Posted On Sunday, February 10, 2013 , Mumbai Mirror cover story
A rusted table, and behind it, a well-built man in uniform holding a spoon in his hand. Visitors, all of them looked habituated to the procedure, queued up to open their plastic bags containing food, allowing it to be smelled, sometimes even tasted. The security man’s spoon swam through curries thick with floating grease - malai kofta, shahi paneer, aalu baingan, and mixed vegetables.
As the visitors opened tiny bags of curries, the spoon separated each piece of vegetable from the other mechanically. After ‘frisking’ the food of a middle-aged woman, the spoon was dipped in water in a steel bowl nearby. It then moved to the plastic bags of the next person in the queue, a boy in his early teens.
By this time, the water in the steel bowl had acquired all kinds of colours, the floating oil setting off rainbow hues in the light of the winter afternoon.
Around 4.30 pm, it was my turn. The man left the spoon on the table and frisked my body, top to bottom, thrice, thoroughly. When the metal detector made a noise, I had to remove my belt, steel watch, and keys.
The man on duty bearing the badge of the Tamil Nadu Special Police (TSP) looked satisfied. I was allowed to enter now. This was the fourth security drill I had to go through to get into the High Risk Ward of Prison No. 3 in Tihar Central Prison. I was on my way to meet Mohammad Afzal, one of the most talked about men in contemporary times.
I entered a room with many tiny cubicles. Visitors and inmates were separated by a thick glass and iron grills. They were connected through microphones and speakers fixed on the wall. But the audibility was poor, and people on either sides of the glass strained their ears, touching them to the wall to listen to each other. Mohammad Afzal was already at the other side of the cubicle.
His face gave me an impression of unfathomable dignity and calmness. He was a slight, short man in his mid-thirties, wearing a white kurta-pyjama, with a Reynolds pen in his pocket. A very clear voice welcomed me with the utmost politeness.
“How are you, sir?”
I said I was fine. Was I to return the same question to a man on deathrow? I was apprehensive for a second, but I did. “Very fine. Thank you sir,” he answered with warmth. The conversation went on for close to an hour, and continued a fortnight later with a second mulakat. Both of us were in a hurry to answer and ask whatever we could in the time we had. I continuously scribbled in my tiny pocket book. He seemed to be a person who wanted to say a lot of things to the world. But he often reiterated his helplessness to reach people from the current stature of ‘condemned for life’. Excerpts of the interview.
There are so many contradicting images of Afzal. Which Afzal am I meeting? Is it? But as far as I’m concerned there is only one Afzal. That is me. Who is that Afzal?
(A moment’s silence.)
Afzal is a young, enthusiastic, intelligent, idealistic young man. Afzal, a Kashmiri influenced, like many thousands in the Kashmir Valley, in the political climate of early 1990s.
Who was a JKLF member and crossed over to the other side of Kashmir, but in a matter of weeks got disillusioned and came back and tried to live a normal life, but was never allowed to do so by the security agencies, who inordinate times picked me up, tortured the pulp out of me, electrocuted me, dipped in petrol, smoked in chillies you name it.
And falsely implicated in a case, with no lawyer, no fair trial, finally condemned to death. The lies the police told was propagated by you in the media. And that perhaps created what the Supreme Court referred to as “collective conscience of the nation”. And to satisfy that “collective conscience”, I’m condemned to death. That is the Mohammad Afzal you are meeting.
(After a moment’s silence, he continued.)
But I wonder whether the outside world knows anything about this.
Can we begin with your life? Your life before the case…
It was a turbulent political period in Kashmir when I was growing up. Maqbool Bhatt was hanged. The situation was volatile. The people of Kashmir decided to fight an electoral battle once again to resolve the Kashmir issue through peaceful means. Muslim United Front (MUF) was formed to represent the sentiments of Kashmiri Muslims for the final settlement of the Kashmir issue.
Administration at Delhi was alarmed by the kind of support that MUF was gaining, and in the consequence, we saw rigging in the election on an unprecedented scale.
And the leaders who took part in the election and won by a huge majority were arrested, humiliated and put behind bars. It is only after this that the same leaders gave the call for armed resistance. In response, thousands of youth took to armed revolt. I dropped out from my MBBS studies in Jhelum Valley Medical College, Srinagar.
I was also one of those who crossed to the other side of Kashmir as a JKLF member, but was disillusioned after seeing Pakistani politicians acting the same as the Indian politicians in dealing with Kashmiris.
I returned after few weeks. I surrendered to the security forces, and you know, I was even given a BSF certificate as a surrendered militant. I began to start life anew. I could not become a doctor but I became a dealer of medicines and surgical instruments on commission basis. (Laughs.)
With the meagre income, I even bought a scooter and also got married. But never a day passed by without the scare of Rashtriya Rifles and STF men harassing me. If there was a militant attack somewhere in Kashmir, they would round up civilians, torture them to pulp. The situation was even worse for a surrendered militant like me. They detained us for several weeks, and threatened to implicate us in false cases and we were let free only if we paid huge bribes…
Once, I had to bribe the security men with all that I had to escape from the Humhama STF torture camp. DSP Vinay Gupta and DSP Davinder Singh supervised the torture. One of their torture experts, Inspector Shanti Singh, electrocuted me for three hours until I agreed to pay Rs 1 lakh as bribe. My wife sold her jewelry and for the remaining amount, they sold my scooter.
