Pusad town in eastern Maharashtra made headlines in September 2015 when news emerged that a young Muslim man had stabbed three policemen with a kitchen knife, allegedly in rage over the beef ban introduced that year.
Twenty-year-old Abdul Malik’s arrest was followed a month later by two other men in the region being arrested: Shoaib Khan, 28, from Hingoli and Maulana Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, 30, from Yavatmal.
All three cases were transferred to Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad.
Soon, reports appeared in newspapers describing Khan, Malik and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman as radicalised youth involved with the Islamic State or ISIS. The Times of India described their arrest as the “crippling” of a “terror module-in-the-making”.
Nearly four years later, the three men have been cleared of all terror-related charges.
On May 21, a special court in Akola acquitted Khan and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman of charges linking them to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India. They had been charged under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for planning alleged acts of “jihad” but the court ruled the Anti-Terrorism Squad did not have enough evidence linking them to any terror plot.
Malik was also cleared of charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, but sentenced to three years in prison for injuring the three policemen with a knife. Since Malik had spent three years and eight months in jail as an undertrial, he was released along with Mujeeb-ur-Rahman and Khan.
The local media’s reaction to the three men’s acquittal has been starkly different from the coverage of their arrests in 2015. Marathi newspapers reported the news with such headlines as, “ATS’ mistaken investigation ruined three and a half years of youth’s life!” and “Will the Maharashtra government compensate innocent Shoaib?”
In 2015, as Scroll.in reported, their families felt isolated. Malik’s mother, Bibi Zohra, refused to accept her son had become violent because of beef. “My boy was not even fond of meat,” she told this reporter.
Said Rehman Khan, Shoaib Khan’s father: “My son is being targeted only because he is young and Muslim.”
Since the 1990s, several Muslim youth across the country have been arrested for suspected links to Islamist terrorist groups. Over the years, human rights activists have questioned the credibility of many such terror cases, which have often resulted in acquittals. In May 2016, DV Sadananda Gowda, Union law minister at the time, acknowledged that arrests of Muslims on false charges of terrorism were a cause for concern.
But the families of the three men acquitted say the government needs to do more than just express consideration. At a press conference in Pusad, Khan’s family demanded compensation from the Maharashtra government for the acquitted men.
‘Custodial torture by ATS’
Back home, the men have frightening stories to tell about the custodial torture they allegedly faced during two weeks of police interrogation.
“There was a lot of torture during the custody period and a lot of pressure from the ATS to make false statements in court,” Khan told Scroll.in over the phone from his Balapur village in Hingoli. “They said if I made those statements in front of the magistrate, they would release me, give me money and stop harassing my family.”
Khan claims that he was repeatedly beaten with a belt in his initial days in custody and asked questions that left him “shocked and stumped”. “They told me that when Bangladesh got independence, it had 4% or 5% Hindu population, which had dropped to 1%,” he recalled.
He added: “Then they asked me what had happened to the rest of the Hindus in Bangladesh. How on earth would I know that? They also said if Hindus have decreased in number in Bangladesh, Muslims should decrease in number here.”
Mujeeb-ur-Rahman too claims to have been tortured in custody and pressured to make false statements. “Government agencies have hatched a big conspiracy to target the Muslim community like this,” alleged Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, who is relieved to be back home with his family in Pusad.
‘People still see me as a criminal’
Though Khan and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman are grateful that they were treated rather well in the Akola jail, they were not given bail during the three years and eight months they spent there.
“My brother died when I was in jail and I could not attend his funeral,” said Khan, who also missed his sister’s wedding. “During my first year in jail, the police kept showing up at my house and repeatedly questioning my family. My father finally threatened to commit suicide because it was too much for him.”
The arrests of Khan and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman hurt their lower-middle-class families socially as well as financially. “My construction business shut down because I became ‘the terrorist’s father’,” said Mujeeb-ur-Rahman’s father Sheikh Mehboob.
Their family – Mujeeb-ur-Rahman’s parents, brother, wife and young son – faced unspoken ostracism in Pusad, including from members of their own community.
“The only support that we got was from an engineer who used to be my client,” said Mehboob. “I have been working for him as a construction supervisor to earn for my family.”
Mehboob says he is willing to fight the Maharashtra government in court to ensure his son gets compensation for being falsely accused and imprisoned for almost four years.
Mujeeb-ur-Rahman was an imam when he was arrested but he may not be able to go back to work for at least another year. He is still recuperating from ulcerative colitis, a disease he has been suffering from since 2012 and to treat which he had two surgeries while in jail.
Khan was an accountant and earning Rs 10,000 a month at the time of his arrest. “My old employer was harassed so much by the police, he will not take me back now,” said Khan, whose younger brother had to leave engineering college and start working as a taxi driver to provide for their family while Khan was in jail.
While Mujeeb-ur-Rahman’s friends and relatives have started speaking to his family again, Khan’s family is still facing coldness from fellow villagers. “Police arrested me without investigation, the media labelled me a terrorist, I spent four years proving I was innocent but people in my village and even in my community still see me as a criminal,” Khan complained. “My marriage prospects are ruined. My life is ruined. Who is going to give me back my four years?”