This is a story about Aamir, an ordinary young man born in a Muslim family living in the by-lanes of Old Delhi; a youth who dreamt of a conventional future for himself: marriage, family, a nice home and a decent job.
Aamir’s dreams were cut short when he was kidnapped by the police and found himself accused of being a terrorist, planting bombs and being in league with dreaded Pakistan-based militants. And the bizarre events led to his imprisonment which lasted nearly 14 years.
In the night I was taken to the Chanakyapuri Police Station and put in the lock-up for the night. I was put in along with one or two men who had also been produced in the court along with me. Apart from these two there were two others who appeared to be criminals. We were given blankets which were stinking and there was no water in the toilet.
I wanted to speak to the other prisoners but we were ordered to stay apart and not speak to each other. And the criminals were also told not to speak to us.
The next morning they took us back to the rooms in the Inter-state Crime Cell.
It was here that the police told me that I had to admit to being involved in bomb blasts.
They told me I had to admit to the charges and since the case was false I would come out in a few years. When I resisted I was beaten. I was made to lie on my stomach and my legs and arms were pulled together and joined in an arch. It was very painful and my back hurt very badly.
Then they put a rod under the knees and sat on my legs. Even now I have pain in my knees. They really broke both my body and my spirit. I knew that from now on I would have to accept whatever they said. I even began to feel I had done wrong by throwing the bag at the Wagah railway station and this was a punishment I was getting for a wrong I had committed. They told me that if I ever wanted to meet my family again I must accept whatever they said.
Almost every day different people came to question me. I do not know who they were because they did not introduce themselves. Before they came, the police would tell me some story about how I had planted a bomb somewhere or the other and I was supposed to repeat it to those people. I could not make very much sense of what was happening.
One day I was allowed to have a bath and given new clothes. I was taken upstairs and there I saw my parents, accompanied by Abbu’s friend, Chawla Saheb. I was taken into the room but Chawla Saheb had to remain outside. Abbu was wearing a kurta-pyjama. He just asked: “Kya hua, beta? Yeh sab kaise hua?”
Ammi was wearing a burqa and she hugged me and tried to press my arm to find out whether I was okay. She burst into tears and I was terrified that they had arrested my parents as they had threatened to do during the interrogations.
The police had told me to tell them I was involved in the blasts but the meeting was so brief that there was no time; they had to leave. They had got permission from the court to meet me after they read in the papers that I had been arrested in connection with the bomb blasts in Delhi in 1997.
I could only tell them not to worry and that I would explain everything later: “Baad mey bataoonga, abhi sab theek hai. Aap phikr na kare.” My parents asked permission from the police to give me a copy of the Quran Sharif. The police took it and said they would give it to me but they never did. I did not have the courage to ask them for it.
Ever since the trials began, I had wanted to tell the judge my story but my lawyer told me I would get an opportunity only at the end of the trial. But the trials had finished and I had not been given an opportunity. My lawyer did not have time to visit me in the jail to explain what was happening and I used to feel very despondent.
I would lie awake at night and often cry myself to sleep. I just saw the lights of the tower and heard the sound of the boots of the guards and I thought my entire life would pass within these walls.
Someone even told me that I would die in jail. There was a man who had become a bit mad. He would bathe and soap himself with his clothes on. He would eat his food sitting next to a drain. They told me I would become mad like him.
But then I told myself I had my parents working hard to get me acquitted and my lawyer who assured me that there was no evidence against me and the cases were weak. Anyway, I was glad to have the opportunity to tell my side of the story to the judge.
I told the judge about Guptaji and how he had framed me because I could not do the task he had assigned to me. The court order recorded that I stated that I have been “falsely implicated at the instance of one Guptaji of Intelligence Bureau”.
On 30 March 2001 I was acquitted in a bomb blast which took place on 25 February 1997. In this case a prosecution witness stated that he had seen me placing a “thaila” (bag) in the bus but when he was cross- examined he admitted that the first time he saw me was at the police station and the fact that the statement of that witness was recorded much after the event led the court to observe that no reliance could be placed on his testimony.