I left the camp broken, both financially and mentally. For six months I could not go outside home because my body was in such a bad shape. I could not even share the bed with my wife as my penile organ had been electrocuted. I had to take medical treatment to regain potency…
If you could come to the case, what were the incidents that led to the Parliament attack case?
After all the lessons I learned in STF camps, which is either you and your family members get harassed constantly for resisting, or cooperate with the STF blindly, I had hardly any options left, when DSP Davinder Singh asked me to do a small job for him. That is what he told, “a small job”. He told me that I had to take one man to Delhi.
I was supposed to find a rented house for him in Delhi. I was seeing the man first time, but since he did not speak Kashmiri, I suspected he was an outsider. He told his name was Mohammad (Mohammad is identified by the police as the man who led the five gunmen who attacked Parliament. All of them were killed by the security men in the attack).
When we were in Delhi, Mohammad and I used to get phone calls from Davinder Singh. I had also noticed that Mohammad used to visit many people in Delhi. After he purchased a car, he told me now I could go back and gave me Rs 35,000 saying it was a gift. And I left for Kashmir for Eid.
When I was about to leave to Sopore from Srinagar bus stand, I was arrested and taken to Parimpora police station. They tortured me and took me to STF headquarters, and from there brought me to Delhi.
In the torture chamber of the Delhi Police Special Cell, I told them everything I knew about Mohammad. But they insisted that I should say that my cousin Showkat, his wife Navjot, S A R Geelani and I were the people behind the Parliament attack.
They wanted me to say this convincingly in front of the media. I resisted. But I had no option than to yield when they told me my family was in their custody and threatened to kill them. I was made to sign many blank pages and was forced to talk to the media and claim responsibility for the attack by repeating what the police told me to say…
Rajbeer Singh allowed me to talk to my wife the next day. After the call, he told me if I wanted to see them alive I had to cooperate. Accepting the charges was the only option in front of me if I wanted to see my family alive, and the Special Cell officers promised they would make my case weak so I would be released after sometime. Then they took me to various places and showed me the markets where Mohammad had purchased different things. Thus they made the evidence for the case.
The police made me a scapegoat in order to mask their failure to find the mastermind of the Parliament attack. They have fooled the people. People still don’t know whose idea it was to attack Parliament. I was entrapped into the case by Special Task Force (STF) of Kashmir and implicated by the Delhi Police Special Cell.
The media constantly played the tape. The police officers received awards. And I was condemned to death.
Why didn’t you find legal defence?
I had no one to turn to. I did not even see my family until six months into the trial. And when I saw them, it was only for a short time in the Patiala House Court. There was no one to arrange a lawyer for me. As legal aid is a fundamental right in this country, I named four lawyers whom I wished to have defended me. But the judge, SN Dhingra, said all four refused to do the case.
The lawyer whom the court chose for me began by admitting some of the most crucial documents without even asking me what the truth of the matter was. She was not doing the job properly, and finally she moved to defend another fellow accused. Then the Court appointed an amicus curie, not to defend me, but to assist court in the matter. He never met me. And he was very hostile and communal. That is my case, completely unrepresented at the crucial trial stage.
What is the condition in jail?
I’m lodged in solitary confinement in the high risk cell. I’m taken out from my cell only for a short period during noon. No radio, no television. Even the newspaper I subscribe to reaches me torn. If there is a news item about me, they tear that portion apart and give me the rest.
Apart from the uncertainty about your future, what else concerns you the most?
…Global developments. I took to the news of the execution of Saddam Hussain with utmost sadness. Injustice, so openly and shamelessly done. Iraq, the land of Mesopotamia, the world’s richest civilisation, that taught us mathematics, to use a 60-minute clock, 24-hour day, 360-degree circle, is thrashed to dust by the Americans…
Which books are you reading now?
I finished reading Arundhati Roy. Now I’m reading Sartre’s work on existentialism. You see, it is a poor library in the jail. So I will have to request the visiting Society for the Protection of Detainees and Prisoners Rights (SPDPR) members for books.
There is a campaign in defence for you…
I am really moved and obliged by the thousands of people who came forward saying injustice is done to me. The lawyers, students, writers, intellectuals, and all those people are doing something great by speaking against injustice. The situation was such at the beginning, in 2001, and initial days of the case that it was impossible for justice-loving people to come forward.
When the High Court acquitted SAR Geelani, people started questioning the police theory. And when more and more people became aware of the case details and facts and started seeing things beyond the lies, they began speaking up.
Members of your family have conflicting opinions on your case?
My wife has been consistently saying that I was wrongly framed. She has seen how the STF tortured me and did not allow me to live a normal life. She also knew how they implicated me in the case. She wants me to see our son, Ghalib, growing up. I have also an elder brother who apparently is speaking against me under duress from the STF. It is unfortunate what he does, that’s what I can say.
