Sitting on the terrace of the 100-year-old BIT Chawl in the congested Mominpura locality of Mumbai, 55-year-old Mohammed Saleem Ansari has for the last over two weeks spent a large part of his time looking at the sky.
And it has just been a little more than a fortnight since Ansari, a mechanical engineer who worked with the Mazgaon Dock, was released from jail after Supreme Court absolved him of the terror-related charges under which he had been in prison for 23 long years. “Life in prison is designed to kill a person’s soul. Its grey walls had stripped my life of colour. I am now trying to soak in as much of the sight and sounds of this free life that I had missed out in the last 23 years,” Ansari said.
Barring a 15-day parole to attend his daughter’s wedding in 2012 and visits to the court for his case hearing, Ansari had never stepped out of the jail premises in the past two decades.
Ansari, along with three other Muslims, walked out of a Jaipur jail on May 17 after the Supreme Court on May 11 acquitted them of all charges, setting aside their life sentence and ordering their immediate release. They were among the 16 who were booked for triggering five blasts on trains on the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, which killed two passengers and injured eight. All of them were charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Acts Prevention Act.
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Ansari was born and still stays in an Army barrack-turned-residential quarter in Mominpura, a congested and squalid Muslim-dominated area in Mumbai. Despite the squalor, Ansari grew up with a circle of friends who were mostly educated youth from the neighbourhood. He soon became part of the Tanzim Islahul Muslimeen, which was floated in 1985 by a group of local activists to preach Islamic values.
Dr Jalees Ansari, a Maharashtra government-employed doctor who was known as one of India’s first home grown Islamist terrorists, was Ansari’s neighbour and one of the main figures of TIH. Dr Jalees has been accused of setting off a spate of low-intensity bombs across India and was convicted in the same case in which Ansari was acquitted. “Our activity was mainly related to evangelism and telling people about Islam and how they need to follow the faith,” recalled Ansari.
With a cushy job and a newborn daughter, Ansari was leading a peaceful life. Things started to unravel for him in January 1994 when a team from the Hyderabad police picked him up in connection with an explosion that rocked Malkajgiri in Andhra Pradesh.
“They were on a lookout for some person who used to frequent the mosque here. I do not know why they targeted me but I was picked up on a Friday evening while I was trying to make arrangements for a religious discourse in Mominpura,” said Ansari.
He was subsequently booked by the Central Bureau of Investigation and charged with conspiracy for the five blasts that took place on trains in Hyderabad, Indergarh (Rajasthan), Surat, Lucknow and Gulbarga. Ansari was also booked for carrying out four blasts in Hyderababd at Abids, Humayunnagar police station, Gopalapuram railway reservation centre and Madina education centre.
In 2004, a TADA court sentenced Ansari and 15 others to life imprisonment. The conviction was based on confessions given to the police by individuals.
“Under TADA, the police can keep you in their custody for 180 days. No normal person can withstand torture for more than a week. You will agree to anything just to end the pain that is inflicted on you. We had been in their custody for so long that I had signed my confession even without reading what it said,” said Ansari.
By this time, Ansari and the others had moved the Supreme Court. Things started looking up when Ansari and six others were acquitted in 2007 in the Hyderabad blasts case.
“We thought we were heading towards freedom and the Supreme Court would free us. However, the wait for our trial in the Supreme Court was excruciatingly painful. Sometimes the date would go by with no one noticing, sometimes our lawyers would not turn up. It was my faith that saw me through during this time,’ said Ansari.
Nearly a decade after they had approached the Supreme Court, Ansari and three others were released from prison. The apex court said there was no material evidence apart from a confession of a fellow accused to link Ansari to the conspiracy.
“There is nothing on record against this accused. No prosecution witness has stated anything against him nor any other confession makes any reference to him,” said the Supreme Court order. It added that only one confession named Ansari but it was difficult to rely on the confession of a co-accused without there being any corroboration coming from any other material on record.
Ansari is now trying to get his life back on track. His first plan is to get his job back. “I was dismissed from service after my conviction. I am now going to apply to get my job back. It has been 23 years and I can see technology has overtaken me. Today, I see so many gadgets and I have problems handling even a mobile phone. It will be an uphill task learning the tricks of the trade again but I would want to start afresh,” he said.
With his only daughter now educated and settled, Ansari said he wanted to commit his life to improving his neighbourhood and contributing to the community.
Claiming that he did not have any bitterness against anyone, Ansari said, “Beeti tahi bisar de, aage ki sudh le” (Forget what happened in the past, look forward to the future).”