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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

2005 Delhi blast acquittals: The Lost Years

Before Rafiq Shah and Hussain Fazili, there were Mirza Iftikhar and Maqbool Shah, who were similarly acquitted after long stints in jail on terror charges. Years after walking free, the terror taint continues to haunt.

Written by Mir Ehsan , Bashaarat Masood |
Updated: June 26, 2018 11:51:47 am
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As Rafiq Shah and Hussain Fazili, acquitted after 11 years in jail in the 2005 Delhi blasts case, walked out of Tihar and into the lives of those they left behind, they realised their worlds had moved past them.

Mohammad Hussain Fazili

Eleven years, two months and 26 days is a long time. Long enough for the neighbourhood of Sir Syed Colony, on the outskirts of Srinagar, to grow into an unrecognisable maze of buildings. Long enough for his lanky younger brother to turn into a strapping young man and a father of a three-year-old. Long enough for Mohammad Hussain Fazili to not recognise his mother. “When I reached the gate of my house, I saw three people holding a woman,” says Hussain, 41. “It was only when she cried out loudly that I realised I was standing in front of my mother.”

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On February 18, 11 years after he was arrested in the 2005 Delhi blasts case that killed 80 people and injured 225, Hussain walked for the first time through the gates of his brick-and-stone house, the only single-storeyed building in the neighbourhood. Only a couple of days earlier, a Delhi court had acquitted him and Mohammad Rafiq Shah, with Additional Sessions Judge Reetesh Singh dropping all charges against the duo, including certain sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

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The day he came home a free man, his mother’s piercing wail had woken him up from a nightmare that had lasted over a decade. “That moment it struck me how long I had been away from home,” he says, sitting on the floor of his home, surrounded by people who have dropped by at the Fazili home to meet him.

On the night of November 21, 2005, he says, he had been edgy. Hussain, who dealt in shawls, had a few days ago told one of his clients, a Delhi-based businessman, about a Shahtoosh shawl he had. The trade was lucrative but risky — Shahtoosh, made from the wool of the Tibetan antelope Chiru, is banned in J&K. “I told him about the shawl and also asked him to send his pending payment as Eid was round the corner. He asked me to wait for some days, saying it was difficult for Kashmiris in Delhi because there had been bomb blasts in the city.”

A day later, Hussain says, the businessman called him. “Strangely, he spoke in Urdu and cut the call abruptly.” But before the line went dead, Hussain says, he heard the businessman telling someone, “Yes, this is the number.” When Hussain called back, the phone was switched off.

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“I rushed to the businessman’s home in Srinagar, where his family said he had been arrested. I panicked and gave the Shahtoosh shawl back to the weaver who had given it to me. But I was very worried after that. I thought police would come looking for me any day now,” he says.

On the evening of November 21, he says he was stacking his Pashmina shawls, an eye on the television that was beaming news about a Kashmiri who had been arrested for the Delhi blasts. “The anchor said a Delhi Police team was in Srinagar to investigate the case. Just then, there was a knock on our main gate. Before we could open it, some men jumped into the compound. They were policemen. I thought they had come looking for the shawl.”

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The policemen, Hussain says, took him to a separate room and directed a barrage of questions at him. “They then bundled me into their vehicle and took me away. They didn’t even allow me to wear my shoes.”

Hussain was taken to Air Cargo, the headquarters of the Special Operations Group (SOG), the counter-insurgency group of the J&K police. “It was only when I reached Cargo that I realised I was in serious trouble,” says Hussain. “There, I was beaten up the whole night. Three days later, they put us on a plane to Delhi and from there, straight to the Lodhi Colony police station.” he says.

During the trial that lasted 11 years, Hussain spent his time mostly in solitary confinement in Jail No. 1 of Tihar. Rafiq was in a separate cell and they only met during court hearings.

Hussain says he missed his family, especially his mother. Six months into the detention, his parents visited him at the Rohini jail, where he was in police custody. “We would constantly think about him but after that one time, we never went to Delhi. We had other problems — my wife had a stroke and money was a problem. It was very painful. Our poverty came between us and him,” says Ghulam Rasool Fazili, Hussain’s 80-year-old father. Two of his sons now run their small shawl business.

