I never met Mohammad Aamir Khan during my stint in Tihar for he was released three years before I was sent in. After nearly 14 years in jail, he was acquitted in all the cases charged – some 17 or so. All were found to be false and wrongly foisted upon him by the Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana police. His memoir of his wrongful arrest, incarceration and eventual release, titled, Framed as a Terrorist – My 14 Year Old Struggle to Prove My Innocence (Speaking Tiger, 2016) makes for moving reading, particularly in the week of the acquittal of the Mecca Masjid blast accused by a Hyderabad trial court. There could not be two acquittals further apart in manner and in significance.
Aamir’s story should be routinely familiar to anybody who has more than cursorily followed terror cases. Abduction by the special cell or the Anti Terror Squads (ATS, which now proliferate across the country), extended torture, delayed production before a pliant magistrate, more torture, confessions, disclosures, and an eventual conviction. There is nothing remarkable in Aamir’s story if you are familiar with how anti-terror operations work in practice. Manisha Sethy’s Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counter-Terrorism in India (Three Essays Press) is a succinct guide. But it is spectacularly remarkable if, like many snoozing liberals, you think India is governed by a rule of law.
However, Aamir’s story is still a bearable read, filtered as it is by a second person recounting and the necessary compression of the horror of the arrest and torture, and leavened by eventual release. The real and extended horror of what the ATS can do to a person and by extension to the country in whose name this counter-terrorism is carried out is described in Begunah Qaidi-Dahshatgardi ke Jhoote Muqadmat mein Phansaye Gaye Musalman Naujawanon ki Dastan (Pharos, Delhi, 2016) by Abdul Wahid Shaikh.
Abdul Wahid was one of the 13 accused of the Mumbai train blast case of 2006. He was the only one to be acquitted. The rest are either on death row or have been awarded a life term. Wahid details the innocence of all of them in minute, evidentiary detail. But more than the fact of their innocence, Wahid’s book is a manual, a guide as it were, to what a terror accused should expect in terms of torture-electric shocks, petrol in anuses, parading of family members, including women, round the clock, verbal and physical abuse, rollers – and the role played by reasonable, liberal faces of the state in coaxing confessions out of the accused. Under POTA and TADA, as well as MCOCA, confessions to the police are admissible as evidence (The UAPA that replaces POTA and TADA is mercifully without that provision). And once they have your signature on a blank page you are done for.
How the deep state operates, and the play of the media, judiciary and the medico-legal apparatus, as many innocent people are framed in terror charges, is a story that has been recounted often enough. If you want to hear it from the other side, here is a former judge of the Bombay high court Justice (Retd.) Abhay Thipsay speaking at the fourth Shahid Azmi Memorial Lecture on the topic “Terror Trials: Reflections on Fundamental Rights and Judicial Independence”. I don’t want to repeat a known story, but it is important to remember that while many innocent Muslims are framed their struggles are led by many non-Muslim lawyers, activists, journalists and even members of the judiciary.
Between arrest, and torture on the one end and release on the other, lies imprisonment – long spells of life in jail and that is what I now write about.
My first sighting of a ‘terrorist’ in Tihar happened in the educational ward of jail no. 3, also known as the IGNOU ward. A few weeks after I started my drama class there and had become, so to say, well settled in that ward, I spotted a couple of ‘beardies’ asking for the way to the office. I went forward to meet them and one of them recognised me. He was Shehzad, an accused in the Batla House encounter case of 2008. They were there to inquire about admissions to IGNOU courses.
The image of a dreaded terrorist contrasted strongly with the diffident but well spoken young man I encountered – a pattern that would repeat itself. Young terror-accused men, often bearded, some from madarsas, some with civilian educational degrees, trying to use their imprisonment for their educational career. And with good reason. This was the same ward where Shahid Azmi pursued his degrees before becoming a lawyer and with whom Aamir had shared some time and classes while doing his time. In fact Aamir’s description of the thrill of discovering the library and the joy of sitting on a chair, and the dignity this provided, was almost identical to mine, which I have described elsewhere. Shahzad, Mushtaq and several other men that I encountered in the IGNOU ward were the perfect picture of studious young men found around any university or college.
