Mohammed Aamir tells me he forgets things easily, a consequence of frequent beatings, 14 years in jail and the trauma of being called a terrorist and - this appears to bother him the most - traitor to his country.
There are some things he never forgets: that he was 18 years old,
an 11th-grade student, walking down a poorly lit Old Delhi street at 9:30 pm on the night of February 20, 1998, when some men grabbed and bundled him into a Maruti Gypsy; that it was January 9, 2012, when he walked out of Delhi's Tihar Jail, a free man. His father, a toy dealer, was dead. His mother was paralysed and mute.
Aamir has had to learn many things, such as using a mobile phone. "Only the rich had cellphones when I went to jail," says Aamir, now 32. "I've learned to use a computer, e-mail, and I am on Facebook. I want to be a part of society and my country again."
For a man who was tortured and charged with 17 counts of murder, terrorism and waging war against his country, Aamir is affable and remarkably free of rancour.
In this age of terrorism and religious polarisation, too many stories like Aamir's play out across India's flawed - but functional - judicial system. Aamir's case is one of 16 documented in a report called 'Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a very special cell', a reference to the Delhi Police anti-terror unit, the Special Cell, which was primarily responsible for most anti-terror prosecutions in Delhi between 1992 and 2012.
Released earlier this month by the Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Association (a body of teachers at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University), the report, in large part based on court orders, argues that the acquittals were "not simply for want of evidence", a common hurdle in anti-terror investigations. "What judgement after judgement comments on is the manner in which the so-called evidence provided by the police and prosecution was tampered with and fabricated," says the report.
For instance, the evidence offered by the police against Aamir included dollars, diaries with details of explosives, his birth certificate, school character certificate, school identity card, school marksheets. Why, asked a judge, would a man planning an act of terror carry school identity cards, marksheets and a birth certificate? The implicit answer: these were ham-handedly planted by the police to establish he was not a minor.
"The prosecution has failed miserably to adduce any evidence to connect the accused-appellant with the charges framed, much less prove them. Accordingly, the appeal is allowed and the judgment of conviction (by a lower court)... set aside," the Delhi High Court said on August 4, 2006. Although Aamir was exonerated, the police brought more cases to trial, keeping Aamir in jail for six more years.
The Delhi Police deny any wrongdoing by the Special Cell, even refusing action against officers indicted by courts for extra-judicial killings. Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar dismisses demands that the Special Cell be disbanded, as the Jamia report recommends, and as Mumbai's "encounter specialists" were. "Why don't they list out (sic) the special cell's successes, the Parliament attack case, the Red Fort shootout and so on?" said Kumar, quoted in Mail Today.
To be sure, keeping India safe from terror is a formidable task. Many bombings have been solved and terror cells busted by hardworking officers; most convicts are indeed zealots from the Islamic fringes. It is hard to say if police excesses surpass their successes, but it is clear that too many officers go rogue and too many young Muslims are arrested on the flimsiest of grounds, which include the possession of religious texts and newspaper clippings. In the long term, the Indian battle against terror is setting itself up for failure if innocents are implicated, and if set free, offered no apology or reparation.
The first low-intensity bombings - on buses, in trash cans, on motorcycles, in public places - in India began in the 1980s and grew in the 1990s as a handful of angry, educated Muslim youth, urged on by a few radicalised leaders and, often supported by Pakistan, sought revenge for religious riots and discrimination against Muslims. It is hard to infer causality, but these bombings coincided with a rise in literacy, globalisation, the spread of television and the rise of Salafism.
This script changed between 2006 and 2008, a period when mosques and a train to Pakistan were bombed. More than 116 people died in six bombings; in all the cases, young Muslims, previously arrested, "confessed". As the cases fell apart in court, special investigators joined the dots: all the bombers were Hindu. Ever since, police cases that automatically blame Muslims face close questioning.
Terrorism is yet a fringe phenomenon. Whenever I've checked with intelligence agencies, they say no more than a few hundred individuals, Muslim and Hindu, are committed to being terrorists. But, as an atmosphere of intolerance spreads through mainstream India, there is no count of sympathisers who might cross the line.
Such sympathy can only grow unless wrongfully arrested young men are rehabilitated and compensated for what Aamir calls "a loss of the golden years". After his release, the Indian home ministry called to discuss compensation and a possible job offer. That was the last he heard from the government.
"What has given me hope is the help I have received, particularly from non-Muslims," says Aamir, now an office assistant and LLB student (he completed his BA in sociology and political science while in jail).
He's engaged to be married, and benefactors have pooled money to buy him a flat.
Aamir waits for the day when he will be "reunited" with his country. "I feel my country has reaccepted me 70%," he says. "One day, I know, it will be 100%."
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal
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