Muslim victims of false terrorism charges

New book sheds light on struggle of Muslim victims of false terror after acquittal

Print edition : September 10, 2021

Dr Aleemullah Khan and Manisha Bhalla,  the authors of Ba-Izzat Bari?

Tariq Dar, an accused in the 2005 Sarojini Nagar bomb blasts case. In 2017, a Delhi court released him. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Abdul Wahid Sheikh , an accused in the 2006 Mumbai train blasts case. A Mumbai court acquitted him of all charges n 2015. Photo: Youtube Screengrab

Dr Salman Farsi , Dr Farogh Maqdoomi, Noorul Huda, and Raees Ahmed, after a Mumbai court acquitted them of all charges in the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, on April 25, 2016. Photo: Deepak Salvi

Several Muslims framed under bogus terrorism charges struggle to lead a normal life after their acquittal and release. A new book in Hindi, a product of painstaking research, chronicles their trials and tribulations.

Tariq Dar, 30, a resident of Srinagar, had a well-paying job with Johnson & Johnson, was married and led a happy life. He was an avid footballer and active in student union politics in his younger days. Hailing from a financially weak family, he worked hard to rise through the ranks, getting an MBA degree alongside his job. Then one evening, in November 2005, his world came crashing down.

The Tariq Dar case

After an official tour of Anantnag, Dar, along with his long-time friend Abdul Mateen, was headed towards Srinagar around 8 p.m. when he called his wife to inform her that he would be reaching in 10-12 minutes. Just then, he was kidnapped—not by militants but by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell. It was only after his arrest Dar learnt that he was an accused in the serial bomb blasts in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar in October 2005.

Blindfolded by policemen, he was subject to physical violence all night. Later, still blindfolded, he was taken to Delhi, where his blinkers were removed and he stood in front of a police officer who told him that he could forget Kashmir.

Dar’s incident finds pride of place in the book Ba-Izzat Bari? (Acquitted with Honour?), a painstakingly researched work by Manisha Bhalla and Dr Aleemullah Khan. For two years they visited the houses of 16 individuals who had been arrested on false charges and put together their stories. What they discovered were heart-rending tales of third-degree torture, sustained human indignity, and worse, systemic faults such as blatant communalism in the ranks of the police and other investigating agencies, gross incompetence, a common modus operandi used to trap the innocent, and the lethargic ways of the judicial system where an accused was often denied a hearing in his own case. All 16 cases had one thing in common: the victims were all Muslims and the oppressors were policemen who used means fair and foul to trap the innocent.

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The book, written in Hindi, talks about the blasts at Malegaon in Maharashtra, and Sarojini Nagar and Red Fort in Delhi, and other such incidents. It is due to be released in English shortly. Speaking to Frontline, Manisha Bhalla, who is a journalist, said: “In all 16 cases, we saw that whosoever was arrested by the police was somewhere linked to the human rights movement, student politics or the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).”

She added: “First, the police arrested the men and kept them in illegal detention for 10 days. Then, they picked up the near and dear ones and relatives of the accused. The police did not arrest on the basis of evidence but concocted evidence after the arrest. Under third-degree torture, the accused were forced to confess that they had carried out the bomb blasts. Then they were framed in multiple cases so that they could not get bail for many years. They were all arrested under the Special Act [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act], so the hearings took a long time.”

Aleemullah Khan, a Lucknow-based journalist and social activist, said: “We saw in our investigation that the police did not arrest the accused on the basis of clinching evidence. Instead, after the arrests, the bomb attacks were strung together and the accused were linked to them. Take the case of Rajasthan, where the Urdu literature and religious books found at Amanullah Ansari’s house were said to be objectionable. In Kashmir, Mohammed Hussain Fazli gave his mobile to a shopkeeper for repair. The shopkeeper inserted another SIM card in the mobile to call up somebody. Gulzar Wani’s only crime was that during his Aligarh Muslim University days, he used to talk of student rights. For one, two, or even five years, the police was not able to find out who committed the bomb blasts. Our book raises the question: How come it takes so many years to find out that the accused had not done the bomb blasts, and if the accused had not done the crime, who had?”

Communalism within police ranks

Not surprisingly, Manisha Bhalla and Aleemullah Khan found that communal bias was widespread and deep-rooted in the police force. There is an instance mentioned in the book where Dar, despite the torture he has been subjected to, musters the courage to ask Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma of the Lodi Road Police Station why the police framed him when they knew he was innocent. Sharma replied: “Are you not a Muslim? Are you not a potential threat to the nation, a threat to Hindutva?”