My second sighting of a terrorist happened when I was called in to the deorhi to read some Urdu letters that had been brought by an advocate. The letters were for Arif, a Pakistani citizen convicted for Red Fort blast case of 1999. The letters contained verses from the Quran, specific prayers and charms to alleviate suffering. Since I could read Urdu, I had been called in to vet those papers. Arif’s story and his wife Rehmana’s struggle have been well told in Sunetra Chaudhury’s Behind Bars (Harper Collins, 2016). What I found remarkable was how innocuous, even insignificant, Arif appeared inside jail.
Later, I was called in to read another letter, written this time by the wife of Maulana Anzar Shah, a fire brand orator from Bangalore who had been arrested for heading a sleeper al-Qaeda cell. That 12-page letter that I was made to read was an experience ignominious, for intruding so strongly on somebody’s personal life, and also, deeply moving. The letter was parched with his wife’s tears who described in evocatively poignant terms, the ordeal of his family as well as her own attempts to approximate more to his desires now that this tragedy had befallen them – by improving her Urdu and taking better care of his father.
I had a more direct encounter with Maulana Anzar Shah when he led our Eid prayer and moved many to tears by recounting a couple of traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad. The first related to the Prophet begging god’s mercy from the tribulations of imprisonment and the second related to a man who comes to the Prophet and says that he has committed such a gross crime that he can never be forgiven. After much reassurance and coaxing he finally confesses to his sin: he had committed adultery with the corpse of a woman he had killed. The Prophet turns away in aversion but god directs him that even for this sinner there will be mercy. A couple of months after that I heard another speech by another young Islamist from Odisha. The burden of his speech was that it was not enough to be pious, one had a responsibility to the fate of Muslims all over the world. Clearly he was exhorting jihad in a subtle manner. I turned to Shehzad and said where is this Maulana trying to lead us and Shehzad smiled and said there are all kinds of us cooped up on a single charge. He added that since those accused of terrorism tend to be educated they also have more differences and arguments with each other.
Soon after this namaz, I was introduced to a petite and even effeminate young man with long curly hair and I was astonished to learn that this was Yasin Bhatkal, one of the most notorious ‘terrorists’ in the country. I couldn’t help remarking to him that there was a great dissonance between his size and the newsprint he commanded. He smiled, beatifically and charmingly I might add.
In Tihar, the terror accused are all kept in what are called high risk or high security ward because they are in, Tihar parlance, highlight cases. There is no TV in high risk wards, inmates are kept in cells from which they are only allowed out twice a day, their cells are searched thrice a day and they are shunted from jail to jail every three months.
When they are led out, twice a week to make phone calls, or for their legal and family mulaqat, they are accompanied by special guards. Life is hard but also mundane. I often saw them outside phone booths, anxiously awaiting their turn or speaking to their family about legal matters which none of them really had a clue about before their imprisonment. While some are subject to abuse and slurs by and large, as recounted by both Wahid and Aamir, prisons are far more tolerant than the police squads that arrest them. At least in Tihar, there is great tolerance for different forms of worship. Ordinary Muslim inmates often speak enviously of the piety of ‘high risk Muslims’. They claim that the ‘high risk’ people say this is our chance to fully dedicate ourselves to god, where else will we find so much time for him.
When Aamir’s father died, the first person to console him was Sushil Sharma, the infamous murderer of his wife from the Tandoor Murder Case of the mid-1990s. Indeed, the prison memoirs and memories of many so called terrorists are full of gratitude for ordinary prisoners, often Hindus, who helped them with education, legal or other counsel. There are even warders and officials who look upon them as being ordinary human beings devoid of the stigma of either their faith or the charge they face. The inmates who helped Aamir in Tihar, Dasna and other jails and kept his morale up were very often fellow-sufferers but not necessarily fellow-Muslims. And what comes through this and other accounts is the significance of educational opportunities that prisons might offer.
They are a lifeline, especially for those who have been wrongly accused. While the police implicates, the prisons, very often, redeem. There is much humanity in the condemned and the damned.
“And he of the swollen and purple throat
With stark and staring eyes
Waits for the holy hands that took
The thief to paradise
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not Despise”
– From the Ballad of the Reading Gaol-by Oscar Wilde
Mahmood Farooqui is a theatre-personality and writer, well-known for reviving Dastangoi.