SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — Bashir Ahmad Baba vividly remembers February 20, 2010, when he first arrived in Ahmedabad for a management training program sponsored by a German NGO for which he worked in Kashmir.
Baba took an “instant liking” to the most populous city of Gujarat, little knowing that he would have to spend the next 11 years of his life imprisoned in the state, under the draconian Unlawful Prevention Activities Act (1967), UAPA, battling a terror charge that a district court in Vadodara has now set aside.
“At first sight, Ahmedabad gave me a sense of freedom. It seemed a welcome change from the life in the conflict-ridden Kashmir Valley,” said Baba who is now back at his home in Rainawari, a congested Srinagar locality, surrounded by his family and friends. “I could have never imagined that my freedom was actually about to end.”
This week, a district court in Vadodara concluded that there was no evidence that Baba was in touch with the Hizbul Mujahideen terror outfit, and that a person cannot be held guilty merely because the state fears anarchy.
In an 87-page verdict, Additional Sessions Judge SA Nakum wrote, “The charge against the accused that he stayed back in Gujarat and was found in Anand on March 13 and that he had received financial aid in order to set up a terror network in Gujarat has not been proven sufficiently, nor has there been any evidence presented to prove that he received such benefits or set up a terror module. The prosecution has clearly failed to prove the allegation against the accused.”
Baba’s release comes on the heels of a spate of criticism of the UAPA following observations pertaining to its abuse made by the Delhi High Court while granting bail to three students in connection with the Delhi riots conspiracy case, which invokes the anti-terror law, and the decision of a special court in Assam to drop the terror case against state lawmaker Akhil Gogoi.
In addition to having a sweeping definition of terrorism, the UAPA contains very stringent provisions for the grant of bail, making it virtually impossible for the lower courts to grant it.
Speaking at an event organised by the Indian Muslim American Council to discuss the UAPA on Wednesday, Indira Jaising, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court and a former additional solicitor general of India, said, “The hallmark of India’s anti-terror laws is that they deny an undertrial, the right to bail. This means that if a trial goes on ten years, 14 years, 15 years, a person accused of terrorism who might ultimately be acquitted can be put away behind bar for that long.”
The conviction rate for UAPA cases registered between 2015 to 2019 was less than 2%.
Innocent people, slapped with false charges, have been left to rot in prison and run the gauntlet of the endless trials before their eventual acquittal by the courts. They end up losing the best part of their lives to the extended incarceration for the crimes they didn’t commit. Even though they are subsequently acquitted by the courts, they are not compensated for the lost period of their lives. The security personnel who falsely implicated them go scot-free.
“My concern about India today is that the difference between anti-terror laws and ordinary laws is being collapsed. In my opinion, the main reason for collapsing these laws is to keep people, under-trials, behind for indefinite periods of time,” said Jaising. “We are talking about nothing less than the very heart and soul of the rule of law that says we are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
We are talking about nothing less than the very heart and soul of the rule of law that says we are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
An innocent man
On the evening of the sixth day of Baba’s training, when he was back at his hostel preparing to return to Kashmir on the following day, a team of Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad raided the place and apprehended him.
“Before I could make a sense of what was happening they threw a chaddar over me, bundled me into a waiting vehicle and drove off,” Baba said.
For the following two weeks, Baba was subjected to a relentless interrogation for his alleged links to the Hizbul Mujahideen. He was accused of having come to Ahmedabad to set up a network in the state and do reconnaissance of key sites – among them the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) facility – for terror attacks.
According to the media reports of that time, the then Gujarat Anti-Terror Squad chief Ajay Tomar told the media that they had arrested Baba “on a tip off provided by Central security agencies after police got a whiff of his activities which were being closely monitored”.
Tomar said that “Baba’s main job was to identify vulnerable youth, brainwash them and send them to Pakistan for terror training,” adding that he had “till now sent nearly 3000 youths for the purpose.”
Baba was nicknamed as “pepsi bomber” for his alleged expertise to assemble Improvised Explosive Devices in empty Pepsi cans.
“He was in close contact with Hizbul Mujahideen leader Bilal Shera who is located in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. He was also in constant touch with one General Abdulla of the Jamiat-ul Mujahideen during his stay in Gujarat,” Tomar had then said, adding that Baba used to send the youths to Bilal, “who trained them to use explosives at 15-day camps.”
At his home in Srinagar, Baba said that he was tired of talking about these “wild allegations.”
“It is painful to think that I was innocent and still arrested and slapped with terror charges,” he said. “I have lost more than ten years of my life trying to prove that I was just an ordinary man earning my living. How do I get back a lost decade? In all this time, my life and family have been ruined.”
