After serving eleven years in jail — for the bomb, he did not blast — Rafiq Shah, the then prime suspect of 2005 Delhi bomb-blast case, walked free from the jail on 16 February 2017. Sitting in the guest room of his two-storey home in Alastang on the outskirts of Srinagar — 42-year-old Mr. Shah, holding the rug, on which he slept all the jail-time years — said, “It doesn’t feel like 11 years have passed.”
Mr. Shah was arrested in December 2005, and followed by one and a half month interrogation, he soon found himself in Tihar Jail, Delhi — the largest prison complex in South Asia.
Inside Tihar, there are separate high-security wards; each ward has about eight to nine cells. Among the complex nexus of widespread 9 central prisons of Tihar — there was a special-security jail number 3, Block A — inside which, Mr. Shah was shifted in 2012 in cell number 7, and six cells away from him, in cell number 1, resided Mohammad Afzal Guru — a “convicted terrorist in 2001 Parliament Attack” through mainland Indian prism, and a “martyr for Kashmir.”
In the special security jail number 3, along with Mr. Guru, the Naxalite-leader, Khobad Gandhy was also imprisoned. From sitting over a cup of tea daily, Mr. Shah’s relation with the duo deepened.
Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Mr. Shah narrated the entire sequence of events — the anxious prisoners, a strangely calm convict, the chaos in Tihar — and final moments before Afzal Guru was hanged on 9 February 2013.
Shifting and Suspicion
As per schedule, the cell doors opened at 6 am, and Mr. Shah, alongside Afzal Guru, Mr. Gandhy and other block-mates gathered in the corridor. “It (corridor) was only one and a half footstep wide. That was all,” said Mr. Shah.
Following the timetable, the gates were closed at 11:30 am, and then opened again at 3 pm, only to be closed at 6 pm.
The cell was 12×8; had a dari (rug), a commode in a corner, and a water tap.
By the evening, “Deputy Superintendent came out of the blue and asked us to shift to Block B, citing the renovation of Block A,” said Mr. Shah. The new block was behind the high walls of Block A, from where one could overhear another block, but cannot see through. It was only from earlier Block A that they could slightly peek into the compound, set for the gallows.
Unlike Block-A, which had a high-fenced ground to see through lives, Block B seemed unfamiliar. “We requested to shift us back because settling down was a struggle,” in reply to which Mr. Shah was asked to compromise for a couple of days.
By next day, now shifted to Block B, the mates had some food around 11 am and feeling exhausted after shifting, “We asked the administration to keep the cells open for the day,” and went to sleep around 2 pm.
Craftsman, electricians, and every person involved in renovation started flowing in throughout the day, and “something strange was happening,” he said, and the entire block grew suspicious.
Naxalite-ideologue, Mr. Gandhy resided in cell number-4, called Mr. Shah in the afternoon and said, “Rafiq, something is happening in the faansi kothi (gallows),” whose compound was right at the neck of the entrance of Block A, though the walls were high of ‘deadmens’ place’, one cannot see through it. The duo made the calculations that it might be Khalistan-separatist, Devindar Pal Singh Bhullar, convicted in 1993 Delhi bomb-blast case, as he was also on death row. Sensing the dilemma, Mr. Shah told Mr. Ghandy, “It can’t be Afzal Sb, President is yet to review his mercy petition.”
Shying away to discuss the same with Afzal Guru, Mr. Shah claims that none of them discussed it with him, “Otherwise he would have started feeling restless.”
Though, the suspicion only grew stronger; around 3 pm on 8 February, Mr. Shah had a family meeting, and ‘unusually’, Assistant Superintendent of police came to take him, “in normal circumstances, a constable or prisoner would have come.”
On his way to the meeting area, standing at the edge of entrances to the blocks in the corridor, he stole a glance at the faansi kothi. “I saw the welding going on in there. Watching me, the police official resisted asking me to move faster, but I said, ‘Wait, I’m just watching’,” said Mr. Shah. Explaining the nature of the work, he told that he saw one person was cementing the wall, while another painting right over it. “They were in hurry for sure.”
