The Preamble to the Constitution promises to secure for its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. But what is justice for the men acquitted in the Akshardham terror attack? On the night of June 28, 45-year-old Adam Suleman Ajmeri’s sleep was interrupted by a knock on the door. As he walked to the door, he saw that his wife was up too. “It was 2 am. She had woken up my daughters and daughter-in-law. Why would someone knock at such an unearthly hour?” he recollects.
But Ajmeri says he had a hunch, a bad one. As it turned out, he was right. Two policemen were standing outside the door of his house in Shahpur, Ahmedabad. Soon, they were inside, asking Ajmeri questions about his work and plans for the coming week.
“When I asked them the reason of this visit, they said it is because PM Narendra Modi would be in the city tomorrow,” says Ajmeri. In May 2014, Ajmeri, who had been sentenced to death in 2006, was one of six men acquitted by the Supreme Court in the 2002 Akshardham temple attack. The court had pulled up the Gujarat police for framing innocents and the then state home minister of “non-application” of mind.
“I have been declared a free man by the Supreme Court of India . But I do not think I will ever be free,” says Ajmeri. “It is humiliating to see the police turn up at my door every time there is a VIP visiting the city,” he says.
Five others were acquitted in the case — Shan Miya alias Chand Khan from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh), Mufti Abdul Qyyum Mansuri, Mohammed Salim Shaikh, Abdulmiyan Qadri and Altaf Hussain. But freedom from prison has not restored their earlier liberties.
Ajmeri sells crockery and cosmetics in a small shop in Kalupur; Mansuri, 47, is a part of the Ahmedabad chapter of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind; Shaikh works with various construction companies; and Altaf makes and sells designer lights for hotels and homes. The four last met at the funeral of Abdulmiyan Qadri, who died around five months ago of throat cancer. None of them has information about where Chand Khan is.
“My sentence was the shortest but the police still come home to check on me. I have requested them not to. I assured them that I would come to the police station whenever they call me. I have just moved to a new house and I do not want the neighbours to think there is something wrong. Besides, there are women in the house and I am not comfortable with the police coming when they are alone,” says 44-year-old Altaf.
When asked about the midnight knocks, Ahmedabad police commissioner AK Singh says, “The acquittal does not mean that there is no evidence at all. While we respect the judgement by the courts, we do not refrain from ensuring that there is security. Security assessment is our job and we make sure we do it in a manner which is not overwhelming.” He says cops turning up at odd hours “must be in one or two cases but I will have to look into them.”
For Altaf, every Rakshabandhan is a rude reminder of the time he spent in prison. “I was arrested on August 6, 2003, four days after my marriage. Rakshabandhan was the only day that I could see my wife in person,” said Altaf.
Altaf started his own company in 2011 and lives with his wife, children and parents in a house that he bought a year ago. “I get angry whenever the police call me. I served the five years that the Gujarat court asked me to. The Supreme Court of India declared me free. Why can I not be like you all?” he asks. While he does not face the suspicion of neighbours in his largely-Muslim locality, “most of my clients are Hindus and word spreads fast. It affects my business,” he says.
Mohammed Shaikh, 45, was about to leave for Riyadh to return to his job as a tailor when he was arrested. “I was in jail for 11 years. I would have been there till I died. We had to sell our ancestral house in Shahpur and my brother was forced to sell his jewellery shop to support us,” he says.
After his release in 2014, Mohammed decided to move out of the old city. “We took this house on rent in Juhapura. I knew that if I live in the old city, things would never be the same. The police do not come here often. I make sure I live a simple life. I come home from work and stay at home. I do not subscribe to newspapers or want to read news. I just want to be with my family,” says Mohammed, as his eye grows moist with tears.
The newspapers are what informed Mansuri’s eldest son about his father. “I read in the papers that my father was a terrorist. I did not understand much. I was five years old when Abba was arrested. I stopped school and opted for religious studies. I wanted to be closer to Allah and pray for my father,” says Muaviya Abdul, who is now 18. His mother slipped into depression after the arrest and tried to kill herself twice.
Mansuri, a teacher in a madrasa, released a book in 2015, Gyarah Saal Salakhon Ke Peeche, a detailed account of being branded as a terrorist without any evidence. It alleges that senior officers like former DIG of Gujarat, DG Vanzara, were involved in the torture he underwent in police custody. “Vanzara was released a few days ago. It is indeed acche din for him. When we were arrested, I remember him telling us that our Allah cannot protect us as the government and law belong to them. I think he was right,” says Mansuri.
The acquitted men rue the lost years as well as the difficulty of fighting perceptions of guilt. “Our community accepts us. The problem is with the larger society. Whenever they see a man with a beard and a cap, they think he is a terrorist. I can’t think of taking my children for an outing on the other side of the city. What if someone calls me a terrorist?” asks Ajmeri.