Last month - as our outrage erupted over the bizarre arrests of two young girls in Maharashtra for doing nothing more than expressing an opinion about Bal Thackeray on Facebook - there was news of two other persons in prison that barely made it to the headlines.
Sixteen years after they were first charged in the 1996 Delhi blasts, the high court set aside the death sentence slapped on Mahmud Ali Bhat and Mirza Nissar Hussain, both from Kashmir - dismissing the prosecution case as one built on "grave lapses". Though both young men were acquitted by the judges who felt that "minimum standards of probe were not maintained", real freedom will elude them till they legally clear allegations against them in another case. But the warning from the judiciary was instructive. The shoddy investigative process had cast a long shadow over the "nature and truthfulness" of the evidence placed against the two men, the court found, adding that, "In matters of liberty the weakness of the State surely can't be an excuse for lowering time-tested standards, especially in serious crimes where the accused stand to forfeit their life."
Two years earlier, Nissar's brother Iftikhar was acquitted in the same case, after he had spent 14 years in prison. Last week, I met Iftikhar on a TV debate on capital punishment. His face shorn of any obvious emotion despite his personal trauma, Iftikhar spoke in soft, steady sentences, more matter of fact than melodramatic about the injustice experienced by his family. Interestingly, he did not entirely fit the liberal narrative on the death penalty, despite coming perilously close to losing his brother to the gallows. India did not need to do away with capital punishment, he argued; men like those responsible for the Nithari murders of little children deserved to be hanged. What was important was the honesty of the investigative and judicial process and that is where the system had failed his family. The problem, Iftikhar explained, was that terror charges tainted you like none other; even an acquittal did not translate into genuine freedom. Despite his innocence being upheld by the judiciary Iftikhar has found it impossible to move on with his life; getting a job is especially tough.
His story made me ask myself what the State and society owe to young men whose dignity is destroyed by the weight of false allegations. Do we not owe them an assured rehabilitation at the very least? Monetary compensation is never a substitute for the theft of self-respect, but if the stain of the accusation remains indelible despite the scrub of a court verdict; isn't it obligatory for the State to, at the very least, provide jobs to young men like Iftikhar?
In Andhra Pradesh, the government offered a Rs 70 lakh-compensation package to young Muslim men who had been incorrectly implicated during the 2007 blasts at Hyderabad's Mecca Masjid. But it rejected a proposal by the National Commission for Minorities to make the police officers who had rounded up the boys pay for this from their own pockets. The acquittals in the 1996 Delhi blasts case have revived the question of who is accountable for errors grave enough to ruin young lives. Security agencies have strenuously argued against making officers take the knock for following leads they believe to be based on genuine suspicions. But members of Parliament from the Left, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have petitioned the prime minister and the president asking for speedier trials and cautioning against the possibility of bias against young men from the Muslim community.
The BJP has retaliated by branding this a communalisation of the issue. With the debate threatening to get politicised - and that never helps any honest discourse - it becomes even more imperative to evolve universal norms that will rise above any pernicious attempt to make terrorism and civil rights cannon fodder for netas in the trenches.
What's important is to empathise with the human story of injustice; the lives that are demolished, once the sensational headlines have faded and the cameras avert their gaze. I was left wordless by a question posed to me by a young man called Mohammed Aamir Khan. Aamir, just 18 when he was arrested, 32 when he acquitted in all but two of the 20 terror related cases he was implicated in, asked me why a country that can have a rehabilitation policy for surrendered militants doesn't have one for innocent people who sometimes end up spending decades in jail. Once again, it was the high court that struck down several of his cases concluding that the prosecution had "miserably failed" to connect the accusations to the evidence produced.
While Aamir was locked up, his father died from a liver ailment and his family struggled to cope with the social ostracism by their neighbours and community. I cited the example of the formal apology from the Australian police to an Indian doctor for incorrectly accusing him in the attack on the Glasgow airport and asked Aamir whether it was time for the system to at least say sorry. Without a trace of bitterness, Aamir said all he sought today was a job and a chance to "start afresh with honour."
With their histories distorted by violation, the future of men like Iftikhar and Aamir should concern us all. What is tragic and telling is that an otherwise perennially enraged society should find no angst to spare for stories such as theirs. Whether because of the insularity of class or the complacent belief that this won't happen to 'people like us'; we have barely responded as a people to such instances of obvious injustice. In this case, a little more anger may be healthy for the idea of India.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal