On the late afternoon of September 24, 2002, two gunmen, Murtuza Hafiz Yasin and Ashraf Ali Mohammed Farooq, entered the Akshardham Temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat and opened fire on the devotees present. Thirty three were killed and 86 wounded. National Security Guards intervened shortly after, killing both of the assailants, who allegedly had ties to the Pakistan based terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The case was promptly handed over to Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorism Squad who investigated the case for nearly a year but could not find any evidence of Gujarat based support for the attack.

Then on August 28, 2003, the case was transferred to the Gujarat Crime Branch, headed by GS Singhal. Within hours of receiving the case, Singhal received a tip from DG Vanzara, the former Deputy Inspector General for Gujarat and the former head of Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorism Squad. During his tenure at ATS, Vanzara earned a reputation for being an encounter cop specialist and he went to jail from 2007 to 2015 for his possible connection in several encounter killings.

After just one day, Vanzara claimed to have cracked the case and suggested that the Akshardham attack was a global terrorist plot with help from the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as support from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and most critically, from a group of Muslims in Ahmedabad.

On August 29, 2003, five Muslims were arrested in Ahmedabad and booked under Gujarat’s draconian anti-terrorism law, POTA. One of the arrested was Mufti Abdul Qayyum. A few days later, a man from Kashmir was also arrested in connection with the attacks.

In 2006, a Gujarat POTA court sentenced three of the six to death, including Qayyum; the rest were given life sentences. In 2010, the Gujarat High Court upheld that ruling. However on May 16, 2014 – the same day that Narendra Modi won the Lok Sabha election – all six were acquitted by the Supreme Court.

The apex court criticised the Gujarat police and the Gujarat investigation into the Akshardham case, saying that the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad was “shooting in the dark for about a year without any result” and that “No trace of the people associated with this heinous attack on the Akshardham temple could be found by the Gujarat police.”

Qayyum, now a 44-year-old madrasa teacher, decided to write a book about his experience, Gyarah Saal Salakhon Ke Peeche (Eleven Years Behind Bars). The 200 page plus book, which he wrote in both Urdu and Gujarati, documents the torture he experienced, as well as what he believes to be the flawed and biased investigation against him.

His book was to be released on Thursday in Ahmedabad but the Gujarat police told him that he could not release it or make any reference to the Akshardham attack, lest he wants to be responsible for creating a rule and law problem.

On Friday afternoon, Zahir Janmohamed sat with Qayyum in the Old City area of Ahmedabad known as Dariapur to ask him why he wrote his book and why the Gujarat police is trying to prevent him from releasing it.

Can you describe the circumstances of your arrest in 2003?
First I have to explain my work during the 2002 Gujarat riots so that you can understand what led to my arrest. I was one of the first to start a relief camp right here in Dariapur, Ahmedabad. We had about 600 or 700 Muslims who fled their homes in Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg. I was 31 years old at the time when I set up the camp.

We ran the camp with funds from three sources: the government’s collector’s office (who gave us about 6 or 7 rupees per person per day), NGOs, and Islamic groups like the Jamiat-e Islami.

The police would come often to the camp and harass us, saying why are you helping the Muslims, you do not know what will happen to you next. I would tell them – why is the government collector’s office giving us money to help run the relief camps and then the police is harassing us for doing the exact thing the collector is paying us to do?

In August 2002, we were told by the Gujarat government to shut the relief camps down because the (then) President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, was coming to Ahmedabad and the Gujarat government did not want him to see the camps. So we had to find housing for Muslims wherever we could. It was difficult. No one would give land to Muslims.

Sometimes in early January or February 2003, the Gujarat government started arresting people from the Islamic groups – Tablighi Jamaat, Jamiat-e Islami  – and the government targeted those people who were running the camps. I was worried but I thought: Ok, this happens to Muslims all the time so what is new? What choice do we have?

On August 17, 2003, I was at my home in Dariapur when three or four Muslim police officers came to visit. They said come with us because we want to inquire about the funds you used to run the relief camps in 2002.

Why did you agree to go with them, especially given that the police had harassed you before?
Because they asked me nicely and I don’t know – I am a nice guy. I thought this is just an audit and I did not have anything to hide. The camp was run partly from the collector’s money and it was not one of the huge camps like Shah Alam that had thousands of Muslims.

What happened when you reached the police station?
They told me I recruited two fedayeens (Islamic militants) from Hyderabad to attack the Akshardham in 2002. Then another investigator told me that I brought fedayeens from Pakistan. Another said I brought the fedayeens from Kashmir and one person even said Afghanistan. So it was clear they were trying to make this story up.

