July 3, 2021
Bashir Ahmad Baba was visiting Gujarat for a voluntary training programme in 2010 when ATS arrested him and slapped UAPA
Waseem Dar | Clarion India
SRINAGAR — It is a hot summer day in Srinagar. People are flocking Bashir Ahmad Baba’s forgotten residence in the Rainawari area of the city. Every time a guest enters his room, he gets closer to his frail mother to ask about his identity.
The queries are frequent. “Some of them are my relatives, but I don’t recognise them properly,” Baba says with a smile.
While 31-year-old Baba was leaving his home on February 19, 2010, little could have he imagined that he will struggle to recognise his people and the lane on his way back. He has stayed away for long, people have grown old and the landmarks have changed.
Baba, now 42, reached his home on June 23, after serving an 11-year-long wrongful imprisonment in Vadodara Central Jail in Gujarat under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
On June 19, a court directed his release after an Additional Sessions Judge overruled the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad’s (ATS) charges against him.
The Flimsy Charges
The ATS had accused him of being in contact with Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) chief Syed Salahuddin and one Bilal Shera of the same outfit.
However, the court observed that “no evidence was found that he was in touch with terrorist elements”, adding that the prosecution had relied on “emotional argument” and a person cannot be held guilty merely on its fear of anarchy.
The ATS had told the court that they had arrested Baba on March 13 from Anand, over 76 kilometres away from the actual place in Ahmedabad.
However, the court said these claims were grossly wrong and the allegation that he had received financial aid to establish a terror network has not been proven sufficiently, nor has there been any evidence presented to prove that he received such benefits or set up such a network.
Baba was accused of provoking Muslim youth in Gujarat and exploiting their anger over the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002 to recruit them for a militant network of HM.
Slanderous Labels and a Media Trail
Gujarat ATS chief Ajay Tomar had back then told the media that they had arrested Baba on a tip-off provided by security agencies. “Baba’s main job was to identify vulnerable youth, brainwash them and send them to Pakistan for terror training,” he had said, adding that Baba till then had sent nearly 3,000 youths for the purpose.
However, when the case came up for hearing one last time, all the allegations eventually failed to withstand.
Back in 2010, Baba was also nicknamed as ‘Pepsi bomber’ by a section of Indian media for his alleged expertise in making bombs out of empty Pepsi cans, and the slanderous labels have had their effect on him. He says he has grown tired of hearing and talking about the allegations and wants to forget the dark times altogether.
At his home, as a team of a leading Indian media house makes him pose at different angles in front of their cameras, little does he know that they also played a part in his demonization during his worst days.
How it Began
Bashir Ahmad Baba had arrived in Ahmedabad on February 20, 2010, for a week-long training at Gujarat Cleft & Craniofacial Research Institute (GCCRI). He was selected as an assistant project manager by Maaya Foundation, a charity for children with facial deformities, and the training was being held in partnership with GCCRI.
“The institute would train individuals to treat cases of cleft lip and cleft palate. I had conducted many successful camps and I was supposed to be their camp coordinator in Ahmedabad,” Baba told Clarion India. “I was scheduled to return soon after, but Allah had other plans.”
The Other Plans
On February 27 evening, the ATS raided Baba’s hostel. “Before I could make sense of the happening, the squad muffled me with a sheet of cloth and bundled me into their vehicle,” he said.
Along with Baba was arrested his colleague, Dr Shyam Seth, but he was released days after. For some two weeks, Baba was interrogated by the ATS about the crimes he had never committed.
He came to know about his charges only after he was paraded before media on March 13, with the ATS claiming that he was arrested the previous day from Anand, a far-off place from Ahmedabad.
“I was initially beaten a lot and was even hospitalised once. But once they allowed me to call my family and shifted me to judicial custody, I could heave a sigh of relief,” Baba said. “Later, my family also arrived and started looking around for a lawyer.”
