‘Where are the headlines now’

Jyoti.Punwani
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Some memories of the last 25 years that Dr Ashfaq Meer spent as a TADA accused have stayed with him vividly. Like the newspaper headline of a leading Hindi daily that proclaimed: “Doctor Terror ladki paida honey se naraaz (Doctor Terror angry at the birth of a girl).” When the headline appeared, Dr Meer was in Jalgaon’s Bazarpet lock up. Thanks to the headline, he came to know that his wife had given birth to a girl. “Where are the headlines now that we have been acquitted?” he asks sadly.

It’s been barely a fortnight since Dr Meer and his 10 co-accused were acquitted, 25 years after they had been charged under TADA for being part of a terror conspiracy. Thanks to the tenacity of Dr Meer’s father, journalist S M Meer, all the accused — four from Mumbai and the rest from Bhusawal, Jalgaon — miraculously got bail four months after their arrest, and have since been out. The usual delays in appointments of special judges and public prosecutors, appeals to the High Court and Supreme Court, and police and government lethargy dragged the case on. It was only after the Supreme Court directed that the trial be completed speedily, that things started moving.

But even a quarter century later, Dr Meer cannot forget the first 24 days after their arrest. In police custody, the 11 men, then in their 20s and 30s, were assaulted, stripped, strung up and given electric shocks. Dr Meer was spared the worst because the mandatory medical examination after their arrest showed signs of a recent hernia operation. Under torture, all those arrested –– three doctors, two engineers, one imam, one corporator and four students –– quickly confessed to whatever the police wanted. In fact, it was the confession of the main accused, Jameel Ahmed, Bhusawal head of SIMI, that led the police to Dr Meer.

Whenever Ahmed visited Mumbai, he stayed in a vacant flat near Dr Meer, and when the police forced him to name those he knew in Mumbai, he blurted out four names. Dr Meer’s elder brother was one of them, and he too was arrested.

Their journalist father arranged for a lawyer and insisted that he apply for bail despite it being almost impossible under TADA. The lawyer could successfully point out that TADA had not been properly applied, and bail was granted on the very first application. Later, a TADA review committee concluded that theirs was not a fit case for TADA, but the court rejected its opinion.

Unfortunately for the Mumbai accused, Deepak Jog, SP Bhusawal, who had arrested them, was transferred to Mumbai. Under his orders, they had to present themselves at the Crime Branch every Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm. It was only the intervention of leaders of the newly formed Samajwadi Party such as Dr M A Aziz and Raj Babbar that stopped this.

Dr Meer joined the party, and remained active until he got disillusioned after seeing that even when his own party was part of the ruling coalition under Prime Minister I K Gujral, nothing was done for TADA detainees. “Why blame the BJP? The Congress and the SP are no better,” he says bitterly.

Just those four months in custody scared off many acquaintances, recalls Dr Meer, but one group remained untouched: his school mates, most of them Hindus. “I’ve attended all school reunions and found no difference in their behaviour towards me. Whenever we meet, it’s like being back at school. They all called me when we were acquitted.”

The day the judgment was to be pronounced was one of tension. The Pulwama attack had taken place and training camps in Kashmir featured in the charges against the accused. After waiting all day in court, they were told at 5 pm to come back the next day. The next day, too, went in waiting. The entire court building emptied out, only their courtroom remained packed with lawyers and curious citizens. It was at 5.45 pm that Nashik Special TADA Court Judge S C Khati pronounced the words: “You have been acquitted.” For an hour after that, recalls Dr Meer, the courtroom echoed with sounds of weeping.

In the police lock up and again the first time they were taken to jail, Dr Meer remembers the police and jail staff taunting them with the old taunt often used against Muslims: “Call your Allah now, let him save you,” as they assaulted them. “I have often wondered why they said this,” says Dr Meer with a smile. “Did they think that taunt would make us lose faith in our religion? In fact, it had the opposite effect. I became truly devout in jail; and I believe only Allah saved us at every step.”

Dr Ashfaq Meer, 57

Mumbai Miror