Former Delhi University professor Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, who was wrongfully sentenced to death by a special court in the 2001 Parliament attack case, passed away on Thursday in New Delhi.
The following interview has been excerpted from Nitya Ramakrishnan’s book, In Custody: Law, Impunity and Prisoner Abuse in South Asia.
S.A.R. Geelani is a professor of Arabic at the University of Delhi. He has been a supporter of the movement for Kashmiri self-determination. He was an accused in the bombing of India’s parliament in December 2001, and was sentenced to death on extremely flimsy evidence by the Sessions Court on charges of abetting terrorism.
The Delhi high court acquitted him of all charges. This case study has been retained in an interview format to allow the reader a sense of the professor’s subjective recollections.
The interview illustrates the routine failures at every level of the criminal justice system, from illegal detention by the police, the magistrate’s refusal to take cognisance of specific complaints of torture, to the medical fraternity’s collusion with police and the routine maltreatment of prisoners in jails. It also highlights the media’s complicity with police and state agencies when terrorism is alleged. Finally, it disturbingly draws attention to the secret world of undercover operatives and intelligence agencies and how ideologies of the nation and the Islamic other operate to distort the rules of a functioning democracy. This interview encapsulates much of what this report has attempted to study- torture as a public secret.
The interview with S.A.R. Geelani took place on July 20, 2008, at his residence at Zakir Nagar, by Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh and Nitya Ramakrishnan.
Geelani: In my case the torture was pointed out in the arguments. They said this is routine, what can we do about it… If the Supreme Court can’t do anything about it, who can? What do they mean, what can we do? The magistrate knew about the illegal detention of my wife and children.
And, of course, the police establishment endorses it. After every encounter, the cops involved got a promotion. Rajbir [the Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) investigating the Parliament bombing] went to the media saying he had cracked the case in a week and he was promoted too.
Of course, the high court did say that the evidence against you was fabricated by the police but the Supreme Court did not even go into the issue. If we could just go back to the beginning…. You were arrested when, December 15, 2001?
No, no … they picked me up on 14th itself, from a bus, though the police said they picked me up on the 15th. They just lie…
Then they took you to a police station. Which one?
[Laughs] No, not police station. I was taken to a farm house in Rajokri Road near Gurgaon. There are all these fancy farm houses on that road. It was one of those…I didn’t know then of course. I was blindfolded during the drive but later, quite recently actually, I was invited to a conference on Kashmir, a big conference with people from Pakistan [and] India. It was at some five-star resort, Ashoka Country Resort.
When I saw the invitation, I remembered when they had finished their first round of interrogation, they had ordered some tea, on the telephone. They let me have some tea, and a cigarette. The tea came from outside, and sugar sachet had Ashoka Country Resort printed on it. So it was near this resort. It was strange going back.
So you went back there?
Yes, I stayed there for four days for the conference, It’s posh five-star resort. The farm house I was kept in was nearby. It was an IB [Intelligence Bureau] safehouse.
They have these places, lots of them. They have a few flats in Vasant Kunj, some flats, some of these farmhouses. They keep people there…for months. They pick them up; kidnap them from Nepal, from Pakistan. They airlifted some people from Afghanistan. Then you know before January 26 or August 15, or when some attack happens, they’ll produce them saying they’ve unearthed a conspiracy, they’ve cracked a case.
One hears accounts of several encounters, like that Ansal Plaza encounter.
I have met people in jail…no, no, actually in judicial lock-up. I was always in solitary [confinement] in jail. In the judicial lock-up I’ve met people. You know the Calcutta US consulate attack [January 2002]? Once in the judicial lock-up, I met somebody; he said, ‘Salaam’ to me, and then he said, `Shukriya’, and I was surprised.
This man didn’t even know me, so I asked him, ‘Why?’ And he told me they’d been in custody for three months before the parliament attack. “They said they were going to put us up for that, that’s death sentence for sure, but they’ve decided to frame you in instead.”
And, then there’s the case of the Sudanese student, a PhD student from Jaipur. He was framed as the first al-Qaeda person arrested in India. I met him once in judicial lock-up.
They had a conspiracy theory, a mechanic from Bihar who was the bomb expert, and a maulana-type of person, a Sufi you know from UP. They said he was their spiritual leader. So, the student told me that he had been in custody for months, 3-4 months. He had a phone number of the safehouse where they had detained him.
After he was released, he was acquitted in the case; he got in touch with me. I was in Srinagar then. I said I’m coming back to Delhi in 2-3 days, let’s meet then. But that night I got a phone call. He said, ‘They’re deporting me tonight, at 1 am because I had contacted you on phone.’
