When Irshad Ali is home, he sits on an old broken sofa outside his single-room home in north-west Delhi’s Inder Enclave, which he shares with his wife and two sons. “I feel claustrophobic inside. Jail makes you appreciate the open space,” he says.
On December 22, when Irshad Ali was acquitted by a trial court in Delhi, he had spent 11 years in jail on terror charges now proved false. “After all these years, I don’t know how I feel,” says the 41-year-old, calmly. “I was angry for years. Then I submitted myself to my fate.”
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He lost his parents as well as an infant daughter while behind bars. “All because of this case,” says Ali. “My mother died within a year of my arrest. She kept knocking doors, visiting police stations, only to get humiliated. My father died earlier this year. He spent every penny he had earned to get me out of jail. My daughter, Aaifa, was six months old when they jailed me. She died in 2013. They said it was diphtheria but the truth is she died because they broke me, ruined my family.”
Ali’s father Mohammad Yunus moved to Delhi around 50 years ago from Paigambarpur village in Darbhanga in search of work. Ali was one among his eight children — two boys, six girls. Yunus found work at a shop and sent Ali to Ahmadiya Salfia madrasa in Darbhanga to study. But Ali left it and returned to Delhi in 1991 after elder brother Noushad was arrested for a murder.
That incident was to change the family’s life. Ali says he started working as manual labourer in a factory and “everything was fine” till Noushad jumped parole. “It was stupid. Once he was re-arrested, police charged him in a terrorism case. An additional murder case that hadn’t been solved was also put on him. He was acquitted for that additional murder but the terror tag didn’t go away.”
In 1996, Ali was picked up along with his father. “ACP Rajbir Singh kept us in Maurice Nagar for 10 days,” he says. “My father was tortured in front of me. They kept saying my brother was a terrorist so I must be too.”
After their mother went to court, police released them, but allegedly after warning Ali’s mother to keep quiet.
Four months later, Ali says, the Crime Branch picked him up again. “They tortured me for eight days.”
Meanwhile, the 41-year-old adds, police kept pressuring him to become an informer. “In 2001, I was picked up by an Intelligence Bureau officer, Majid Din, who would use Khalid as alias. He also picked up my friend Rizwan, who was a tailor. They kept me for three days. They made me write a letter to my brother telling him to do whatever was told to him, so as to save me.
While Noushad agreed to work with police inside the jail, Ali did so outside. “I was scared,” Ali says. “They fixed a monthly salary of Rs 5,000, and gave me a phone. While my brother spied on inmates held on terror charges, I would report to Majid. The inmates would give letters to post and I would hand them over to Majid.”
This, Irshad said, continued for three years. “In between, I helped the Special Cell solve crime cases as well. I was in touch with two officers.”
But, Ali says, his handlers weren’t happy. “Majid wanted me to do more. He would say, ‘Kaam hota nahin hai, Kaam banana padta hai (Work doesn’t come, it has to be created). His modus operandi was simple: Majid wanted me go to a Muslim village, act like a moulana, live there for a while, indoctrinate young men and recruit them for a fictitious terror group and then organise a meeting, which would be raided. While I would escape as the mastermind, the rest would be nabbed and nobody would question the veracity of the operation.”
Around 2004, Ali says he was introduced to a Kashmiri, Fayaz, who was also working for the IB. “They had put him up in Laxminagar (in east Delhi). The plan was to send me across the border and infiltrate a militant group… My wife Shabana was scared. She didn’t want me to go.”
Ali was reluctant too and Fayaz and he made an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border in Jammu. Ali says the IB officer’s attitude changed after that. “On December 12, 2005, Majid called me to the Dhaula Kuan office. There were Delhi Police Special Cell people present. They put me in a car and blindfolded me. I was shocked.”
He says he was kept somewhere near the Red Fort. “Later, they brought Nawab (Mourif Qamar) too. He was a friend and I had got him involved in this work.”
Ali’s worried wife and parents kept calling on Majid’s phone number. “My father went to police and gave them Majid’s number… Nawab’s brother sent telegrams to every one, from the Prime Minister to the President.”
On February 9, 2006, the day a look-out notice for them came in media, Ali says, they were taken in a car to the bypass of Karnal, Haryana. “Mohan Chand Sharma (of Special Cell) was there. Majid too was there. They took our pictures… They had prepared a story that we were coming from Kashmir and were arrested as soon as I got off the bus from Jammu. They dubbed us terrorists.”
Ali says there was one thing that kept his hopes alive. “I had scores of calls from Majid, other IB officials, Special Cell officers, even calls from the Home Ministry’s landline… Majid had sent me a message on Eid from ACP Sanjeev Kumar’s phone. All this record was crucial evidence.”
Nawab’s brother approached the Delhi High Court, which found the Special Cell’s story “suspicious” and ordered a CBI investigation. The CBI eventually confirmed every bit of Ali’s story in its closure report filed on November 11, 2008, saying the Special Cell had concealed that Ali and Nawab were its informers and implicated them in a fictitious case. The CBI recommended their discharge and action against erring officials.
“I thought we would be free now. But that didn’t happen. Instead of taking action against its officers, the Delhi Police and government started defending them… Our lives, our destroyed families didn’t matter… An entire system was up against two poor nobodies,” Ali says.
“When the CBI proved I was falsely implicated, I thought it would lead to a storm. But this system doesn’t work that way for people like us… There was a debate whether the CBI or the Special Cell was telling the truth. Both belonged to the same government. But the government did nothing.”
During his weeks in custody before his arrest was shown, Ali says, he wrote his “name and details” on the wall of his cell with a broken piece of a zip. “I cut my finger and put my blood too. I thought if I was killed, someone may see this and tell my family.”
Out of jail, Ali says, they lead a life ostracised by neighbours, relatives, friends. Will that ever change, he wonders.
“I don’t know what this acquittal means. My children couldn’t go to school. My parents died waiting for justice… When I was in jail, my children didn’t have anything to eat for days. My wife held the family together by cooking meals for factory workers.”
He doesn’t expect action against his “tormentors” too anymore, Ali adds. “That wasn’t even discussed. We won’t even get an apology from the government.”
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