See, it is a reality in Kashmir now, what you call the counter insurgency operations take any dirty shape - that they field brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. You are breaking a society with your dirty tricks.
What comes to your mind when you think of your wife, Tabassum, and son, Ghalib?
This year is the tenth anniversary of our wedding. Over half that period I spent in jail. And prior to that, many a time I was detained and tortured by Indian security forces in Kashmir. Tabassum witnessed both my physical and mental wounds. Many times I returned from the torture camp, unable to stand, all kinds of torture… She gave me hope to live. We did not have a day of peaceful living. It is the story of many Kashmiri couples…
What do you want him to grow up as?
Professionally, if you are asking, a doctor. Because that is my incomplete dream. But most importantly, I want him to grow without fear. I want him to speak against injustice. That I am sure he will be. Who else knows the story of injustice better than my wife and son?
(While Afzal continued talking about his wife and son, I could not help but recollect what Tabassum told me when I met her outside the Supreme Court in 2005, during the case’s appeal stage. While Afzal’s family members remained in Kashmir, Tabassum dared to come to Delhi with her son, Ghalib, to organise defence for Afzal.
Outside the Supreme Court New Lawyers chamber, at the tiny tea stall on the roadside, she chatted in detail about Afzal. While sipping and complaining about the excess sugar in the tea, she talked about how Afzal enjoyed cooking.
One picture she painted struck me. It was one of the few precious private moments in their lives: when Afzal would not allow her to enter the kitchen, but would make her sit on the chair nearby and he would cook, holding a book in one hand, a ladle in the other and read out stories for her.)
If I may ask you about the Kashmir issue, how do you think it can be solved?
First, let the government be sincere to the people of Kashmir. And let them initiate talk with the real representatives of Kashmir. Trust me, the real representatives of Kashmir can solve the problem. But if the government considers the peace process as a tactic of counter insurgency, then the issue is not going to be solved. It is time some sincerity is shown.
Who are the real people?
Find out from the sentiments of the people of Kashmir. I am not going to name x, y or z. And I have an appeal to the Indian media; stop acting as a propaganda tool. Let them report the truth. With their smartly worded and politically loaded news reports, they distort facts, make incomplete reports, build hardliners, terrorists et al. They easily fall for the games of the intelligence agencies…
Also, you tell me how are you going to develop real trust among Kashmiris when you send out the message that India has a justice system that hangs people without giving them a lawyer, without a fair trial?
Nine security men were killed in the Parliament attack. What is it that you have to tell their relatives?
In fact, I share the pain of the family members who lost their dear ones in the attack. But I feel sad that they are misled to believe that hanging an innocent person like me would satisfy them. They are used as pawns in a completely distorted cause of nationalism…
(An ear-splitting electric bell rang. I could hear hurried conversations from the neighbouring cubicles. This was my last question to Afzal.)
What do you want to be known as?
(He thought for a minute, and answered)
As Afzal, as Mohammad Afzal. I am Afzal for Kashmiris, and I am Afzal for Indians as well, but the two groups have an entirely conflicting perception of my being. I would naturally trust the judgment of Kashmiri people, not only because I am one among them, but also because they are well aware of the reality I have been through, and they cannot be misled into believing any distorted version of either a history or an incident.
I was confused by this last statement of Mohammad Afzal, but on further reflection, I began to understand what he meant. This was a time before clear accounts of the strife had begun to emerge from Kashmiri voices; the source of knowledge on Kashmir for most Indians were textbooks and media reports. To hear about the history of Kashmir and incidents in the state from a Kashmiri was usually a shock to most Indians - as it was to me as I listened to Afzal.
Two more bells. It was time to end the mulakat. But people were still busy conversing. The microphone was put off. The sounds from the speaker stopped. But if you strained your ear, and watched his lip movements, you could still hear him. The guards made rough round-ups, asking everyone to leave. As they found visitors reluctant to leave, they put the lights off. The mulakat room turned dark.
In the long walk out from Jail No 3 of the Tihar jail compound to the main road, I found myself in the company of people in clusters of twos and threes, moving out silently - mother, wife and daughter; or brother, sister and wife; or friend and brother; or someone else. Every cluster had two things in common.
They carried an empty cotton bag back with them. Those bags had stains of malai kofta, shahi paneer and mixed vegetables, many caused by the spills from the rash frisking of the TSP man’s spoon. The second thing in common, I observed, was that they all wore inexpensive winter clothes, torn shoes, and outside Gate No 3 they waited for Bus No 588, the Tilak Nagar-Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium bus, that perhaps took them to Dhaula Kuan main junction - they were the poor citizens of this country.
I remembered former president Abdul Kalam’s musing on how poor people were the awardees of capital punishments. My interviewee was also one. When I had asked him how many ‘tokens’ (the form of currency allowed in the jail) he had, he said “enough to survive”.
The writer, now the Executive Editor of The Caravan magazine conducted this interview when he was the India reporter for the US public radio, Pacifica
► DSP Davinder Singh asked me to do a small job for him. I had to take one man to Delhi, rent a house for him
► I am Afzal for Kashmiris, and I am Afzal for Indians as well, but both have an entirely conflicting perception of my being