Mulakat Afzal: The First Interview Mohammad Afzal Gave From Inside Tihar Jail, In 2006.

Mulakat Afzal: The First Interview Mohammad Afzal Gave From Inside Tihar Jail, In 2006.

11 February 2013
The Caravan
Vinod K. Jose

New Delhi: Why didnít you find legal defence? I had no one to turn to. I did not even see my family until six months into the trial. And when I saw them, it was only for a short time in the Patiala House Court. There was no one to arrange a lawyer for me. As legal aid is a fundamental right in this country, I named four lawyers whom I wished to have defended me. But the judge, SN Dhingra, said all four refused to do the case. The lawyer whom the court chose for me began by admitting some of the most crucial documents without even asking me what the truth of the matter was. She was not doing the job properly, and finally she moved to defend another fellow accused. Then the Court appointed an amicus curie, not to defend me, but to assist court in the matter. He never met me. And he was very hostile and communal. That is my case, completely unrepresented at the crucial trial stage. The fact of the matter is that I did not have a lawyer and in a case like this, what does not having a lawyer mean, everyone can understand. If you wanted to put me to death, what was the need for such a long legal process which to me was totally meaningless? Do you want to make any appeal to the world? I have no specific appeals to make. I have said whatever I wanted to say in my petition to the President of India. My simple appeal is that do not allow blind nationalism and mistaken perceptions to lead you to deny even the most fundamental rights of your fellow citizens. Let me repeat what SAR Geelani said after he was awarded death sentence at the trial court. He said, peace comes with justice. If there is no justice, there is no peace. I think that is what I want to say now. If you want to hang me, go ahead with it, but remember it would be a black spot on the judicial and political system of India. What is the condition in jail? Iím lodged in solitary confinement in the high risk cell. Iím taken out from my cell only for a short period during noon. No radio, no television. Even the newspaper I subscribe reaches me torn. If there is a news item about me, they tear that portion apart and give me the rest. Apart from the uncertainty about your future, what else concerns you the most? Yes, a lot of things concern me. There are hundreds of Kashmiris languishing in different jails, without lawyers, without trial, without any rights. The situation of civilians in the streets of Kashmir is not any different. The valley itself is an open prison. These days the news of fake encounters is coming out. But that is only the tip of a big iceberg. Kashmir has everything that you donít want to see in a civilized nation. They breathe torture. Inhale injustice. [He paused for a moment.] Also, there are so many thoughts that come into my mind; farmers who get displaced, merchants whose shops are sealed in Delhi, and so on. So many faces of injustice you can see and identify, canít you? Have you thought how many thousands of people get affected by all this, their livelihood, family? All these things, too, worry me. [Another, longer, pause.] Also, global developments. I took to the news of the execution of Saddam Hussain with utmost sadness. Injustice, so openly and shamelessly done. Iraq, the land of Mesopotamia, worldís richest civilisation, that taught us mathematics, use a 60-minute clock, 24-hour day, 360-degree circle, is thrashed to dust by the Americans. Americans are destroying all other civilisations and value systems. Now the so called War against Terrorism is only good in spreading hatred and causing destruction. I can go on saying what worries me. Which books are you reading now? I finished reading Arundhati Roy. Now Iím reading Sartreís work on existentialism. You see, it is a poor library in the jail. So I will have to request the visiting Society for the Protection of Detainees and Prisoners Rights (SPDPR) members for books. There is a campaign in defence for you? I am really moved and obliged by the thousands of people who came forward saying injustice is done to me. The lawyers, students, writers, intellectuals, and all those people are doing something great by speaking against injustice. The situation was such at the beginning, in 2001, and initial days of the case that it was impossible for justice-loving people to come forward. When the High Court acquitted SAR Geelani, people started questioning the police theory. And when more and more people became aware of the case details and facts and started seeing things beyond the lies, they began speaking up. It is natural that justice-loving people speak up and say injustice is done to Afzal. Because that is the truth. Members of your family have conflicting opinions on your case? My wife has been consistently saying that I was wrongly framed. She has seen how the STF tortured me and did not allow me to live a normal life. She also knew how they implicated me in the case. She wants me to see our son, Ghalib, growing up. I have also an elder brother who apparently is speaking against me under duress from the STF. It is unfortunate what he does, thatís what I can say. See, it is a reality in Kashmir now, what you call the counter insurgency operations take any dirty shape - that they field brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. You are breaking a society with your dirty tricks. As far as the campaign is concerned I had requested and authorised Society for the Protection of Detainees and Prisoners Society (SPDPR) run by Geelani and group of activists to do the campaign. What comes to your mind when you think of your wife, Tabassum, and son, Ghalib? This year is the tenth anniversary of our wedding. Over half that period I spent in jail. And prior to that, many a times I was detained and tortured by Indian security forces in Kashmir. Tabassum witnessed both my physical and mental wounds. Many times I returned from the torture camp, unable to stand, all kinds of torture, including electric shock to my penis. She gave me hope to live. We did not have a day of peaceful living. It is the story of many Kashmiri couples. Constant fear is the dominant feeling in all Kashmiri households. We were so happy when a child was born. We named our son after the legendary poet Mirza Ghalib. We had a dream to see our son, Ghalib, grow up. I could spend very little time with him. After his second birthday, I was implicated in the case. What do you want him to grow up as? Professionally, if you are asking, a doctor. Because that is my incomplete dream. But