Yakub Memon fell into CBI hands partly by chance and partly on his own volition. He had flown from Karachi to Kathmandu in July 1994 for a second consultation with a lawyer cousin from Mumbai. (The first meeting, also at Yakub’s insistence, had taken place earlier in Dubai.) He wanted to return to India, he said, “to clear his name”. A majority of the other Memons, with the exception of two brothers—Tiger and Ayub—also wanted to do the same.
His cousin advised caution. While Yakub may believe that the rest of the Memons had nothing to do with Tiger’s bomb conspiracy, the ‘atmosphere’ in India was strongly against the family, he was told.
Yakub though had come prepared to surrender. He was travelling light—his luggage primarily consisted of a cache of documents, video and audio cassettes establishing Pakistan’s complicity in protecting the Memons after the bombings, if not revealing its actual role in masterminding the conspiracy.
Until Yakub’s totally unexpected arrest, India had given up hope of ever nabbing the Memons. Or of producing evidence to indicate a Pakistani hand behind the bombings.
Immediately after the return of the Memons in three separate batches spread over several weeks, then home minister SB Chavan told me in an interview published in India Today: “It was by chance that we got Yakub Memon, but his arrest has helped us clearly establish beyond doubt that Pakistan was fully involved.”
India’s prime concern at that time was to try and convince Washington about the Pakistani hand. Thanks to the return of the Memons, the Home Ministry finally had something to show. “In a three-hour presentation, my officers gave a complete briefing to the new US Ambassador Frank Wisner,” added Chavan. “I don’t think any objective person could reach any other conclusion (about Pakistan’s involvement).”
Yakub had carried the evidence to Kathmandu in a burgundy briefcase (his favourite colour). After his cousin advised caution, he was walking through airport security to fly back to Karachi when a large bunch of keys in his briefcase showed up in the X-ray image looking suspiciously like a handgun.
The briefcase was opened, and out tumbled the Memon family’s Indian passports. Yakub was detained, and eventually landed in CBI hands on August 4th.
Yakub’s failure to return to Karachi days earlier on July 24, however, had triggered a pre-arranged signal for the rest of the Memons. For them it meant Yakub had gone to India and surrendered, and if they were to follow suit they had to flee Karachi before the ISI woke up. They immediately flew to Dubai using the Pakistani passports issued to them under assumed names.
This created a huge challenge for the CBI. Especially in those days, Dubai was like a city out of a Graham Greene novel—crawling not just with South Asian gangsters and ex-Soviet Bloc prostitutes, but also with sinister operatives from various national security agencies. To complicate matters, Yakub’s wife Rahin had delivered their first child after landing in Dubai. It wouldn’t have taken the ISI too much time to ferret out the Memons and bundle them back to Karachi.
The CBI had to get to the Memons first. In a remarkable cloak-and-dagger operation lasting three tense weeks, CBI officers located the Memons in Dubai, kept them hidden from the ISI, and safely brought them to New Delhi in two groups—first Yakub’s father, mother, three brothers, and a sister-in-law, along with two children, and then his wife and new-born daughter.
Only Tiger and Ayub stayed back in Karachi. The CBI then heard the Memons’ incredible story. They were frequent visitors to Dubai, and some, like Rubina and Ayub, had become permanent residents. In March 1993, Ayub insisted that the close-knit family celebrate Id together in Dubai, and they left Mumbai shortly before the bombings.
After the bombings, Tiger turned evasive, and it gradually dawned on them that the reports from Mumbai were true—a Memon was behind the outrage. Barely a week later, when Tiger suddenly rushed them to Karachi, where they got entry without visas, they also realised that Tiger had done it at Pakistan’s behest.
This provoked father Abdul Razzak to physically thrash Tiger in front of the others soon after they landed in Karachi. The strongly built, hot-tempered Tiger took the beating quietly (just as he later accepted their decision to return to India, though, as Yakub said in court, Tiger warned him: “Tum Gandhiwadi ban ke ja rahe ho, lekin wahan atankwadi qarar kiye jayo ge (You are going as a Gandhian, but over there you will be labelled a terrorist).”
In Karachi, the Memons got new identities, a 20-room mansion to live in, and money to start new businesses. But all the Memons, except Tiger and Ayub, felt troubled at being branded back home as terrorists and traitors. They also felt out of place in Pakistan, forced to conceal their past and suppress their real persona. They had to pretend they were Urdu-speaking Mohajirs instead of what they really were—Gujarati-speaking Sunni Muslims from the Kutchi Memon community.
Initiated by Yakub, the idea gradually took root that since they were not involved in the bomb conspiracy, they should go back to Mumbai and clear their names. “They had a kind of naive faith that since they were innocent, they would be acquitted,” an official recalled.
