At a simple ceremony on Friday, Abdul Qayyum--a madrassa teacher from Gujarat--unveiled in New Delhi a book the Gujarat police wouldn't allow him to launch in his home state.
Judged by its cover, its unpolished English and utter lack of flair, it’s an unremarkable book at first sight.
Brave the dead-eyed prose, and the reader is left with a rare, haunting account of a presumed terrorist on death row declared innocent in the end. Astounding still is how innocent Muslims can be witch-hunted, framed and put on trial on terror charges.
Qayyum was arrested in the 2002 Akshardham temple siege in Gandhinagar, in which 33 were killed when terrorists stormed the temple. In 2006, a Gujarat POTA court sentenced three of the six accused, including Qayyum, to death.
That sentence was upheld in 2010 by the Gujarat high court. It then came before the Supreme Court, where the case began to unravel like a George Pelecanos thriller.
On May 16, 2014, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept the BJP to a historic verdict, another extraordinary verdict was being delivered by the top court: all six accused in the case, including Qayyum, were found innocent.
Qayyum lived to tell his story: '11 Years Behind Bars', an autobiography that reveals a shocking case of intrigue, ruse, torture and devious framing, swerving the spotlight on some of India's questionable anti-terror operations.
There isn’t a doubt that terrorists did kill innocent devotees in that famous temple in a commando-like strike, Qayyum says. “Some people may do it.”
“But the war on terror targets the entire community. I am living proof. I can only thank Allah and honest Supreme Court,” he says.
To many Muslims, the war on terror often looks like a war on the community itself. While some have been found guilty on terror charges, many others have been acquitted in a series of cases.
Qayyum’s account is not just to uncover a dangerous overzeal of police that prompts them to frame innocent people. It is the sinister anti-Muslim communal mindset that makes police act against innocent Muslims, he says.
“Every time, they beat me, I would say Allah-u-Akbar. What else would a believing Muslim say? But they would abuse me for remembering my God”. Such accusations of torture by one man under arrest cannot of course be independently corroborated.
But beyond the moving story of hopelessness and human agony, it is the subterfuge of the system by police that is dreadful and proven on record.
DG Vanzara, the former deputy inspector-general of Gujarat police and the former head of Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, claimed to have solved the case within a day.
As the head of the force, Vanzara was widely known for his precision as an anti-terror operation specialist. But Vanzara had to be in jail between 2007 to 2015 for a possibly questionable role in such shootouts.
Vanzara cracked the Akshardham attack speedily – it was plot hatched by Pakistani terror outfits, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Local Muslims like Qayyum ultimately helped pull it off, the police theory went.
The dénouement however came in the Supreme Court judgement, which Qayyum quotes from frequently in his book. Page 188 of the verdict states: “…there was a serious attempt on the part of the investigating agency to fabricate a case against the accused persons and frame them…”
As he left home after being picked up in August 2003, Qayyum writes he “stared” at his “favourite mosque” passing by, his father -- oblivious to his arrest -- sipping tea at a nearby shop. “I only waved because who knows I might not return.” His father died while Quyyum was moved from one prison to the other.
The day he returned a free man, 11 years later, there was “no sense in my feet.” “I was flowing on the flood of the crowd of people, with support on their shoulders”.