Bashir Ahmad Baba spent eleven years, waiting through several court hearings in Vadodara Central jail in Gujarat, 1,745 kilometers away from his home in Srinagar, wrongfully imprisoned under India’s draconian anti-terror law.
This month, the judge, on the other side of the screen, said: “Aap ba’izzat bari ho gaye (you are honourably acquitted).”
For Baba, it was unreal. The moment was overwhelming. “I can’t explain the feeling. I felt happy after a long time,” he said.
Eleven years of imprisonment in Vadodara, where summers are brutish and temperatures soar beyond 40 degrees Celsius, Baba had longed for the pleasant weather of Kashmir. On 23 June, he said his wait finally came to an end. “I was always hopeful to return.”
When he reached home, the Rainawari neighbourhood in Srinagar’s old city, where he had spent 32 years of his early life, had changed. The new lines of shops had emerged; the crowd was different; he hardly recognized any face. His mother had lost weight and grown frail; his home was painted with a new color and a different interior. “My sisters got married during this time and their children didn’t recognize me,” Baba said.
The relatives, friends, and neighbors had reached his home to celebrate his freedom. He remembered them young — now they had slight wrinkles and hair had turned grey.
Amended by the Congress government in 2004, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) has been increasingly used in the last decade to target the marginalised communities in India, especially Muslims.
Baba is among several Kashmiri men who spent their youth incarcerated in different jails of India for charges that were never proven before they were acquitted years, or decades, later.
‘I tried to stay sane’
Baba, sitting in his guest room, was wearing a white lungi — a men’s skirt in some parts of India. After years of imprisonment in Gujarat, he is yet to switch back to his Kashmiri lifestyle.
On 27 February, in 2010, Baba was arrested by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). His offence? He still wonders. But the ATS claimed he was associated with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, a militant outfit.
The First Information Report (FIR) was filed against Baba under section 120 (B) of Indian Penal Code and sections 16, 17, 18, 20 of Unlawful Activity (Prevention) Act and he was sent to Vadodara Central jail after sixteen days of being in ATS custody. “I was produced before media on 14 March and was then sent to central [Vadodara] jail,” he said
Baba had gone to Ahmedabad via Maya Foundation, a non-governmental organization working for the weaker sections and outcasts of the society, for fifteen-days training. He was, however, arrested midway. Baba’s family staged many protests vouching for his innocence. But no one heard.
His 8×10 feet cell in the jail was empty and without any window. He was the only Kashmiri and he struggled to initiate interactions, further worsening his isolation. “I didn’t know what would go against me… a person would obviously feel lonely in such a situation, I did,” Baba told The Kashmir Walla. “Only Allah can live alone, not a human.”
At times, Baba would run from one corner to another in restlessness. “You feel anxious in jail and I would cry,” he said, adding that to feel this way is normal in a jail. “But I mostly tried to avoid thinking about anything as much as I could, to stay sane. What else could you do in jail in such a situation?”
Baba spent several nights sleepless, staring into nothingness. “It wasn’t only the jail cell that was narrowing but my brain was also narrowing due to overthinking,” he said. “How can I tell you what that feeling was?”
He said he lived from one court hearing to another.
Three years later, Baba had gained weight and his knees had become heavy due to sitting in one place most of the time.
His empty cell no. 1 had now things in every corner. In one corner, there laid Baba’s cloth bag, in another, his provision bag. He had kept a corner for a prayer rug and the Quran too. His books were in the same corner. “I would label things and write things on a piece of paper,” he said. “I think I had lost my mind.”
To pass his time and keep himself busy, Baba confined himself to studying. During his time in jail, he completed his Post Graduation (PG) in Political Science, another PG in Public Administration, and then pursued a diploma in Intellectual Property Rights.
Baba borrowed books from the jail library, or would make drawings. “At first, I didn’t know how to be in a jail with criminals” but then, he said, he learnt.
In every salah, he would pray for his mother’s good health, for the good condition of his family and for his release and release of all the innocent people. Sometimes, he even prayed for a Wazwan.
Before leaving for Gujarat in 2010, Baba owned a computer institute near his home. “I was a teacher but the family sold it [after I was arrested] because of the financial crisis,” he said.
Baba is now 44 and wants to live his life in peace. He plans to work at his brother’s shop; “My schedule was different in jail but now I have nothing to do here,” he said. But first thing, he wants to get married. “I will get married first and then do everything else,” he laughed. His mother and sister share the grin.
“The only thing that’s pinching is the absence of my father,” he said, breaking down.
‘Family was ruined’
Baba saw his father for the last time in 2014. In their last meeting, Baba said his father looked at him in a “sad way”. “I told him not to worry and that I will be released in some time. He told me about financial crises and about how weak he has gotten and wasn’t able to work,” Baba recalled. “I was on the verge of tears.”
Over a year later, his lawyer told Baba that his father was diagnosed with cancer and had subsequently died in 2017.
For days, Baba said he stared at the walls and cried thinking of his father, alone. “I was too lonely there and had nobody to share my feelings with,” he added. “My heart was not into anything. I would feel like the walls of the jail cell were absorbing me. I felt my legs were broken because of the news [of father’s demise].”
A day after returning home, Baba went to his father’s grave in Srinagar to offer prayer. The regret of not being with his father during the last moments lingers on. “My father needed his son at that moment and I wasn’t there,” he said. “A family that was running smoothly, and was on track, got ruined.”