Can we go back a bit to your arrest…
I was picked up from the bus, as I said. What happened was [that] I was sitting in an aisle seat, and a man came and asked me to move in. I said I was getting off at the next stop, so I told him to take the [seat] inside. But he refused; then he remained standing next to me. He told me he was a cop and asked me to accompany him, his senior officers wanted to meet me. Meanwhile, the bus slowed down at the signal and perhaps he thought I would try to escape so he started shouting. When he started shouting, asking the bus to stop, he had a gun; there was a commotion in the bus.
I thought I should go with him, without a fuss. The bus had reached the stop, and we got off. There was a Maruti 800 waiting. They dumped me in the Maruti. There were five people in the car- the driver, then Mohan Chand Sharma in the front next to him, Rajbir and another man in the back, and me in the middle sandwiched. It was a squeeze! There were two people in the back, I was in between them. They had a gun to my head on both sides. I thought it was robbery. I’d been to the ban. I had quite a lot of cash with me. I had Rs 25,000 in cash. I thought they had found out about that, that it was a gang. Then they emptied my pocket. Found the hearing aid and the cash.
Then they drove to Tiz Hazari, to the inter-state bus stop. The arrest memo of course doesn’t mention the Rs 25,000. It says only Rs 700. I still haven’t got my money back [laughs]. They were abusing me. They said they knew who I was, a professor. I thought I was a big man, they would show me. But I still wasn’t sure; I thought they were a gang of some sort. At Tis Hazari they took money from my wallet [laughs] and bought some snacks. When they arrested me, I had a hearing aid in my pocket for my mother-in-law in Kashmir. Rajbir got off and was speaking on the phone. Then we started moving again. I still wasn’t sure what was going on entirely. I didn’t know who they were.
Then they took the car to Raj Ghat. Rajbir got off again and was on the phone. They were still holding guns to my head. Oh yes, I remember when I realised they were cops, that it was serious. At some point on the road, a traffic cop asked them to stop at an intersection and he [Rajbir] got furious, abused them, and brandished his gun at them…. The traffic constable was so surprised, he didn’t know what was happening! Then one of the others said ‘Don’t you know him? He’s ACP Rajbir Singh.’ That’s when I realised. At Raj Ghat they blindfolded me, and we drove for a long time… more than an hour definitely.
Then we stopped. They pushed me out. When they opened the blindfold it was on the verandah of a big bungalow with a huge garden [and] very high walls. You couldn’t hear any traffic noise, it was that huge.There were lots of people there, officials. I still didn’t know who they were exactly. I asked for a cigarette to smoke.
Can you describe this safehouse?
It was a posh farm house, all equipped with instruments for torture[laughs] I didn’t know who all were there at first of course, but there were senior officials. Rajbir was there, and Ashok Chand [Deputy Commissioner of Police, Delhi] and he was being so deferential to the others, so they were top officials. When I asked for a cigarette, one of them said that in all ‘three teams’, meaning RAW, IB and police, no one smokes. That’s when I realised it was very, very serious, this was something big.
Then, when the beating started it all became clear, the Parliament blast angle. They were beating me with sticks, bamboo, iron rods. Two people, one from either side. There was a pause; they took a break but only to strip me. I fell down. Then it started again. In this session they started asking the names of who all died in the Parliament bombing. I said I did not know. They kept asking me that, abusing Muslims. The seniors were watching quietly, giving instructions occasionally. There was a lot of verbal abuse, ‘Mussalman yeh, Mussalman woh’.
Then the next session started, I was tied up with a rope. And a heavy, very heavy, iron rod, was placed between my hands, and hands tied to the rod. The rod was put on a ledge in the wall, so I was suspended. And then one man got on a tall stool and started on me. See, they had all the instruments, they were fully prepared. Started hitting the soles of my feet, I remember it was very, very cold. December, it was a very cold year.
And they continued to hit me like that till I was barely conscious. Then they dragged me down. They took a break, till I regained consciousness a little, then the second round started. I couldn’t stand by this time and they asked me to run and there were two men on either side pulling me, dragging me, forcing me to run. My soles were in such pain I could hardly stand. Then there were other things, pulling out my genital hair with pliers. By this time they were saying ‘Confess you have done it.’ They were abusing me, shouting at me saying you’ve done it. ‘We know you’re behind it. Confess you got it done.’ They put me on an ice slab. They had that, too, in the house; I don’t know where it came from. This went on till it was dark, it was night. Then they said, ‘[If] you won’t confess, we’ll pick up your family. We’ll rape your wife; we’ll kill your kids.’ I kept saying why target my family. It’s a personal grudge against me. One of them made a call to have my family picked up, I don’t know if he did it really or whether it was just to scare me.