After an anxious meet with the family, on his way back to the cell, he spotted a prisoner standing with a lever in his hand. Out of curiosity, Mr. Shah enquired and the counter-part responded, “Yes, something is happening.”
“Get ready, preparations are going on for you.”
Mr. Shah’s family had brought some home-cooked food, but him being in a hurry to see Afzal Guru, he handed it over to one of the Bangladesh based block-mate and went to cell number 1.
Draped in a blanket, ‘Peer Sb.’, as Mr. Shah calls Afzal Guru, was sitting with his back towards the door.
“Peer Sb. asked me, ‘You went outside for the meeting, right? You saw something?’
I replied, playing with him, ‘Yes, preparations (for execution) are going on for you.’
He laughed and said, ‘tell me seriously, what is going on there?’
I said, ‘Seriously? Get ready, preparations are going on for you.’
He replied, “Aye! I am always ready. I’m not afraid.’”
Though Mr. Shah told him that he is uncertain about the information, but preparations are going on.
Afzal Guru told him, “It is for me.”
Mr. Shah said, “What made you think so? Don’t think like that, maybe its Bhullar.”
He replied, “It can’t be Bhullar. Entire Punjab Government is behind him. It is me.”
Soon, the words spread around, and panic made the air heavier. “Everyone was thinking that it might be any one of us,” said Mr. Shah.
Time passed, and Maghrib arrived. Revisiting one of the saddest moments of his life, Mr. Shah said, “It was the schedule; Peer Sb. would always give Maghrib’s azaan (call for evening prayers),” and he stood behind Afzal Guru that evening, before they were to be put back into cells.
While the prayers went on — connecting the dots — Mr. Shah was sure by now that ‘It was Peer Sb.’s time’. Crying throughout the prayer, anything Mr. Shah could process was, “It is his last azaan.”
Clearing the clutter of thoughts from the mind, he dragged everyone to eat. He, along with Afzal Guru, and another Kashmir based prisoner, Javaid Ahmad Tantray, ate together in a plate. Defying all the media reports, he claimed that they, including Mr. Guru, ate well that night.
Mr. Shah’s family had brought paneer, and the prisoners used to save the homemade food until its last drop of oil. Afzal Guru insisted his Kashmiri counter-part to save some for tomorrow. “I resisted and served him more,” swallowing the thought of losing Afzal Guru, and an intellect companion, Mr. Shah replied, “Let’s finish it today.”
“I knew what lie ahead,” said Mr. Shah.
While spreading the homemade food over the rice, taking a gasp, Afzal Guru said, “I know, it is my time,” and killing the silence, Mr. Shah replied, “Aye, don’t worry! Focus on food, the family brought the paneer.”
Afzal Guru had a habit of not wasting food. “He would always preserve leftovers and shower it next morning, through the fence, near the shaheed (martyr) Maqbool Bhat’s grave,” said Mr. Shah.
The cells were locked.
Crawling through such flashes of memories — of tea, food, books, home — of Kashmir, Mr. Shah spent his entire night sleepless. The movement of vehicles and people from outside would deter these memories and remind him of everything his Peer meant to him.
“I realized, it was happening,” recalled Mr. Shah.
“Death warrant came?” — “Yes!”
Winters are generally hard in Tihar, but February 2013 was harder for Mr. Shah. Staring via the clutter of thoughts, he fell asleep around 4:30 am. At 5:50 am, he heard azaan from his adjacent cell, by another cell-mate. “In winters, we used to offer namaaz in corridors,” said Mr. Shah, after reading sunnat, he stood to come out of the cell at 5:55 am. “It should have been open by that time, but no one was around to unlock it.”
He called the police personnel posted on the nearest tower, and asked him to open the cell. Expecting a reply, like always, that ‘wait constable is coming’, “no one replied that day.”
Going anxious, Mr. Shah started jolting the gate. “Hearing me shouting, Afzal Sb. also started jolting his gate.”
Suddenly, one of the cells, ‘maybe number 2’, shouted, “They came!”
“Frisking to happen,” followed it.
“They took Afzal Sb.”
They took Afzal Sb. — though Mr. Shah prepared himself the entire night to hear this simple set of words, but, when it stood right in front of his barred cell — he couldn’t stand to it and broke down — going through what the name, Afzal Guru, meant to him, and to his Kashmir — he couldn’t resist but shouted pro-freedom slogans on the top of his throat.
