It was February 2010 morning in Jogi Lankar locality of Srinagar’s Rainawari area. With a typical Kashmir winter nearing its end, clouds were giving way to warm sunbeams over the nearby Hari Parbat hill.
Bashir Ahmad Baba, then 31, left his home for Gujarat taking his father’s leave for 10 days only to return on June 23 this year after languishing for 11 years in Vadodara Central Jail in Gujarat following his wrongful conviction under the draconian UAPA.
On June 19, a sessions court set aside the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad’s (ATS) charges against Baba and ordered his release.
“I knew I will be proven innocent once but had never imagined it will be after such a long time,” Baba told Maktoob.
Baba was charged with having ‘close contact’ with proscribed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) supremo Syed Salahuddin, Bilal Ahmad Shera of the same militant outfit and General Abdullah of Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen over email and phone.
However, the judge, S. A. Nakum, observed that no evidence was found that Baba had any contacts with the Pakistan-based wanted militants. He rejected the prosecution for having relied on ‘emotional argument’ and maintained that a person cannot be held guilty merely because the State fears anarchy.
The ATS had also told the court that Baba was arrested on March 13 from Samarkha village of Anand, over 76 kilometres from his hostel in Ahmedabad. Back then, Gujarat ATS chief Ajay Tomar had told the media that Baba was arrested on a tip-off by security agencies who were monitoring his ‘suspicious activities’.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2010, Baba was accused of provoking Muslim youth in the state and exploiting their anger over the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom to recruit them for a militant network.
“Baba’s main job was to identify vulnerable youth, brainwash them and send them to Pakistan for terror training,” Tomar had said, adding that he had till then sent some 3000 youths for the purpose.
G.K. Pillai, the Union Home Secretary in 2010, too had claimed Baba’s arrest to be a ‘major success’. However, when the case came up for the final hearing last month, the prosecution failed to prove the allegations.
“The charges were strong enough to confine me for my life but they eventually failed to withstand,” Baba said.
In 2010, Baba also earned the nickname ‘Pepsi bomber’ by a premier Indian news agency for his alleged involvement in making bombs out of empty Pepsi cans to throw them at government forces during the 2008 Amarnath land transfer agitation in Kashmir.
The back story
Before Baba’s arrest, he used to run a computer training institute. Besides, he would work as an Assistant Project Manager with Maaya Foundation, an NGO helping children with facial deformities like cleft lip and cleft palate.
The NGO was organising a week-long training camp in partnership with Gujarat Cleft and Craniofacial Research Institute (GCCRI) in Ahmedabad. Baba was supposed to be the camp coordinator.
“I was selected for having a successful track record of conducting many camps,” Baba said.
Though he was scheduled to return soon after the camp, fate had something else in store for him.
When Baba was back to his hostel after his sixth day into the training on February 27, a team of Gujarat ATS raided the premises late in the evening. “Before I could make out what had happened and why, they cast a bedsheet over me and shoved me into their jeep to run off,” he said.
Baba’s colleague, Dr Shyam Seth, was also arrested. He was released after a few days, unlike Baba who was interrogated for two weeks and repeatedly asked to confess that he had committed some crime he had not.
When the ATS paraded him before the media on March 14, only then did Baba come to know about his charges.
“I was beaten severely and was even hospitalised once,” he said. “But when they shifted me to judicial custody and allowed me to call my family, I felt relieved. Later, my family also arrived to look around for a lawyer.”
Agony back home
Since Baba returned home, her mother, Mokhta, often sits beside him caressing his shoulders off and on. She has grown frail and her wrinkles deeper.
“She visited him (Baba) once in 2014 along with her husband. On her return, she grew depressed and weaker with each passing day. Her husband’s illness also didn’t allow her to visit again.”
“This is what fate had in store for us, but I’m happy that he has returned before my death. I used to pray for his release and it has paid off,” Mokhta said. “I grew frail longing for him.”
Baba’s father, Ghulam Nabi Baba, visited his son only twice before dying of colon cancer in 2017 after a prolonged illness of three years. Though the family tried to get bail for Baba to help him have one last glimpse of his father, the application was rejected.
Baba was frustrated during those days over his helplessness. Though no one had informed him about the tragedy, he says he had dreamt of his father being given the obligatory ghusl (bath) before his death.
“I could not sleep those days. I would sob like a child in my cell and then console myself, only to break down again.”