So at that time, what kept you from agreeing to what they were saying?
I don’t know really…I was just thinking, they will do whatever they want anyway, I have to be strong and resist this. You see I had my politics from the start, and also I knew they can use this, whatever I say. I kept trying to talk to them, of going through it, though it was no use. I kept talking, so I would say you are the police, you people are yourselves breaking the law. They ordered a cup of tea after the first round, on the phone; they were tired from the work [laughs]. That’s when I saw the sugar packet. I was still naked, I couldn’t stand, and I was sprawled on the floor.
They must have picked up Afshan [co-accused in the case] by that time. I overheard a phone conversation about picking her up. They had been asking me their [co-accused Afshan’s and Shaukat’s] home phone number. I kept saying, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ There was a Sardar from the IB; a tall, hefty fellow.
He stood on my feet, on my bleeding toes and ankle, with his boot; my wrists were bleeding also from being tied. He kept questioning me for a long time, about Afshan. ‘Yeh kudi kaha rehti hai? Jalandhar ki hai? Tumne iski shaadi Mussalman se kaise karvaya?’ Over and over the same thing, I was in a bad state. They thought I may die.
I think there was another round after that, I can’t remember. The news came that Afshan had been found and captured. They dumped me in another car. Then I was brought to the Lodhi Colony, they have these special cells, for interrogation. There is a police station, and then there is a set of cells, that is the usual place they bring people [suspected of terrorism-related offences].
It’s the IB office, in the same compound as the police station. It was the middle of the night by that time. I was in handcuffs and shackle; they kept me shacked always, throughout the time I was in custody. But they had given back my clothes. They had taken in Arifa [my wife] and children by that time; I knew they were there. My son was very young, not even in school at the time, maybe three or four years old. I said, ‘Don’t show me to the family. My son will have a bad impression of you people, of this country.’
There was this chap Ashok [one of the guards], he was the most uncouth of the lot, very abusive. He said, ‘Don’t act like a big philosopher, we can do this, we can do that [to your wife and kids]. Stop talking bakwas [rubbish]. Bhagat Singh ho jaayenge’ [You will become a martyr, that is, be killed].
You see, they are victims of their own stories, they believe that image which they create. Some of them know, of course, that it was a false case, but especially lower down the police hierarchy, they don’t know the bigger picture; they just believe whatever they are told from the top. Everybody believes it, so it’s not surprising. They are very frightened of us, actually frightened [laughs].
I was taken to see Arifa; she had been told to tell me to confess. They had told her, ‘Your husband is in jail, we’ll kill you, we’ll kill the children. You better tell him to come clean.’ She was, of course, scared for the children, but they didn’t physically hurt her. They just let me speak to her for a few minutes and then they took her away, to another cell. They kept them in custody for two days and then released them.
I still don’t know why they decided to release her. Arif, my son, he only was three-and-a-half years and they brought him to see me in that state, I was bleeding, I could hardly stand. He still remembers it. I know, because recently some relatives were discussing something about visiting someone in jail — what to take — just a casual conversation. And Arif just jumped in and said, ‘I know what they get to sleep on, they will get one thick, itchy black woollen blanket.’ He remembers it from the lock-up.
Early next morning at dawn, they let me have a bath. That was the first time, since the arrest, they let me use the toilet. Even then there were a team of commandos with their rifles pointed at me; they wanted to come inside the bathroom. I said, ‘What is this, at least let me have a bath, let me go to the toilet.’ So then they stood outside the door, with their guns. [laughs] And two policemen were in the bathroom. You see, they really believe their own image. I suppose it’s also a way of breaking someone down, to humiliate them.
They had shown me three sacks of books and papers they had seized from my house. They said, ‘Yeh sab tumhare ghar se mila hai.’
September 11 had just happened; there was a Time magazine with the twin towers on the cover. They were pointing to that, being abusive. I got really angry about that, I said, ‘Go and search, it will be there in your Prime Minister’s house, why don’t you arrest him?’ They were quite angry, they said the usual ‘Mussalman this and that’, so I said, ‘Abdul Kalaam ke ghar jaayo’. He was the President then. ‘He’s a Muslim too.’
They were furious; they started throwing some garbage at me, whatever they could find, lying on the ground. That was quite usual- the previous day one of them had thrown some tea at me, another time one of them threw dal at me while we were eating. That was the way of humiliating me.