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For the first eight years of Hussain’s time in Tihar, even contact between him and his family was difficult. It was only three years ago, when the family got a cellphone, that he started calling home. The weekly phone calls barely lasted five to 10 minutes. “When I spoke to my mother, she would only ask me if I was fine, eating and sleeping well; she hardly said anything about herself. She didn’t tell me about the stroke she had suffered and how it had slurred her speech. Sometimes, I would ask her why she sounded different and she would say she was sleeping and had just woken up,” he says.

A man walks into the crowded room. “I read about you in the newspapers,” he says, hugging Hussain and warmly clasping his hand. “You wouldn’t know me. I am the postman of this area. I am really happy for you.” Did he ever bring the Fazilis a letter from Hussain? “No,” says Hussain. “I never wrote letters. My father is illiterate and my brothers haven’t studied much either. I dropped out after Class 10,” says Hussain.

During his last few days in Tihar, as the date of judgment neared, Hussain says he practiced the words ‘convicted’ and ‘acquitted’. “I was told the judge would utter one of the two words. My life depended on them so I couldn’t wait for someone else to explain things to me. Acquitted. That’s the word I wanted to hear.” The judge finally pronounced his verdict — acquitted — but by then, Hussain had lost 11 years of his life to an accusation.

Though the verdict had set him free, Hussain was still shackled by fear. “My brother took a flight from Delhi to Srinagar but I was scared to tell people anything beyond that. I kept thinking everyone was looking at me,” he says.

Every few minutes, Hussain’s nieces and nephews interrupt him with a little game. The children take turns to appear from behind a curtain, make a dash into the room and ask Hussain: “Chachu, mein kaun hoon? Mein kis ka beta/beti hun (Uncle, who am I? Whose son/daughter am I)?” Hussain smiles indulgently and takes blind guesses – he gets two names right and two wrong.

“In these 11 years, four new members have been added to our family – two nephews and two nieces. I also missed my younger brother’s wedding,” he says, cradling little Momin Ahmad Fazili, the younger son of his second brother Ghulam Mohammad. “Chachu works in Delhi,” says Momin, now bouncing on Hussain’s lap.

A few guests come in and take turns to hug Hussain and shake hands. “Do you know who he is?” Hussain’s father asks him, pointing to one of the visitors. Hussain tugs at his beard and shakes his head. “He is bailal (a term of endearment for an older brother, cousin or uncle),” says the father. Hussain wipes his moist eyes, gets up and hugs the visitor again.

As people mill around him, Hussain talks about making a “new beginning”. “I will do something. But I don’t need any compensation from the government. I don’t want to depend on anyone. I only need my mother’s support.”

Sitting beside him, Hussain’s “childhood friend”, who doesn’t want to be named, says the government can’t simply walk away. “Hussain has lost the best years of his life. He will never be the Hussain I knew. He was young and energetic… look at him, all these years in jail have left him tired and old.”

Hussain smiles. “That’s true. Let me tell you a secret. I don’t want abba to hear this. You know, my beard is completely white. After I got out of jail, I went straight to a barber (in Delhi) and coloured it,” he says, stroking his inky black beard.

Mohammad Rafiq shah

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Every time the family cooked chicken these last 11 years, Mehmooda would keep away the breast piece. “That was my son’s favourite and I couldn’t get myself to eat it when he was in jail. How could I have? But now, I will… very soon,” says the 65-year-old, greeting a steady stream of visitors at their home.

Her priorities, however, are very different now. “I will have to find a bride for Rafiq. Everything else can wait. He is getting old. All his friends and cousins are married and even have children,” says Mehmooda.

Eleven years after Mohammad Rafiq Shah, then a final-year PG student of Islamic Studies at Kashmir University, was accused of playing a part in the 2005 Delhi bomb blasts, he is home a free man, even if a different one. The young man with a fuzzy stubble is now 34, with the first streaks of grey in his flowing beard. Rafiq reached home on February 23, a week after a Delhi court acquitted him and co-accused Mohammad Hussain Fazili.

