Delhi University professor and human rights activist SAR Geelani talks about how his life changed after being labelled a “terrorist” and how he is now helping the innocent.
Wading through the tousled lanes of Delhi’s highly populated Zakir Nagar, I quickly repeat in my head something I have always believed in — that chaos also has its order. So with clockwork precision, I am moving ahead — first looking behind me, then to my right, to my left, and straight up and down — to save myself from being hit by a passing rickshaw here, a cycle there, a cow or a goat maybe, and worse, a bike or a four-wheeler even when I am negotiating slushy puddles and sharp turns, also stopping by at kiosks seeking directions to my destination — Lane no.3. In Lane no. 3, I fail to find the house number among the matchbox structures. My interviewee becomes my aide, appears on his fourth-floor apartment balcony, waves down at me. Oh! That recognisable face! Clambering up the dim-lit staircase, I meet three strapping gun-toting policemen before a guarded smile of SAR Geelani welcomes me. Once the door shuts, the chaos outside is easy to forget. I quickly ask him the obvious, ‘So you have 24-hour security?’ Geelani is sardonic, “They are supposed to be for my security, but security ke naam pe nigrani hain. They go with me wherever I go. My visitors have to register with them, which means there is surveillance on me. This paraphernalia is more to cut me socially.” The Arabic lecturer of Delhi University says armed security was provided after there was an assassination bid on him in 2005 which his lawyer, Nandita Haksar, then accused the Delhi Police of engineering. It is quite creepy when he relates that four of the six bullets pumped into his body then are still inside him. “One bullet is near my heart,” he adds pointing at the exact location.
This episode is just one of the many changes that life handed down to this Baramulla native after he was picked up in 2001 by the Special Cell of Delhi Police, charged with masterminding the Parliament House terrorist attack which claimed seven lives. The most damaging of the changes, he underlines, has been brought on by the tag of a terrorist attached to his name. “Just after I was arrested, my daughter had to be sent to Kashmir to study as no school in Delhi was willing to give her admission. My son was too young to go to school then,” he says. Now that the court has pronounced him innocent, his children study in Delhi schools.
However, little seems to have changed in public memory. “People don’t follow up news. I am still a terrorist for them. Then there are political parties which still go on vilifying me,” he says. Since his face is recognised, he can’t lead a normal life, “like accompanying my wife and kids to the market, or on a holiday.”
What has changed now is that Geelani is not just another academic. He is an activist too, with a keen interest in helping others. He is the President of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP). The idea hit him when he was in jail. “I saw how innocent people were behind bars just for political reasons. I decided to do whatever I could. When I came out in 2004, I first launched a small group called Society for Protection of Detainees and Prisoners’ Rights. We were 5-6 people then, had representatives from the North East, Punjab, etc. and veteran theatre personality Gursharan Singh became the President. We toured various States; the need was felt that the sphere of the organisation should be broadened as there are political prisoners in many States,” he says.
So in 2007, “CRPP was launched with a two-day open-for-all convention at the LTG auditorium. Singh remained the President; I became a vice president along with people like Jagmohan Singh, the nephew of Bhagat Singh, while Surender Mohan Singh was our advisor among others.”
Formed with the idea “of helping those without a voice,” CRPP took up the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast case “and some of the accused were acquitted after being in custody for years. It also took up in the Supreme Court the case of some peasants from Bihar who were given death sentence by the trial court and the Patna High Court.” Pointing at files piled up in one corner of the room, he says, “These are related to cases of people in jail.”
Geelani, who took over as CRPP’s president after Singh passed away, is acerbic when he states, “On the one hand, the Home Minister has sent letters to the States asking the Chief Ministers to ensure that innocent Muslims are not charged with terror and on the other, it is trying to stifle the voice of a group of people who are actually helping such innocent people.”
Talking of his own case, Geelani is caustic about the media for “taking everything that the police tells them as gospel truth.” He states, “Every media house did stories only from the prosecution point of view, what police told them. Some even concocted stories on how I have so many houses in Delhi, that I am running a racket recruiting people from Aligarh and taking them to England. The media is always ready to be used by the police.”
“Later, when The Hindu came out with some reports from the defence point of view the media thought there is something more to this story.”
He claims at every stage he was defenceless. “When I was presented to the magistrate for the first time, I told her that my wife and my son are under illegal detention, that I have been tortured, and asked her, ‘Why am I arrested and handcuffed? I should have access to my lawyers.’ She didn’t put any of these on record.” At the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, when he was taken for a medical examination, he claims to have “asked the doctor to mention the physical abuse but he didn’t” as he was “under pressure”.
