A computer instructor was caught in the net of suspicion in 2010 and went on to spend 11 years of his prime youth in prison.
Srinagar – A decade of dirges, distress and disturbing dreams is finally over for Bashir Baba’s mother.
The day her diligent son was held captive in a Gujarat jail in early 2010, she compensated for his absence by regularly taking rest in his room, touching his books, singing dirges in his longing, whispering his name, praying for his return and dreaming about him. She would often rush to tell her husband, her younger son, and two daughters, “I saw Bashe Lal [Bashir’s sobriquet] in my dream. Tell me he’s fine there!”
Spending 11 years in this agony tormented this once happy Kashmiri family which exhausted all the means to prove their son’s innocence.
But now, the void has been filled with the return of their loved one.
It’s a sweltering summer day in Srinagar, and visitors are arriving in twos and threes to meet the free man in his old city home. Bashir steps out of the washroom after performing ablution for Asar prayers. The joy of gratitude reflects from his face. He doesn’t seem to carry any anguish about his long-drawn incarcerated life.
“All praise to Allah that I’m finally a free man,” he tells a group of well-wishers, including his friends and relatives.
The long walk to freedom came on June 22, 2021, when a Sessions Court in Gujarat “acquitted” Bashir of all charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and ordered his release.
Additional Sessions judge rejected the Anti-Terrorism Squad of Gujarat’s case that Bashir was associated with Hizbul Mujahideen.
The judge said that no evidence was found that he was in touch with “terrorist elements” through electronic gadgets. The court observed that the prosecution relied on emotional argument and “a person cannot be held guilty merely on its fear of anarchy”.
But like in many such cases, Bashir came out after spending his prime years behind the bars.
A number of Kashmiris who have spent years and decades in multiple jails across India were acquitted after the courts found them not guilty.
At his home, Bashir’s mother Mokhta is happy and excited over the return of her “bridegroom” son. The years of separation are now being compensated with constant hugs and kisses. The sentimental scene makes everyone emotional inside the room.
“I never knew that his last call about his homecoming would take 11 years to mature,” the mother says.
A night before his dramatic detention, Bashir had called his mother from Gujarat where he had gone for a training program.
“Besides running a computer institute in my hometown, I was also working as assistant project manager of a cleft centre run by NGO Kimaya, associated with a German NGO Maya Foundation,” says Bashir.
The NGO runs projects for surgical treatment of cleft lips in children. Bashir was selected by his foundation to attend a training session in Gujarat in February 2010.
“I had gone to Ahmedabad on February 19, 2010 for training,” he recalls his life’s turning point.
But while his mother waited for his homecoming, the son soon landed in a quagmire known to consume many Kashmiris in the name of “terror and terrorists”.
“After the training ended, I was planning to come back home on February 27, 2010. However, in the midnight, Gujarat’s Anti-Terrorism Squad and Intelligence Bureau raided our apartment and detained me and my colleague Dr. Vijay Anand.”
While Dr.Anand was released the next day, Bashir was made captive “for the crime” he still has no clue about.
“I was told that I will be released after questioning,” Bashir recalls. But he was shortly booked under the UAPA and lodged in Gujarat’s Vadodara jail.
For over 15 days, Bashir didn’t know the charges slapped on him. It was on March 14, 2010 that he came to know that he has been named as a Hizbul Mujahideen associate “recruiting Muslim youths for training in Pakistan and spreading terrorist activities in India”.
“I was presented before the media on March 14, 2010,” Bashir recalls. “It was during that media trial that I came to know about my case through my lawyer.”
Waiting for their son’s homecoming and getting anxious about his whereabouts at the same time, Bashir’s family was shocked to see their handcuffed and blindfolded son being presented as “Pepsi Bomber” on TV news channels. The tag—akin to media term of “rage boy”—had to do with Delhi Press’s make-believe notion of Bashir’s prowess to turn a cold drink into an explosive bottle. His arrest was termed as a major success by then union home secretary, G.K. Pillai.
“Forget what Pillai said, we all knew that there was nothing adverse against him,” said a senior police officer, under whose tenure Bashir was brought to Srinagar’s Central Jail, in 2015, related to a 2008 case. “But then the case was beyond our control.”
