In 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her two Sikh bodyguards were quickly arrested and convicted. But there was a third man who was found guilty: Kehar Singh. His only fault was that one of the two assassins had visited his house, but he hadn’t informed the police.
A campaign was launched to save Kehar Singh from the gallows.
The lawyer Ram Jethmalani took up his case pro bono. The Illustrated Weekly of India, Asia’s oldest features magazine owned by The Times of India group and then edited by Pritish Nandy, ran a cover story pleading for mercy for the sardar, but without luck.
The bloodlust of a State whose prime minister had been gunned down in her own garden, was overwhelming.
Kehar Singh was hanged, like Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.
Justice Y.V. Chandrachud was the Chief Justice of India who signed on the order that Kehar Singh be hanged to death. With the hindsight and insouciance that comes to the recently retired, he admitted years later that the Supreme Court had made a mistake in hanging Kehar Singh.
In the aftermath of the Bombay blasts of 1992-93, a young, recently married doctor was picked up by police in what they claimed was a “terror conspiracy”. He along with 10 others—three doctors, two engineers, one imam, one corporators and four students were charged under the dreaded Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), the Indian state’s weapon of choice at the time to crush dissent.
One of the arrested was Dr Syed Ashfaque Mir (above).
Dr Mir’s “crime” was not dissimilar to Kehar Singh’s.
The main accused in the so-called “conspiracy” had stayed in a flat near Dr Mir’s in Bombay. He also happened to have visited the home of the Unani doctor.
So, when the police used the standard operating procedure of stripping, stringing and torturing the accused to extract a confession about who else he knew in Bombay, he blurted out Dr Mir’s name—and that of his elder brother, Syed Mumtaz Mir.
The two brothers were among the 11 who were taken into custody and kept in lockup at the Bazarpet police station in the Maharashtra town of Jalgaon.
What fate they have would met against a vengeful state after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the riots and serial blasts that followed, is easy to imagine. But, 25 years later, on February 15, 2019, the day after a young Kashmiri drove his explosive-laden car laden into an CRPF bus in Pulwama, Dr Mir and the other 10 accused were acquitted of all charges.
“When the court declared us not guilty,” says Dr Ashfaque Mir, “we cried for a good one hour. And we remembered our parents, especially my father. Without him, we would have spent the last 25 years—the best part of our lives—in jail.”
The father was Syed Muzaffar Mir (above).
In small-town Jalgaon, in northern Maharashtra, S.M. Mir wore many hats.
He was an engine driver.
He was a social worker.
He was also a freelance journalist, his byline appearing in stories in publications such as Dalit Voice and Radiance. His letters to the editor made their way to The Illustrated Weekly of India, among other publications.
When his sons were picked up in 1993 by the police under an abomination of a law called TADA—under it bail was not a right—journalist Mir quickly understood its implications. He also understood the value of reacting quickly.
He also perhaps had hope.
The freelance journalist dashed off impassioned letters to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Amnesty International expressing concern over the possible miscarriage of justice. Thanks to Mir, an NHRC team came to interview the accused on their condition.
Journalist Mir also did something very timely.
He got hold of a lawyer and applied for bail although TADA’s draconian provisions were almost always loaded against the accused. Miraculously, the lawyer could convince the court in the very first instance that the law had not been properly applied in the case.
Miraculously, the 11 accused walked out, a fate that not many TADA detainees enjoyed.
When Dr Ashfaque Mir, his brother (above) and the others were acquitted last month, their journalist-father was no more with them. But he says their case is a good reminder of the role media should play—to not judge people, to not fall prey to leaks.
When he was in jail for those four months, Dr Mir says Navbharat Times, the Hindi newspaper from The Times of India group, ran a story with the headline “Doctor Terror ladki paida honey se naraaz (Doctor Terror angry at the birth of a girl)” whereas in fact he had not even known that his wife had delivered.
“It was only then that I came to know that my wife (Dr Shahana Mir, whom he met at Bombay University) had given birth to a girl (Alfiya Saher, now an IT engineer). The couple also have a son Usama Mir, an aeronautics engineer with Air India.
Now that he and his co-accused have been acquitted, 25 years on, he has a message:
“Indian media shouts and screams a lot when people are arrested under so-called “terror” charges. They are quickly labelled; their lives and reputations are destroyed; their families are made the butt of ridicule.
“They put out everything that is fed to them by the police and intelligence as gospel truth. They demand instant punishment.
“It is time for the media to pause and think of the implications. It is important for the media to be impartial, nonpartisan and unbiased.”
In an interview to the veteran journalist Jyoti Punwani, published in Mumbai Mirror, Dr Ashfaque Mir—-free and acquitted only because of the alacrity and tenacity of his journalist-father Syed Muzaffar Mir—asks a good question:
“Where are the headlines now?”
Dr Mir was 32 when he was arrested. He is now 67.
Imagine his life, his wife’s and their family’s were it not for his father.
Imagine if the TADA judge had made a “mistake“, like Justice Chandrachud.
In the police lock up and again the first time they were taken to jail, Dr Mir 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 Mir 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.”
Photographs: courtesy Ashfaque Mir
Screenshot: courtesy: Mumbai Mirror
External reading: The boy who spent 22 years in jail before walking free