“I met Afzal Guru, Shaukat and his wife Afshan for the first time at the judicial lockup of the Patiala House Court while awaiting our turn to appear before the judge. Since they were kept with other prisoners, they had access to newspapers. They said the newspapers talked about a confession statement they made which they had not. ‘Can we tell the court that,’ they asked me. I told them, ‘Of course you could, the police torture is over, now the court proceedings would begin and you would get a free and fair trial.’ But I was proved wrong after what I saw at the court. There was no lawyer, only us, the judge and policemen with guns.”
Afshan began crying, asking the judge why she had been arrested when she hadn’t committed any crime. Geelani narrates, “I thought the judge would say, ‘Faisla hoga,’ or something to that effect. Instead, he told her, ‘Ab rone dhone se kya faida, tab sochna chahiye tha jab tum conspiracy kar rahi thi.’ This was six months before the police submitted their chargesheet against us. He didn’t know what we were charged of but he pronounced us guilty.” These and other instances from Geelani’s experiences as an undertrial are also recorded in detail in Nitya Ramakrishnan’s book, “In Custody” (Sage).
Geelani is angry at Guru’s hanging. “The law says you pass a death sentence only when the person’s crime is established beyond reasonable doubt. The court stated that police fabricated the evidence against him, it forged documents. So how can you prove someone guilty based on fabricated evidence? Why didn’t the court punish those responsible for providing fabricated evidence to it? By not holding them accountable, they are in a way given the judicial license to frame and kill innocent people.” When “hyper nationalism is whipped up,” he says, “justice becomes the casualty.”
Giving yet another example of how his life is still tied to that case, Geelani claims, “A day before Guru was hanged, I was waylaid at Nizamuddin, kept under detention for a day, then brought to my house and kept under house arrest for three days. The Special Cell wanted to confiscate my phones, but I didn’t give in.”
About his torture in custody, he is graphic to the extent of being shocking. “I don’t know really how I endured that extreme torture, I fainted many times. I just can’t believe that a human being can be so cruel to another human being.”
Relating the line of interrogation then, he states, “I was not asked any question. Throughout I was asked to only confess that the attack was orchestrated by me. When they couldn’t extract that confession from me, in the dead of night my wife and my 3-and-a half-year-old son were picked up. I was kept in a farmhouse where I was tortured and was brought to the Special Cell around 2-3 a.m. to see that they are under detention. I was in a terrible state, blood was oozing out from everywhere. I told the officer, don’t take me to my child like this. He will have a terrible image of democracy when he sees his father in handcuffs and chains.”
Geelani claims, “It was a Delhi Police officer who was then DCP, Special Cell, who told me, ‘If you don’t confess, we will rape your wife and kill your children.’ Almost all the officers got promotions. They do all these things to get promotions.”
His physical torture ended when the trial began. Geelani relates, “Then the mental torture started. For months together, I was kept in solitary confinement. The room had no light, no sun. The days I would be taken to the court would be my only opportunity to see people.” His son is a teenager now but Geelani says he remembers those three days spent in detention. “They were kept at various places including the BSF camp, Bhilaswa. When he came to visit me for the first time in jail, there was also a relative from Srinagar. He asked me whether I have enough bedding. My son piped up saying, ‘I know what he has been given, one black blanket as a mattress and another black coarse blanket to cover himself.’ Because that was what they were given in detention.”
His education, the fact that he didn’t sign on any blank paper in custody, and that he had friends including DU professors speaking up for him, helped him come out of jail, he says.
Geelani’s political line is clear; Kashmiris should have the right to choose their future. “But if you say so openly, you are a terrorist.” With a faint smile, sipping a cup of green tea, he adds, “I wonder whether they (those in the system) are actually serving the nation by this.”
“They are instead tearing apart the very fabric of the nation. Unfortunately, by whipping up hyper nationalism, one is made to forget what nationalism is. They are watering the leaves without realising that they are not nourishing the plant. This way, the plant will die one day.”
Before I take leave of him, Geelani observes, “Ask anyone in the street, there is less and less faith in the system, but when somebody is called a ‘terrorist’, the same people do not ask any questions, in a way this allows the system to do whatever it wants to do. People will realise this mistake one day. In North India, the burden of Partition is still there. So if anything is tagged to Pakistan, the reaction is, kill him.”