Broken Spirit, Lost Words: Returning Home to Kashmir After 23 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment
Mohammad Ali, Latif Ahmed Waja and Mirza Nisar, were picked up in 1996 in connection with two bomb blasts. They were, however, released 23 years later the court found them 'not guilty'.
Mirza Nasir is greeted upon his return.
Srinagar: As Mohammad Ali stepped out of the car, a crowd of neighbours and friends gathered around and started hugging and kissing him. Tears streamed down his face as he struggled to make his way through the graveyard. Someone in the crowd directed him to the final resting place of his father, who was laid right next to his mother.
Dropping down to the ground, Ali hugged the grave and cried while pressing his ear to the soil in a feeble attempt to “hear” the voice of his mother, who had died two decades ago. After a few minutes, a man gathered the courage, patted his shoulders, attempted to lift him up, despite everyone around beseeching him to leave Ali be since it has been a long time.
48-year-old Ali’s parents died when he was in jail; his mother in 2002, father in 2015.
He was one of the accused of the 1996 bomb attack, which took place in a bus near Samleti village in Dausa, on the Jaipur-Agra highway, killing 14 people and injuring 37 others, and was also said to be involved in another bomb blast which took place a day earlier in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, claiming the life of 13 people.
After spending 23 years in different jails, Ali and four others, including Latif Ahmed Waja and Mirza Nisar who were picked up at the same time as him, were let out after they were acquitted of all charges by the Rajasthan High Court.
It all started back in 1994. As a young carpet and paper-mâché supplier, Ali didn’t receive payment for his supplies he sent to Nepal for a few months. He decided to travel there in order to get the money.
But once Ali landed in Nepal, he realised that Kathmandu was a good place to set up a business. So, he settled down and decided to not return to his home in Kashmir—where militancy had taken the streets, counter-insurgency operations were in full swing. It was bloodshed everywhere in the Valley.
In a spring afternoon in 1996, as he was preparing to offer prayers, cops in civvies surrounded and bundled him in a vehicle. He later got to know that they were from a special cell of the Delhi police and two other Kashmiris—Latif Ahmed Waja and Mirza Nisar—had been arrested along with him. They were young boys who were also selling carpets in Kathmandu. Waja was 19 and Nisar 17.
All of them were taken to New Delhi and, according to them, kept in illegal custody for nine days.
“They beat us badly and were asking questions about the bombing about which we had no knowledge,” Ali told News18 in Srinagar. The case went on and they were shuffled between Tihar and Jaipur, till 23 years passed and the court declared them as innocent.
On Monday, Rajasthan High court acquitted all the three, including two other accused—Abdul Goni (57), who hails from Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir and Rayees Beg (56), a resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Agra.
“We are innocents but Delhi police did everything to frame us. We were even made to sign blank papers, tortured and confess to things we never did,” says Ali.
When he entered his Srinagar house, he was startled.
“Everything has changed here,” he says, “just a few houses were here, but today it is a congested locality. So many structures have come up.”
Ali was granted parole three times during his time in jail. The first time was in 2005 when his uncle was ill — he was allowed to spend six hours at home. Next time it was in 2006, for two days, when his father fell seriously ill and the third time, in 2016 he was granted parole for two days, a year after the death of his father. “Right until his death, my father Shair Ali Khan, would tell everyone that my son is innocent and would take documents to lawyers and journalists,” Ali says.
“When you are supposed to make your life, you are jailed for around two-and-a-half-decades,” Ali says, in a low and pained tone. “The parents die longing for your return and you can’t even attend their funeral. What can be worse?”
Ali says it is a cruel joke that a person is being set free after 23 years of remaining in custody.
“Who is responsible for this?” he asked with an acerbic smile. A couple of kilometres away, in the Fateh Kadal locality of the downtown Srinagar is the home of Lateef Ahmad Waja.
A known cricket and football player of his locality, Waja had decided to leave the gun-roaring valley a year before he was arrested. Today, he is a middle-aged man. He is surrounded by his nieces and nephews, whom he doesn’t know about, but feels overwhelmed around.
“When I left this place for Nepal, I was a 19-year-old boy,” he says. “Today, when I am back, most of my elders are no more and those who were of my age have grown old, like me. Then there are kids who have grown up in these years,” he says. “It is like you get a person from darkness to light after 23 years.”
The kids surrounding him show him a mobile phone which leaves him flabbergasted.
“See you have to just touch it,” he says holding up the phone, “This is a new world for me. Before I was arrested, the mobile phone was a rare sight. In jail, we got to know about phones that have a keypad.”