The Memons felt only Yakub may get punishment for secondary offences stemming from his involvement, as a chartered accountant, in Tiger’s silver smuggling business. But even this could get offset by the fact that the Memons had brought crucial evidence implicating Pakistan.
“Yakub naively thought the country would feel indebted and he would get lenient treatment,” the official added.
The circumstances of the Memons’ return though were so amazing that the media soon began alleging a “deal” with the family, or even with Pakistan. The CBI’s then Director K. Vijay Rama Rao angrily said to me in an interview: “There is no deal with anyone. Absolutely.” He also made it clear the CBI did not intend to turn the Memons into approvers.
Accusations of a deal put Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s administration completely on the defensive. It was, therefore, decided to ignore the circumstances of the Memon family’s return and instead throw the anti-terror act at them. All the returnee Memons ended up in jail, including the parents, the daughters-in-law, and the mentally challenged youngest brother Yousuf. They were all arraigned as terrorists, and no mention was made of how and why the Memons had come back.
Vijay Rama Rao was right: there had been no deal with the Memons. This is what made their return even more extraordinary. The Memons came back because they believed in their innocence. More importantly, they were convinced that since India was a democracy their rights would be protected, that the government would be even-handed and that they would get a fair trial.
They have been proved wrong on all counts.
Rubina got rigorous life imprisonment only because a Maruti van used by Tiger’s men was registered in her name. But she wasn’t even living in Mumbai at the time of the bombings—she had shifted to Dubai six months earlier.
Essa, who was hospitalised with a brain tumour and suffers from morbid obesity, and Yousuf, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, also got life only because the flats and garage where the bomb conspiracy was hatched by Tiger and his men were registered in their names. There is nothing otherwise to link them to the conspiracy.
Yakub has been condemned to death. He was found guilty of arranging money for the purchase of vehicles used by the bombers and organising air tickets to Dubai for some of them. (From the Gulf, these men flew to Pakistan for arms training, using tickets arranged in Dubai by the absconding Ayub.) But such activity was normal for Yakub, since he had access to Tiger’s hawala bank accounts linked to silver smuggling. It does not necessarily show knowledge of or participation in the bomb conspiracy.
A trickier charge is that he asked his driver to give a bag containing hand grenades to one of Tiger’s men. Yakub denies it, but his driver and two of Tiger’s men confessed. Gun-running has always been a part of the Mumbai underworld’s business, so even if Yakub is guilty on this count it doesn’t necessarily establish advance knowledge of the bomb conspiracy.
The offence, like Sanjay Dutt’s, merits conviction under the arms act, with a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. For the same grenade bag incident, Kode has given seven years to Yakub’s driver, and 10 years to Tiger’s travel agent. Only Tiger’s manager got death—not for handling the bag of grenades but for planting an RDX-packed vehicle outside a cinema theatre.
In contrast to the Memon convictions, a Tiger gang member who was involved in all three aspects of the conspiracy—arms training in Pakistan, smuggling of arms and explosives to India, and loading and deploying of bomb vehicles (his car near the Shiv Sena headquarters killed four people)—was pardoned by Kode. Badshah Khan (an assumed name; his real identity is protected) got married after the bombings, has three children and lives comfortably in an upmarket Mumbai suburb.
The 1993 Mumbai serial bombings were the result of a heinous conspiracy, and the guilty must pay for their actions. But India is a democracy, and democracies normally don’t submit to lynch mobs. The treatment of the Memons does suggest that the government failed in its duty, choosing not to take a politically unpopular path and play fair with the family.
Our leaders have often said that not a single Indian Muslim joined the al-Qaeda in the past because India is a democracy. An open and fair society with a robust judicial system, they said, does not produce jihadis. So it’s all the more ironic that India’s most notorious Muslim family which voluntarily returned to the country to face trial because of its faith in the system today feels that it made a big mistake.
The Government can still make amends. I have a small proposal. The Congress vetoed the BJP’s demand for a special screening for MPs of an authentic film on the bomb conspiracy, Black Friday, which was based on a well-researched book by The Indian Express reporter S. Hussain Zaidi. They should go ahead with the screening. And after the MPs have seen the film, the Government should get officials who were directly involved with the return of the Memons to tell the full story of their homecoming.
It’s an exemplary tale, one that a leadership with imagination and courage could have turned into a celebration of our open and pluralistic society. Instead, the fate of the Memons now threatens to strain one of India’s age-old faultlines.
The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. In March 1993, at the time of the serial bombings, he was the Mumbai bureau chief of India Today.
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