Things Fall Apart
Back in Srinagar, a dependent family was devastated in the absence of their breadwinner. Nazir Ahmad, Baba’s younger brother, took over his responsibilities. Besides working as a small-time salesman, Nazir was the one to visit his brother and pursue his case.
“It was a difficult period. When I look back, I don’t believe myself to have passed it,” Nazir said. “I had already left my college to support my family but being the only one — that too with an added responsibility of my brother — would give me sleepless nights.”
Nazir waited to get married together with his brother on his release, but he did marry off his two sisters during these years. “It was a challenging responsibility and, with Allah’s help, I did it,” he says with an air of achievement.
Wearing a longyi — part of his habits from prison days — at his home, Baba is continuously accompanied by his nephew. The 4-year-old has seen his smiling uncle for the first time and is enjoying his company.
Mokhta, Baba’s elderly mother, is also sitting beside her caressing his shoulders intermittently. She has last seen his son, though hurriedly, when he was brought to Srinagar in connection with a 2008 case.
“The meeting lasted just a few minutes and my longing for him grew even more,” Mokhta said before a relative chipped in, “She had visited him before in Ahmedabad once in 2014. On her return, she grew depressed and weak every passing day. Her husband’s illness also did not allow her to visit again.”
“This is what fate had in store for us. I used to pray for his release,” Mokhta said. “Kyah kare? Laagar geyes emsind daadi. What could I have done? I grew frail longing for him,” Mokhta said.
In 2014, Baba’s father, Ghulam Nabi Baba, was diagnosed with colon cancer. After a protracted illness, he expired in April 2017. Though the family tried to get bail for Baba, the application was rejected.
Baba grew increasingly frustrated during those days over his helplessness. “I could not sleep those days. I would weep alone and then console myself, only to break down again.”
When he reached home last week, Baba first visited his father’s grave to offer prayers and shed his pent-up tears. During these years, Baba also lost some cousins and an uncle who, he says, loved him more than his father.
Alive and Growing
Meanwhile, Baba did not ‘waste’ his days in prison. When he was not attending his online hearings — which was the norm in the high-security prison in Vadodara — he would busy himself with reading.
“I completed two PGs in Political Science and Public Administration, one BA, one PG diploma and few other diplomas,” he said.
Except for gaining some extra weight, Baba has also maintained his health. “I took good care of myself though I used to have occasional hypertension,” he said.
The Lawyer who Left Early
Some ten days before his release, Baba’s lawyer from Ahmedabad, Javed Khan Pathan, died of a cardiac arrest. This has traumatised him more than that of his father’s loss.
“He had no child of his own and would treat me like his own son. When he visited my home a few years ago and witnessed my domestic condition, he stopped charging me any fee,” Baba said. “It was he who told me about my father’s death.”
He said the lawyer would often express his wish to accompany him to his home once he was released. “But I was not lucky enough to share the happy moments of my freedom with him,” Baba said.
Together in This
Before Baba, there have been many such cases in Kashmir that ended in acquittals after long wrongful incarcerations.
In 2019, four men from Kashmir and one from Uttar Pradesh were released after 23 years of imprisonment for their alleged involvement in Samleti and Lajpat Nagar bomb blasts in Rajasthan and Delhi in 1996.
In 2017, two Kashmiris were acquitted after 12 years of imprisonment for their alleged involvement in 2005 pre-Diwali blasts in Delhi.
Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, former professor and head of the Department of Law at the Central University of Kashmir, said 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 Clarion India.
He said in most of the cases, 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.”
Hope and Despair
Now that Baba is home, he looks forward to starting a new life. “Since I have studied well in the prison, I would prefer to do some academic job. But if that doesn’t become possible, I will join my brother at his shop.”
As of marriage, he is hopeful about it happening sooner along with his younger brother who has waited for him.
But the bitterness is nowhere near an end. As the muezzin called from the nearby mosque and this reporter took Baba’s leave, he got teary-eyed and said, “By this Azaan, I was innocent. My youth was snatched for no fault of my own.”