Today, his three-storey house in Sohema Alestang, 20 km from Srinagar city, is milling with people — children playing in the compound and the elders and youngsters in the living room where cups of kahwa get passed around. Rafiq slips up to the third floor and stands beside one of the windows, lost in thought. “These willow trees were this small,” he says cupping his right hand at the level of his knees. “Look how big they are. Everything here reminds me of how long it has been. The trees, these children, my parents, even my room.”

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His room, he says, has moved up a floor. “I used to have a room on the ground floor. While I was away, my parents built two more floors and all my stuff was shifted to this room (on the first floor). Apart from my books and stationery, there was nothing I could relate to when I saw this room for the first time.”

He then speaks of the night of November 5, 11 years ago. “Around midnight, there was a knock on our door. The J&K Police, along with a team of the Army and Delhi Police, stood there. They asked me my name and took me into custody. I had no idea then that they would link me to the blasts. All these years, I kept asking myself and others, why me? I thought I was an easy target probably because I was involved in university politics in those days, organising seminars and attending demonstrations,’’ says Rafiq, talking about the “torture” he underwent at Air Cargo — “waterboarding, electric shocks… I can’t even tell you what else. It was like Abu Ghraib,” he says. “I still wake up at night and lie in bed thinking of those days,’’ he says.

Senior Special Cell officers refused to comment on the allegations.

After 45 days in police custody, Rafiq was shifted to Tihar jail. Standing in his room, the one he can barely “relate to”, he speaks about his days in Tihar, his “home” for over a decade. “Afzal Guru was kept in a barrack close to mine. I got close to him over the years. He had his last dinner with me — we shared the cheese my parents brought me. Afzal Guru then told me that he would be hanged the next morning. That day, his barrack stayed shut and I knew he was no more,” he says.

Rafiq says the prosecution did everything it could to prolong his case, even submitting a list of 345 witnesses. “Only after all these witness were examined, could our lawyers defend us. After one or two hearings of our counsel, the court pronounced its verdict,’’ he says.

Rafiq says that once he walked out of Tihar, his parents — who had travelled to Delhi for the verdict — insisted that they take a flight to Srinagar. “They wanted to reach home as soon as possible,’’ he says. “I refused. I insisted on taking the road because that’s how my parents and siblings had come all these years to meet me while I was in Tihar. I wanted to relive their journey; their struggle.” The bus ride to Srinagar wasn’t easy. “The road was blocked and we had to spend a night inside a college in Udhampur,’’ he says.

When they finally reached home, it was “past midnight”. He sees a special significance in that moment. “When I was picked up, it was around midnight. So when I came back around the same time, it felt as if it was still that same night of 2005 and maybe it was all a long nightmare,” he says.

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Rafiq prayed in the mosque nearby before entering his home. “I thanked the Almighty. My faith in God’s mercy helped me remain sane these 11 years,’’ he says. “There were times when it seemed that nobody would ever get to hear the truth about me, but I stayed hopeful. This is why I pleaded to the courts to allow me to complete my Master’s. In 2010, I was briefly shifted to Srinagar Central Jail where I appeared for my final-year PG exams and cleared it with 69 per cent.”

As more visitors drop by, Rafiq walks to the courtyard of the house, where his nephews and nieces are playing. “Both my sisters got married while I was away. My nieces and nephews didn’t recognise me. My biggest regret is that I missed their best years. Only Sumiya (his elder sister’s six-year-old) recognised me. My parents would bring her along when they visited me in Tihar. They came once or twice a year,’’ he says.

Rafiq goes back to the living room that’s now milling with people. “There are new people everywhere. It feels strange when you come across people whom you knew 11 years ago but can’t recognise now. One of the children I knew, he was six then, turned up this morning, but he was now a young man with a stubble. I recognised him from his eyes. That’s how I try and identify people now,” he says.

