“Each day feels like a year; I wonder what sin I committed that I have to go through this agony,” Saleem Khan wrote in one of his letters to his family. So far, Saleem had written approximately 200-300 pages of letters from the Mandoli jail. It has been over 700 days since his arrest under draconian UAPA. Delhi Police has been alleging that Khan and near two dozen Muslims including activists, student leaders and residents of northeast Delhi were part of the conspiracy behind “Delhi riot” in 2020.
Saleem Khan, an exporter of shawls and scarves was arrested on 13 March, 2020 – he was named in three FIRs registered by the Delhi police.
FIR No. 60/20 – related to the killing of Head Constable Ratan Lal.
FIR No. 136/20 – related to vandalising a car showroom and setting it on fire.
FIR No. 59/20 – accused in UAPA – Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Khan was granted bail in FIR No – 60/20 and 136/20 – but he remains in jail under FIR No. 59/20 of UAPA.
The day he didn’t return
Khan’s garment export shop is in northeast Delhi’s Chand Bagh neighbourhood’s gali 3. On 24 February 2020, deadly violence erupted, killing 53 people, 39 of whom were Muslims. This day forever altered Khan’s life.
According to Khan, on the day the violence broke out, he was at his shop as usual, not expecting his life to be turned upside down.
“My only mistake was that I was in the area where I had been running my export business for the last 28 years,” Khan explained in his letter.
Back at home in Yamuna Vihar, Northeast Delhi, Khan’s eldest daughter Saima, 25, tries to remain calm while discussing her father.
“Before his arrest, he was called for interrogation about 5 or 6 times; he was extremely punctual about it; the police would make him sit for hours and hours, but he didn’t complain; on 13 March, he was again called for interrogation; we thought he would return by night; that was the last day we saw him in this house,” Saima told Maktoob.
According to Khan’s lawyer, Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, the only evidence the prosecution has is 29-second CCTV footage installed near Khan’s office in Chand Bagh – the footage shows Khan holding a wiper, which the Delhi police described as a “wooden stick.”
“The police have no credible evidence against Saleem Khan, except CCTV footage, which proves nothing,” Rahman told Maktoob.
Family awaits justice
Khan has three children – Saima, Sahil, Adeeba – and his wife Shaveena.
Saima finished her Bachelors in Dental Surgery and is now doing an internship, Sahil completed his BBA (Bachelors in Business Administration) and is now managing his father’s export business, and Adeeba is currently in standard 11th.
“Sahil wanted to pursue an MBA, but since our father was arrested, he had to abandon his plans – he is only 23 and now handles the entire business,” Saima explains.
Saima and Sahil are now taking the responsibility for the entire family.
“We never tell our father what we’re going through, and he never tells us about his ordeal; we try to stay strong for him,” Sayema gulped.
Since Khan’s arrest in March 2020, Sayema had been looking at the legal matter of the arrest. She says despite their adversity, she must be a pillar of strength for her family.
“Three months after his arrest in March, we were allowed to see him on June 25; we had no idea where he was lodged previously – we were shocked to see him, I couldn’t even recognise him, his hair had turned white, his health had deteriorated,” Sayema said.
Saima and her family moved into their new apartment in Yamuna Vihar a year ago; the apartment was still under construction when Khan was arrested.
Saima claims that no one in her neighbourhood is aware of her father’s arrest.
“When our neighbours ask about our father, we tell them he lives in London; we don’t want people talking about us or our father,” Saima said to Maktoob.
She went on to say that even her peers and her sister’s friends were unaware of Khan’s arrest.
“We never told our friends and colleagues because we were afraid of being discriminated against,” Saima said.
Khan’s family received a phone call from him in jail for the first time since his arrest in June.
“As soon as we spoke to him, he broke down; I’d never seen my father cry like this before; he sounded broken, but we didn’t want him to be demotivated, so we tried motivating him – we told him it’s okay, things will get better,” Saima said.
Saima stated that they expected it to be simple to get their father out of jail, but they are still struggling.
Khan’s wife says that her husband was never involved in any kind of Anti-CAA protests, she says that he would go to his shop as usual – and come back.
“He never talked about the protests; nobody in our family would even talk about it; protests were taking place in the area, but he never participated,” Shaveena told Maktoob.
“It’s been two years – only we know the pain we’re in; it can’t be described,” Shaveena added.
Letters from a father
Saima took out a large bundle of papers, saying, “these are the letters written by my father since he was arrested – these are around 300 pages,” as she separated the letters.
Khan will turn 50 on October 2nd, and if his bail appeal is denied, this will be his second birthday in prison.
