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LIFE AFTER BEING JAILED CAN NEVER BE ‘NORMAL’ AGAIN

These Muslim men languished in jail for many years on trumped up terror charges. Patriot tracks down four of them to find they and their families cannot get past the trauma

Sadhvi Pragya Singh, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon bombing case, is out on bail, campaigning as the BJP candidate from Bhopal. Her future prospects look bright despite being accused of orchestrating a terror attack that killed many. She is, luckily for her, a Hindu.

Unlike her, the innocent Muslim men who were charged with terrorism and finally found not guilty, are not so lucky. Some were in their teens at the time of their arrest. They were tortured, dumped in jail as undertrials for many years, spent a sizeable part of their time in solitary confinement. Some died, others who are still languishing are running out of hope.

In a way, those who, after a prolonged legal battle, could prove their innocence, can be termed lucky. But only a relative sense, for the physical, psychological and financial scars remain.

After spending years in jail, they came out into a world that had changed. They felt like aliens in their own homes. In many instances, parents were dead, offspring had grown up, family members disowned them because of the social stigma. The prolonged legal battle meant that the whole family was pauperised. Many abandoned their family to fate.

The lucky few who could secure release are confronted by lives they are ill equipped to lead, their youthful years behind them and adult respoonsibilities weighing heavy. Mohammed Aamir Khan was only 18 years when he was “kidnapped” from Sadar Bazar in 1998 by men in plainclothes and held him for a week at an undisclosed location, stripped, tortured and tutored to confess he’s a terrorist. He was implicated in a greater number of cases — 20 to be precise — than his age.

He would remain in jail for the next 14 years. The world he left was very different from the one he encountered after his release. Then, there were only landlines, now there are android phones that click pictures, social networking sites and the whole new world of Internet. Technology is a challenge that he is yet to come to terms with. With the Metro and new flyovers, the landscape of Delhi has transformed. He feels like a stranger in his own city — Old Delhi — fairly incapacitated, unable to lead a fulfilling life.

He was the only son — two elder sisters are married — of a father who died two years after his arrest. His mother fought a lone legal battle till two years before his release, when she was paralysed after a debilitating stroke. After his release, he found her ‘living dead body’ in a ramshackle house on his release. She died a few years later.

In the meantime, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took up his case suo moto and sought compensation for him. After four long years, though government opposed the idea, he was finally awarded a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for 14 lost years. Something is better than nothing, but such compensations seems to ridicule the value of a life ruined by the state.

“Government agencies should come forward with a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate innocent people like me, who are the victim of the faulty criminal justice system. What is the price of a life?” he takes a deep breath and adds, “What was my fault? That I’m a Muslim!” The memories of atrocities he experienced sends a chill down his spine even seven years after his release.

Despite this, Aamir is grateful he has a semblance of a normal family life with his wife and five-year-old daughter. The government did not come to his rescue but civil society did. He is part of the campaign Aman Biradari, for secularism, peace and justice promoted by Harsh Mander, Director of the Centre for Equity Studies, an autonomous institution engaged in research and advocacy on issues of social and economic justice and equity.

Aamir also works to provide legal aid, counselling, social rehabilitation and education of children in conflict with law. But had he not been ‘kidnapped’ by sleuths and put behind bars for so many years, he would perhaps be a pilot. “When I would fly kites from the rooftop of my house, I desired to be a pilot,” he recollects. Nostalgia can be harrowing.

Mirza Iftikhar Hussain was only 22 years of age when he was arrested for ‘orchestrating’ the Lajpat Nagar blast in 1996. It took him 14 long years to prove his innocence, his final acquittal coming through in 2010. “Life in Tihar Jail was worse than death,” he recollects, but he got used to it. With the result that the outside world felt so perplexing that he is still not comfortable with it after 10 years.