So, after my shower they took me to a waiting Gypsy. I had known that Afzal and Shaukat were in custody, but this was the first time I saw them. Shaukat kept talking to the police, he was saying just tell me what to say, I told him, don’t say anything. You see I knew about POTO [Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance]. I knew that they could use our [confessional] statements.
Had Shaukat and Afzal been tortured also?
Yes, the previous night. They were both together, and they had been tortured. But they could walk; at the time I still had to be supported by two policemen. In the Gypsy there was a stink, like stale urine. I asked, ‘What is this smell?’
One of the cops pointed to Shaukat and Afzal and said, ‘Isko nehlana’ [make him have a bath]. The previous night, the police had urinated in their mouths, and they were still in the same clothes; the smell was coming from them. That was not done to me. I think they were planning to, once I has asked for some water during the night and they were joking about it, but finally they didn’t do it.
Because there were two of them, there had been more humiliation. They had made them pose without their clothes, as if they were having anal sex. They had been videographed also.
But this was before the Abu Ghraib pictures?
Yes, but this must be common. We were taken to Safdarjung Hospital. It was early morning, so it was deserted, and they had evacuated the whole place. Commandos gheraoed the hospital the moment we reached, and we were taken inside. There was only one doctor. The policemen filled up my medical form, I protested to the doctor. But he just said, ‘There is a lot of pressure.’
So, the medical report said: ‘BP, pulse everything normal, no marks of injuries.’ I could not even stand on my own. That day [December 16] was a Sunday; we were taken to Mandir Marg, to a flat. It was the magistrate’s house. ACP Rajbir went inside and spoke to her. We were waiting outside. Then the magistrate came out. She asked us, ‘Do you have anything to say?’
I asked her, ‘What are we being arrested for?’ I showed her my feet. I told her that they have kidnapped my wife and children and that they are in the police station. But her order does not record anything.
Her house is in Mandir Marg? But the remand order said Gurgaon?
No, no. It was definitely in Mandir Marg.
I remember that this was used during the trial, the discrepancy in the time because it was not possible to go from Delhi to Gurgaon between the alleged time of arrest and the production. But why did they lie? It weakens their case.
They tell so many lies they get caught in their own web. I remember that it said Gurgaon, but I don’t know why.
Was Afshan also there?
Yes, I think, yes, she was there. All four of us were produced.
Then we were taken back to Lodhi Colony. During the daytime, they put Shaukat, me and Afzal in the same cell for some time, but then they separated us. I kept telling them not to agree to anything, but Shaukat was talking to them all the time. He had faith that he could come to the court [the trial] and the judge would acquit him.
He felt that if he agreed, the police would release him, and they were also telling him that. But I tried to explain about POTO. Afshan was there in the lock-up as well; she was crying loudly, we could hear her. She was wailing loudly, she was very disturbed. She kept asking to be allowed to speak to me. She called me ‘Rehman bhai’, but they wouldn’t let her.
The next day we were separated. I was blindfolded, and taken in a car to the BSF [Border Security Force] headquarters. I didn’t know where they were taking me, but it was indicated on the crockery that they ate on, and served tea in. At lunchtime, on December 16, 2001, same day, they allowed me to see Arifa.
That was on the second day. They would keep taking me to various places, using different methods. Like with Afzal and Shaukat they would be nice to them, try to act like they were their friends. That was the day that they finally released Arifa and the children. The same day they produced us in front of the media. In the videos you can still see that I am leaning on the policeman, I can’t stand. But nobody reported it. I was trying to shout that I was being tortured, that they had kidnapped my wife, you can see me on the tape but no one reported it.
Yes, there was this whole incident about Rajbir telling Afzal not to say something on camera [about Geelani not being involved].
They knew how to deal with all of us, with Shaukat and Afzal it was a good cop routine, they tortured them a lot that first night but after that they kept saying, ‘Tumko chhod denge’. They were ready to sign anything. Shaukat thought they would implicate Afzal and leave him; they asked him to implicate me as well, ‘Yeh marega’, you will also die in the process. Afzal’s brother Hilal was still in their custody in Kashmir. They were good at playing one against the other. They used different methods- they urinated in their mouths, they threw dal on my face- can you imagine anyone doing this to another human?
I’m curious about one thing – why did they not frame a false confession against you as well? When they falsified the confessions against the others?
