On the evening of April 12, the Little Theatre at the National Centre for Performing Arts was packed with people listening to the story of Mohammad Aamir Khan, a 39-year-old man from Delhi who was proved innocent 14 years after being charged in 18 bomb blast cases. He has been acquitted in 17 cases. Two appeals are pending before the Delhi High Court.
Mr. Khan, the author of a book, Framed As a Terrorist: My 14-Year Old Struggle to Prove My Innocence (Speaking Tiger, 2016), was in conversation with journalist Sidharth Bhatia, and the event was hosted by Literature Live. Khan spoke of police brutality and torture, the pain of his now deceased mother who ran from pillar to post to ensure he got justice; his wife Alia who patiently waited for his release; his two-year old daughter Anusha in whose education he has deeply invested; but, most of all, his unshakeable faith in democracy, secularism, and justice. Anil Dharker, Founder and Director of Literature Live, said: “Aamir’s lack of bitterness, and his humanity, have touched us all.”
Mr. Khan has co-written the book with human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar, who sets the context for his struggles in the criminal justice system with an introduction. Ms. Haksar describes Mr. Khan as “an ordinary young man born in a Muslim family living in the bylanes of Old Delhi” whose dreams “were cut short when he was kidnapped by the police and found himself accused of being a terrorist and being in league with dreaded Pakistan-based militants.”
The book provides a detailed account of the events before Mr. Khan went to Karachi in February 1998 to visit his sister Chaman Ara who had married a Pakistani businessman, Mohammad Nasir Batla. When Mr. Khan was making an exit from the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi with his travel documents, he writes, he was “accosted by a man who introduced himself as Gupta from the Intelligence Department.”
Through this mysterious person, writes Ms Haksar, “Aamir was recruited to be a courier, but not given any training ... he did what any untrained person would do when asked to smuggle something across a militarized border: abort. He ran to the safety of his home, his country.”
On his return to Delhi, Mr. Khan met Guptaji in a restaurant, who, he writes, was not just angry, but also “threatened me with dire consequences.” Mr. Khan was accused of being “a Pakistani agent,” recruited “by the Pakistani intelligence services.”
While Mr. Bhatia emphasised how Mr. Khan had perhaps paid the price of “the unfinished business of Partition,” Mr. Khan said, “I am proud of my ancestors because they chose India, and rejected Jinnah. We are Indians by choice, and not by chance.” Mr. Bhatia praised Mr. Khan for his “total faith in India despite everything that has happened to him,” and called it “much deeper than the kind of fake nationalism we hear about these days.”
While Mr. Khan talked about the discrimination meted out to him in prison on account of his being Muslim, he also expressed his gratitude towards “witnesses who spoke the truth even under pressure, though they were not of my religion.” He pointed out that police brutality is not restricted to Muslims alone, and that the met a number of Sikh prisoners who were framed under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985.
After coming out of prison, Mr. Khan worked as an activist with Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), an organisation established as a response to the 2002 Gujarat riots. He now works as a researcher with the Delhi-based Aman Biradari, described on its website as “a people's campaign for a secular, peaceful, just and humane world.”
Ms. Haksar writes: “The National Human Rights Commission had issued notice in March 2014 directing the Delhi Police Commissioner to give a detailed report on the cases against Aamir. Now he has got the news that the NHRC has announced its intention of awarding five lakh rupees to him for 14 years of wrongful confinement.”
Has Mr. Khan received anything so far? “Nothing at all,” he said. “The money will help me rebuild my life but it cannot bring back my parents who are no more, and it cannot bring back the years my wife and I spent away from each other.”
Aamir says he is thankful to witnesses who spoke the truth even under pressure