On February 16, two youth from Kashmir, Mohammad Rafiq Shah, 38, and Mohammad Hussain Fazli, 43, walked free after serving twelve years in prison for their alleged involvement in 2005 pre-Diwali blasts in Delhi which claimed 67 lives. Delhi High Court acquitted them of all the charges and ruled that the evidence against them was “fabricated and flimsy”.
Rafiq was in college in Srinagar attending classes at the time the police accused him of planting a bomb in a bus in Delhi. Fazli was a shawl vendor.
Back at their homes, Fazili and Shah have some tough questions for the security agencies to answer. “What do we do now? Twelve years of our lives have been wasted. Who will return this time to us,” says Fazili, sitting at his house at Srinagar’s Buchpora. He recalls being arrested from his home soon after the Delhi blast by Delhi Police civvies and being flown to New Delhi.
“Like everybody else I had also read about Delhi blasts in newspapers and felt pain for the victims. It was unthinkable for me that I would be held responsible for it,” says Fazili. “It has taken me a long tine to prove myself innocent. But along the way, my life has been ruined. Is this how you solve a terror case? By framing innocent people”.
Much has changed in these twelve years for Fazili. “My parents have grown frail and old. I couldn’t recognise the lane leading to my house. I struggled to recognise other family members. There are children born in these years to our family and our locality whom I don’t know. My own home and the place looks alien to me,” he says.
Shah has a similar story to narrate. He was also picked up by the police from his home but as testified by the then Vice Chancellor and professors of the Kashmir University, he was on the campus on the day the Delhi blast took place. But he still carries the clipping of a newspaper report which identified him as the “Delhi bomber”.
A report in the then Delhi Metro edition of Hindustan Times described Shah as a “high ranking Lashkar-e-Tayeba operative who planted a bomb in a DTC bus on October 29.” In fact, the report quoting intelligence sources reveals that “Shah wore a white cotton shirt with grey stripes, grey trousers, sandals and carried a sling bag with the bomb in it.”
Shah, now 38, looks at the report and smiles. “This is the truth that media gives to the people of India and in the process helps the state ruin innocent lives,” says Shah while stroking the long beard he has grown in jail.
However, the tragedy of Shah and Fazili is not the first of its kind. Over the past three decades, many Kashmiris along with many other Muslim youth in the country have been randomly picked up by the security agencies during their travels outside the state, slapped with false charges of their involvement in terrorism and then left to rot in prison for years and run the gauntlet of the endless trials before their eventual acquittal by the courts.
They have lost the best part of their lives to the extended incarceration for the crimes they didn’t commit. But while at the end of it, they have been duly acquitted by the courts, none have been compensated for the lost period of their lives. What is more, the security personnel who falsely implicated them have gotten scot-free.
Even before the acquittal of Shah and Fazili came along, Engineer Farooq Khan from Anantnag in South Kashmir spent 19 years in prison, 14 of which in Tihar alone. Khan was working as a junior engineer in PHE mechanical division in 1996 when he was arrested on his way to Srinagar from Anantnag. Similarly, a once prosperous fruit merchant from Bandipora has spent seven years in jail. Though badly ailing, he is now scared to go outside the state for treatment. Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, a J&K policeman, was also imprisoned for seven years.
Their tragedies and the struggle to rebuild their lives are representative of the scores of their ilk. And in turn also representative of the larger tragedy of Kashmir reeling under the fallout of the political turmoil of the past quarter of a century which has left thousands dead in its wake.
“These men are now in their late thirties and forties and they have to begin their life from a scratch. There is a need thus to spotlight their plight,” a local daily Kashmir Observer writes in its editorial. “These men have been wronged by the system and it owes them recompense and rehabilitation. What is more, no need is being felt to hold to account the security and intelligence officers who got these youth arrested in the first place. In fact, there isn’t even a sympathetic media discourse towards their plight”.