They kept me and a few others from August 17 until August 29 in illegal detention without charging me of anything. They tortured me every day.

In your book, you describe the torture you experienced. Can you share one example?
They would put electrical shocks on my finger tips, under my nails. Sometimes they would tie my feet together and put the electrical shocks on my backside. They would abuse us with so many insults. They said they would rape our wives, our mothers. Sometimes when they would hit me, I would yell Allahu Akbar (God is Great) but the guards would respond by saying, Tumhara Allah ab humare side pe he (Even your Allah is on our side now).

They threatened to take us outside of Ahmedabad and "encounter" us if we did not sign confession orders. I said ok, you can kill me, but then they said, “No. We will also kill you, your wife, your children, your parents, and your friends.”

What happened then on August 29?
I need to say this first. The women in our community held a large protest on August 25. It is thanks to them that I got out of that torture room. The government knew it was facing pressure so they charged me on August 29 after they forced my confession through torture. They said I was the one who provided the housing, food, and transport to the fedayeens. They charged five others. Of the five, I only knew one of the charged. The others I had never met. One man from Kashmir was later charged.

But there were witnesses who said you help plan the attack and the Gujarat government claimed you once had ties to anti-social elements.
(Pauses) Look, I am not a lawyer but I learned many things in prison, meeting so many lawyers, and one of them is that you have to check the witnesses' account against the evidence.

They said the six of us coordinated the attack but then look at the confessions we signed under torture – they all contradicted each other. Even when they brought some of us to Kashmir, each of us identified a different person that we were supposedly working with to coordinate this attack.

Also if we were all working together, why did the accounts of the attack from the Gujarat police differ from what the Jammu and Kashmir police said?

A few more questions. If Vanzara was the person who solved this case in just one day, why did he not come forward as a witness in the POTA court? And why didn’t we hear the testimony from Brig Raj Sitapati, the main commando of the National Security Guards?

Now the main charges against me was that I wrote the Urdu letters that the fidayeen had in their pocket. These were supposedly the instruction for the attack. But according to the media, where were these two men shot? (Points to his upper thigh). Right here. So how is it in the court that these Urdu letters were not with holes or any blood? It is not possible.

They said it was my hand-writing in those Urdu letters but my lawyer, RK Shah, asked the court’s handwriting expert, JJ Patel, if he could read or write Urdu. Patel said he could not. So how then can he be an expert in decoding whether or not I wrote the letter? Why not bring someone who can read Urdu?

As for my ties to the underworld or to anti-social elements, these days anyone who speaks against the government or speaks for Muslims is anti-national and anti-social.

Can you describe your time in prison? Were you able to see your wife and two children during those 11 years in prison?
At first they put me in a maximum security cell. It was maybe 15 feet by 50 feet and we had around 50 people in it. We had just two toilets. But they did not torture me once I was in the prison and they let me perform namaz and read Quran. Eventually they shifted me, in 2008 I think, to the general prison. They would let my wife and my children visit once a week for 30 minutes. Some of the prison guards treated me well, which I have highlighted in my book. They deserve recognition.

I have also included a chapter in my book about my friendship with a mentally disabled man, Bipin bhai, who always believed in me and always told me I would be acquitted.

Why did the Gujarat police prevent you from releasing your book?
Newspapers are saying that my book is banned in Gujarat but it is not the case. Last night we had the book launch and the Gujarat police told us we could not release or distribute the book because it will lead to disturbance in the society.

We had to listen as there is this new law, and we know the government is still watching us. We know what they are capable of and what they did in the past. But look at my phone. It has been ringing throughout our interview. I am getting so many calls from people who want to read my book, to translate it. And now with the internet, people will surely find it, I hope.

(Takes a long pause). I do not want to say anything more about the Gujarat police.

Why then did you write your book, given that you are critical in it of the Gujarat state and the Gujarat police?
Because I suffered and so many others did too. And because one of my sons was just a baby and the other was five and I want them to know what I lived through.

My wife also faced so many problems. Yes, some people supported us, especially after my father died when I was away in prison. But some Muslims also said, “I don’t want to be friends with a terrorist’s wife. It is too risky.” People should know this too.

In your 11 years in prison, how has Ahmedabad changed? How have you changed?
So many changes. I see that Muslims have become more religious, more are going to the masjid, more are wearing burqa, Muslims are less divided – this is a good thing. Another is that some very small people have now become very big and are now in the Centre. (smiles)

As for me, my mindset is completely different. Sometimes I think I have moved ahead and people’s thinking has gone behind; other times I think, maybe their thinking has moved forward and I have gone behind.