Life in jail was hell, it is no better outside

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FAKE TERRORISTS 2, A series on Kashmiri youth

Syed Maqbool Shah, 32
Lal Bazaar, Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir

BABA UMAR

WHY: Arrested for alleged involvement in the Lajpat Nagar bombings of 21 May 1996, on the basis of a car tyre found in his room that allegedly belonged to the car used in the bombing. He was sent to Tihar Jail.
WHEN: 17 June 1996.
WHERE: Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi.

Photo: Baba Umar

IN A decrepit kitchen with cement floors and stained walls, Syed Maqbool Shah, 32, fishes out the memorabilia of the injustice meted out to him for a good half of his life.

Stuffed in a tattered old green bag is a copy of his mercy petition. Also, copies of handwritten letters shot to all chief ministers of Jammu & Kashmir since 1996, Union home ministers and the International Committee of Red Cross seeking liberation and justice from Delhi’s notorious Tihar Jail. Four diaries detail his sufferings (Apni Aap Beeti), which he now intends to get published. And a black-and-white passport-size picture of Shah’s from when he was 17, just days before his arrest for allegedly bombing one of South Delhi’s busiest markets in Lajpat Nagar, on 21 May 1996.

“This bag is the only possession I have. My life and my career are gone,” Shah laments, at his ancestral home in Jan Mohalla, Lal Bazaar, in the heart of Srinagar.

Shah’s ordeal began on 17 June 1996 with a nocturnal raid by the Delhi Police in Bhogal, Jangpura, for his alleged involvement in the blast that had left 13 dead and 39 others injured. Shah, then a Class XII student, was holidaying in Delhi at the residence of his brothers, who were papier mâché artisans.

For the next 14 years, Shah was lodged in a highsecurity cell in Tihar and Rohini Jails, facing trial under Sections 302/307 RPC and 3, 4, 5 Explosives Act. The police claimed to have recovered a spare tyre of the Maruti car used in the blast from his room. However, the car owner, Atul Nath, told the court that the tyre did not belong to his car, nor had he ever identified it

Almost 26 judges heard Shah’s case at different intervening periods and on 8 April 2010, after spending half of his life in jail, Shah was declared innocent and acquitted of all charges. “I was happy when the judgment was pronounced. But I could only think of my dead father and sister who couldn’t see my return,” Shah breaks down. His father Syed Mohammed, a weaver, passed away in 1997.

BEFORE HEADING home after his release, Shah offered prayers at a mosque in Srinagar and then rushed straight to see the graves of his family members located in the courtyard. “I remember my sister had come to see me in the jail. But the policemen didn’t even allow us to hold hands,” he says.

After 14 years in prison, Shah can’t stomach normal food. The now ubiquitous cable television and mobile phones also came as a shock to him. Being confined in close spaces in jail has given him a wavering gait, which makes him falter and fall.

If the loss Shah suffered is colossal, it is dwarfed by the apathy from the administration in spite of rehabilitation assurances made by none other than Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in May 2010. While Shah has been knocking on the doors of the CM, his advisers and officials concerned in the Home Department say they aren’t aware of Shah’s case. “I am not aware of any such case,” Principal Secretary (Home) BR Sharma told TEHELKA. Abdullah was inaccessible despite repeated attempts.

Ever since his release, Shah has been doing the rounds, seeking a Class IV government job.

“No one can bring back my 14 years but I want a job so I can feed my old mother (Zoona Begum) and myself. I will work in any capacity, except for the police. How can I? It’s the same force that destroyed my life forever,” he says.

Before he fastens the green bag, Shah takes out a copy of his Class X marksheet attested by his childhood friend Altaf Ahmad Wani, who started work as a lecturer at a local college while Shah was rotting in jail. But for a cruel twist of fate, he too could have been a productive member of the workforce in his home state.

Baba Umar is a Correpsondent with Tehelka.
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