“Until last year, we sent him clothes for his birthday, but he would give them to other people,” Saima said.
“I was 47 when I was arrested, but I now look like a 60-year-old,” Khan wrote in one of his letters.
Shaveena says that he was running his business for the last 28 years – he was a successful businessman, he would take work trips to abroad, he was very well established.
“We never faced any problems, when he was here, only Allah knows what happened,” Shaveena said.
“Kuchh dino se nah toh neend aa rahi hai, aur nah hi khaana khaane ka jee karta hai, tabiyat bhi kharab rehti hai, har ek din marta hun aur jeeta hun. (I haven’t been sleeping lately, and I don’t even want to eat. I don’t feel well, and I feel like I live and die every day),” Khan wrote in his letter.
Khan also wrote a letter to Additional Sessions Judge Vinod Yadav stating that he has been wrongfully implicated and it is becoming difficult for him to carry on like this.
“Imagine, Sir, a man who is 48 years old and has never visited a police station or been involved in even a minor altercation; is he capable of committing violence? You can inquire about me in Chand Bagh, where I have been running my business for many years; you can also inquire about me from my regular buyers in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and the United States, with whom I have been doing business for the last 30 years; as an exporter, I have visited these countries frequently, and my buyers will always speak highly of me.” wrote Khan.
Saima told Maktoob that during one of the court hearings, her father sobbed and asked the judge, “What should I do? Should I kill myself?”
Shaveena smiles and says that her husband is referred to as “letter boy” by Judge Amitabh Rawat of the Delhi Karkardooma court.
“I am alive because Allah and my children are aware of my innocence,” Khan wrote to Judge Rawat.
“Sir, I would like to request that you allow me to meet with my family and speak with them whenever you summon me to court,” Khan added.
Every two days, Khan calls his family – “he never tells us about if he is dealing with anything in jail, he says that he is totally fine and everybody is good to him,” Saima said.
“Since our father’s arrest, we’ve been struggling financially”
“Our business has been almost closed since 2020; my father used to handle everything, and there have been days when we are barely scraping by on our savings,” Saima says.
According to the Khan family, they have been struggling financially; previously, they received assistance from extended family, but not any longer.
“There was a time when we had to request that my younger sister’s school authorities allow us to pay in instalments because we couldn’t afford to pay the full fee,” Saima explained.
Saima has been working for two months; it is her first job, and she is unable to share this happiness with her father in person.
Saima wanted to pursue MDS (Masters in Dental Surgery) but right now it seems impossible.
“My father wanted me to continue with my studies, but I told him that I will do it once he comes back, I will wait for him,” Saima told Maktoob.
Khan has mentioned his children’s studies several times in his letters.
“My children are nearing the end of their studies – I wanted my daughter to pursue MDS, they need support now, this is just the beginning of their careers, if something bad happens now – my hard work will go to waste, and I won’t be able to forgive myself,” Khan wrote.
Talking about her father’s health – Saima tells that Khan has been struggling with a heart condition.
“He isn’t getting proper medication in the hospital, we were told once that he slipped in jail and had to deal with chest and back pain, but he didn’t get proper medicines,” Saima told Maktoob.
Shaveena tells that it used to feel like he was on a regular business trip, but now that they talk on video call, they realise how frail he has become.
“I feel this pain, and I don’t know what to do,” Shaveen said, her face solemn.
Khan in one of his letters wrote that in the 2000s he was offered a work permit in London but he never took it.
“I was offered working permits in the U.K. in 2010, but I declined. I love my country from the core of my heart,” Khan wrote in a letter.
“We still have hope, we can’t lose hope“
“We can’t lose hope, because if we lose hope, how will we survive,” Saima and her family say.
She goes on to say that even if her father returns, the UAPA tag will never leave them alone.
“Things will never return to normal for us, the label of a ‘terrorist’ will always be with us, who will erase that tag?” Saima said.
Saima claimed that if the Delhi Police had conducted a thorough and unbiased investigation, her father might still be with them.
“There has been discrimination against Muslims – my father is a victim of religious discrimination, and he may have been targeted,” Saima added.
According to Khan’s family, there is no evidence against him.
“My husband was targeted because he was doing well; otherwise, there isn’t a single piece of evidence, and UAPA is a large FIR,” Shaveena explained.
Khan passes the time in prison by writing letters to his family and the judges.
“I’m not sure why I’m in jail; what did I do to deserve this; I think about it all the time; I never imagined this.” I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have to spend inside; please advise me on what I should do in such circumstances,” Khan writes, hoping that this time he’ll be released and reunited with his family.
Arshi Qureshi is an Independent journalist based in Delhi