7 Muslims of Malegaon spent 5 unjust years in jail. This is their story
By Sai Manish
TEHELKA BEGAN 2011 with the publication of Swami Asimananda’s stunning confession (In the words of a zealot, by Ashish Khetan, 15 January), which not only changed the terror discourse in the country but also the lives of seven Muslim men who were arrested after the 2006 blasts that took 37 lives in Malegaon, Maharashtra. Last week, six of them, hailing from different strata of Muslim society, returned home to a rousing welcome after getting bail. But the family of Mohammad Zahid, the poorest of the lot, will perhaps have to wait longer.
Before his arrest, Zahid had a fight with his father over his association with SIMI, which was not banned then. Constant police visits irked his father who asked him to leave the house. He stays with his wife now and is yet to visit his parents.
Zahid’s mother Rukaiya Bano and sister Arbina Kausar sit bleary eyed in their barely lit house in Islampura locality. “My son, he was just an imam,” says Bano, “not even earning enough to make a decent living.”
“Look at the games Allah plays,” adds Zahid’s father Ansari Abdul Majid. “I always told him not to keep the company of people who always think of exploding bombs as a way of opposing un-Islamic practices. He used to remove posters of un-Islamic films and other obscene elements that have corrupted Muslim youth. He spoke against Islamic outfits that are killing people in the name of God. And it just so happens that my innocent son found himself accused of being branded a terrorist — the same kind of people whose violent ways he was opposed to.”
But then, cruel coincidences shadow the lives of every single man who was picked up after the 2006 blasts. Abrar Ahmed is on the other end of the spectrum of this group of seven usual suspects. The richest of the lot, he belongs to a family of freedom fighters. In fact, his grandfather fought alongside Mahatma Gandhi in the Civil Disobedience movement of 1931.
After their powerloom godown was burnt down in the 1993 riots in Mumbai, the family shifted base to Malegaon and was prospering, thanks to a scaled-down powerloom business. But things went haywire in 2006 when Abrar, the youngest of the five sons, was picked up. He had got married just days before his arrest.
“Traders from all over India used to buy powerlooms from us,” says Ahmed Sayeed, Abrar’s father. “After the constant police harassment, they started having doubts about our integrity. They sympathised with us but were reluctant to do business.”
In between these two extremes is probably the most unusual of the usual suspects. Salman Farsi, a Unani doctor and a thriving middle-class Muslim professional, was arrested from Guvandi near Mumbai along with his neighbour Mohammad Ali, who is still in jail over allegations of being behind the 2006 Mumbai blasts.
On his return, Farsi was elated to discover that his wife Nafisa, who is also a Unani practitioner, had started a cosmetics distribution business to make up for her husband’s loss in income. “I’m amazed by her enterprising spirit,” says Farsi, the most educated of the seven men. “She didn’t self-destruct and didn’t let herself be cowed down by the constant harassment from the police, politicians and society.”
ALL THE acquitted men and their families poured their hearts and minds out to TEHELKA. Complex insights into the psyches of these people were revealed, invariably mirroring the travails of others in the Muslim community who get hounded after every terror attack. Every individual found himself in a situation where five years of his life and freedom were snatched away without reason. Yet they made an attempt to keep the faith because most of them never expected that they could become the objects of a sinister script being devised in the heads of Hindutva fanatics.
They lived through mind-numbing police torture in jail: some were bashed up inside as an ‘Eid gift’, others were told that their sister would go missing in the next 24 hours, one was picked up just days before his wife was to deliver a baby, some were made pawns in the mind games of a ruthless Arthur Road jailer, while some of their families were approached by radical Muslim elements to give up their children for a bigger cause as an act of revenge.
But one thing that binds them together is the lack of desire to get back at the people who tried to destroy their families. “A mature democracy is one where the government understands its responsibility,” says Farsi. “I will not ask for compensation for what I have been through. What is more important is whether the government thinks it has done grave injustice to me and provides me with better opportunities for the time lost.”
This view is shared by Zahid’s father. “I don’t want a rupee from the government. If I accept the money then they will continue to pick up young men, kill them and throw some money at their family.” Here then is the tale of these men and their families in their own words.
In custody, it was me who was asking all the questions. I kept asking them, “Why have you arrested me? What is my crime?” They did not say anything despite my pleas. They prepared a statement and told me to sign that. They did not even agree to read the contents for me. I told them that I would not sign the statement. Then they threatened to torture me. By now I was aware that they wanted to frame me in the Malegaon blasts case. And if I signed this statement, then my life will be over.
They blindfolded me and left me in a room for three hours and used to beat me on the sole of my foot with sticks and on the insides of my fingers so that there were no evident signs of torture when I was produced in court. I was an educated person, therefore they were unable to mentally torture me the way they did the others.
When I was produced in the MCOCA court, I started talking to the judge in English. He told me that I sounded sophisticated and asked me about my confession. I asked the judge, “What confession are you talking about?” And everybody in the courtroom started laughing. Everybody knew that I was not the one who gave the confession. Yet I was forced to spend five years of my life in jail for a crime I was not even remotely connected to. I always knew that one day I would walk free, though it could take time. My wife used to write letters saying that “everybody in Malegaon knows that you are innocent”. She told me to keep faith in destiny.
