Prejudice, delayed justice and a family in ruins
The carelessly taken off shoes were strewn all over the porch. Some spilled on to the narrow lane outside, but no one worried about theft. Such things don’t happen here. To enter the burnt brick house, built in the typical Kashmiri style, in the Lal Bazar area of Srinagar, one has to gingerly pick one’s way over the shoes in the darkened porch which opened into the courtyard around which the rooms were built. The spring rain has left puddles of water in the broken ground of the courtyard, and now they glisten in the late afternoon’s fading sunlight. Uneven wooden planks form the bridge from the porch to the living room over the puddle and slush. Clearly, this well-built house has fallen on bad days. The façade and the doorway suggest that the house had seen better days, much like its inhabitants.
The living room is teeming with people of all ages and appearances, some squatting on the floor, others sitting crossed-legged on light mattresses and sheets. In one corner, next to the window that overlooks the courtyard, a group of men, mostly bearded and wearing Kashmiri caps huddle around a prematurely aged man. His head is bowed and his chin rests on his knee. Those huddling around him speak in hushed tones, frequently reaching out, pressing his hand or caressing his shoulder.
A hushed silence fell in the room as we enter. Since there is no woman in the room, the appearance of one causes a measure of curiosity. Some more whispers follow and we are directed to the man next to the window: Syed Maqbool Shah, home two days ago after a Delhi court honourably acquitted him in the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast case. As we pick our way to reach him over squatting people and sprawled legs, the group of men surrounding him suddenly get up to leave. Shaking hands and bowing to each other they leave the room with Maqbool following them.
One person claiming to be Maqbool’s cousin helpfully offers, “These people were from Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). They had come to express their sympathies and to offer help.” Then for good measure, “People from the Hurriyat Conference came yesterday.” Even as he gives this information, he gestures to somebody and a small boy of perhaps 10 years appears with a ‘dastarkhwan’ (sort of a table cover to lay tea and stuff). A few more people leave the room and a beautifully carved copper samovar in the far end of the room looms in the view. China cups are produced, sweetened kahwa is poured from the samovar and served with biscuits.
Maqbool Shah has attained a minor celebrity status in Kashmir. Honourable acquittal after incarceration of 14 years is not very common here. People are more used to disappearances or identifying dead bodies in the police stations than living men coming out of the prison without serving a sentence. But honourable acquittal is a mere technicality. Seventeen-year-old Maqbool and his family had to wait 14 long years for this to happen; years in which Delhi’s Tihar and later Rohini district jails turned the teenage boy just out of school into a frustrated, bitter middle-aged man.
As we wait for Maqbool to return, his eldest brother, Syed Hasan Shah walks in. He has been told that we are journalists from Delhi. He is a very bitter man. Lowering himself on the floor, he says, “Maqbool is saying his evening prayers now, after which he will rest…” The sentence is left hanging in the air, as if suggesting that we could leave if we wanted. We do not leave. “Maqbool is very weak now, he needs to rest very often,” he starts again and is soon reduced to incoherence. “What have they done to him? He is the youngest in the family, but he looks older than me. I think he dyes his hair. It must be grey,” he says as his voice rise and fall in quick succession.
Just as it seems that we would have to come back another time to meet Maqbool, he walks in slowly, followed by his middle brother, Syed Dilawar Shah. He looks around uncertainly, and Hasan beckons him with a hint of exasperation. In the last two days there has been a stream of visitors and the family is clearly a bit tired of all this attention. Even Maqbool is exhausted repeating his story several times after having lived the nightmare for 14 years. “What do you want to know?” he asks with an air of resignation. Everything, from the beginning.
Maqbool’s family were business people. They made papier mache handicraft and supplied to a range of buyers in Delhi, from where they were exported. Their workmanship was good, the business was reasonably prosperous, and the family had rented an accommodation in New Delhi, Bhogal area. While Hasan took care of the business in Srinagar, Dilawar handled the trading part in Delhi. Maqbool was the youngest, and understandably the pampered brother. In the summer of 1996, after taking his intermediate examinations, Maqbool went to Delhi for a holiday. One evening when Dilawar was out on work, some men came in the house and bundled Maqbool off. It turned out that there was a bomb blast in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market and Maqbool was one of the suspects. The police had rounded up all the young Kashmiri boys they could lay their hands on that day. He was first taken to the Patiala House court and then after a few days to the juvenile section of Tihar jail. All this while his tormentors, kept assuring him that they knew he hadn’t done anything and would soon be released.
Dilawar was given similar assurances by the police that he need not worry about hiring a lawyer for his brother because in any case he would be released shortly. But that didn’t happen. Maqbool was first booked under the charges of conspiracy; when that didn’t hold the charge was changed to harbouring terrorists. As it turned out, even that did not hold, but it took the magistrate 14 years to pronounce that; 14 years in which the family was ruined.
In the beginning, Maqbool refused to touch the prison food, all he did was cry or wait for his family members to visit him and assure him that he would be out soon. But gradually assurances started to sound hollow. “After a few weeks in the juvenile jail, I started talking with my fellow inmates,” says Maqbool. “I discovered that one boy had been there for seven years and another for 12, without judgement. That is when the import of what had happened to me actually sunk in. I realised that I may never ever see my family again, never ever go back again.” He was only 17 and life was over.
It was over for the family as well. When the police arrested Maqbool, they had swept the house clean. All the bill-books were confiscated. Taking advantage of that, the buyers refused to pay Dilawar. “I pleaded with the police to return my bill books and they told me that they will give it back when Maqbool would be released,” says Dilawar. “When I filed an appeal in the court for the bill-books, the police gave a false representation saying they don’t have them. Later, they mocked me saying this is what happens when you waste your time in the court.” The Shah brothers lost nearly Rs 10 lakhs, enough to ruin a family of small traders.
Finally, a frustrated Dilawar closed the Delhi house and returned to Srinagar. “In any case, living in Delhi had become difficult after Maqbool’s arrest. My neighbours had started taunting me with newspaper reports in accusatory tones,” he says, adding, “Maqbool resents me. He thinks I did not do enough to help him or that I did not visit him. But he does not know what we lost.”
Losses cannot be computed, because they differ according to the perspective. Shahs’ father and sister died when Maqbool was in prison. Their business collapsed. Both Hasan and Dilawar now work for others as labourers. From businessmen their status is now reduced to that of labourers. Maqbool is now 31, unmarried, unemployed and probably unemployable. For the moment, the brothers are together, but for how long will each let his resentment, bitterness and frustration remain buried. For how long will the two labourer brothers support their families as well as an unemployed adult brother who is likely to wallow in self-pity for a while? Signs of impatience with each other were visible even in that one hour, when each was trying to cut the other short to get his sense of loss across.
Already people like JKLF and Hurriyat have visited Maqbool, to reinforce his sense of injustice. How long will it be before an unemployable Maqbool is snapped up by one of these or any other group? Wouldn’t it have been better if somebody from the state government had visited him and his brothers? What if the chief minister’s office had called him, or fixed an informal meeting with the CM at his residence? What if the state-owned bank offers an interest-free loan on easy terms to the family to restart their business? It is not a question of one family, but of conveying the message that the government cares.
As we prepare to leave, Dilawar says, “God heard our prayers. We got justice, but we got it too late.” Shouldn’t the government now show that it is still not too late?