most importantly, I want him to grow without fear. I want him to speak against injustice. That I am sure he will be. Who else know the story of injustice better than my wife and son? [While Afzal continued talking about his wife and son, I could not help but recollect what Tabassum told me when I met her outside the Supreme Court in 2005, during the caseís appeal stage. While Afzalís family members remained in Kashmir, Tabassum dared to come to Delhi with her son, Ghalib, to organise defence for Afzal. Outside the Supreme Court New Lawyers chamber, at the tiny tea stall on the roadside, she chatted in detail about Afzal. While sipping and complaining about the excess sugar in the tea, she talked about how Afzal enjoyed cooking. One picture she painted struck me. It was one of the few precious private moments in their lives: when Afzal would not allow her to enter the kitchen, but would make her sit on the chair nearby and he would cook, holding a book in one hand, a ladle in the other and read out stories for her.] If I may ask you about the Kashmir issue, how do you think it can be solved? First, let the government be sincere to the people of Kashmir. And let them initiate talk with the real representatives of Kashmir. Trust me, the real representatives of Kashmir can solve the problem. But if the government considers the peace process as a tactic of counter insurgency, then the issue is not going to be solved. It is time some sincerity is shown. Who are the real people? Find out from the sentiments of the people of Kashmir. I am not going to name x, y or z. And I have an appeal to the Indian media; stop acting as a propaganda tool. Let them report the truth. With their smartly worded and politically loaded news reports, they distort facts, make incomplete reports, build hardliners, terrorists et al. They easily fall for the games of the intelligence agencies. By doing insincere journalism, you are adding to the problem. Disinformation on Kashmir should stop first. Allow Indians to know the complete history of the conflict, let them know the ground realities. True democrats cannot turn down the facts. If the Indian government is not taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people, then they canít solve the problem. It will continue to be a conflict zone. Also, you tell me how are you going to develop real trust among Kashmiris when you send out the message that India has a justice system that hangs people without giving them a lawyer, without a fair trial? Tell me, when hundreds of Kashmiris are lodged in jails, most of them with no lawyer, no hope for justice, are you not further escalating the distrust of the Indian government among Kashmiris? Do you think if you donít address the core issues and do a cosmetic effort, you can solve the Kashmir conflict? No, you canít. Let the democratic institutions of both India and Pakistan start showing some sincerity, their politicians, Parliament, justice system, media, intellectuals ... Nine security men were killed in the Parliament attack. What is it that you have to tell their relatives? In fact, I share the pain of the family members who lost their dear ones in the attack. But I feel sad that they are misled to believe that hanging an innocent person like me would satisfy them. They are used as pawns in a completely distorted cause of nationalism. I appeal them to come out of it and see through things. What do you see is your achievement in life? My biggest achievement perhaps is that through my case and the campaign on the injustice done to me, the horror of STF has been brought to light. I am happy that now people are discussing security forcesí atrocities on civilians, encounter killings, disappearances, torture camps, etc. These are the realities that a Kashmiri grows up with. People outside Kashmir have no clue what Indian security forces are up to in Kashmir. Even if they kill me for no crime of mine, it would be because they cannot stand the truth. They cannot face the questions arise out of hanging a Kashmiri with no lawyer. [An ear-splitting electric bell rang. I could hear hurried conversations from the neighbouring cubicles. This was my last question to Afzal.] What do you want to be known as? [He thought for a minute, and answered.] As Afzal, as Mohmammad Afzal. I am Afzal for Kashmiris, and I am Afzal for Indians as well, but the two groups have an entirely conflicting perception of my being. I would naturally trust the judgment of Kashmiri people, not only because I am one among them, but also because they are well aware of the reality I have been through, and they cannot be misled into believing any distorted version of either a history or an incident. I WAS CONFUSED by this last statement of Mohammad Afzal, but on further reflection, I began to understand what he meant. This was a time before clear accounts of the strife had begun to emerge from Kashmiri voices; the source of knowledge on Kashmir for most Indians were textbooks and media reports. To hear about the history of Kashmir and incidents in the state from a Kashmiri was usually a shock to most Indians - as it was to me when I listened to Afzal. Two more bells. It was time to end the mulakat. But people were still busy conversing. The microphone was put off. The sounds from the speaker stopped. But if you strained your ear, and watched his lip movements, you could still hear him. The guards made rough round-ups, asking everyone to leave. As they found visitors reluctant to leave, they put the lights off. The mulakat room turned dark. In the long walk out from Jail No 3 of the Tihar jail compound to the main road, I found myself in the company of people in clusters of twos and threes, moving out silently - mother, wife and daughter; or brother, sister and wife; or friend and brother; or someone else. Every cluster had two things in common. They carried an empty cotton bag back with them. Those bags had stains of malai kofta, shahi paneer and mixed vegetables, many caused by the spills from the rash frisking of the TSP manís spoon. The second thing in common, I observed, was that they all wore inexpensive winter clothes, torn shoes, and outside Gate No 3 they waited for Bus No 588, the Tilak Nagar-Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium bus, that perhaps took them to Dhaula Kuan main junction - they were the poor citizens of this country. I remembered former president Abdul Kalamís musing on how poor people were the awardees of capital punishments. My interviewee was also one. When I had asked him how many Ďtokensí (the form of currency allowed in the jail) he had, he said 'enough to survive'. Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.