When Baba reached home last month, he headed straight for his father’s grave to offer prayers and shed his pent-up tears. During these years, Baba also lost some other relatives including his uncle who, he says, loved him more than his father.
But there are things to celebrate and sacrifices to remember.
Back in Srinagar, Baba’s younger brother, Nazir Ahmad, took over his responsibilities. A small-time salesman, he was entrusted with the task of visiting Baba once in a while.
The journey was arduous. “When I look back, I don’t believe myself to have completed it,” Nazir told Maktoob. “Though I had already left my college to support my family, the thought of being the only one with the responsibility would give me nightmares.”
When the family’s finances dried up, they had to ‘dispose of’ Baba’s computer training centre as well. After his father’s death, Nazir left his salesman job, took a loan and set up his own shop near his home — just to stay closer to her solitary mother.
Islands of hope
Nazir kept his tryst to get married together with Baba after his release, but he did not accumulate the responsibilities. He did marry his two sisters off while his elder brother was away. “It was a delicate responsibility and, with Allah’s help, I did fulfil it,” he said.
Baba was welcomed by his hitherto unknown nephews and nieces on his return and he feels intimate just a few days into their company.
Baba was also lucky to have one Javed Khan Pathan as his lawyer. When he visited the Baba family a few years ago and witnessed their domestic condition, he stopped charging any fee for their case. “He had no child of his own and would treat me like his own son. It was he who told me about my father’s death two months after the incident,” Baba said.
But luck has limits. Khan died of a cardiac arrest some 10 days before his client’s release. This has traumatised him more than that of his father’s loss. “He would often express his wish to accompany me home once I was released. But I was not lucky enough to share with him these happy moments of my freedom,” Baba said.
Meanwhile, Baba says he did not ‘waste’ his prison days. “When not attending the tiring court hearings, I would avail myself of books, newspapers and magazines.”
Baba took home a BA in Political Science with a major in Public Administration, two PGs in the twin subjects, one PG Diploma in Intellectual Property Rights and few other diplomas.
In jail, he also took to painting, though occasionally, and secured a Grade-A in National Pencil Drawing Contest-2015 conducted by the Prison Ministry of India. The theme was ‘The Sea and Seashore are Reflections of my Life’ and Baba was literally drowned those days.
Except for gaining some extra weight and occasional hypertension, Baba has maintained good health. Weighed down under wild allegations, he would pray, exercise, read and repeat.
Baba would also communicate with his family and friends through letters. “That was the only way of expressing my heart out. When I was arrested, those were the days of keypad mobile phones. I’ll have to learn using a smartphone now,” he says with a smile.
Before Baba, there have been many such cases from Kashmir ending up in acquittals after longish — 23 years in one case — wrongful incarcerations.
Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, former head of the department of law and dean of the school of legal studies at the Central University of Kashmir, opines that it is a common practice in India that innocent Muslims in general and Kashmiris in particular are implicated in fake cases.
“It is for this reason that Muslims, despite being only 15 per cent in India, constitute 30 to 35 per cent of the country’s prison population,” he told Maktoob.
In most of the cases, the human rights scholar said, the prosecution fails to prove charges against those detained, but they keep on languishing in jails for decades. “The verdict about their innocence comes once the whole of their life is spoiled.”
It is a hot summer day in Srinagar. Swarms of visitors have descended on Baba’s bygone home. Every time someone enters the room, Baba gets closer to his mother sitting beside him to whisper in her ear, “Yim kum? Who is he?”
Some of them are his relatives but the faces have grown beyond his recognition.
When Baba, now 42, left Srinagar for Gujarat on February 19, 2010, he would not have imagined that he will struggle to distinguish the lane leading to his home someday. While he was away, his city has become turned into a maze of lanes with new landmarks.
Baba is home hoping to pick up the threads of his life. Having studied well in the prison, he says he will prefer some academic job. “But if that doesn’t become possible, I will join my brother at his shop.”
As of marriage, his younger brother’s wait is worth it. “It will happen sooner, Insha’Allah,” he said with a smile.
But the trauma is there to stay. Once the cameras are off and he comes out of his room to see this reporter off, tears well up in his eyes. “Believe me, I had no affiliation, but they snatched my 11 years when I was in the prime of my life.”
Waseem Dar is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kashmir. He is the editor-in-chief at Kashmir Bylines and tweets at @waseemdar_.