Khan’s memoir, Framed As A Terrorist, reflects stories of Muslims caught in the web of farcical terrorist investigations
21 June 2016
There he was. Prime focus of the stage lights. Addressing a largely decent crowd, achingly answering to the questions posed by Sidharth Bhatia, Founding Editor, The Wire, as we all sat in another hollow wooden room of National Centre for the Performing Arts at Mumbai. His bated breath while recollecting the horror evidently choked something inside him and silently within us too.
I was listening to the same story for the second time in over a year. While the narrator was constant, the setting had considerably improved. “My education has been so much different from you,” Khan had said while we were travelling in a local bus from Delhi to Muzaffarnagar, in the wee hours of cold February 2014. He’d also said about how he wanted more young journalists to cover situations like Muzaffarnagar Riots and how exuberant he was to accompany me on my way to interviewing victims of the riots.
While I observed that a lot of things had transformed in him since then, his smile had the similar tinge of fright and melancholy. Mohammad Aamir Khan was here to speak about his autobiographical account, Framed as a Terrorist: My 14-Year Struggle to Prove My Innocence, co-written with Nandita Haksar, released in February 2016 by Speaking Tiger. The book vividly talks about him being kidnapped by the police, accused of being a terrorist, planting bombs and being in league with dreaded Pakistan-based militants. He was tortured and framed in about nineteen bomb blast cases at the age of 21 in 1998.
I would lie awake at night and often cry myself to sleep. I just saw the lights of the tower and heard the sound of the boots of the guards and I thought my entire life would pass within these walls.
Aamir, who is now a free man fought for nearly 14 years to prove his innocence only to enter a drastically changed world with no job and security, where his father was dead and his mother paralyzed.
He was lying on the hospital bed. I knew he would not survive. That is why he had been brought there to have a last meeting. Abbu’s eyes were filled with indescribable sadness but when he looked at me I could feel the warmth of his infinite love.
…Abbu was not afraid of dying. It was living that had become hell. His son was accused of planting twenty bombs in trains, buses, bazaars of Delhi, Sonepat, Rohtak and Ghaziabad… Abbu’s faith had been vindicated;the courts had already acquitted me in eleven cases. But I had been framed in nineteen cases; it could take many more years before I finally walked out of jail.
It all started when Khan was recruited as a courier for an intelligence agency without any training.
Aamir did not have the skills or training to be a courier.. And the strangest part of this shadowy world is that Aamir never knew the identity of the men who recruited him; or to which agency they belonged.
When he failed to achieve the mission, the police kidnapped him in Delhi ensuring no record or witness to his arrest. There was neither any record of the names of police officers responsible for the arrest or the circumstances of his arrest that was in violation of the procedures laid down by law as well as the Supreme Court. According to Haksar, the intelligence agencies in India are not subject to public scrutiny and are exempt from the ambit of Rights to Information laws. They are thus not accountable to the Indian Parliament.
They brought some instruments and started pulling out the nail of my toe. Blood came out. I screamed but did not sign… My tormentors threatened to pull out the nails one by one till I signed the papers.
Along with chilling visual details of his torture, Haksar writes about how the otherwise crucial role of the magistrate before whom the accused is produced at the pre-trial stage, too failed in Aamir’s case.
The magistrate can ascertain whether the accused has been tortured, whether the arrest has been made legally and whether the accused has been given access to a lawyer. The doctor who examines the accused at this stage can record whether the accused has been tortured. Aamir was denied all these safeguards by the police, the magistrates and the doctors.
Haksar further highlights the prejudice faced by Khan both in the jail and the court, how his parents were stigmatised in their own locality and how only a handful of advocates were willing to present his case. She has undoubtedly been successful in bringing out fine specifics from Khan’s memory and weaving them into a poignant narrative.
I asked Khan if he thought that his religion had a role to play? He smirked and said, “The misuse of law is not against the Muslims. It’s against the poor and the weak. I think powerful people easily figure a way out of prison premises; the question is why the privileges given to the rich and powerful aren’t provided to just everyone else”. CLICK HERE TO WATCH
Today, Khan, 39, is still stitching together his life, with the help of social activists like Shabnam Hashmi and Harsh Mander. He has been a part of ANHAD, a human right organisation run by Shabnam Hashmi and is currently associated with Harsh Mander’s Center for Equity Studies that works on issues of access to justice in prisons.
No matter how much Khan flips the question of religious prejudice, as the book says, he has been a witness, even while he was behind bars, to the rise of Hindu fascism and Muslim fundamentalism. He has seen the invisible walls rise up between the Hindu and Muslim communities. According to Prisons Statistics for 2013 released by the National Crime Records Bureau, two of every three persons incarcerated in India have not yet been convicted of any crime, and Muslims are over-represented among such undertrials. An article on Why the surge in Muslim prisoners? by Danny Shaw, Home affairs correspondent, BBC News, March 2015, mentions that in general the percentage rise in Muslim prisoner numbers has been far greater than the Muslim population increase. He writes that in 2015 Muslim inmates accounted for 14.4% of those behind bars, compared with 7.7 % in 2002. Another report by Lady Lola Young of Hornsey states that while Black prisoners felt that they were stereotyped as drug dealers, Muslim prisoners were cast as terrorists. In fact, in October 2015 The New Indian Express wrote that a person in India is more likely to be lodged in prison if he/she is a Muslim, or belongs to the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Communities (OBC). As per statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, though Muslims comprise only 14.2% of the total population of the country, they constitute 26.4% of the prison population. “While Muslims constitute around 30% of all prisoners, in the ‘pre-trial phase’, the number of convicted Muslim prisoners stand at only 16.4%,” published the newspaper.
Pondering over Aamir’s statement of being educated in a different way, all I gather is that maybe he was pointing towards the lessons of biases and discrimination. Of religion and ruthlessness. Of faith and brutality.
With great efforts put by Haksar and Khan, the book provides a vision of the veiled truth and false of our judicial system.