Title: Framed As A Terrorist
Author: Mohammad Aamir Khan
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 200
When Mufti Abdul Qaiyum, “the dangerous mastermind of the Akshardham attack” was declared innocent and set free, he stepped into a world that he no longer recognised. During the 11 years Qaiyum spent in prison, his father had died, his family had lost its home and the family members had become outcasts. After his acquittal, he was relieved but not happy. It was only a release from prison, he said, for justice lay buried in every moment of those 11 years of incarceration.
Not only Qaiyum, but five other Muslim men who were acquitted in the Akshardham attack case, also talked about their lost years. The Gujarat police, Mohammad Saleem recalled, gave him the “choice” of being implicated in the Godhra train burning, Haren Pandya’s murder or the Akshardham terror attack. Saleem’s daughter was born four months after his arrest. When he embraced her for the first time after his release in May 2014, she was already 10.
On June 17, 1996, at 3 am, Maqbool Shah from Srinagar, then a 17-year-old boy, was woken up and arrested by the Delhi Police from his rented room in Delhi for his alleged involvement in the Lajpat Nagar blast. Shah, then a Class XII student, had come to visit his brother, a trader. For the next 13 years, 10 months and three weeks, he was in Tihar jail. On April 8, 2010, a Delhi court acquitted Shah of all charges and ordered his release.
Once home, Shah would sit in the veranda of his family home looking up at the sky. The walnut sapling, that his father had planted in a corner, had now grown into a tall tree, its branches forming a thick canopy. He had lost 14 years of his life to a lie, he said, and his release only meant that he’d come out of a smaller jail to a bigger one.
The stories of these three men are not part of Mohammad Aamir Khan’s autobiographical sketch about his 13 years and 10 months in prison. But his book, Framed as a Terrorist, is the story of hundreds of Muslim men framed as terrorists and left to rot behind iron bars across India.
All these stories are, in essence, a single story. The names of the characters vary, the religion usually remains the same. The locations change, but mostly they come from the same social strata. This grand story is scripted by the police, and the agencies across India figuring in lead roles are always the media, the labyrinths of the judiciary and young Muslim men who get lost in them.
Aamir’s book is a Muslim man’s memoir of his lost youth in this grand farcical theatre of terror investigations in India. He was framed as a terrorist and falsely accused in 18 bomb blast cases. When he was released on January 12, 2012 from Rohtak jail, he believed he was “a free man”. “The key turned in the big lock, the door opened and I stepped out,’’ he recalls in his book. “I turned left and then to right. There were no guards. I had no handcuffs and I was truly free…”
But once the book progresses, it becomes clear that he may have been acquitted after a long struggle in the courts, but the system is yet to acknowledge his innocence. This is why the State hasn’t taken any action against the police officers responsible for his false implication, nor offered any compensation for the mammoth wrong done to him. The government hasn’t even issued a symbolic apology to Aamir or to any of the others who were deliberately put through such suffering. In fact, a honourable acquittal in terror cases doesn’t matter because the process itself has become the punishment.
The media is equally responsible because they make the arrest and not the culmination of the judicial process as the climax of a terror investigation. So, when a Muslim man is arrested in connection with a terror case, he is deemed guilty forever. It is the media which turns the fiction of these police investigations into facts for people. Questioning the police narrative in a terror case is considered nothing less than blasphemy against the nation-state. The “doubters” in the media, though far and few, are vilified.
When some among these “framed terrorists” such as Aamir, Qaiyum, Shah are lucky enough to prove their innocence in a court, the news is buried in a way that doesn’t help remove the stigma. The judiciary too doesn’t do enough the prevent the recurrence of such blatant injustices. For example, when the Supreme Court acquitted Qaiyum and five other men in the Akshardham case, they indicted the Gujarat Police. “We intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature…Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing,’’ its judgment said. There was no follow-up. Leave aside the dastardly crime of framing innocents, nobody was enraged that the “real culprits” went scot-free in the process.
Aamir’s book is important because it exposes the unwritten code for terror investigations that has silently replaced the one existing in statute books. Why was Aamir arrested in the first place? His married sister lived in Karachi and the first time when he decided to visit her, he was 20. The moment he got the visa, he was approached by an intelligence sleuth, Guptaji, who asked him whether he was “willing to do something for his country”. Without understanding the consequences, Aamir recalls, he answered that “I was willing to serve my country”. The “service” was to become a spy. In Pakistan, Aamir was given a bag with documents to smuggle back. He recalls getting scared when he saw Pakistani officials thoroughly searching the luggage of Indian passengers as they stood in line for the Samjhauta Express to Delhi. He threw the bag. It was February 1998.
As soon as he reached Delhi and informed Guptaji of his inability to carry out the task, his ordeal began. A few days later, he was abducted and kept in illegal custody for eight days. He provides a detailed account of how he was mercilessly tortured in custody, made to sign on blank papers, fake diary entries and even made to write a letter to his parents asking them to send his identification papers. He talks of anti-Muslim slurs that were routine during his interrogation. By the time, his parents got to know about his arrest, he had already been declared a noted terrorist. Nobody wanted to listen to him. It took him 14 years and a lot of luck to prove his innocence. When he was released, he had lost his father and his mother was in bed, paralysed. “I have lived every word in this book,’’ Aamir said. “My reason to write was to bring focus on how terror laws are misused against Indian Muslims. It is not my story alone. There are hundreds of young men like me who were framed and are languishing in jails.”
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