After the Delhi media termed Bashir “Hizb terrorist”, Mokhta wanted to shake heaven and earth to prove her son’s innocence.
“But then,” she says, “how many Kashmiris can fight the dictates known to devour our sons’ innocence.”
Bashir, however, didn’t lose hope, as he knew he was “innocent” and was being “framed” in the case.
But soon after his arrest, he was hospitalized due to severe torture. “But later on,” he recalls, “I was respected by jail authorities and was kept in a high security ward.”
Back home his younger brother, Nazir, stepped into his shoes, and became his justice campaigner.
“The first big loophole in the case was the ATS’s claim of arresting my brother from Anand district when they arrested him along with his colleague from his Ahmedabad hostel,” Nazir says.
The distance between Anand and Ahmedabad via NH64 is 77. 1 km. All these years, Nazir says, ATS Gujarat failed to establish how Bashir traveled from his Ahmedabad hostel where he was staying throughout his training period with his colleague to Anand district.
But to prove his innocence, his family faced hitches. Traveling 1,647.3 km from Srinagar to Ahmedabad via NH54 proved a daunting task.
The last time, in 2014, when Bashir’s mother travelled that distance, she was allowed only a 15-minute meet with her son. Due to financial compulsions, such visits became quite a rarity.
Compensating her son’s absence by making rounds of his room every day, Mokhta almost came barefoot one day, in 2015, to meet her son. Bashir was then shifted to Central Jail Srinagar. The fleeting reunion only lingered the mother’s wait.
“My brother was shifted to Central Jail Srinagar in 2015 regarding a 2008 case,” Nazir says. “But ATS Gujarat could never prove anything adverse against my brother all these years.”
Nazir kept fighting for his brother’s innocence by working as a salesman. Earlier to support his family, he had to suspend his college education.
“My brother was our family’s hope and support,” Nazir says. “And when he was imprisoned, our father became terminally ill and was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014.”
Before imprisonment, Bashir during his college days had started a computer institution to support his small-time contractor father. When the same supportive son became a prisoner, Bashir’s father lost his “shade and shadow”.
The captive’s father had sought his son’s last meeting when he was on his deathbed in 2017. “Struggling for my sibling’s release, my father didn’t die in peace,” Nazir laments. “My brother could never come out on parole to attend his father’s funeral and his sisters’ wedding.”
With his sibling in jail and father in grave, Nazir had to act as a headman. “It was never easy,” Nazir says. “But during this last decade, only one thing kept me going and that was my brother’s innocence.”
But all these years, Bashir didn’t waste his time and completed three degrees in jail.
“I would focus on my studies and completed Masters in Political Science, Public Administration and Diploma in Intellectual Property Rights,” he said.
Although he learned a lot of things as inmate, the prison atmosphere filled with some hardcore criminals “haunted” him all the time.
But even as the court lately mentioned that Bashir had “very good behavior” in jail, living without his family traumatized him all these years.
“I would constantly think about my family and their struggle for my freedom. My brother Nazir didn’t marry all these years. He would tell me that he will get married once I am released.”
Keeping this family struggle and financial compulsions in mind, Bashir’s lawyer, Javid Khan Pathan, didn’t charge a penny to fight his case.
“I was lucky to get a lawyer like him,” Bashir says.“ He fought till the end but unfortunately he died just 10 days before my freedom.”
Amid these losses, Mokhta’s sober son is now looking forward to restarting his life and supporting his family as a headman once again. But the changed pulse of life might not make it a pushover for him.
Eleven years after a wrongful imprisonment, when Bashir arrived in his homeland recently, he was amazed to see a sweeping change. The old structures he once admired were long obliterated from the site, so were some familiar figures—including his father, his uncle, his lawyer.
The captive’s homecoming after 11 summers took some time to strike semblance with the place. “Last I knew it,” he says, “people weren’t feeling as suicidal as they have now become.” Bashir talks about the growing life attempts in Kashmir that mental healthcare specialists are attributing to the growing distress.
“I saw flyovers, altered lifestyle and changed mentality,” says the wrongful prisoner. “Perhaps 11 years is a long time to change the world I once knew and admired.”