On 16 December 16, 2001, before they released Arifa, they took signatures on a few sheets of paper. I refused to sign any more blank papers after that so that was all they had against me. They only made it a disclosure statement, but not a confession. And there was a memo of recovery as well. But a confession has to be signed on every page. The others though that if they agree to everything, it will be okay. They will release them, or at least the court will acquit, because the whole case was so flimsy, so obviously fabricated.
On December 17, 2001, it was Id; Bilal brought food from home. Biryani and other things. Afzal and Shaukat were allowed to eat with me. Again, I warned them, but Shaukat said, ‘I will say whatever they want…I can’t bear it.’
After the third or fourth day the physical torture stopped, but the mental, psychological humiliation continued. Outside my cell there would be police-men; they would be abusing, talking about Muslims. Till late in the night, or at odd hours they would wake me up and say some officer has come, he wants to speak to you. Then the interrogation session would start and go on. Sometimes there would be as many as 14 or 15 officers, sitting around me on chairs asking the same questions again and again and then abusing or hitting me.
I would be taken to different rooms or chambers. Some were sound-proofed. In the cell I was in handcuffs 24 hours. Three feet wide, but very deep; you couldn’t see the end of it. [There were] three of us in one cell on one night. There was one session where a Sikh policeman tortured me about the marriage between Afshan and Shaukat.
One night, late at night, around 2 a.m., the policemen outside my cell were talking very loudly, saying all sorts of things about Muslims and Kashmir. One was very abusive- he was saying, ‘I’d never seen a Muslim until I came to Delhi. We killed them off in our area a long time ago.’ I couldn’t sleep, so I clanked my chains to get their attention, and asked to go to the toilet.
They would keep me in shackles, there was a padlock on the cell door, and another pair of handcuffs securing the door as well [smiles]. So when I came back from the bathroom, I told Ashok Chand, ‘You have a lot of misunderstandings about Muslims and Kashmir. When I’m released, I’ll come to your house and I want to have a chat with you.’ I meant it genuinely, but he got really scared. He started shaking, saying, ‘No, no. Please, we don’t mean any harm.’ He was really scared, thinking I’m threatening him! So you see how it works, they really believe it.
Did you always believe that you would be acquitted?
I was scared of course; I was isolated. Shaukat and Afzal at least had each other for company. But I always believed that I would be acquitted in the end. But there were many times when I was depressed. In jail they kept me in dark cell; I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. They would hang a dark blanket on the side of the cell with the bars, so there was no light. There was just one small bulb, which hardly gave any light. No books, no way of reading.
Later they removed the blanket, so it was a little better. No one was allowed to help me; once another Kashmiri prisoner sent a plastic cup, a glass and bucker for me and he was punished for that. They would occasionally send people to talk to me, threaten me or question me for information. They would have spy cameras where I met my family; it was not in the general area where the other prisoners met their relatives.
There were attempts on my life as well; the jail authorities were getting instructions from outside. The authorities have their way of breaking you, or getting to you even in jail.
Is there training, do you think, in such methods?
There is usually a special group of policemen who carry out the actual torture; they have techniques, like rolling on your leg, or beating you so that no marks are visible. The officers sometimes instruct them. They are hyper-nationalist; they believe they are doing it for their country. It happens in jail also; right from the moment you go in, they make you sit near the shoes. They treat you like a slave, shout at you to do this or that.
When I went in, I refused to squat down near the shoes. I told Shaukat not to sit. So the officer got very angry; he asked me three times, he said,’Likh kar lani padegi kya’; they knew who we were, what we were accused of. These are the little ways in which they try to break you. Then I was on death row, in a long dark cell. They put me where I could see the gallows, and Maqbool Butt’s grave is also there. They would say he went from here to there- straight to the gallows. That’s the road you’ll take as well.
When I used to meet [them] in judicial lock-up, I would try to keep up Afzal and Shaukat’s morale, but by that time we had seen the judge [S.N. Dhingra]. Even on the first day before the chargesheet had been filed, when Afshan was crying in court, he said, ‘What’s the use of crying now, you should have thought before you did what you did!’ So, they had seen his attitude. Before that they had thought that they would be saved by the Court, but I knew all along that there was very little hope. I used to remember this doha [recites in Urdu], ‘So even a droplet of water cannot become a pearl unless it suffers.’
You see, I was better off. I was a university professor, I had a permanent job with Delhi University, I knew people outside were fighting for me. But I feel that the human rights movement showed very little concern for Afzal and Shaukat, from the start. I still visit them in jail.; I went last week.
I really don’t know how I went through it; now [when] I think back I wonder how it doesn’t seem possible to be beaten with a six-inch rod, but there is something that is like a miracle. I can’t explain it in ordinary circumstances.