The story of Aamir Khan

Print edition : April 01, 2016

Muslim prisoners in Ahmedabad's Sabarmati Central Jail are greeted by their sisters on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan on August 29, 2015. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Mohammad Aamir Khan. He spent 14 years in jail. Photo: V. Sudershan

A heart-wrenching story of a Muslim youth who is incarcerated on false charges and an indictment of the criminal justice system.

It goes without saying that law enforcement agencies, in order to do their duty with fairness and justice, should be free of biases. But time and again, the implicit communal bias of some of them gets exposed in stark ways. Framed as a Terrorist by Mohammad Aamir Khan is a heart-wrenching tale of his extreme struggle to prove his innocence in the face of partisan policing.

A memoir, co-written with the human rights lawyer and campaigner Nandita Haksar, the book is also a severe indictment of the Indian criminal justice system, which allows such injustice to fester and where one’s fate hinges on several extrajudicial factors.

The growing war against terrorism in India has had a terrible fallout on the lives of ordinary Muslim citizens. Although the ill-conceived notion that “though all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims” has been receding from popular public discourses, it continues to plague the police and intelligence agencies. Many Muslim youth have been picked up by the police, framed in false cases relating to terror, and kept behind bars for several years. Statistics provided by the National Crime Research Bureau for the period between 2001 and 2012 reveal that the proportion of Muslims in the total prison population has always been higher than the proportion of Muslims in the total population of the country. A handful of these prisoners are able to get access to the justice system, and very few, like Aamir, walk out of prison with their heads held high. In false cases, the inordinately long incarceration itself becomes the punishment.

Aamir’s nightmare, which lasted 14 years, began in 1998 when he was about 20 years old. He was travelling to Pakistan to visit his elder sister who was married and settled there. There was a time when talking about Pakistan or mentioning that one’s relatives lived there was not forbidden. Partition stories in Delhi are par for the course. One of the common recollections of the Partition days is that when Partition was declared, some families left their homes with just the keys of the main door, expecting to return once things became normal. That never happened. In fact, the situation worsened, and Pakistan became the number one enemy state for India.

In some ways, Aamir’s family continues to bear the brunt of Partition. As a young boy from the bylanes of old Delhi, who had never even ventured into Lutyen’s Delhi, Aamir was excited to visit his aapi (sister) in Karachi. He was “particularly interested in seeing the big and foreign cars that zoomed about on the streets”. As he collected his travel documents from the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi, he was approached by one “Gupta ji” from the Intelligence Department who asked him whether he would be willing to do something for his country. Before Aamir knew or fully comprehended what it was all about, he was recruited as a courier and spy. He did not know the real identity of Gupta ji, nor did he know the name of the agency hiring him, nor was he given any training for the purpose. As a result, when he saw the stringent frisking at the border, Aamir did what any amateur spy would do: dump the packet he was asked to bring back from Pakistan and return to the safety of his home in the bylanes of old Delhi.

What followed was a nightmare that lasted 14 years. He was abducted by plainclothesmen and kept in illegal detention for eight days. During this time, he was tortured and made to sign countless blank documents, write entries in diaries and file confession statements. He was kept in legal remand for two months during which time evidence was “manufactured” implicating him in 19 bomb blast cases.

Every legal provision and safeguard was flagrantly violated in the process. “It seems that under the Indian criminal justice system, it is easier to prove an innocent man guilty than for an innocent man to prove his innocence. The criminal justice system works in many ways against the innocent, especially if they are poor and cannot afford competent, but expensive, lawyers,” Nandita Haksar writes while giving context to the book.

In the aftermath of terror attacks, while the police and other investigating agencies are under pressure to show some arrests, the media, too, play their part by whipping up jingoistic sentiments. India’s anti-terror laws, such as the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act and the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act, are draconian and provide immunity to law-enforcers. There is an urgent need to analyse these laws because in a system that weighs heavily against minorities, the misuse of such laws remains a possibility.

Aamir recounts with astonishing simplicity his days in solitary confinement. He writes about seeing his old and harried parents during the court hearings. In some of the cases, the prosecution produced 40 to 50 witnesses, but when they refused to give false testimony against Aamir, the cases weakened considerably. Aamir was acquitted when the judge found that there was absolutely no evidence of his involvement in the cases. But it was a long and debilitating legal battle.

By the time he came out of prison, his father had passed away and his mother was confined to bed. He had to support her, but his health had suffered considerably during his time in prison and he had difficulty finding a job. He worked with Anhad, a non-governmental organisation, for some time but was faced with the burden of rebuilding his life. The world around him had changed completely—he was awestruck by the surfeit of mobile phones, high-speed Internet and powerful streetlights. The only source of solace was his childhood friend Alia, who waited for him all these years. The memoir has a fairy-tale ending: Aamir married Alia and they are the proud parents of a baby girl.

But Aamir is not truly free. He still has two appeals pending in the High Court, and he hopes to be acquitted. The one sentiment that stands out throughout the book is hope. Despite all the trouble he has endured, Aamir has not lost hope and remains committed to the secular ethos and has “faith in the possibility of all of us—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh—being able to feel an equal sense of belonging to our country”.

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