‘I don’t feel any purpose in life now’

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FAKE TERRORISTS IV, A series on Kashmiri youth

Mirza Iftikhar Hussain, 40
Namchebal, Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir

BABA UMAR

Photo: Baba Umar

WHY: Arrested for alleged involvement in the 21 May 1996 Lajpat Nagar blasts in Delhi. He was at that time in a rented room in Bhogal but police said they caught him at the railway station after a tip-off
WHEN: 14 June 1996
WHERE: Bhogal, New Delhi

LAST YEAR on 9 May, amid the din of cheering friends and tearful relatives, 39-year-old Mirza Iftikhar Hussain walked slowly into his ancestral Srinagar home after nearly 14 years. The handicrafts dealer got pats on his shoulder, winks and hugs. Behind his back, he was the subject of ‘do-you-recognise-him’ remarks.

“Those who were kids all those years ago took time to recognise me,” says Hussain. “It wasn’t a problem for the elders though. They had waited 14 summers for my return.”

At the time of his arrest, Hussain, who used to run a Kashmir arts shop in Mussoorie, UP, was in Delhi. His younger brother Mirza Nissar Hussain (then 18), also an arts trader, was shown arrested on 17 June 1996 from Mussoorie. For the next 13 years, 10 months and 25 days, Hussain remained incarcerated, mostly in the high-security cell in Tihar Jail, facing trial on charges of possessing explosive substances and arms.

After a lengthy trial, District Judge SP Garg of the Patiala High Court declared Hussain innocent and acquitted him of all charges, along with three other accused, finding the police investigation full of holes. This was on 8 April 2010. Hussain’s younger brother was, however, convicted and awarded death sentence.

For his part, Hussain himself finds little meaning in being ‘free’. “I couldn’t attend my sisters’ weddings. Our business sank permanently. And Nissar (his brother) will never come out of jail. What price this freedom? Will I get back what I lost?” he asks, as he rests his arm on friend Riyaz Ahmad’s shoulder in the lawns of a Srinagar lower court.

Ahmad, 40, was among the few friends and neighbours who saw the family’s glory and decline in a span of a decade. “They (Mirzas) had a name and presence in the handicrafts market. But after 1996 they lost everything. The status they had acquired slipped through their hands like dry sand,” says Ahmad.

While the brothers were locked up, the world Hussain left behind didn’t stand still. Nor did his family. His unlettered mother, three sisters (unmarried then) and younger brother Mirza Zaffar endured emotional and financial hardships. “Zaffar quit graduation and started teaching in a private school to support the family,” he says.

Hussain is oval-faced, tall and well-built. However, his complexion is sallow and he is fast balding. While in jail, he completed one year of IGNOU’s commerce degree and then the Bachelor’s preparatory programme exam. But “I wasn’t mentally strong enough to get the degrees. I abandoned studies thereafter,” he adds.

After prolonged incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit, Hussain says he can’t even feel anger any more. “Things rarely make me angry — because I don’t feel any purpose in life now,” he says. And, after a long pause, adds: “I want to tell you that if you make a promise, you have to fulfil it. At least 10 percent of it, if not entirely.”

Hussain is referring to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s announcement of rehabilitation made immediately after his release, which he says was a “hollow pledge to impress upon the media that he cares”.

“Leave aside rehabilitation, I applied for a loan to purchase a loom costing around 3.5 lakh. The bank refused. And they (government) talk about rehabilitating youth and promoting khadi and village industries in Kashmir,” he says.

Hussain is wary not only of mainstream politicians but of separatist leaders too. “No one visited our family. There was no medicine for my old mother. My sisters had a tough time finding a proper match and my brother suffered. But there were no freedom fighters to help us. At least they should have helped my family,” he says bitterly

Baba Umar is a Correpsondent with Tehelka.
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