As more cups of kahwa are brought in from the kitchen, their neighbour Mohammad Maqbool, who owns a grocery store in the locality, walks in. “Rafiq, bha wari cheni umri hind muklai jailas menz (how time flies). But for me, you will always remain that young student who would come to my shop to buy sheets and pencils,’’ he says, hugging Rafiq.

Now fiddling with his younger cousin’s phone, Rafiq says, “When I went away, there were no smartphones. So I don’t know how to use these phones; I still have this,” he says, pulling out a basic Nokia phone from his pocket.

Sitting beside Rafiq, his father Mohammad Yasin, 70, who retired as a deputy forester, says, “It took us 11 years to prove his innocence. I have exhausted all my pension and gratuity money on defending my son. The only satisfaction is that our struggle didn’t go to waste,” he says.

“My parents suffered a lot,” says Rafiq. “I was taken away from them so suddenly that they could never come to terms with it. These 11 years brought them 11 centuries of pain. My mother keeps on hugging me as if she wants to be reassured that I am home. My arrest brought so much sadness to my mother that I can’t even begin to tell you. She avoided functions and other celebrations. My sisters told me that when she would bend down to pray, the prayer mat would be wet with her tears.”

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Among the visitors today is Bashir Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at Women’s College, Anantnag. “Rafiq was my senior in university. Though he completed his PG while in jail, who will compensate him for the years he has lost?” says Ahmad, patting Rafiq on his back.

Rafiq smiles and says, “My friends from college stood by me. They knew I was in the class that day. They didn’t need any proof of my innocence.” He then pulls out an “attendance sheet” issued by Kashmir University from a stash of papers kept in a corner of the room. “This sheet saved my life. It shows I was present in the university, attending classes, when the blasts took place in New Delhi. The court summoned my professors and even the then vice chancellor, Abdul Wahid. They all vouched for me.’’

His only plan now, he says, is to return to his studies. “I can’t think of anything else. I want to pick up from where I was forced to leave 11 years ago.”

Before Rafiq Shah and Hussain Fazili, there were Mirza Iftikhar and Maqbool Shah, who were similarly acquitted after long stints in jail on terror charges. Years after walking free, the  terror taint continues to haunt.

‘I live in an open cage’

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Mirza Iftikhar Hussain

Every time he tries to start life afresh, it leads nowhere, bogged down by events from over two decades ago. Back then, Mirza Iftikhar Hussain had been taking care of his family’s handicraft business; now, the financially-strapped 45-year-old isn’t even eligible to apply for a business unit, tainted by past events. In between, he has spent 13 years, 10 months and 25 days in jail before being acquitted by a Delhi court in 2010.

Hussain vividly remembers the day that changed his life. “It was May 28, 1996, when the Delhi Police picked me up from my rented accommodation at Bhogal (in New Delhi). I was 23-24 then,” he says, adding that he was tortured for nearly a month before being produced in court. “It was only in court that I found out that I had been labelled an active member of the Jammu Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF).”

Hussain and his younger brother, Nisar, were among those arrested by the Delhi Police for the May 1996 blast at Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market, which killed 13 people. “He (Nisar) was picked up from Nepal but police claimed they had arrested him from Mussoorie,” he says, adding that his brother had been a salesman at a (Kashmir Arts) shop in Nepal that belonged to a neighbour.

While Hussain was acquitted in 2010, his brother was convicted and sentenced to death. Nisar was subsequently acquitted by the Delhi High Court in 2012. “But he is still in jail because police have booked him for another blast case, in Jaipur,” Hussain says, adding that securing justice for his younger brother is now his family’s sole aim.

In jail, Hussain says he was left to fend for himself. “Nobody helped. In Tihar, I used to work in the canteen to pay my lawyer fees. The only friend — and I call him my museebatuk dost (a friend in hard times) — is SAR Geelani (Delhi University lecturer who was arrested in the Parliament attack case but acquitted later). I met him in Tihar. He was waiting for me outside jail when I walked free”.