He narrates with an air of accomplishment that he shared space with the dreaded gangsters like Babloo Srivastava and Pappu Yadav and was friends with the arms dealer Abhishek Verma.  He minces no words to say that there’s internal life and also an ‘economy’ of the jail. “Anything and everything is available inside the jail if you have deep pockets,” he says. He was a beneficiary of this private economy. He claims to have made more money inside the jail than outside by making things and services available to prisoners who could afford it.

Iftikhar hasn’t settled down to a regular life. Parents are dead, brothers have their own family to take care of. He couldn’t persuade anyone to marry him. It has been 10 years since his release but he is constantly on the move, trying to find some semblance of stability in life. He shuffles between odd jobs — that of a contractor, real estate agent, even a travel agent. “Things will never be the same,” he says in Hindi. “This is a wasted life.”

This acceptance — or surrender to harsh reality — has given him some solace. And life, howsoever, adverse circumstances may be, finds a way to go on.

Former professor of Delhi university SAR Geelani speaks during the convention “Right to Self Determination UN Recognizes India Denies” in Amritsar on January 28, 2018. (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP)

Irshad Ali, now 40, married with three children, was an auto driver when he was picked up by the IB operatives from Dhaula Kuan 10 years ago. After two months of his disappearance — needless to add, a period when he was tortured — a case was registered by the Special Cell of Delhi Police. He was shown to be found in possession of a bag full of RDX and other arms and ammunition.

His father, Mohammed Yunus, filed a police complaint after his sudden disappearance. He suspected that it was the work of police who were now pretending to be on the lookout for him. He wrote letters to the President, Prime Minister, Delhi High Court and Supreme Court, also to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) drawing their attention to the disappearance of his son and the possible role of the police.

The Delhi High Court took cognisance of the matter and directed the CBI to investigate. After four years, CBI concluded that Ali was falsely implicated and recommended action against the erring sleuths. In the meantime, four and a half years had passed. Ali underwent rigorous punishment before he was finally let off.

He now drives a tourist taxi. His father and mother died of shock when he was behind the bars, and he wasn’t even allowed to attend their funeral. After a few days of his release, his only daughter died of a curable ailment for want of better medical treatment.

But there is no respite, no time to mourn these bereavements. He drives the taxi 15 hours a day to pay off loans taken by his father to fund his defence in court. “Those times were testing. I had to mortgage my house, my land to pay the lawyers,” he says with an air of frustration.

No action has been taken against the erring officers of the IB or the Special Cell, who were reprimanded by the High Court when the sentence of innocence was pronounced. The matter is being transferred from one court to another, currently is under consideration of the Delhi High Court. Ali has little hope, “It’s their court, the court of the cops who have erred. I’m unlikely to get justice,” he says, reconciled to his fate.

SAR Geelani, professor of Arabic in Delhi University was one of the main accused in the Parliament Attack Case. He underwent the worst kind of torture, spend years in jail, was acquitted by the Delhi High Court, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court. After his release he was shot at, when he was visiting his lawyer Nandita Haksar in south Delhi. He survived miraculously, despite serious bullet injuries.

Life limped backed to normalcy, he visits Zakir Hussain College shadowed by security personnel. Over the years he’s become a recognisable voice for secularism, against communalism and leads life of a teacher.

Three years ago, he was again arrested on sedition changes and as a result was suspended from his job for allegedly organising an event on to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru who was convicted and executed in the Parliament Attack Case. The sedition case, in which he’s out on bail, hasn’t made much progress in the past few years.

Geelani’s son Atiq suffered, as he was old enough to remember those horrific days when his father was a victim of state brutality. Now 21 years old, he’s not bitter or vengeful. Instead, his father’s struggle has given him a certain resolve. In the final year of law, this tall lanky fellow with trimmed beard and a pleasant disposition wants to be a criminal lawyer. There’s no confusion in his mind. He’s determined not to let others suffer what his father had to undergo.

As for the others, there are daily reminders of what happened in the past. “When Pragya Singh Thakur told her saga of being tortured, I remembered mine,” says Aamir. Memories of torture give him goosebumps — he sweats pro fusely despite air conditioning.

Justice delayed is indeed denied.