Waja was also allowed to visit home on custody parole in 2006 for three days, a year after his father died. Waja says the verdict was a surprise for him. “I was mentally prepared to die in jail,” he tells News18 as visitors kept streaming in, introducing themselves, hugging him and then crying.
“When the verdict came that we are free, I couldn’t believe it. I thought it had to be some cruel joke,” he says.
Waja says, for last few years, the situation in the jail had become even more difficult. “There was an increase in hate against us. We were being seen as terrorists. Other inmates and authorities used to harass us and sometimes even beat us ruthlessly,” he says.
The day he was released, he had to be hospitalised due to the wounds he had been inflicted in a fight in jail. “I was beaten by the jail staff. They beat me with batons,” alleges Waja. His head is bandaged and his legs bear the injury marks.
The effects left by two-and-half-decades of jail time on a person can be understood from the way Mirza Nisar talks.
Nisar, who lived merely a few meters away from Waja’s house, was the youngest among them all. Even he was kept in the minor cell of Tihar for a year, till he turned 18.
Nisar’s sentences are broken as he runs short of words after every sentence. His accent has altered. He takes help from childhood friends, who are now middle-aged men, to remind him of Kashmiri words.
“I would hardly talk in Kashmiri all these years. Even if there would be some Kashmiri inmate we would use Hindi, otherwise people around and the staff would feel humiliated, which meant trouble,” he says. “It is really difficult to talk in fluent Kashmiri. I have to learn it again,” he says.
Nisar says that he hadn’t even heard the name Jaipur before he was accused of the attack and jailed. “I knew Delhi and Nepal, rest I had no idea that time,” he says.
When asked about the court’s decision to release him, he says: “We used to tell them from day one that we are innocent and even they knew it. But it is, just as they say, a bit too late,” he says, with a sarcastic smile.
When asked, how much that bit is, Nisar lifts his cap and shows his bald head.
“I was fond of my hair-style. Where is the hair now? Jail took it all” he says and breaks into tears. It is not easy for them to get used to the new lifestyle. When they were arrested, Delhi, Srinagar and even Kathmandu was a different place. 25 years have transformed the world, but for them, nothing much has changed, except their age and their loved ones.
“I can’t believe it is him,” says Mohammad Yaqoob Khab a childhood friend of Nisar. “He was a handsome boy. Today, he looks old and frail. He doesn’t even speak proper Kashmiri.”
Nisar was allowed to visit home on custody parole in 2007 for three days to attend his sister’s wedding. “After my parole was over, I was cursing why I even visited. It was tougher after that to live in jail,” he tells News18.
Nisar is getting used to the new place. He is busy recognising, his friends and relatives.
“Even when I would have a dream someday, the same old faces would appear. I couldn’t find one today,” he says. Since they were released from jail, they’ve thought little about sleep or food because of the sheer excitement.
“I have had no food for the last three days and am unable to sleep. It is unbelievable that we are free,” says Nisar, wiping the tears from his eyes.
The year Nisar was arrested, his elder brother Arshad Ahmad was also arrested in the same case from Delhi. He was set free by the court after 14 years.
Arshad doesn’t want to talk about the years he spent in jail. “The number of years we spent in jail, despite being innocent, speaks for itself of the atrocities committed on us,” says Arshad.
This is not the first instance in which a Kashmiri was arrested in multiple cases and acquitted on all charges by the courts after spending a considerable number of years in prison.
There are also several, who were allegedly arrested by the security forces, although no one could tell their whereabouts and how they disappeared.
One among the first visitors Nisar received at home was Mohammad Yaseen Rah. “I am not your relative but there is something I have to ask you,” Rah tells Nisar.
“He wanted to know if Nisar has seen Rah’s two brothers, Mohammad Shafi and Mushtaq Ahmad.”
Rah’s two brothers, who were carpet-sellers in their mid-twenties in Kathmandu, Nepal were allegedly arrested by the Delhi Police’s special sell in 2000. Since then, no one knows what became of them.
“I visited over two dozen different jails but could not find them anywhere,” says Rah. Even last year, he says, an official told him that his brothers were in Jodhpur jail after Rah paid a bribe of Rs 1 lakh.
“I went to Jodhpur and jail superintendent accepted that my brothers were there but he demanded a court order for the meeting,” says Rah, who then rushed back to Srinagar and got an order from J&K High Court. But they didn’t allow me. In fact, they asked me to get a proof from the court that he was not from Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, despite showing his identity documents,” says Rah, who even got proof from the court.
“But when I once again went to jail, the authorities told me that they were shifted by some investigating agency only a day before and couldn’t give him the details,” says Rah, who says his only motive in life is to find his brothers.
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