I have lost more than ten years of my life trying to prove that I was just an ordinary man earning my living. How do I get back a lost decade.
Baba lost his father Ghulam Nabi Baba to cancer during this period. Soon after reaching home, Baba said that he went to his father’s grave to offer prayers and to cry his heart out.
“During my incarceration, my father could only come to meet me twice, once bringing my mother along,” he said. “My family had no money to bear the expenditure of traveling to Ahmedabad, although they worked hard to get me out.”
Since his release, Baba’s elderly mother stays by his side, and every now and then touches him with her frail hand to make sure he is physically present.
“I never imagined that I would see my son again before I close my eyes,” said Mokhta, a remark that moistens her and Baba’s eyes. “I always prayed for this release and God has listened to me”.
Religion has been Baba’s refuge through these years.
“A strong belief in God carried me through all this,” he said. “It gave me hope. Hope against hope.”
Baba looks back wistfully at the decade he lost as a prisoner, even though he used the time to pursue his education.
Baba has acquired a Master’s degree in Political Science with a focus on Public Administration and the Intellectual Property Rights Act. He filled his days reading newspapers and magazines, searching and devouring news about Kashmir.
“But there was still so much time to kill,” said Baba. “I would pray, exercise, and study to keep myself busy. But this is not life.”
A strong belief in God carried me through all this. It gave me hope. Hope against hope.
That eleven years is a long time in one’s life became clear to Baba when he returned to the Kashmir Valley and found that his city had changed “beyond recognition.” He spoke at length about the new constructions that had come up, the vehicular traffic, the flyovers, shopping complexes and the new housing colonies.
“In jail, I remembered and dreamt of the Srinagar of 2010. I couldn’t recognise the lanes of the locality leading to my home,” he said. “I have returned to a different Srinagar. I wasn’t there to witness the change. I miss my old city.”
I couldn’t recognise the lanes of the locality leading to my home.
Baba, incidentally, has also returned to a place that has gone through a Constitutional and political metamorphosis. In August 2019, J&K was dramatically divested of Article 370 that granted the region a semi-autonomous status under India’s Constitution. The state was also downgraded and bifurcated into two union territories – Jammy and Kashmir and Ladakh.
“I was stunned when I learnt about it in jail,” he said.
Surrounded by his family members and friends, Baba is yet to grapple with the difficult question of resuming his normal life. He is now 44 and unmarried. The younger brother Nazir Ahmad Baba, a salesman, has also not married.
“All our money was spent fighting the brother’s case and arranging treatment for our deceased father,” said Nazir, who is five years younger to Baba. “But thankfully, I was able to marry off my two sisters.”
Nazir said that both he and Baba might decide to marry in the near future. “Now that my brother is back, we can start our life afresh,” Nazir said. “God willing, everything will be okay.”
All our money was spent fighting the brother’s case and arranging treatment for our deceased father.
Many such cases
Prior to Baba, there have been a steady stream of UAPA cases that have ended in acquittals after long incarcerations.
In 2019, five people – Ali Mohammad Bhat, Latif Ahmed Baja, Mirza Nisar, Abdul Goni, and Rayees Beg – were released after 23 years of imprisonment for their alleged involvement in Samleti and Lajpat Nagar bomb blasts in Rajasthan and Delhi in 1996, which together claimed the lives of 27 people.
Bhat ran a flourishing carpet and papier-mache business from Nepal before his arrest. Waja and Nisar, then teenagers, were arrested along with him. They also sold carpets in Kathmandu. Among the five persons who were released, four are Kashmiris and one, Rayees Beg, is from Agra in Uttar Pradesh.
In 2017, two young men from Kashmir, Mohammad Rafiq Shah, 38, and Mohammad Hussain Fazli, 43, walked free after serving twelve years each in prison for their alleged involvement in 2005 pre-Diwali blasts in Delhi which claimed 67 lives. The Delhi High Court acquitted them of all the charges and ruled that the evidence against them was “fabricated and flimsy.”
Case after case of wrongful arrests has done little to sensitise the successive Indian government towards introducing necessary checks and balances in the law and order machinery to discourage the incidence of picking up wrong people for terror incidents.
With long periods of their lives spent in prison, those who return often struggle to pick up the remaining pieces of their lives. Resuming a routine, earning a livelihood, and even daily interactions, can be challenging.
Baba blames his fate and surrenders himself to “Allah’s desire.”
“What could I do about this? It was all destined for me by God. It was his test for me,” he said, with a sense of resignation. “I hope I have passed God’s exam.”
Riyaz Wani is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. He has worked with The Indian Express and Tehelka and was a recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Award in 2015 and received a Certificate of Honour at the 2014 Red Ink Awards.