Innocent Prisoners; A first-hand experience with State, police and judiciary

The court may declare one innocent and release them. But will the police and state care to let them free of surveillance and interference?

It’s been six years since Abdul Wahid Shaikh has been declared innocent by the court, after Anti Terrorism Squad arrested him in 2006, in connection with the Mumbai train blast. But many times with no prior notice, police still drop in at Shaikh’s residence, in uniform and not, for interrogation and others, scaring his kids that he would be again picked to prison.

Shaikh, a primary school teacher in Mumbai, has had his life take unexpected turns since 2001. And with his two-decade-long first-hand experience with the state, police and judiciary, Shaikh penned a book, Begunah Qaidi, Innocent Prisoners, while in prison in Urdu.

Later it got translated to Hindi and the English translation was launched last week, at the second annual conference of the Innocence Network, which works for the wrongly incarcerated worldwide.

Professor of Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, Veena Das said at the book launch, that Shaikh discusses how accusations are burdened not only to the individual and families but also “fractures entire communities through systematic targeting and harassment”.

Bomb blasts and State terrorism

Early 2000 was a strange time. A period of blasts and terrorism. Certainly, a terrific time for every Muslim youth in India. Abdul Wahid Shaikh was twenty-one. And had happened to participate in some Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) programmes. Alleged of being a SIMI member, with each riot and blast in the country, Shaikh was regularly summoned for police interrogation, since 2001 for the next five years.

And then on July 11, 2006, Mumbai train blast happened. And since Shaikh was already on the police radar, they had him accused along with twelve others. Anti Terrorist Squad accused Shaikh of sheltering Pakistani terrorists. 27 year old had his next nine long years in prison, only to be acquitted by the court in 2015 as innocent.

Having lost his prime youth, in 2015, Shaikh returned to a fatherless house, who died a premature death, within a year of Shaikh’s arrest and to a mother suffering schizophrenia. It was Shaikh’s young wife who struggled to make ends meet by teaching in school.

Upon acquittal, he approached the school which he once taught before incarceration and false terror charges, and earned back his job, which he continues to do.

Shaikh received no kind of compensation or rehabilitation. Having lost his eyesight to glaucoma, as a result of being blindfolded for long stretches and heavy headaches, he has got several medical expenses along with that of his mother. “Forget compensation or rehabilitation, an expression of apology itself is denied to me”, Shaikh says elaborating how his infinite losses can never be compensated.

Notoriously, the state continues to accuse the Muslim man of terror, even after four years of court’s acquittal. It was in July 2019, that UAPA tribunal recorded Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s name in a gazette notification. And he had to approach Delhi court and legally fight for the removal of his name, in which he secured an order favourable to him. But his name can still be seen in the records.

Though his near and dear ones are convinced of Shaikh’s innocence, they tend to stay aloof from him, fearing police intervention and surveillance. And the general public, especially in digital spaces, delegitimize his acquittal and abuse him as a terrorist.

Abdul Wahid Shaikh with his Urdu book ‘Begunah Qaidi’

Authoring the book

While in prison, Shaikh encountered police brutality, confession torture of third-degree and witnessed the crude collaboration of all state apparatus, including doctors and lawyers in fabricating false charges against innocent ones.

He kept a record of happening with the minutest detail possible, which many times were snatched and destroyed. But with a change in jail superintendent and Shaikh’s perseverance, the prisoner authored the majority of the book in jail itself.

He, along with two other accused, took up law studies while in prison, but it was only Shaikh who could complete the education since the two others were denied the opportunity to appear for exams in prison.

Before the blast, Wahid Shaikh lived a normal life as a primary school teacher. However, after encountering state’s terrorism from top to bottom, be it with the fabrication of false charges, bringing in false witnesses, religious profiling, confession torture and medical officers compliance to the police, by doctoring confessional statements, Shaikh cannot afford to return to the simple days.

Innocent Network

After having authored the book, which is also a manual on how to save oneself from false implications, deal with police interrogation and torture, Shaikh has conducted talks and campaigns across India along with the Indian branch of innocence network, which works for the wrongly incarcerated worldwide.

The Network is facilitated by senior members of the legal fraternity, policy practitioners and civil rights groups. The Network seeks reform at the criminal justice level to prevent the prolonged practice of unjust incarceration.

These days, Shaikh receives a lot of emails inquiring how to deal with police interrogations and torture. He educates people on how to file RTI, the do’s and don’ts when interrogated and in general how to navigate through the cruel maze of a police state.

It is not only the police and prisons that Shaikh is familiar with. From his struggle with the state, he has known how democratic is the Indian state is and how differently a police state functions for the minorities and tribals of this country. ‘His book contributed to pedagogical theories of what a state, democracy and torture is,” says Veena Das.

Not to dismiss, Shaikh has come across a few well-wishing officials too. But then, they could only reserve some kindness and exchange an in-house acceptance of his innocence.

ACP Vinod Bhatt was one official who was convinced of the innocence of all the thirteen accused and was determined to prove their innocence, but Bhatt was found dead at a railway track in Mumbai.

Shahid Azmi was another one, who took up exclusively the legal cases of terror accused since he himself was wrongly charged with terrorism. Azmi was assassinated by gunmen at his office.

Yes, anti-terror laws are political, but not all political prisoners

Writer, sociologist and professor at NALSAR University of Law, Manisha Sethi draws attention to the generalisation of political prisoners. Sethi elaborates, ” political prisoners are the ones who dissented the state” and people like Wahid Shaikh who are not connected to any political parties cannot be understood as political prisoners, even when ” UAPA and anti-terror laws are inherently political.”

Usha Ramanathan, a legal scholar also reminded the role of police and state in the death of Stan Swamy to anti-Sikh riots, to the Hashimpura massacre to Gujarat riots.

“Innocent Prisoners stand as a living illustration of the consequences of UAPA, MCOCA and other anti-terror laws which have such devastating implications on the lives of people,” Professor Sethi said.

The trauma and stigma these incarcerated ones and their families undergo are monstrously huge. The state takes no active initiative to support or track these families and kids who would have lost their sole bread-winning person.

“Ironically, it is upon their acquittal, the state starts to map and record the lives of the acquitted along with their family, ” says Suhra, a Phd student in Jamia Millia Islamia who worked on families of incarcerated persons; exploring challenges and possible interventions.

Soon, Shaikh’s book is to be a full-fledged feature Hindi film.

Abdul Wahid Shaikh’s 500 plus pages book published by Pharos publication, will be one of the most poignant contemporary prison literature, which has scanned and exposed the Indian state apparatus most blatantly.

Afra Abubacker is an independent journalist from Kerala.