“I had lost all hope,” says 42-year-old Lateef Ahmad Waza, with a broken voice and a sense of disbelief, to a room full of people at his home in Shamswari area of Khankah in summer capital Srinagar. “I had made up my mind that I have to spend my entire life here [in jail].”
Twenty-three-years ago, Mr. Waza was a Kashmiri handicrafts businessman based in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, before he was arrested by the Delhi police, accusing him of being involved in carrying out a blast in a bus, which was headed to Bikaner from Agra, near Samleti village in Dausa in Rajasthan. Fourteen people were killed in the attack while thirty-seven others were injured. The blast had happened a day after the 1996 Delhi blast in Lajpat Nagar, which killed thirteen people.
The flames of the blasts doused but it left many families wounded – including Mr. Waza’s family in Kashmir and that of two others. In the past twenty-three years, a man missed a generation, a perky teenager now struggles to hold himself together and another man returned to fall upon his parents’ graves in apology. Three Kashmiri men, who served a lifetime in jail, passed days, years rather, of agony—lashed and brutalized by the Delhi police since 1996—and their attempt to frame and prove the trio guilty.
But, Mr. Waza says that miracles happen and that his return is nothing short of that. On 23 July, the Khankah area was cloaked in women’s wails, prayers in whispers, and teary eyes—with men tossing garlands and neighbors peeking from windows.
A day before, on Tuesday, amidst Rajasthan’s scorching heat, Lateef Ahmad Waza, 42, Mirza Nisar Hussain, 40 and Mehmood Ali Bhat, 49, were among the five men acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court in 1996 Samleti Bomb Blast case, stating that the prosecution failed to provide evidence and couldn’t establish any link between the trio in question and the main accused, Dr. Abdul Hameed, whose death sentence was upheld. Among the acquitted, Abdul Gani Goni, 57, a resident of Jammu and Kashmir’s Doda, was arrested in 1996 for the Sawai ManSingh Stadium blast in Jaipur in 1996; however, the trial only began in 2011.
The trio belongs to Srinagar’s downtown—Mr. Waza and Mr. Hussain from Khankah, and Mr. Bhat from Hassanabad area of the city, and were working, separately, in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, before their arrest in 1996.
Inside their respective houses, the acquitted trio are accorded with a grand welcome. People’s eagerness and curiosity has surrounded them. Everyone has the same thing to ask—what they lost in all these years at the behest of a lie?
The Day of Judgment
At Mr. Waza’s home, among the visitors, there sits an 11-year-old boy, his nephew, born in 2008, who gapes at him in astonishment. “When I was arrested [at the age of 19], my sister (Mumtaza Jan) was studying in ninth grade,” Mr. Waza said. “Now, she has a daughter who is studying in tenth grade—a lot has changed over these twenty-three years.”
At the first glimpse, Mr. Waza comes across as just another man in the room; however, only after he starts talking, one realizes the trauma and pain he had gone through. His sister, Mumtaza Jan, 38, now a mother of three children, says that the family has seen the “Qayamat” or the day of judgment. “For many years I hid from my children that their uncle was in jail,” she said. “I would lie about his business, but then they would ask me on festivals, ‘why does he not visit when every uncle does?’” Bursting into tears, she recalled how she had no option but to confess to children that their uncle, Mr. Waza, wasn’t doing any business, but languishing in an Indian jail, “for a crime he did not commit.”
In these twenty-three years, Mr. Waza’s father died, “longing for his son”. “Many of our relatives died in these years,” said Ms. Jan. “But, my father died of the pain of separation from his son.”
However, Mr. Waza had restricted his family members from visiting him in jail. “It was of no use; it would have broken their hearts, and in turn, would have broken me even more,” he said.
Recalling the judicial brutality the trio had to go through, Mr. Waza said, “No evidence was provided in the court and we were acquitted of the Lajpat Nagar blast case in 2010 by session court after spending 14 years in Tihar jail. However, we were then caught up in the Samleti blast case.”
Adding to it, Mr. Waza said that the Delhi police did everything to frame the trio, “I was tortured, made to sign blank papers, and confess things that I never committed,” he said.
Speaking of the hearing of the Samleti blast case, Mr. Waza said, “Even the investigative officer, MM Atri told the judge inside the court that these five Kashmiris have nothing to do with the bombing. There was no evidence or witness against us.”
After the death of Mr. Waza’s father, his younger brother, and the elder brother of Mirza Nisar Hussain, Mirza Iftikhar Hussain, looked after the case. However, Mr. Iftikhar had his brush with a similar analogy of events in his life. In 2010, Mr. Iftikhar, accused in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar blast case, was acquitted of all charges by the Delhi High Court in 2010—he spent fourteen years of his youth in Tihar jail.
Following his release, Elder Hussain made sure to look after his brother’s case. Currently, sitting in the room, the Mirza brothers looked lively, as they crack a few jokes to visitors about their ordeal. “They (authorities) called us out in every blast that took place during that period, just because we were Muslims and Kashmiris,” said Mr. Nisar Hussain. Sarcastically, he added, “We were named in all the big bombings that happened—like only we existed in the world.”
Mr. Hussain was arrested at the age of seventeen, however, the Delhi police noted down nineteen as per convenience. Things changed so drastically for Mr. Hussain that when he reached Gandhi College in Khankah, Srinagar following his acquittal, he couldn’t recognize the place. Upon asking his elder brother, Mirza Zaffar Hussain, he was told, “This is your locality. This is where you spent your childhood.”