The attack on a religious place like the graveyard showed that a Muslim could not be behind it. When we were arrested, local Muslim bodies came together under one banner and urged the government to institute a CBI probe. Within a month, the demand was accepted. But the CBI was caught sleeping. When Asimananda’s confession came, the Maharashtra home minister ordered the formation of a second CBI team, which gave all the new evidence to the NIA without submitting it in court. The new revelations were in our favour.
My wife showed great bravado and took care of our three children very well. At times, policemen used to drop into my house and ask my wife, “Where is your husband?” despite knowing that I was in jail. This kind of harassment was routine. Since my wife is a doctor, they behaved within limits. But Mohammad Ali’s spouse was a housewife. Cops used to drag their children outside and slap them.
There is a glimmer of hope for innocent Muslims like us after the formation of the National Investigation Agency (NIA). After the 13 July blasts in Mumbai, the police and the Maharashtra ATS wanted to arrest Muslims. But there was some dispute between the NIA and the ATS over the evidence that prevented the police from arresting the usual Muslim suspects like they do after every terror attack. And now because of our case, the Maharashtra Police is unable to arrest innocents.
They used to strip us naked and tie our hands and legs together and beat my legs and penis with a stick. Then they used to tie a cloth on the sticks and strike hard on my head. All in a bid to force me to sign a confession statement that they had prepared. They told me that they would frame my family members in criminal cases and threatened to sexually assault my sister. When I could not take the physical and mental agony anymore, I signed that statement and my fate was sealed. I didn’t even know the statement’s contents.
They arrested me during Ramzan and tortured me by refusing to allow me to break my fast every evening. They threatened to force-feed me during the day. On Eid, ATS officers came in and thrashed me saying that they were celebrating Eid. They beat me mercilessly and ‘celebrated’ all the while saying it was an Eid gift.
Initially I was kept in solitary confinement. Then they kept me with really hardened criminals to instil fear in me. Once they targeted me in what is known in jail parlance as an ‘alarm’. They just ring an alarm and start attacking the inmates. Total mayhem ensues. I was among the 40 men who were picked up for the alarm. This happened in June 2008 when Swati Sathe was the jail superintendent.
They then sent me to Ratnagiri jail where the initial days were as tough as life in Arthur Road jail. I had cleared my Class 12 exams from Arthur Road. Soon, I studied for my BA exams from Maulana Azad Open University. However, due to narcoanalysis and brain mapping, I was unable to appear for my second-year exams. I taught other inmates Urdu, Arabic and the Quran. Many were keen learners and learnt reading Arabic very soon.
The narco test done by the ATS was a big fraud. The Bengaluru doctor who administered the test was found to have a fake degree and always followed the ATS instructions and twisted the answers to fit their motives. Although they gave us injections to make me feel drowsy, I was still aware of the trap they were trying to set.
They asked me, “Did you carry out the blasts?” I didn’t have the option to just say “No”. They told me to frame the line, “I did not carry out the blast”. Anybody knows that both answers mean the same. But they used to edit out the word “No” from the line. This is how they have tricked us all along the investigation process.
They had a chargesheet in their head and manipulated everything to fit that preconceived script. Then they asked me, “Do you know Mohammad Ali?” I replied No. They would then ask, “Who is your prophet” and I would say “Mohammad” and they would add that word in the final CD that was prepared despite the fact that I had never even met Mohammad Ali (the other accused) during my entire life.
I didn’t know what MCOCA was and I had nothing to do with SIMI or anyone related to it. But they told me that I was a part of SIMI and they were arresting me under MCOCA for orchestrating the blasts.
I was scared when they asked me to give a statement. I had never been entangled in police matters and the way they had tortured me in custody had scared me to death. I’m an illiterate man and could not even read Urdu properly. I learnt to read the Quran in jail. They showed me a statement and said it contained proof of my innocence and asked me to sign it. After the constant torture, I signed thinking that finally I would be free. That is how they tricked me into signing the confession.
When I signed the papers, they were happy and asked me to wish for anything. They said, “Tune hume khush kar diya. Tujhe joh khaana hai baata. Chicken biryani khayegaa?” (You have made us happy. What do you want to eat? Do you want chicken biryani?” Then I started wondering why they were behaving that way.
I realised what had happened when they took me to Arthur Road Jail. I requested the superintendent to read out the charges against me. But she refused and put me in a cell where I met Dr Farooque (another accused). Since he was an educated man, he told me in detail about the confession statement that I had been tricked into signing. I was so shocked that I fell sick for a few days after hearing about how my life had been manipulated.
I prayed to Allah every time I said my prayers that let the truth come out from the mouth of the very people behind this. And that is what happened when Swami Asimananda confessed to being the man behind the blasts. When I heard about his confession and I also knew that TEHELKA had published it, the first thing I thanked God was for saving the lives of my kids.
I grew very sceptical about everybody because all those people who came to help us were harassed. People from the town who came to help my family were picked up by the police and so people were also scared to help us initially. ATS officers used to visit jail quite regularly even though they were not allowed to. They would induce me with money to say something and when that failed they would threaten me with dire consequences.
I complained to the judge about the visits of these ATS officers and only then did that stop. Of late, people have approached my family saying they are from TEHELKA and start asking sensitive and harassing questions. That’s when I started distrusting the media also.
Now I don’t feel secure. Until the masterminds and the powerful forces that are planning attacks and hatching these conspiracies to malign a religion or destroy someone’s life are caught and punished, I would not be able to rest easy.
Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.