Saturday, February 24, 2024

“By default, police will come for me…”: Acquitted Mumbai Muslim man continues to face police harassment

“I had already suffered psychologically a lot during my 11-month imprisonment and 19-year-long trial, and I believed I would find peace after being acquitted in 2021. However, I was wrong; I am still harassed by the police in 2024,” recounts Saud.

Saud Ahmed Abdur Rehman, a 42-year-old native of Uttar Pradesh born and raised in Mumbai, was among the 127 Muslims acquitted on March 6, 2021, by a magistrate court in Gujarat in the 2001 Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) Surat case.

Saud was arrested at the age of 21 on December 28, 2001, under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) while participating in a three-day national seminar on ‘Constitutional Provisions for Minorities’ Educational Rights’ organized by an NGO, All-India Minority Educational Board. Accused alongside professionals from the Muslim community, including university vice-chancellors, doctors, engineers, professors, clerics, lawyers, and a traffic police constable, Saud was alleged to be part of the banned SIMI, conspiring to promote its activities. Despite being proven innocent by the judiciary, Maharashtra Police keep visiting him, which Saud finds mentally distressing.

A DPharm holder, Saud, who works as a pharmacist at Shifa Medical & General Stores in Mumbai, told Maktoob, “I fear for my life because of the frequent visits to my shop by police. They regularly come to my shop and ask unnecessary questions. By seeing the police, my customers also started asking questions. I fear that police will implicate me in any case. As long as no bomb goes off in Mumbai, I am safe. Otherwise, by default, the police will come for me. Their first choice will be me. I don’t wish to live with this daily fear of getting detained, interrogated, or visited by police”.

Detailing his recent ordeal of police harassment, Saud recounted, “On January 25, 2024, at 10:45 pm, Assistant Sub Inspector of Police (ASI) Ganpat from Parksite Police Station, Vikhroli West, Mumbai, came to my shop and forcibly took a selfie with me on his phone. Despite stating that the inquiry by him was complete, he confided in me that other officers would also visit my shop.” 

Saud told the reporter that he expressed his displeasure to the ASI. When asked about the reason for taking the photo and the purpose of future visits, the officer was unresponsive. “Police don’t explain the purpose of their inquiries and never answer my queries. When I reminded ASI about my acquittal, I was told by the officer that the atmosphere in the country was not favorable,” recounts Saud.

Saud said that was not the first instance of harassment this year and told Maktoob, “ASI Ganpat, who had been visiting my shop regularly for the past two months, once came with an officer named Sandeep Chikkar to my shop in the first week of January 2024 and demanded the judgment copy of the Surat SIMI case in which I was discharged as innocent.” Alleging further, Saud added, “The officer told me that, as I was implicated in a case, I am considered not innocent by the police until I provide them with the judgment copy of the acquittal. I handed over the judgment copy and requested them not to harass or falsely implicate me in any other case.”

Feeling terrified after the second incident this year, Saud decided to break his silence and speak with the media for the first time, as well as file a complaint with higher authorities regarding the years-long harassment.

Saud told the reporter that he was illegally interrogated last year without being given an official warrant or notice. Sharing the ordeal that took place in August 2023, Saud said, “An officer named Pawar came to my shop and informed me that an officer named Sawant of Crime Branch Ghatkopar unit 7 wants to meet me. Amidst mental distress, I always cooperated with the police and went to meet him. Initially, I was interrogated about the Surat case. But later, he asked for my opinions on the banned organization, Popular Front of India (PFI). I clarified that I am not associated with any political party and was unaware of PFI until after it was banned in 2022.”

Narrating his harrowing experience of interrogation and detainment following the blasts in Mumbai, Saud told Maktoob, “I was bailed out in the last week of November 2002 but was not given peace by the police. Just a few days after my release, a bomb blast occurred at Ghatkopar, Mumbai, on December 2, 2002. I found myself summoned by at least five police stations for interrogation after languishing 11 months in prison. In the name of interrogation, they abused me and behaved as if I knew the bombers. In 2003, there were four blasts in Mumbai, and again, I went through the same situation. Police from local stations, crime branch, and the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) used to harass me regularly that year. In the aftermath of the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, I was summoned to the ATS Byculla office. Despite repeatedly saying that I was not involved, I was asked for details of the bombers. I was also detained and interrogated by officers of the Kannamwar Nagar ATS office in the aftermath of bomb blasts that rocked Ahmedabad in 2008. Though I was not detained in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, I was very scared because of my previous experiences. I expressed gratitude to Allah for sparing me from harassment in the name of the 26/11 attacks. But in the wake of the 2011 Mumbai bombings, I was picked up by 8-10 police officers around 1.30 am from my house. I was handcuffed and verbally abused severely by the officers at the Kurla crime branch office. They were also intimidating me, and their tone was like I would get killed in an extrajudicial encounter, and none will speak on it.”

Saud also mentioned that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) contacted him and inquired about some unknown people and organizations from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, during the lockdown period.

“This recurring cycle of detainment, harsh interrogations asking for the names of the bombers, and inquiries continues after every blast, despite their awareness of my innocence. Mumbai Police knows that I am acquitted, but still, they keep asking about the details of that case whenever they visit me. An officer even confided in me that they are aware of my innocence but are forced to carry out the orders of detaining and interrogation after being instructed by superiors,” Saud added.

“Islamophobia is on the rise, and the gravity of it has accelerated a lot recently. The primary reason for harassment, despite being acquitted, is because I am a Muslim. I have suffered enough despite doing nothing. I feel like I am being treated as a secondary citizen in this country and am fed up with the harassment from the Mumbai police, which I have been facing for more than two decades,” Saud told Maktoob.

Saud, who resides with his wife, three school-going sons, an ailing mother, grandmother, sister, and her two children at Parksite, Mumbai, added, “My father passed away when I was in jail. Due to my arrest, I didn’t receive marriage proposals at a suitable age. Finally, I got married at the age of 33. My family has also suffered with me, especially during the raids. Police came to our house and picked me up in front of my family during the blasts of 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2011. I don’t want them to suffer anymore. We are trying to keep our children away from this harassment. Though my in-laws are scared, they provide moral support.”

Abdul Wahid Sheikh, a teacher, lawyer, activist, and author who was acquitted on July 11, 2006, in the Mumbai train bombing after spending 9 years in jail, told Maktoob, “Saud is not the only person facing these harassments. Despite being acquitted by the judiciary, the NIA and police still harass me. I know many such acquitted persons like Saud and me who are frequently visited and harassed by the police. Some of the victims dare to file complaints, some maintain silence, some become police informers, and some commit suicide. This is the general tendency of the police to harass Muslim youths who have been acquitted by the court. By doing these harassments, the state is also trying to alienate us from society by creating a sense of fear. Police believe that once allegations are put on someone, he is liable to suffer from those charges until death.”

Agreeing with Saud on Islamophobia as the primary reason for harassment, Wahid added, “Muslims who are harassed by the police have to be strong, file a complaint against the police for the injustice committed by them, and fight as per the law until justice is served.”

Saud also believes that the police don’t want to do the real job and waste time by harassing innocents in the name of duty. Placing hope on the government to put an end to his distress, Saud sent a complaint by email on January 26, including to the Mumbai Police Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of Police, describing mental distress affecting his livelihood because of persistent police visits, phone calls, and summoning for inquiries without issuing formal notices.

The Mumbai Police Commissioner didn’t respond to the calls made by the reporter. “If a person is declared innocent, then he should be allowed to live. But the police are not declaring the acquitted persons as innocent. Let me live peacefully,” Saud said.

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