The police had issued four sketches of suspects after the Delhi blasts. Four sketches for three men. One of them wore a skullcap, the others had trimmed beards. None of these sketches matched the portraits that the newspapers published of those killed in the encounter.
In the coming days and weeks, sceptics pointed out that the dead men had all presented authentic documents for SIM-card verification. The police responded that they had been overconfident, implying that the Terrorists had disguised themselves as Normal Human Beings – as students, as working men.
Normal Human Beings.
Of all the many claims that the police made, this was the scariest. In one stroke, it brought every youth in Jamia Nagar under the scanner of suspicion. How was a truly normal person expected to behave? And what distinguished him or her from someone who is merely normal-looking? How was one supposed to identify someone who was disguised as a Normal Human Being? Am I normal? Are you?
This ostensibly harmless statement made us all – brave, cowards, closet cowards, everyone – paranoid, if you will. I thought about fleeing Delhi. But then I remembered the police claim that two of the Terrorists had fled. What if they said I was one of them? Already a major news channel was broadcasting a programme warning people about the absconding men: “Shut your doors and windows, they could be hiding anywhere.”
I abandoned that plan.
But staying in Delhi presented its own challenges. On the day of the encounter, the police had picked up five or six schoolkids who lived in the Encounter Building. They were released late in the evening that day after some senior lawyers intervened, but it was scary. If schoolkids were being picked up, college students were not safe at all.
A school boy from another colony was dragged out by plainclothesmen from his home. I heard they had asked for his elder brother and were told that he wasn’t home; so they dragged away the younger boy.
I heard that a young man was picked up from Lajawab tea stall near Batla House chowk and taken away in a For-You-With-You-Always van.
We stopped going out after sunset. No Bismillah tea stall, no Lajawab, no nightlife of Jamia Nagar. We were scared of the police. I recalled the old village wisdom Dada often quoted: Never grow a ber ka ped at your door, never befriend a policeman. Ammi told me to be careful and avoid stepping out unless it was really important.
She had good reason to fear. The most educated person in her maternal family, her cousin, had been killed by the police in the Mumbai riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, and our joyous visits to Ammi’s maternal home always held the undertone of a missing uncle, a widowed aunt and orphaned cousins.
Meanwhile, here in Jamia Nagar...
News of the police raids – in police clothes or plain clothes – spread like wildfire. Given the media’s incoherent scare-mongering, rumours had become the most trustworthy source of news. More so because most of them turned out to be true in the next day’s newspapers. In slightly different language, though. Plainclothesmen were termed as police, picked up and kidnapped as detained.
Along with many young men, the caretaker of the flat in which the encounter took place was arrested too. It was later, when the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association published its fact-finding report, that more details emerged. We knew then for certain that we were right to be scared.
On the day of the encounter, the caretaker had gone to the local police thana, but there were no policemen there, so he went to the office of a television news channel. There, he showed the tenant verification form of the men living in the flat. His son, Zia Ur Rahman, was friends with the dead men, as they all hailed from Azamgarh, and Zia had reportedly introduced them to his father as prospective tenants for the flat. The caretaker claimed he had accompanied Atif to the local police thana for verification. They were not terrorists, he stated.
The next day, he went back to the police station. The police claimed that the verification forms were fake and arrested him and his son. They charged Zia as one of the bombers. They termed the rent agreement as fake, even though it was the address the tenants used for their SIM-card verification, which requires physical verification by the telecom company.
There was even a rumour that the flat owner went to the local police station, paid a few lakhs and secured his patriotism. So went the rumours.
Like Zia and his father, a student named Zeeshan – who had been a flatmate of one of the dead men, Atif, and also a resident of Azamgarh – went to a TV channel to profess his own innocence publicly.
He was appearing for his MBA exam when the encounter took place. As soon as he came out of the studio, he was arrested. I knew a Zeeshan too, a senior in college, who was also from Azamgarh. In the confusion, I thought, if they had Zeeshan, they could come for me too. Not wanting to take any chances, I deleted his number from my phone. It turned out the man they arrested was a different Zeeshan.
Most newspapers reported that Zeeshan had been nabbed from central Delhi’s Jhandewala locality, without mentioning that it was outside a television studio. A few papers even said that he had been arrested in a night raid in Jamia Nagar.
My classmate Mama was from Azamgarh too. He was an idiot, and I had faced off with him in my first weeks in college to be elected class representative, but I couldn’t imagine he was involved in anything more than blabbering. Still, who knows? Why take chances? I deleted his phone number and the numbers and messages of all the classmates who used to hang out with him. I also deleted the numbers of all the others in my contact list who were from Azamgarh or were close to anyone from the district. I knew many others who, like me, deleted the contacts and text messages of their acquaintances from Azamgarh.
Saquib Nisar, another friend of Atif’s, was working in a firm in Delhi and had graduated in Economics from Jamia. Like others, he too went to the same news channel to profess his and Atif’s innocence. He too was arrested the next day.
Another young man from Azamgarh, Mohammed Shakil, was arrested from Sangam Vihar, a big colony predominantly populated by migrants, labourers and daily-wagers. I had lived there, in the Jamia Hamdard University campus, while I was preparing for my MBBS entrance before starting college in Jamia. I was on a scholarship from a society of the university that provided coaching to minorities and other weaker sections of society at subsidised fees.
These were coincidences, but now everything seemed ominous.
I would have no explanation if, god forbid, I got arrested. In fact, what seemed like a trivial coincidence could look like eerie design...as if god had colluded with the police.
A day after these young men were arrested, having protested their innocence on television, all the major newspapers published a photo on the front page – featuring the arrested young men, surrounded by jubilant policemen. The young men’s faces were wrapped in kaffiyehs, the scarf worn by many Muslim men in the Arab world. It was not a black hood or a random piece of cloth that’s generally used to mask the face of criminals, but something that evoked a specific religious and communal identity. The use of kaffiyeh left no doubt about what the police was trying to convey. There was not even a pretence of subtlety.
Confused and disenchanted, I wanted to erase every trace of the connections and events that could remotely cause any suspicion to fall on me.
Excerpted with permission from An Ordinary Man’s Guide To Radicalism: Growing Up Muslim In India, Neyaz Farooquee, Context.