‘I was discriminated against because I am Muslim’
In 2008, a youth was arrested from my neighbourhood in Hubli for alleged links with the Student Islamic Movement of India. He was studying to be a doctor and had no history of indiscipline or run-ins with the law. His family was traumatised, and still is, for he continues to languish in jail. If that could happen to a young, educated Muslim like him, it could happen to me, too, I thought then. Five years later, that passing thought became an ugly reality.
On August 29, 2012, a posse of armed policemen barged into the one-bedroom flat I shared with four other boys in Bangalore. They pretended to be looking for my roommate Shoaib Ahmed Mirza, whom they accused of plotting to assassinate some right-wing Kannada columnists. Ironically, they had picked him up from the locality just a while earlier. In our flat, they slapped his brother, Aijaz Ahmed, abused the other three and suddenly handcuffed me too. I pleaded with them to tell me why they were taking me away. I asked one of the policemen, whom I had spoken to earlier when I was a crime reporter with Deccan Herald, what was going on. All I got was a sarcastic look. The brazen manner in which we were picked up was more like a kidnapping than an arrest. With my pleas unanswered, my mind slid into numbness. I went blank. I could not think. The story of that youth kept replaying in my head.
My first night in the cell was the longest night of my life. We kept pleading with the cops, including the junior-most constables, to not destroy our lives. During our 30 days in police custody, the cops abused us in every way they could. One policeman asked me, “So, you work for a Pakistani newspaper?” I don’t even want to get into the nasty things they said about my faith. I was surprised that unlike the others, I was not physically abused. Outside the prison, though, I was planted as the “mastermind”.
When we — the 15 of us arrested in the so-called assassination plot — were shifted to Bangalore Central Jail, for the first two months we were locked inside a separate barrack, which meant we were denied access to facilities available to other inmates, such as outstation phone calls, the gym and the library. Later, when we were shifted out from there, we could avail these amenities, but it exposed us to taunts from others. The prison authorities used to refer to us as the “bomb case people”, and other inmates seemed to believe them. They’d say in Kannada, “Enu ide iwaradu.” (They must have done something wrong.)
I did not mingle much with others. I spent time reading the Quran, that my sister and brother got for me during one of their visits, and taught English and Urdu to two of my co-accused. There were times when I ran out of hope, fearing that I may languish here forever. But then, my innocence reclaimed that hope, and I would feel confident that I would be out soon.
Six months later, on February 25, 2013, I was released. But even before I could get over the police hostilities I had endured, I was told about the the media onslaught during my time in jail. I had been dubbed the “mastermind” of the plot. Some of my former colleagues told me that a senior police officer, who was not even investigating the case, misled journalists that I had joined Deccan Herald with the sole purpose of blowing up the Metro station opposite my office. The media blindly, mindlessly, reproduced his words. Similarly, going by the police’s words, the media said “radical literature” was seized from my office computer. That computer had an Urdu poem about Republic Day, written by Sahir Ludhianvi, a Leftist ideologue, who was part of the Progressive Writer’s Association.
Honestly, after our arrest, I was prepared for such reportage. That I was called a “mastermind”, for example, did not surprise me. But some stories were painfully insensitive. A news channel “broke” the story about my father in Pakistan who “guided” me from there. My father died of a heart attack in 2006. I even have his death certificate. Can you imagine how it feels to deal with such bulls**t? Another news channel said I had Rs 50 crore in my bank. If I had so much money, I would certainly have owned a newspaper.
The way the police and the media reacted to my alleged involvement in the so-called plot has convinced me that there is an institutional bias against Muslims. When you put all the facts together — that I was picked up for simply sharing a room with a suspect, that an Urdu poem on my terminal was interpreted as a fanatical text, that so many other Muslim youths have languished in jails for terror-related cases only to be let off for want of evidence — how can you expect me to feel otherwise?
This is not a new feeling. When I was studying journalism in 2009, I had suggested “media coverage of terror suspects” as the subject of my thesis, which my teacher rejected. At that time, Muhammad Hanif, a doctor from Bangalore, was arrested in Australia on terror charges, which were later proved to be false. There were similar arrests for the Malegaon and Mecca Masjid blasts. The media reports sensationalised such arrests, and engaged in character assassination. It was as if they had taken it upon themselves to prove that the accused were guilty. When Hanif was exonerated, the Australian government issued a public apology to him — something the Indian government has not done for so many similar, wrongful arrests.
The media has reacted in the extreme to me — extremely cruel when I was arrested, and now, extraordinarily supportive after my release. I am inundated with phone calls from journalists, asking for my side of the story. Even though I am disillusioned by the media, I have not lost faith in it. That faith comes from some truly fair reporting, specially in the print media. I want to return to work as a journalist. My father, who used to run an Unani medical store, wanted me to become an Unani doctor, but I was good at languages and social science, and began working as a journalist in the Urdu newspaper Rashtriya Sahara in Dharwad in 2007, while doing a PG diploma in journalism. In 2009, I joined Deccan Herald, where I first covered crime, and then education. Journalism has always been close to my heart. But, I have become sceptical of reportage. I will always think twice before trusting a news story. I want to work on the desk and ensure the accuracy of a story.
I do hope to live a normal life. I am overwhelmed with visitors who have been pouring into my home, welcoming me back, and putting an end to my fear of being stigmatised for life. My ex-colleagues are also in touch with me. Throughout my life, I have never been discriminated as a Muslim. I have always believed that Muslims must stop feeling as if they are victims of the system, and must strive towards educating and empowering themselves. But my six months in jail as an educated, empowered Muslim, paints a contrasting picture — that I was discriminated against because I was Muslim. These are two extremities. And though one positive extreme gives me hope, as does my faith in the judiciary and democracy, the other extreme puts me in despair. I am trying to find a middle ground to this dilemma. I have truly experienced the uncertainty of life. I have reflected a lot on my own life, and if something good has come out of this ordeal, it is that I have emerged a better person. Now, I look at the larger picture of life, and can empathise with others’ sufferings.
As told to Irena Akbar