There are other similar cases of communal bias and ‘othering’ of Muslims, questioning of their patriotism, and so on. Manisha Bhalla said: “We found the virus of communalism in the police. All the arrests were made on the basis of religion. People were arrested only because they were Muslims. In Malegaon, police arrested Rajab Ali who was observing fast in the month of Ramzan and carried two pieces of dates in his pocket to break at his fast at sunset. The policemen took the dates and trampled over them. They tore the pages of the Quran and stepped on them. They forced the accused to speak ill of Prophet Muhammad. When an accused shouted ‘Allah’ in pain, he was subjected to greater torture.” Aleemullah Khan said: “All these instances prove that the arrests took place on the basis of religion. In Kashmir, Tariq Dar was clearly told: “Tum log Hindustan aur Hindutva ke liye potential threats ho” (You people are a potential threat to India and Hindutva).”

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The experiences of the 16 accused exposed many faultlines in the system. On the one hand it was found that the media pronounced the accused as terrorists, without caring to use qualifying terms such as ‘alleged’ or ‘claimed to be’. Worse, even when the accused were acquitted of all wrongdoing, the media often used their photos and recalled past instances while reporting on subsequent blasts. And once again, rather irresponsibly, the media outlets referred to them as ‘terrorists’ instead of calling them ‘honourably acquitted’.

Syed Wasif Haider from Kanpur was picked up in 2001 on charges of rioting, murder, involvement in a bomb blast and making provocative speeches, and was acquitted in 2009. However, newspapers continued to call him a terrorist even three years after his release. The policemen were no different. After any subsequent blast or attack, they would visit the houses of the accused even though they had been declared innocent.

The situation in the judiciary, Manisha Bhalla and Aleemullah Khan found, was somewhat better. Aleemullah Khan said: “The judiciary does not question why the accused was kept in illegal detention, why the arrest was shown 10 days after the man was picked up by the police, why the police diary was not maintained in the case, etc. Even on third-degree torture in police remand, judges do not say anything.”

Manisha Bhalla said: “The bodies of the accused were smeared with faeces and their faces were rubbed against the mouths of piglets, yet everybody stayed quiet. Inside the jail, they were beaten by fellow prisoners, they were stripped and hung upside down, electric shock was given to the male organ, petrol was filled in the anus, and so on. As these people had been arrested under the Special Act, there was a long list of witnesses. The charge sheet is long and cumbersome and the verdict takes years.”

Laborious research

Ba-Izzat Bari? is the result of painstaking research and several trips to the families of the accused to convince them to share their stories. Many were too broken and had no faith left in the system to agree easily to talk about their experiences. Many were financially too weak to spare time for conversation, busy as they were trying to earn a living. Aleemullah Khan said: “For two years we worked in the field, took the details of the cases from their advocates. First we checked the documents of the accused with their lawyers, then we cross-checked them with clippings from libraries. After 16 cases were selected, we started the rounds of visits to the accused who had been honourably released, albeit after spending 10, 12 or even 17 years in jail.” Some of the accused individuals were not ready to speak to the authors owing to trust issues. Manisha Bhalla said: “One round of meetings was not sufficient. People did not open up fully. In many cases, we had to have four meetings. In the case of Rehmana (who was caught because her husband lied), we met her many times over three months. Only then did she open up. We went to the house of every accused, stayed there, and met the family and the elders, and even the neighbours.”

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Their efforts have resulted in a book that exposes several false cases of terrorism foisted upon the innocent. The ordeal of the accused was not just confined to long years of incarceration and torture behind bars. Almost every accused person lost their job or source of incom.

Upon release, when they applied for a job, they were asked about the long gap in their resume and subsequently rejected. A doctor had to become a shepherd to earn his bread and butter. A teacher lost his job; a craftsman who worked the loom lost all his business contacts and, after release, found to his dismay that people were not willing to work with him. The shadow of a crime he had not committed hung over him.

Most of the accused persons lost their family members during the years of separation. One detainee lost both his parents, while another lost his father-in-law as well as an uncle and an aunt. The list of losses is endless. But it may be stated that even after being acquitted and honourably released, the accused have not been able to lead a normal life.

The book, published by Bharat Pustak Bhandar, exposes the ugly underbelly of the sociopolitical system in the country. As Dar says in the book: “I was a Muslim. They (police) said my arrest was a message for Muslims.” The rot runs deep.