already they hold me a convict.“
Ghazi himself faced regular communal slurs in the course of judicial proceedings. “Our fellow advocates looked down on us, as they thought we were fighting on the side of anti-nationals,” he said. “Sometimes they abuse you, however implicitly. Then they call you Pakistanis, along with the person whose case you arefighting. Being tagged a Pakistani hurt us, but it could never divert me from achieving justice for Aamir.”
On January 12 2012, Aamir walked out of jail, acquitted in every case against him.
The bus stopped at Inter-State Bus Terminal, Kashimiri Gate but with all the underbridges and flyovers I almost did not recognize where I was. I arrived back in my neighborhood. There were many more shops and it was much more crowded than I remembered. But much had also remained the same. The narrow lanes and uneven roads and tangle of electrical wires were the same. I hear azan for Isha ki Namaaz [the evening call to prayer]. It was at this time, nearly fourteen years ago, I had left home for the night prayers; and after the namaaz I had not returned. Now I was returning, but I felt like a stranger.
He was 32 years old. He had lost fourteen years to persecution and jail – time he would have spent oneducation or on building a career to help support his family.
Today, Aamir is still piecing together his life, with the help of social activists like Shabnam Hashmi and Harsh Mander. He has a job at ANHAD, a human-right organisation run by Hashmi, who also encouraged him to write this memoir. “I believe sharing is healing,“ she said. “I instantly asked him to write as that would help him vent out what he went through.“
His first efforts to write had failed. “As soon as I wrote twenty pages, I would start crying and close everything, I couldn’t gather the strength to continue,“ Aamir said. “But Nandita ma’am [the lawyer Nandita Haksar] wrote down my story, the result of which is this book called Framed as a Terrorist.” The book is dedicated to everyone who, at any point, has been a victim of the justice system.
At Harsh Mander’s Center for Equity Studies, Aamir is a researcher on a study about undertrials. As part of his work, he visited Dasna jail, where he was once imprisoned. “I am worried about his future,“ Mander said. “Also about the psychological trauma he’s still going through. Nobody talks about what his family must have experienced. But his is not the only case.“
In December, the National Human Rights Commission in Delhi issued a show cause notice to the Delhi Government asking why Aamir shouldn’t receive monetary aid of five lakh rupees. But the NHRC recommendations are not binding, and the government never replied. “The response may differ from case to case basis, and NHRC will wait before it takes any further step,“ says J.K. Srivastava, the Commission’sPublic Relations Officer.
Aamir wakes up every morning looking forward to securing the future of his wife, Alia, and his two-year-old daughter Anusha. Asked whether he is worried about his daughter because of his past, his apprehension isobvious. “Of course I’m worried about her future,“ says Aamir. “But I want her to study as much as possible. I want her to achieve everything I couldn’t in my life.“
Mirza Arif Beg is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.