Mohammad Aamir Khan breaks many stereotypes about Muslims who have spent long years in jail on cooked up charges – individuals whom the intelligence agencies and police have made into a category.
After 14 years in jail on terror charges, and acquittals in 17 out of 19 cases (he was charged for all the bomb blasts that took place in Delhi during 1996-97), Aamir is neither bitter, nor does he suffer from a sense of victimhood. Indeed, when someone asked him at the launch of his book, Framed as a Terrorist (written with human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar), in Mumbai, organised by “Literature Live! Evenings”, whether he was picked up because of his religion, he was quick to answer: “Yes, but it’s not just Muslims who get picked up.’’ When he entered Tihar Jail in 1998, he saw plenty of Sikhs inside, he said. They were on their way out, having been inside since the Punjab turmoil of the 1980s.
Those were the last days of the United Front government led by Janata Dal. Soon thereafter, the National Democratic Alliance came to power. Immediately, the police became more brutal, some even warning him that he would be hanged. Then came 9/11, and his trials suddenly started taking much longer. The United Progressive Alliance’s victory in 2004 restrained the open prejudice against Muslims, but not the influx of innocents into Tihar.
Yet, he pointed out, it wasn’t just Muslims who were victimised in jail, but anyone who was weak and helpless. “Our criminal justice system is like a spider’s web. Small insects get trapped; big flies break free.’’
The audience broke into applause – and this wasn’t the only time it did.
Aamir Khan’s answers to journalist Sidharth Bhatia’s questions were not the stuff that audiences at ”Literature Live! Evenings” are used to. The last few launches have included authors such as P Chidambaram and Devdutt Pattanaik. Founder Anil Dharker said that after reading about Aamir Khan’s book, he decided he must invite him. It was Dharker who led the standing ovation Aamir received.
Aamir emphasised that Muslims are not the only victims of anti-terror laws, even though his narration showed that they constituted the majority in Tihar jail. “After the Sikhs left, came the Kashmiris, then SIMI [Students Islamic Movement of India] activists and then the IM [Indian Mujahideen]. Yet, he pointed out, there are hundreds of innocent Adivasis in jails in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand under the same laws.
Undoubtedly, Aamir’s work since his release in 2012 in ANHAD, founded by communal harmony activist Shabnam Hashmi, and later in ex-IAS officer Harsh Mander’s Aman Biradari, has politicised him. He chose to work with ANHAD rather than with Muslim religious groups who offered help. He ascribed that to his growing belief in secularism and democracy while in jail.
Jail as university
Ironically, while his religion played a role in his kidnapping (his arrest was shown days after he was abducted), his experience in jail liberated him from some facets of life as a Muslim in Old Delhi. “We Muslims live in pockets,” he told Scroll.in.
“It’s commonplace to grow up hearing things like: ‘those “others” cannot be trusted, they are always ready to attack you, they burn your mosques...,’” he added. “I’m sure Hindus are also told that ‘those katuey (circumcised) are filthy, they eat meat all the time, they are violent…’ But in jail, I met people from all religions and regions, even foreigners. I could observe them closely. I made no friends, but there were prisoners who stood by me, my companions Karan, Baljit. All these encounters taught me that humanity is above everything.’’
Aamir’s family had given him a grounding in secular beliefs. Most of his family had chosen to stay back at Partition. “They chose Gandhi and Nehru. They rejected Jinnah,’’ he said. But what strengthened this grounding was his reading in jail.
Talking to Scroll.in, Aamir recalled his parents’ first visit to Tihar. He was just 20 – his mother was weeping, so was he. But his father, though obviously grief-stricken, gave him advice he held on to throughout his imprisonment. “There are good people even in jail, though few. Keep their company. If you can’t find any, keep your own.”
So it came to be that. “Jail became my university,’’ he said. Books and nature – the glimpse of a tree, flowers in the compound – kept him going. “I believe that jail played a big part in moulding all great leaders.’’
Aamir ended up reading scriptures of all religions, and also Tulsidas’ Ramcharitamanas, and concluded that all religions are alike and are all good. “Only because we blindly follow our so-called religious leaders, we end up hating others and feeling ours is the best religion. To me, all religions are equal. I like atheists too,’’ he said, adding, “though I’m not one.’’
It is this belief that led him to name his daughter Anusha, a Sanskrit word meaning “beautiful morning star” or “the first ray of the sun”. “Some relatives told me: ‘This isn’t an Islamic name.’ I said, `Yes, but it’s an insaani [human] name.’’’
Anusha is now two. Will he tell her his life story? “She will come to know anyway, so it’s best I tell her so that she learns the positives from it – how Hindus helped me in jail and out of it.’’
Finding a bride was surprisingly, not a problem. “I believe in the saying: behind every successful man is a woman; in my case, two women.’’ Apart from his mother, there was another woman who believed in his innocence. Alia was his tuition classmate. They had never spoken about the feelings both knew existed. On the basis of this unspoken teenage romance, she waited for him for 14 years, despite her family’s pressure.
It’s not as if those years haven’t scarred him. He wakes up screaming at night, haunted by memories of torture. He lives in freedom, but in constant fear of shadowy men (“If I were to meet the man who trapped me, I’d run’’) and cops (when a roadside cop addressed him politely, he was dumbstruck). He is under psychiatric treatment.
His deepest sorrow is about his parents. His father passed away soon after he was sent to jail, broken by the new terror law that denied bail. And when he finally returned home, he could not even hear his mother address him as “beta” nor eat food cooked by her. After running around for his cases for 10 long years, she suffered a brain haemorrhage that left her paralysed and voiceless, a “living corpse” as he put it. That’s the first time he choked up in his narration.
The second time was when he spoke about his daughter’s future. “I was born in a secular country, thanks to my family’s choice. And I’m so proud about their decision. But will my daughter grow into that same Bharat that was moulded by Gandhi? Will she be proud of it too? Forgive me for saying this, but we Muslims had a choice in 1947. Non-Muslims didn’t. We Muslims who stayed back are Indians by choice, not chance. Yet, you doubt our patriotism? How long will we take this?’’