July 25, 2016 1:13:22 am
FOR 10 years, the family scoured through all leading newspapers daily for any information on Praveen. On July 1, mother Mahesh Devi saw the face she had come to fear she would never see again. The man in the photo in newspapers that day, police say, was Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist Mohammad Abid alias Fatte. Abid himself has denied he is Praveen Jatav. But, Mahesh says, a mother’s heart knows.
“In the Lucknow jail, he walked towards us with a smiling face. I am a mother, I could see the teary eyes behind his ‘No’. He had been threatened and pressured to not accept that he is Praveen,” says Mahesh, who is in her late 50s.
“They made us meet Abid in the presence of senior officials of the Special Task Force, Anti Terror Squad and local intelligence unit. How could he speak in front of them?” says brother Pawan, who went to the jail with Mahesh to meet Abid.
Abid’s photo in the July 1 newspaper came along with the news item of him and two others being convicted by a special court for “plotting to kill innocent people in order to create an atmosphere of terror”. According to police, the three men are all JeM terrorists and Pakistani nationals who were arrested in November 2007 near Lucknow, following a tip-off about the terror group trying “to free their associates lodged in Indian jails” through kidnapping.
Everyone knows the dilapidated, two-room house of the family in Balmiki Basti, located between a “marghat (cremation ground)” and a nullah (big drain), in Kankar Khera on the outskirts of Meerut. Almost all in the densely populated neighbourhood also know the story of their decade-long search.
Mahesh lives here with husband Ganga Ram, Praveen’s wife Prabha and 10-year-old son Anshul, and Pawan as well as Pawan’s son. Mahesh has another son, 26, who is still studying, and two daughters, who are both married.
Praveen, the eldest, had studied till Class VIII.
Mahesh says they have often considered shifting from this accommodation as Pawan, who works as a driver and recently bought a vehicle, has started earning well. “But we can’t do that as Praveen could come anytime. And it will be difficult for him to find us.”
Praveen worked as a driver too. Says wife Prabha, “I can never forget that day, May 5, 2006. Some policemen, all in civil dress, came asking Praveen to drive them to some assignment. When he didn’t return till the next day, we went to the police station. They told us Praveen had died in an encounter and that he was a terrorist.”
Mahesh draws attention to the photograph of ‘Abid’ in the Hindi newspaper of July 1. Placing Praveen’s photo next to it, she says, “See, you see. Even you’ll say that this is my son.”
The newspaper cutting lies in a white polythene bag, with other cuttings the family has collected over the years.
The first of these is dated May 6, 2006, the day after Praveen disappeared. That day, one of their neighbours rushed to them with a newspaper that said police had killed five in an encounter, and that one of them could be Kankar Khera’s Praveen.
“Police asked us to identify the body. It wasn’t Praveen. When we asked them again, the police said there were six terrorists who were trying to flee. Five were killed and one managed to escape, and the one who fled was Praveen,” says Prabha.
Mahesh says that since that day, the family that had never subscribed to a newspaper earlier started getting home all the big ones. Since Mahesh can’t read properly, Anshul reads out the news to her.
Then came the newspaper of July 1. A neighbour, Amit, says he spotted the photograph first. The family was granted permission to meet Abid after they approached senior officials in the Lucknow administration.
Police claim to have recovered three pistols, two AK-47 rifles, 60 live cartridges, 16 hand grenades, 4 kg RDX and fake I-cards from the three convicted JeM men.
Shahnawaz Alam of Rihai Manch, the NGO that is helping the family seek a DNA test to establish whether Abid is Praveen or not, says there are many loopholes in the police theory.
“The UP STF claims they intercepted a car and caught three JeM militants from Pakistan, Mohammad Abid, Mirza Rashid Beg and Saifur Rehman, with weapons,” he says. If police fired 39 rounds and terrorists 26, as has been claimed, why did no one get hurt, he asks.
The chargesheet also states that the STF caught the JeM men when they were about to use a handgrenade. Alam asks how it was possible for police to have spotted them pulling the pin of a grenade in the midst of a gunfight.
Alam also points out, “Abid told Pawan’s family he was arrested from Ghaziabad while the STF showed his arrest in Lucknow. Abid claimed he did not know Hindi while jail sources told me he writes fluent Hindi.”
Meerut DIG Lakshmi Singh says she is looking into files of the old cases related to Praveen, to verift what happened at that time. The then Meerut SSP, Navniet Sekera, didn’t respond to calls.
Mahesh says that of the three identifying marks on Praveen, Abid had at least two. “Praveen has a tattoo of his name on his right arm, which was missing, but a scar on the right side of Abid’s forehead matches Praveen’s. Abid also has a wound mark on the same leg where Praveen got injured in childhood.”
They spent 50 minutes with Abid. Mahesh says they asked him about his life and family in Pakistan, asked him for his phone number there, which he gave, and about the marks on his body, which he claimed he had got in childhood.
As neighbours attest Praveen could never be a terrorist, Mahesh says she will fight till her last breath. “Jiska jawan beta aise chala jata hai, uske paas bachta hi kaya hai (What is left for a person whose young son goes away like this)?” she says, her eyes filling up.
As Prabha too breaks down, Pawan walks up to her to console her, telling her he will find Praveen anyhow.
Prabha, 32, says her mother had asked her once to remarry, but she refused. Six years ago though, “under family pressure”, according to Pawan, he and she “exchanged garlands in a temple”.
“We have a son too”, he says, beckoning to the five-year-old Sonu.
Prabha suddenly gets up and leaves, and doesn’t return.
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