Review: Begunah Qaidi by Abdul Wahid Sheikh
Begunah Qaidi by Abdul Wahid Sheikh is without doubt one of the most important books to be published in Urdu in the last decade in India and, given its subject, perhaps in any Indian language. Wahid spent nearly a decade in prison for his alleged role in the Mumbai serial train blasts of 2006, before being acquitted of all charges. The bulk of the book was written while he was still in prison and it was written in the face of the hostility and censorship of prison authorities. They repeatedly confiscated and even burnt his manuscript pages. They tortured him for daring to write but he never gave up. The book is a remarkable achievement not only for these reasons, or for the fact that it absolves him and his co-accused (of whom five are currently on death row and seven are serving a life sentence). In itself, it is a powerful work of prison literature, entitled to be ranked with Dostoevsky’ House of the Living Dead or Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of the Reading Gaol.
My intention here is not to discuss Wahid’s case, which has been much written about. Wahid makes a very strong case for the innocence of all his other co accused too. Indeed, the investigating officers themselves admitted to Wahid and his co-accused that they were innocent but were arrested as the agency needed someone to take the rap. The conviction of his twelve co-accused at the trial was also astounding because the version put out by the prosecuting agency Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad (ATS), was directly controverted by Mumbai Crime Branch, which paraded a different group of suspects and claimed that the group called Indian Mujahideen was behind the same attack.
The eventual acquittal of terror-accused after long years of incarceration has been a pretty routine affair in India. Last week itself, five such accused were acquitted after 23 years of incarceration. Mohd Aamir, another such accused, released after 13 years, has also penned his story as a book Framed as a Terrorist. The Quill Foundation, set up in the wake of such terror cases, in its study on terror prosecution in Maharashtra has found that more than 460 people accused of terrorism have been declared innocent since 1993, each of them after spending an average of three to six years in prison. Mind you, this statistic pertains to Maharashtra alone.
Wahid’s book is first and foremost a plaintive and heart breaking invocation of the Indian Constitution. Such a compelling and eloquent plea for constitutional adherence would be hard to find in any Indian writing, in the recent years. He begins his memoir by quoting Article 20 of the Constitution, which states that ‘no person accused of an offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself.’ However, laws such as TADA, POTA and MCOCA subvert that principle by making ‘confessions’ made to the police admissible as evidence. As Wahid shows, for all of his 12 co-accused, their ‘confession’ itself became their conviction. In graphic detail, which reads like a dystopian Coen Brothers’ thriller or like the Costa Gavras movie Z done in reverse, Wahid outlines the police procedural that is prescribed, but flouted in practice, in order to attain those confessions. Torture is practised as a veritable policy by the use of diverse techniques, such as naalbandi, 180 degrees, disrobing, electric shocks, injection of burning oil (called suryaprakash) into the anus, waterboarding, dripping, and the plucking out of hair, beard or nails. All these methods routinely used by prosecutors brings to mind the excesses of Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, on page 375 Wahid quotes a story by the magazine The Week, where a police officer proudly claims that these “torture chambers spread across the country are our “precious assets.” They are our own little Guantanamo Bay or Gitmos.” The confessions are forced out of victims not just through physical torture but also through psychological abuse: by parading their family members, sometimes by making them walk nude in front of them or vice versa, by threatening rape on the women of their families, by abusing and shaming them in public, snatching away their burqas, and by incessantly abusing their Gods and Prophets. When one sees one’s family facing such abuse and humiliation, says Wahid, one invariably submits to anything. It is like the Soviet era torturer who claims in Svetlana Alexievich’s outstanding oral history of the USSR Second Hand Time, “You asked how long a man is a man, how long can he hang on? I will tell you: the leg of a Viennese chair in the anus or a nail to the scrotum, and he’s gone. Haha…no longer a man, just some crap on the floor.”
There is no dearth of black humour in Wahid’s book. The police is very careful not to injure prisoners where visible bruises might embarrass them before a judge, so they only beat them on the soles, palms or private parts. After every round, of 50 or 100 or 200, they make they make the individual rub his palms or walk around. If they feel he is badly bruised they give him a special ointment which works miracles with scars. The belt they use to thrash has sardonic labels such as meri aawaz suno, bolne wala patta, andha qanun. When they forcibly record scripted confessions before a camera, to be sold to a TV channel, they insist that the prisoner appears natural and relaxed and speaks with a sense of casual triumph. The only problem: the prisoner is supposed to do so while getting beaten up during breaks. They promise him the moon -- money, trips abroad, even marriage, including a flat in South Mumbai -- if he agrees to make a confession.
