Srinagar: A 44-year-old Srinagar resident, arrested and jailed nearly 12 years ago on terrorism charges and branded as the “Pepsi Bomber” by a section of the media, finally returned home this week after a lower court in Surat, Gujarat, acquitted him of all charges, including under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Bashir Ahmed Baba, who hails from Srinagar’s Rainawari area, was detained in Gujarat back in 2010 on the suspicion that he was visiting the state to recruit young men and send them to Pakistan for terrorist training. During his trial, Baba maintained his innocence and told the court he was sent to Gujarat by the company he was employed with at that time to receive training in computer management.
Baba claimed that he along with a colleague had been put up in a hostel in Ahmedabad to attend the two-week long training session but on the seventh day of his arrival, the anti-terrorism squad (ATS) of Gujarat police detained the duo.
While his colleague, who Baba says was a non-Kashmiri, was eventually let go, the then 32-year-old was interrogated and even thrashed for the next two weeks. “I had no idea what my interrogators were talking about. They didn’t even tell me what I had done and kept on saying that I must confess,” said Baba.
Two weeks later, the ATS finally announced his arrest. After spending a few weeks in police remand, Baba was sent to judicial custody and lodged in Vadodara central jail.
“I never lost faith. I was innocent and I knew one day I will be released but didn’t know it would take this much time. Yet I don’t have a lot of regrets. This was a test from Allah,” said Baba.
Baba said he had heard stories of Muslim and Kashmiri youth being wrongfully jailed for years but had never imagined he would end up being one of those stories. Outside the jail, some media outlets quoted “sources in ATS” and claimed Baba was an expert in making bombs. Baba soon got a nickname – “The Pepsi Bomber”. Media outlets then claimed, without adducing any evidence, that this name was due to the fact that Baba used soft drink cans to make explosives and that he was “notorious” with the J&K police for using this modus operandi.
G.K. Pillai, who was Union home secretary in 2010, had desribed Baba’s arrest as a “major success” at the time. “We have another module being busted in Gujarat of the Hizbul Mujahideen… So it’s been good,” he was quoted as saying. Asked by The Wire for his reaction to Baba’s acquittal a decade later, Pillai said that the prosecution should review the exact roles of individuals arrested in alleged terror plots. “What happens is that the prosecution focuses on a few of the arrested persons whom they believe are the main plotters. But there might be among the arrested those individuals who might have unknowingly helped a friend or an acquaintance involved in such plots. These individuals might not be aware of what is happening and end up getting imprisoned till the judge realises the evidence against them is not strong enough to convict them under UAPA. The prosecution should in such cases make it clear which set of people are involved deeply in the case and which set of people might be sort of secondary people so that they don’t end up spending decades in jail.”
But for Baba, Pillai’s words are too little and too late. He still maintains he never had any contact with individuals or militant outfits and had gone to Gujarat only for a training session.
“I was given an address (of the hostel) by my organisation. Upon reaching the railway station I showed the address to the auto driver who dropped me there. Six days later the ATS came banging on my door,” Baba said.
“I didn’t even know about my crime. It was many weeks later that I came to know what I was being accused of, or the nickname. It was extremely disheartening,” he said.
‘Killing time in prison’
But Baba resolved not to let the media coverage and the charges weigh him down in prison. He decided to make use of his time.
“I had no idea on how I should spend my time. It was a new life for me. Of course I would pray and exercise but there was a whole lot of time to kill so I started to study. The jail authorities cooperated with me and allowed me to pursue my master’s degree. Eventually I got a three master’s degrees. One in political science, one in public administration and another in Intellectual Property Act,” said Baba.
Before his arrest, Baba’s interest in computer technology had led him to pursue a diploma in the subject. He had, in fact, established a small computer centre where aspiring youth looking for employment would get trained. Baba had eventually joined a Germany-based non-governmental organisation working on child healthcare in India. This is when he was arrested.
For the next several years, Baba’s family put up a brave fight in court but the trial of their eldest son came at a massive cost, both monetarily and emotionally.
The family applied for bail during the initial days but fear of their application being rejected made them take a different course. Their lawyer suggested that they focus on responding to the charges instead of applying for bail repeatedly. However, the family did try for Baba’s bail when his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. The bail was rejected on grounds of the seriousness of the case Baba was involved in.
“My father and I would travel all the way to Gujarat. The court case was taking a toll but at least there were two of us. However, the biggest blow to the family came when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He passed away in 2017,” said Nazir Ahmed, Baba’s younger brother. He also added that the family had tried for Baba’s bail again when there was talk of releasing prisoners due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “We submitted all the required documents with the district commissioner’s office in Srinagar but we got no response,” he said.
Ahmed works as a salesman in Srinagar, and besides sparing time to attend his brother’s case, he managed to take care of his family by taking the reins from his father. Ahmed helped get two of his sisters married as well. “There were times when I felt that I can’t go on but then Allah gave me strength,” said Ahmed.
The brothers also acknowledged the role their lawyer Javaid Khan played in getting the elder sibling released. Khan, Baba said, passed away a week before he was freed.
Baba’s mother Mokhta who still finds it hard to believe that his son is home said she had seen her eldest only once in the last 12 years. “I went to visit him once in 2014. When I saw where he was held I had only one thought, how would he survive. He did. I used to pray to Allah to return my son. My prayers have been answered finally,” she said.