THESE EIGHT LONG YEARS by HARSH MANDER
Barefoot These eight long years HARSH MANDER
The accused have not been granted bail even under the ordinary criminal law of the land…
On February 27 this year, ageing Bibi Khatoon’s three grown sons, Shamsher, Sultan and Sadiq, complete eight long years in jail. They face a protracted meandering trial for the grisly crime of helping set aflame a train compartment on the Godhra railway platform, killing 58 people, many of them women and children. The crime has not been proved, and both the High Court and Supreme Court have concluded that there is no evidence of any terrorist plot to attack the train, despite the Gujarat government’s strenuous claims that there was such a conspiracy. Yet they continue to be denied bail and freedom.
The same evening after the train compartment was tragically gutted on February 27, 2002 — and many districts in Gujarat were already stirring with gruesome retributive violence against Muslim men, women and children — a large contingent of policemen in plain clothes arrived in Rehmat Nagar in Godhra. In this slum, a few kilometres from the railway station, mainly live working class Muslim people: car mechanics, drivers, casual labourers. Bibi Khatoon’s sons had just returned home from work, and were drinking tea. Policemen with faces covered with scarves arrested her three sons, among 14 young men picked up from the colony. The women raised an alarm, and ran after the vehicles in which their men were bundled. One policeman reassured Bibi that her sons would return home after they met their bade sahib (senior officer). Bibi says today sadly, “It seems that their bade sahibhas still not arrived after all these years.”
When none of the men, some still teenagers, returned that night, their families panicked further. They spotted them in the railway police station, but were not allowed to meet them, or give them food and clothes. The men soon disappeared from the police station, and no policeman in Godhra or Ahmedabad was willing to inform the distraught families where their loved ones were. Three months later, Bibi’s husband received a letter from their sons, that they were in Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad. They were among the 131 people charged with a terrorist conspiracy to burn the train compartment in Godhra. The law under which they were charged was the dreaded POTA or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which provided for detention without bail for people accused of terror crimes. Incidentally, the state government has not charged a single person under this severe law for the massacre of Muslims which followed the train burning.
Bibi was heartbroken when she met her sons inside the formidable prison. They were thin, their eyes haunted. They whispered about torture and beatings, in low voices so that the jail staff who stood by would not hear. They said they were forced to drink water from the same bucket in which they urinated. Bibi’s husband assured their sons that he would do everything that was possible to get them out of jail. He urged the boys to not lose hope.
Back home, the challenge was to find the money to keep the fires of their hearth burning, since there were now no sons to bring home money. Bibi’s eldest son had two boys in school. Their second son had married just months before his arrest. His wife delivered a baby girl while her husband was in prison. She refuses to call him her father when she sees him in jail. To her he is a stranger. Their youngest was still in his teens. The old father looked for casual employment, and Bibi and her two daughters-in-law tried to find work cleaning dishes and sweeping floors in people’s homes in Godhra. Work was harder to find because they were tainted ‘POTA families’, or the families of terrorists.
In September 2004, the newly elected UPA government in Delhi repealed the anti-terror law POTA, because its provisions deprived the accused of their elementary democratic rights of fair trial. But paradoxically, it did not repeal the law retrospectively, therefore those who were already detained under its provisions, like Bibi’s sons, continued to be held and tried under this discredited law. Some organisations helped the families of the accused fight their cases in court. Nitya Ramakrishnan, criminal lawyer from Delhi, and Hassan were among those who represented the accused. The charge of the state government was that the mob launched a murderous pre-planned attack on the train, and threw petrol into the compartment from outside. But forensic reports established that it was humanly impossible for petrol to be thrown from outside. It also found no evidence of hydro-carbons inside the compartment. The lawyers also pointed to many other holes in the case made out by the state police.
No end in sight
In the tortuous eight-year journey of this case, there were many rulings in favour of the accused. Each time Bibi and other families hoped for the release of their loved ones. But these hopes were always betrayed. In 2005, the Review Committee appointed under POTA held that there was no evidence of a terrorist conspiracy, and even less one which threatened the unity of India, therefore no case was made out under POTA. But the state government was unwilling to accept this finding. It appealed instead to High Court, which in February 2009 upheld the conclusions of the Review Committee. This was further endorsed by the Supreme Court. Even so, the state government did not release the accused. Instead, in recent months, it finally charged them not under the terror law, but the Indian Penal Code. However, the accused have not been granted bail even under the ordinary criminal law of the land, although many have spent longer years in jail than if they were convicted of the crimes for which they are accused.
Meanwhile, four years ago, Bibi’s husband contracted throat cancer. His sons were granted one day’s parole each to meet their father one last time before he died. After his death, the burden of supporting the large family has fallen on Bibi’s shoulders. Crippled by a rickshaw accident and old age, she is unable to work. Instead she has been reduced to begging. She hobbles from house to house in Godhra town, begging all day for a few rupees or some food. Her older grandson was in Class 10. He needed money for books, uniform and examination fees, which she raised by begging. But he failed his examination and she pulled him out of school. Her younger grandson she withdrew from school even sooner, after Class 8. Both today earn Rs. 50 a day at a repair garage.
The visits of the family to see them in jail have tapered to once every six months. The bus fares cost what they earn in a full month. And all for a meeting of barely five minutes, through two screens. The boys are emaciated, and have contracted diseases like TB. Safiq, Bibi’s youngest, has lost his mind in jail. He spends his days in jail compulsively collecting and eating paper and scraps, and sometimes assaults other prisoners and even the jail staff. He does not recognise his family any more. Bibi mourns, “His milk teeth had barely fallen when they took him away. What have they done to my little boy?” Their lawyers’ applications for his parole so he can be treated have been rejected.
Bibi is mortified that she is forced to beg to keep her family alive. She is shamed also that her sons are charged with such a heinous crime. “I am an unlettered woman, my son. I do not understand the law. But explain to me why my sons continue in jail all these years, when they are innocent.’
She pleads with anyone who will listen, “Can you get help my sons out of jail?” She adds, “I wonder if I will live to see them free, one day?”