Written in lucid yet elegant prose, the book is astonishingly free of self pity. Wahid’s experience as a school master serves him well as he puts together this chronicle of unbearable pain and trauma with exceptional coherence and poise. Divided into six chapters, it begins by describing the make-believe story (afsana in Urdu) put out by the Police. It then underlines the importance of confessions under the new laws, and then outlines the individual stories of each of the accused in a chapter called, in Spartan use of litotes, Non-Fiction. This chapter contains the affidavits that each of the accused had submitted in court, detailing exactly how they were innocent and what they underwent at the hands of the Police and a pliant judiciary. These case histories present a kind of corrective to the pursuit of the accused presented in the film Black Friday. Here, the accused turn the spotlight on the police and present us with a police procedural done horribly upside down. The struggle of the accused to prepare these affidavits, to scrutinise and falsify the charges thrust upon them, and then to present them in Court, itself makes for thrilling though gut-wrenching reading. The other three chapters are divided into a description of police torture, the purported role of the Indian Mujahideen, and the investigation of the cases into other terror attacks such as the German Bakery case in Pune, the Malegaon bomb blasts, and the Akshardham attacks. These attacks are all intertwined with each other, not because they were carried out by the same person but because the investigators literally ‘borrowed’ each other’s accused, evidence and narratives. The interplay of investigative personnel and ‘plots’ is cinematic in many ways. The accused are always ‘dramatically’ arrested, they always have a ‘dramatic’ change of heart, they use the exact same language — very Sanskritised Hindi -- in their confessions and they are always turn up on the crime spot, with their identification, plans, photos, maps, and announcements conveniently placed in their left front pocket, at the jaye wardat, to use an old filmy term. Indeed, the detail, the mastery of law, and the accuracy of description used by this book make this perhaps the first police procedural in the world which shows us state power in all its vulgar and quotidian glory from below.
But the book’s most resplendent part is the triumph of the human spirit as it narrates the struggle and resistance mounted by Wahid and some of the other accused. This resistance was both emotional and techno-legal as they insisted, at each stage, on the law and procedure being followed. For instance, they would repeatedly tell their magistrates about being tortured, they kept logs of each visit to the police station, of each stage of the inquiry, of their activities, of visits by the police inside jail (totally illegal). They made elaborate and fantastic use of the RTI. There are pages upon pages of how the accused used the RTI to track the movement of police vehicles using their log book, to use the movement of DCPs (busy with the Prime Minister’s security on the day they were supposedly recording confessions), RTIs to find out how many of the police witnesses were implicated in other cases and had appeared as police witnesses in which earlier cases, RTIs from the passport office to verify their stories, from the entry and exit of border posts on the Bangladesh or Nepal border to confute the police versions. No wonder the government has moved to dilute the Right to Information Act. In this they were ably assisted by a team of dedicated lawyers including such stalwarts as Yug Mohit Chaudhury, and Abdul Wahab Khan.
The other ways in which they fought back are also nothing short of heroic. Indeed, publishing this book itself is an act of immense courage as it names some of this country’s highest ranking police officers and describes their nefarious roles in this and other investigations. But it is more than the story of what transpired with Wahid and others. It is also a manual, a guide as to what the accused must do when faced with a false charge. It is thus an incredibly important document for our criminal justice system. It describes and affirms the ways in which we can use the edifice of law and the media itself to fight the excesses of law. Wahid said in an interview: “I have not written the book in the form of an autobiography. I have not only just narrated the incidents, instead I have simultaneously written about what should have been done ideally and what steps the accused must take. I have mentioned the role the civil society should play, a family should play and how to approach the case. I have written about the process to be followed by the accused, where to file a complaint, how to file a RTI and everything. I have also written about what a confession is and how to dodge that. I have written about everything minutely.”
Wahid prescribes a behaviour-and-conduct tool kit to deal with every situation that an accused may face. What to do in case of house searches, in case of beatings (shout, shout and shout and keep twisting so that you get hurt in a body part that is visible to a judge), complain, keep a log book, keep newspaper cuttings, force the judge to take things on record, keep saying I am innocent during narco tests. During narco tests done by the now disgraced Dr Malini Subraminiam aka ‘Dr Narco’ says Wahid, “I was asked what comes after five. In the CD, the question was changed to ‘how many Pakistani men came to your house’.’’ In his prison memoir, Colours of the Cage, Arun Ferreira, now once again behind bars, described a similar experience with the same ‘Dr Narco’. The essence of Wahid’s primer is that if you complain and resist and appear as a troublemaker there are more chances of escaping than if you are submissive and compliant.
There are other fascinating details in the book, the comeuppance that some of these executioners and torturers faced later on. Some died violent deaths, some were suspended for corruption, or for other crimes. Wahid is now part of a collective called the Innocence Network, which fights for the rights of the other innocent accused all over the world. He lectures, talks and travels. In this book he lays bare not just his journey but also the entire apparatus of the state, in all its minutiae, and its barbarity. In the process, he has given us an extraordinary story, a saga of crime and punishment, of lives lost and investigations botched, of a wilful extermination of innocence where massacres result not in justice but in the butchery of other souls. It is no less than an Indian Chernobyl which awaits its visual chroniclers. This is a book that deserves to be translated into every language.
Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi based writer best known for reviving Dastangoi, the lost Art of Urdu storytelling.