Other States

The Shabnam that I knew was very different, says adoptive father of death row convict’s son

“The Shabnam that I knew was very different from the one that the world loves to hate.” Usman Saifi makes this statement many times during the conversation. The Bulandshahr-based freelance journalist is the foster father of death row convict Shabnam Ali’s son Taj.

Shabnam, along with her lover Saleem, was convicted of killing seven members of her family, including a 10-month-old nephew, in 2008. If executed, she will be the first woman in Independent India to be hanged for a crime.

On February 18, Shabnam filed a second mercy petition with the Governor of Uttar Pradesh and the President of India, both of whom have earlier rejected her plea. Around the same time, news spread that preparations were being made at Mathura jail, the only one in the country where female convicts can be hanged.

The news of her review petition and Taj’s appeal to spare his mother of the gallows once again turned the focus on the child Taj and Mr. Saifi, who had to plead for privacy from the probing media for the 12-year-old. Having spent the first six years of his life with his mother, Mr. Saifi said, young Taj understands everything. “But still he needs to be saved from unnecessary distraction and questions. We were leading a normal life but now it seems everybody in the neighbourhood is looking at us,” says Saifi, appreciating his wife Vandana’s role in tiding over social pressures. “It was she who decided [that we should] not to have our own child.”

People in Bawankheda in Amroha district of western Uttar Pradesh call Shabnam stone-hearted. The judiciary described her crime as “the rarest of rare”, particularly because she committed parricide despite being educated. But Mr. Saifi remembers Shabnam, a double MA in English and Geography, as a caring senior who used to treat him as her younger brother.

“We would often travel on the same bus from our respective villages in Amroha to college. When I failed in the second year of graduation and wanted to quit education, she pushed me to fill the improvement form and paid my fees. Once, when some criminal elements got into a spat with me in the bus, she intervened and stood for me,” he recalls.

So, when news of the sensational murder broke out in April 2008, Mr. Saifi, who had started working with Hindi newspapers by then, refused to believe that a Shiksha Mitra (assistant teacher in primary school) could commit such a heinous crime. “From 2012, I tried multiple times to meet her in jail, but she refused,” he said.

When Shabnam was arrested, she was about three months pregnant and gave birth to Taj in December 2008. “As per rules, the child was supposed to be sent for foster care after six years. As a journalist and as a friend, I felt it was my social responsibility to adopt the child. There were 19 other applications. Seventeen were found to have criminal antecedents and two others didn’t turn up,” Mr. Saifi said.

It was after Taj moved in with Mr. Saifi that Shabnam started opening up when Mr. Saifi would take Taj to meet her every three months, in accordance with the rules. “When she was in the Moradabad jail, she used to cover her face with a veil. It was difficult to read her face,” he said. When she was shifted to Rampur jail, Mr. Saifi says her attitude gradually changed. “Still, she would not talk about her personal life or what led to the crime. This February, she said that she didn’t commit the crime and that she wanted a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) inquiry,” said Mr. Saifi.

“I wanted to write a book on her but when she refused to open up on her personal life and what led to murders, I gave up. Now, it seems she is penning down the details and it might be turned into a book,” he added.

Mr. Saifi reminded that there was no witness to the gruesome murders and it was Shabnam who first raised the alarm. “Police managed to solve the case on the basis of circumstantial evidence, call details, the post mortem report, and the fact that Saleem and Shabnam turned against each other during the trial,” he said.

The police said, and the court accepted, that Shabnam was in love with Saleem, a Class VI drop-out who worked at a saw mill near her residence. Her father, a respected teacher who owned a mango orchard and a two-storied house in the village, didn’t approve of the relationship. On the night of April 14, 2008, Shabnam mixed sleeping pills in the food of her father, mother, two brothers, sister-in-law and a cousin. She called Saleem, who axed the drugged family. Shabnam throttled the infant.

Mr. Saifi said the angst against Shabnam is so strong in the region that any relief for Shabnam would not be supported. “Even my relationship with her and my intention for taking the custody of Taj is questioned,” he said, adding that he had no interest in the property of Shabnam’s family. “I want to keep Taj away from it. It [the property] never proved fruitful for anybody.”

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 12:43:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/the-shabnam-that-i-knew-was-very-different/article33949536.ece

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