“This court finds you innocent.”
The five words by Nashik Special TADA court Judge, S C Khati that had 11 grown men standing in a dreary, unlit courtroom burst into tears and hug each other in relief.
This terse verdict on February 27 ended a legal battle that the 11 Muslim men, including a PhD holder, a six-time municipal councillor, three doctors and an engineer, from Bhusawal in Jalgaon district, fought to free themselves of terror charges for 25 years.
Branded terrorists by the Bhusawal police, which alleged that with the help of Kashmiri militants, they planned attacks in Maharashtra, all 11 were charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. After several delays in filing the chargesheet and initiating the trial, the case was finally taken up in 2018 on Supreme Court orders.
“It took less than two seconds for the judge to read out our judgment but believe me, my life for the past 25 years flashed before my eyes in those two seconds. These five words by the judge may finally restore some normalcy in our lives which has been turned upside down because of the apathy of the state,” said Jamil Ahmad Khan, named the main accused.
It began in Bhusawal, one of Asia’s biggest railway junctions, around 440 km north of Mumbai in the turmoil that followed the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the 1993 Mumbai blasts. The Bhusawal police claimed that it had received a tip-off in May 1994 that Khan, a member of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), along with eight associates had met and trained at a nearby forest to bomb government offices and attack Hindus to avenge the Babri Masjid demolition.
The police subsequently arrested nine men, one of whom turned approved and arrested three others from Mumbai claiming they were part of the group. “The accused persons have committed the offence of sedition and conspired against the country by creating a Muslim organisation of Al Jihad Tanzeem,” said the police complaint filed against the initial nine accused by police Inspector K D Ingle of the Bhusawal Bazar Peth police station.
“The early 90s were a difficult phase for the Muslim community in India. We were all socially conscious individuals who were raising their voices against the injustices of that time. I guess that is one reason why we were targeted. Imagine, I was attending a protest march against TADA in Mumbai with the late BSP chief Kanshi Ram and days later I was arrested under the Act,” said 47-year-old Maulana Abdul Qadir Habibi. He completed his PhD on the socio-political influence of Muslim clerics in Maharashtra, during the trial.
And with the acquittal, all 11 are now trying to rebuild their lives. “It is a difficult task when you have been accused of being a terrorist. Even if you read the way regional papers have covered our acquittal you will get a sense that they feel we are guilty. We are called suicide bombers. For God’s sake, I am a doctor, why will I even think of taking someone’s life?” said Dr Yunus Falahi.
The 11 men, however, claim that despite the accusations against them, they do not hold grudges against individuals but asserted that the legal system needs major reforms.
“This case is symptomatic of the failure of our institutions. We were accused of being terrorists who wanted to foment trouble in the country. Do you take 25 years to prosecute people who allegedly want to harm the country? I am thankful to the courts that they finally saw the truth in these accusations. But we need serious reform in the way our police and legal system works to see swift and effective justice and to ensure that the poor and underprivileged sections of our country do not get deliberately targeted,” said Jamil, who has now started a catering business.
And the 25-year trial is evidence of this failure, they said. In May 1994, the 11 men were arrested and in addition to the sedition charge, police invoked TADA for conspiring to commit a terrorist act. However, in September 1994, a TADA court granted all them all bail suggesting that the Act was applied improperly in the case. With all 11 out on bail, the police inexplicably went slow and the chargesheet was kept pending for nearly five years.
“Sometime in 1999, we felt the case was going nowhere as the police would not file the chargesheet. So in 1999, we moved the Bombay High Court for directions to file the chargesheet or close the case. The police hurriedly filed a chargesheet in February 1999,” said Jamil.
TADA was subsequently repealed by the government in the mid-nineties but the case stalled after various administrative hurdles, including the absence of judges and lawyers. In 2003, the state government stated that no offence was made out under TADA and recommended dropping the proceedings against them.
However, the court rejected state government recommendation to drop the TADA charges in 2003, which meant another nine years to frame charges against the 11 men.
“We moved the Supreme Court in 2012. Four years later, the SC ordered that the trial against us be completed within a year,” Jamil said. The trial finally began in earnest in July 2018. Seven months later, Judge Khati uttered those five words.