Mr. Nisar Hussain is now a medium height and well-built person—his physique reflecting the toil he went through in the jails. Sitting in his guest room, nudging his slim cousin, who was 7-years-old when Mr. Hussain was arrested, Mr. Hussain said, “You look the same. I could only identify you. Kenh aeszeha khewan, zan chukh wuni ti chuktui.” (You should eat something, thanks to your height and skeletal body that I was able to recognize you) Flaunting his muscles, Mr. Hussain bragged that despite spending twenty-three years in jail, he maintained a healthy lifestyle; the room spilled into laughter.
However, the laughs were punctuated by a woman’s wails. “Can you identify him?” said a woman, Mr. Hussain’s cousin. As he stares at a young man, sporting a blonde beard he walks forward to garland him. “He is your nephew, born two years after your arrest,” she said. “He is 21 (years old) now. This is what they have done to you—they took away your youth and joy.”
Under the carpet of sarcasm and positivity, lies pain and agony. Mr. Hussain spent his adulthood behind bars; he turned forty from a lively teenager, who had once spent his days plucking apples from orchards and swimming in the Nigeen lake in Srinagar’s outskirts, with cousins at his uncle’s place. The uncle passed away too.
During his jail time, Junior Hussain kept his belief in God unstirred and sought refuge in religion to overcome the hopelessness inside the jail. “I started reading religious books and Tafseer of the Quran, that further strengthened my belief in God,” he said. “It gave me hope, which allowed me to cope up with the conditions there.”
He loved reading about Imam Hussain who was killed in Karbala and his family was imprisoned by the Ummayad ruler, Yazid, in the sixth century. “Reading that gave me comfort and hope that if someone as great as they can be tested by Allah, then who are we?”
Mr. Hussain sat in his guest room the whole day as people kept flooding in to meet him. Almost every time, Mr. Hussain’s elder brother, Mr. Zaffar Hussain, pitches in to help his brother recognize the faces.
“I lost my youth, my relatives and the last days with my mother during her illness,” said Mr. Hussain. “The only compensation for the time we lost in jails would be assurance that no Kashmiri would go through the time and places I have been in.”
Inside the jail
The Jaipur Central Jail (JCJ) came across to Mr. Waza as nothing short of the United State of America’s notorious Guantanamo Bay prison. “It (JCJ) is hell! I saw many innocents, most of them Muslims, languished for no proven crimes,” said Mr. Waza. Meanwhile, Junior Hussain remembers that whenever anything would happen in Kashmir, the trio and other Kashmiri inmates would be harmed at the hands of the inmates as well as jail authorities. “Even if there was stone-pelting in Kashmir, we were to blame,” said Junior Hussain. “It seemed like we were giving the stones to Kashmir’s youth.”
Post-Pulwama attack in February 2019, that killed at least forty Indian paramilitary forces’ personnel, the hostility towards Kashmiris grew more. “A Pakistani inmate was killed,”—he was identified as Shakoorullah, a resident of Sialkot, Pakistan. “We (Kashmiris) were also threatened and intimidated as if we had committed the crime.”
A beeline of media awaits inside Mehmood Ali Bhat’s house in Hassanabad, Rainawari area of Srinagar, seeking an answer—what was he asking at his parents’ grave in the nearby graveyard?
Mr. Bhat, 49, after reaching Srinagar, headed straight to the graveyard in his neighborhood. He fell upon his father’s grave, cried profusely and rolled over in agony—trying to talk to the graves. His mother died in 2002, while his father, Sher Ali Bhat, passed away in 2016.
“I was seeking forgiveness from them. I was trying to tell them that being away from them was not my fault,” he said. “I wanted them to speak to me, but neither of them responded.”
Unlike Mr. Waza and Mr. Hussain, Mr. Bhat wasn’t a teenager but a man in his early twenties, trying to get a hold on his grounds and preparing himself to earn a livelihood—when he was arrested from Kathmandu, Nepal.
“I never thought, even in my wildest dreams, that I would end up spending twenty-three years in jail,” Mr. Bhat said with a feeble voice.
When his father passed away in 2016, Mr. Bhat hoped for parole, so that he could attend the funeral, and at least, bid him goodbye. “They accused me of the bombing in Samleti when the truth is that I never smelled Rajasthan’s air before I was lodged in jail there,” he said. However, Mr. Bhat never got parole and ended up spending three more years in jail before he could hug his father’s grave.
Like his two companions, Mr. Waza and Mr. Hussain, Mr. Bhat also lost his relatives during the imprisonment and that is something that he laments. “Nothing hurts me more than the thought,” he halts, breathes heavily, and continues, “that I couldn’t visit my father in his last moments.”
Mr. Bhat remembers watching 85 to 90-year-old men who have languished inside the jail. “Seeing them is something that broke my will and hope,” said Mr. Bhat. Talking about the hostile environment of the jail, he narrated an incident where an old man’s beard was shaved and he was asked to clean his toilet with that.
Explaining the intensity of his loss, he recalls, once he asked his brother, who had come to visit him in jail, to pay his salutations to all the elders in his maternal home. “No one is alive there. All the elders have passed away,” his brother had then said. “Only young men are left, who don’t know you.”
After spending twenty-three-years in jail, surviving the ordeal, longing, and pain, he says, he is nothing but “a stranger in my own house.”
This story originally appeared in the 29 July – 04 August 2019 print issue of The Kashmir Walla.