Mohammad Zahid would have continued eking out a living earning a paltry Rs.1500 a month. He would have continued to remain a statistic, a faceless teacher at a madrasa in Yavatmal district’s Fulsawangi village, 450 km away from Malegaon, a mid-sized town in Maharashtra. No one would have known that Zahid had to subsist on just Rs.950 a month after paying for a room and water.
Yet, a few days after a bomb ripped through the Hamidia mosque, near Malegaon’s Bade Kabristan on September 8, 2006, Zahid was transformed from a poor teacher to a terrorist. It did not matter that he was 450 km away. Maharashtra’s Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) accused him of assembling a bomb, concealing it in a bicycle and parking it next to the mosque. Suddenly, Zahid became one of the bombers responsible for killing 37 and injuring over 100, mostly from their own community.
Meet Malegaon’s innocent ‘terrorists’ and hear their stories to know how they were framed and punished for a crime they never committed.
Nine Malegaon residents – all Muslims – were arrested by the ATS for triggering the blasts and conspiring to disturb the harmony in the 86 per cent Muslim-dominated power loom town. According to the ATS charge sheet, “In order to exploit the communal sensitiveness of Malegaon, zealot leaders and members of the banned organisation SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), with their extremist ideology, always tried to manipulate the situation by playing with the religious sentiments of the locals and incited them to avenge the alleged brutality committed on them. Contrary to the expectations of the conspirators… major incidents resulting in communal riots were prevented by timely police action and public support. Baffled by these developments, the offenders again conspired on September 12 2006 to plant a fake bomb laced with RDX in the mixed locality of Hindus and Muslims.”
The ‘timely police action’ involved an elaborate cover-up that destroyed nine men and their families.
The ‘accused’ had neither planted the bombs on September 8 or 12. All nine (one died in a road accident last year after getting bail) were charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), acquitted by a special court last week but they are all asking the same pertinent questions: what action will be taken against the ATS officers? Who will compensate for the last ten years of pain and torture?
Tortured to Confess
Raees Ahmed who runs an imitation jewellery shop in Malegaon was 33 in 2006. His wife was in the ninth month of her pregnancy when the ATS came knocking on his door. It is best to narrate his ordeal in his words: “I was bed-ridden for a week before the blast. On the day of the blast, I was in bed after offering namaz when the electrician who worked at the shop called to tell me there had been a blast. We were fasting as it was the month of roza. After a few weeks a policeman came to my house and said ‘sahab is calling you.’ I went to the police station and was asked if I was a member of SIMI and I said no but in the dead of night, I was taken to the ATS office in Mumbai where they only talked with their boots. The ATS men would drink for long hours and then start beating me. They wanted me to confess to my role in the blast. I did not know the meaning of the words ‘confession’ and MCOCA. I swore by my children that I had no role but they said I had received 18 to 20 kilos of RDX. One morning they tied a tight bandage around my eyes and opened it only in the evening and then took my photographs. They showed me the picture. I couldn’t recognise myself. What I saw was a man who looked like a terrorist. The bandage had had that effect. In every prayer I only asked Allah for one thing: that the real perpetrators are arrested. My daughter Ayesha was born 18 days after I was taken into custody and we never saw each other for five-and-a-half years. My wife’s brother gave her Rs.5000 a month to look after our six children.”
Like Raees, the other five HT met narrated hair-raising stories of third degree torture. Abrar Ahmed, now 38, ran a poultry farm ten years ago. He went to the hospital where the injured were being taken and donated blood. But soon, he too was picked up by the ATS. “My nails were pulled out and two lit cigarettes were stuffed into my nostrils. One night, I was forced to drink a lot of water and when I said I wanted to use the toilet, they brought a bucket and asked me to aim into it. As soon as I started urinating, a current passed through my body and I passed out. When I woke up, I was in a hospital bed.”
Another ‘accused’, Noorul Huda, 24, who was settling into married life after having tied the knot in May 2006, was charged with planting bombs at the Kabristan gate. “I sported a skull cap and had a beard and was constantly asked by the ATS, ‘why are you such a kattad Muslim? Why don’t you watch movies?’ I was beaten regularly and given electric shocks. Before each beating, they would ask me to take off all my clothes and each time I kept pleading my innocence and they kept saying ‘you are not capable of triggering a blast but we want to fill our jails with kattad people like you.’ I was in their custody on Eid and they didn’t let me offer my prayers. They said if I didn’t confess they would bring the women of my family and subject them to the same treatment. I am free today but I have lost my identity. When I walk on the streets of Malegaon, people don’t say, that’s Noorul Huda. They say, that’s Noorul Huda, who was arrested for the blasts.”
Watch | Beaten up, tortured, forced to confess: Six of the acquitted men narrate their ten-year-long ordeal. Click on the playlist to watch all their interviews
NIA to the Rescue
The case took a turn in 2011 when the investigation was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). After repeated accusations against the ATS, the case had been earlier handed over to the CBI which corroborated the Maharashtra Squad’s probe. The NIA had the confession of Swami Aseemanand, an accused in the Mecca Masjid blasts of 2007, who pointed to the role of right-wing organisations in the Malegaon case. The ATS charge sheet collapsed soon after. The NIA examined several witnesses who testified to what Zahid had been saying all along: he was 450 km away from the Hamidia masjid on the day of the blast.
The NIA charge sheet makes it crystal clear that the ATS had made scapegoats out of the nine Malegaon men. The agency’s charge sheet, submitted before the MCOCA court said, “Before the further investigation of this case was handed over to the NIA, Swami Aseemanand had made a confession in the Mecca Masjid blast case that Sunil Joshi [an RSS functionary, who was killed mysteriously in 2007] had told him that the blasts at Malegaon were the handiwork of his boys. He had stated that a meeting was held in June 2006 at the house of Bharat Rateshwar at Valsad, where Aseemanand had suggested that Malegaon which has 86% Muslim population may be chosen first for bomb blast. Aseemanand further stated that Joshi had told him that during Diwali in 2006, his men have exploded bombs in Malegaon… All the accused who had earlier recorded their confessions under MCOCA stated that their confessions were recorded under duress and pressure. They denied to accept the contents of their confessions.”
They had repeatedly testified to their innocence but the ATS did not listen. The accused got bail in 2011, only after the NIA took over the case. KP Raghuvanshi, the then Maharashtra ATS chief, refused to respond to questions on how his officers had extracted confessions through repeated torture. “I have not read the judgement. Till the time I read the order copy of their discharge, I will not speak on it,” is all he said.
The judge, VV Patil, finally removed the terror label last week on April 25. His orders states, “There was Ganesh immersion just prior to September 8, 2006 which is used to celebrate in entire Maharashtra state. Had the accused 1-9 any object that there should be riots at Malegaon, then they ought to have planted the bombs at the time of Ganesh immersion day which would have caused death of most of the Hindu people. It seems to me highly impossible that the accused 1-9 who are from Muslim community would have decided to kill their own people to create disharmony in two communities that too on a holy day – Shab-e-Barat.”
The bombs had exploded during the month of Ramzan. Shab-e-Barat, considered auspicious among Muslims, is a time when they assemble to pay respects to their departed relatives.
Today, as Zahid and the others try and pick up the pieces, some questions remain. For Dr Farogh Makhdoomi, the sense of injustice is acute. “I will not seek compensation from this government,’’ he asserts. He wants action against the ATS officials. So does Dr Salman Farsi, who now spends time in researching how innocent ‘terrorists’ like him in other countries fought and got compensation.
The fight for dignity is still on.