Hussain eventually reached home to find that the family business had been completely ruined. “My mother, another younger brother and sisters had fought hard to provide legal support to us. Once I was free, I wanted to start afresh and help”.

He says he first tried to become a contractor but gave up after the state power department, which awarded him a contract for Rs 5 lakh, paid him only Rs 1.5 lakh. “The Rs 3.5 lakh is still outstanding with the department,” he says. Hussain adds that he worked for a solar company before trying his hand at being an electrician — a job he did till last year. “Once the situation in Valley turned volatile last year, I couldn’t sustain myself as an electrician,” he says. He now wants to return to his family business but can’t apply for a business unit or seek monetary assistance or even a passport as, despite his acquittal, his name continues to figure in the (J&K) police files. “I have been acquitted of all charges but even after six years, I have realised that I am not free. I live in an open cage.”

Hussain says he approached the J&K High Court for a no-objection certificate (NOC) to be eligible to start a new business. “The court ordered the authorities to grant me the NOC within 15 days. But the file is lying with the deputy commissioner’s office (in Srinagar) with ‘case to be discussed’ written on it,” he says. “All I need is this piece of paper to restart my life. They are denying it to me. This is the justice they do,” he adds. The terror taint, he says, even affected his personal life. “Whenever my family sent a marriage proposal, it would be turned down even by families who were closely related to us. They would say that they don’t want to land their daughter in trouble,” says the 45-year-old, who finally married last year. His mother, Padshah, is around 70 now. “She continues to suffer because my younger brother is still in Tihar,” he says.

There is another aspect to his traumatic experience that Hussain can’t forget. “The media wreaked havoc in our lives. When we were arrested, the media decided to convict us; we were dreaded terrorists. It is media which delivers justice in this country and is absolutely irresponsible. It is unfortunate,” he says. By- UBEER NAQUSHBANDI

‘Where is my justice?’

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Syed maqbool shah

MORE than six years after he was acquitted in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar blasts case, Syed Maqbool Shah says he continues to feel he has exchanged a big jail for a small one. “I feel life was better there in Tihar than here. So much changed over my 14 years behind bars,” says Shah, held as a teenager and now in his late 30s. By the time he came out, his father and sister had died; he is still to find a permanent job.

Initially, when he was released on July 8, 2010, Shah hoped to start life afresh. In his first few days back home, he was welcomed “like a bride”, he says. “Thousands of people, including separatists and mainstream leaders, visited me. But after that, there were no more visits, nobody cared whether I required money or a job.”

Some separatist leaders asked Shah, who had been charged in the 1996 blasts that killed 13, to visit their offices for help. He had had enough of such gestures. “I knew if they had to help, they could come home. They only wanted to play politics as I was in the news.”

For the first one and a half years, he thought help would come from a repentant government, in the form of compensation or a job, and made the rounds of offices. “Nothing came. I was told to file a compensation case in court. How can a person who has suffered so much, both physically and psychologically, file a case in court?” Shah asks.

He found he could no longer make the papier machie products he once did. “My knees swell when I sit at one place for long. It is due to the torture I had to suffer.”

Next, Shah opened a grocery store in a tin shed outside his brother’s house in Genzbagh locality of Srinagar. But the business remained risky, with customers often not paying up for long. At one point, they owed him Rs 45,000.

Seeing his condition, a neighbour who is an officer with a bank, got him a daily wager’s job there. “I get Rs 8,000. It has helped,” says Shah.

The happiest moment in his life since his release was his wedding. The family struggled to find a bride, with even relatives wary of associating with Shah. Nafeesa Akhtar belongs to Ichgam village in Budgam district, and they got married in 2015. “I had faith in the Almighty,” Shah says. “I got a wife with a Master’s degree. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

However, the terror taint remains. A customer at his grocery store once taunted him, calling him a killer. “My heart wept,” Shah says. “Society is not concerned whether you are acquitted or not. Going to jail and that too to Tihar means you must be at fault. After 14 years, the court gave me justice, but I am still to get it.” By- UBEER NAQUSHBANDI

 

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