In April 2001, I was transferred to Jail No. 1. It was there that for no reason I was beaten very badly; they tied me to a pole and beat me on the soles of the feet. This kind of beating leaves no marks but it is very painful. In jail parlance it is called “Lakshman jhoola”.
This kind of violence is common in the jail. There is also the ever-present threat of the blade-baaz who cuts a man’s throat. Once many of us went on a hunger strike against the practice of putting offenders like these (blade-baaz) in the same cell with political prisoners.
I was acquitted in five more cases between April and July 2001. The acquittals gave me hope that I would be released soon and could look after Abbu and Ammi who seemed to be ageing very fast because of the trauma of seeing their son in jail. Abbu said to get justice one had to have hands made of gold (because it was so expensive) and feet made of iron (because there was so much running around to do.)
The judge was also sympathetic and the atmosphere in the court was beginning to feel less harrowing. But the trial took a toll on me, especially if the witnesses looked at me with questions in their eyes as if asking: “Did you plant the bomb?”
I still remember a young woman, Veena, who came into the court limping. She had got injured in the bomb blasts in the Rani Bagh market on 18 October 1997. In that case the prosecution produced 58 witnesses. Kumari Veena was Prosecution Witness No. 4.
When she was asked to identify me, she slowly turned to look towards me and our eyes met. Mine were full of fear and hers held a question in them. Her eyes seemed to be asking me whether I had done the act. And I wanted to shout out loud and clear that I was innocent and that I had been framed. She looked at me and then turned to the judge and said no, she had never seen me before.
I could not sleep that night. The faces of the victims of the blasts kept floating by and I decided that when I was released I would seek them out and tell them the truth about how the police had kidnapped me and tortured me.
On 17 August 2001, I was acquitted in the Rani Bagh blast case. The judge held: “Perusal of the entire records thus reveals that there is absolutely no evidence against the accused Amir Khan [sic] which could prove his involvement in the commission of the offences against him.”
That day the judge noticed that Abbu was absent. The judge asked where he was and my advocate, Feroze Khan Saheb told him Abbu had been admitted to hospital. The judge gave me permission to visit him in hospital for an hour.
Escorted by the police I arrived at the Bara Hindu Rao hospital and was taken to where Abbu lay. The doctors said that he needed surgery and I persuaded him to undergo it even though he was very reluctant.
I still remember his words to me: “Beta, mai tumhari tarikh pay aa nahi sakaa.” (Son, I could not be present for your court case.)
Lying in the hospital bed he was worried about me. I looked deep into his eyes but could not say much with the police surrounding me. Our words were unspoken. My mother kissed me on the forehead and her tears never stopped flowing. The hour was over and the police took me back to the jail.
I remember I was in the court but I do not know which case it was. After the proceedings were over, Feroze Khan Ghazi whispered to me that my father had passed away. Life ebbed out of my body and I felt absolutely numb.
The judge noticed that something was amiss and asked what had happened. When he was told the news he said, “Don’t worry, god will take care of everything.” I do not know how I managed to reach my cell and then I collapsed. I sat surrounded by silence. In the evening when I did not come out as usual, my fellow prisoners came to my cell to find out what had happened.
The first to arrive was Sushil Sharma, the man involved in the tandoor case. He sat with me for some time. Next came another fellow prisoner. He was in the cell next to mine. Once I saw him crying out to his gods and cursing them for abandoning him. He had a picture of Hanumanji and he was crying and cursing because the court had rejected his application for bail. He sat with me quietly.
I did not eat that evening and I lay awake. Finally, as night fell and all was silent I broke down. I kept thinking of Abbu. His face, his gestures of love, his concern and his last words to me in hospital.
Who would come to court and follow up with the lawyers? Ammi had come with Abbu but did not understand the court proceedings. In any case she would be in mourning for three months so I would have no mulaqaats. I had never felt so desolate in my life. I felt abandoned and in despair. Even though I had been acquitted in twelve cases, there were seven more cases; and the money had already run out.
Excerpted with permission from Framed as a Terrorist: My 14-year Struggle to Prove My Innocence, Mohammad Aamir Khan with Nandita Haksar, Speaking Tiger Books.