An officer had come to open the cell, and while taking out the prisoner from cell number 1 of Block B in jail number 3, Afzal Guru asked him, “Death warrant came?” The official had replied, “Yes!”
Wearing a Kashmiri pheran and Afghani topi on the head, Afzal Guru was taken back to his cell number 1, Block A, via the adjacent corridor.
“I kept shouting till my throat dried,” said Mr. Shah. “Though he (Afzal Guru) didn’t reply, I wanted to keep his morale high.”
Portraying Mr. Gandhy by his own understanding as most well-read, and sophisticated ideologue, Mr. Shah claimed that he heard foul language for the first time from his mouth; “Kutto! Ek aadmi ko le gaye aur bas maar diya?” (Dogs! You just took a person and killed him like nothing.)
In the parallel world, while the Block-B was mourning, Afzal Guru started his wuzu and offered namaaz. As per Mr. Shah, from 6 am to 8 am, Afzal Guru had a long conversation on Islam, and other things with Sunil Gupta, the appointed law officer.
This is the time by when back in Kashmir, curfew had already been imposed, streets were deserted, manned by government forces. People had heard that Afzal Guru was hanged. The word had spread across the Valley and only the anger was growing.
As Mr. Shah got to know later by his jail sources, Afzal Guru, as per regulations, was asked to present his last demand.
He asked calmly, “No one is going to stop you from doing this (execution), can you fulfill my last wish?”
‘Let me talk to my family’. Refused.
‘Let Rafiq sit here with me’. Refused.
‘Let me write a letter.’ Agreed.
Before he was taken for execution, he had a cup of tea. The institutionalized jail administration preferred to see the hanging man in the designated execution attire over his cultural symbol — a Kashmiri pheran — but, as per Mr. Shah, Afzal Guru maintained that “I will not change my slippers”. The constables accompanied Afzal Guru in his last walk said that “they had never seen such a brave man.”
In the backdrop of slogans — the utter urge to “satisfy the collective conscience of the society” — drove the 43-year-old Afzal Guru out from his cell number 1, leaving the gate of his resident Block A for one last time, to the gallows, established a few yards away from his cell.
“People are afraid of death; you need to drag them. They resist. No one wants to die — but Afzal Sb. — he walked on his own. He wasn’t afraid,” said Mr. Shah.
Reaching on the edge of the compound, Afzal Guru halted for a second; “Not because he was afraid,” but to steal a last glance of late Maqbool Bhat’s grave on his left. “Not a salaam, or anything else, it was just a glance,” recalled Mr. Shah, who was told this later by jail guards.
The clock-hand struck 8 am, the sunlight shone in the capital New Delhi and Mohammad Afzal Guru was hanged till death.
The sound of plank, resonating the systematic killing of human life — via a simple setup of rope, and a lever — broke the Block B of jail number 3 into tears. Around 8:45 am, the officials came and took everything from the late Peer Sahib’s cell.
The rest were unlocked at 9 am. Till 11 am, Mr. Shah, alongside Mr. Gandhy, and Mr. Tantray, kept staring the empty cell number 1; the cell which used to reflect the immense knowledge of an aspiring medical student; a cell that used to resonate with ghazals; a cell — simple — with a rug on cemented floor, a curtained commode, a bundle of books, including the writing of Moulana Rumi and Mohammad Iqbal in Urdu, habitant’s favorite, a bag, and a bucket — the cell of Mohammad Afzal Guru.
Amid the web of trees — inside a fenced ground — near the feet of Maqbool Bhat, a place where once Afzal Guru used to offer leftover rice, lies one of the only two marked graves of infamous Tihar; the grave of Afzal Guru.
The loss of life left Block B lifeless for the following days. Sitting, eating, and discussing, as per regular schedule, that too just a few yards away from Afzal Guru’s grave, only deepened the pain of longing. When everyone seemed to detach from life, Mr. Shah intervened saying, “Don’t lose hope, this is the daily life in Kashmir. Keep hope.”
Yashraj Sharma is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla.