Bhusawal, Maharashtra – On May 28, 1994, Farukh Ahmad Khan, a tall, slim man, was delivering a lecture to his students in Thane, Maharashtra, when he was told that a police officer was looking for him.
Khan, then 24, wanted to work abroad and had applied for a passport. He thought that the officer’s visit was related to his application.
The officer left a message for Khan to visit the local police station. When Khan arrived, he was escorted to the commissioner’s office for questioning.
He was asked whether he knew someone named Jamil Khan, and responded that Khan was his cousin.
He was then asked if he knew Ashiq Hussain Khandey, and responded that he didn’t know anyone by this name.
Police described Khandey as a “Kashmiri terrorist” and accused Farukh of planning attacks in Maharashtra with him, saying the pair wanted to “spread terrorism”.
They then, he claimed, took him into custody and assaulted him.
Khan was unaware that in his hometown of Bhusawal, more than 400km away, police had already picked up Jamil and Yusuf Khan, his cousins.
With them, he became part of a group of Muslim men accused of planning to carry out bomb blasts across the state of Maharashtra, which is home to more than 100 million people, of which Mumbai is the capital.
For weeks, they appeared on the front pages of newspapers, slammed as “terrorists”.
Twelve people were accused initially – one accomplice gave evidence to the prosecution and escaped trial.
The eleven suspects – Jamil Ahmed Khan, Mohammed Yunus, Yusuf Khan, Wasim Asif, Ayyub Ismail Khan, Shaikh Shafi, Farukh Ahmad Khan, Abdul Qader Habibi, Syed Ashfaq Mir, Mumtaz Murtuza Mir and Mohammed Haroon Ansari – were accused of sedition and conspiring against the country.
We cried a lot in the courtroom and hugged each other. It took 25 long years for us to prove that we were innocent.
On February 27 this year, after a 25-year battle, they were all acquitted.
Police had initially claimed to have had information that Jamil, a member of now the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), along with his two cousins and other associates, were planning assaults against Hindus to avenge the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition.
Following the demolition of the Babri mosque by Hindu attackers in Ayodhya in December 1992, communal riots erupted in several cities, including Mumbai.
The tense situation worsened when in 1993, bomb blasts in Mumbai killed 257 people and injured hundreds.
As well as the sedition charges against the 11 men, police invoked the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terrorism law which was used in India between 1985 and 1995.
After facing court in Bhusawal, the group was remanded in custody where they were allegedly tortured and forced to accept the charges.
“We were accused of harbouring terrorists, criminal conspiracy, planning terror activities and so many other things. We kept saying that we don’t know anything and are innocent, but the police kept torturing us,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
“The cops would tie our hands by rope behind the body, and stretch our legs in the opposite direction making a 180-degree angle. On several occasions, our hands were tied, and we would be hung upside down.
“After torture, they would ask us to sign on blank papers.”
They spent four months in jail before being released on bail by a special court that deals with terror cases in Nashik, a city in Maharashtra.
“We never went to jail again, but we were not free also,” said Jamil, earlier the prime suspect.
A life of discrimination
After being stained with the “terrorist” label, life was not easy. Jamil said he was viewed with suspicion, not only by police.
Khan said: “Such was the environment in Bhusawal in 1994, that half of our friends had left the town with fear that police might arrest them as well. Many of our relatives and friends wouldn’t even exchange greetings with us. We had become strangers among our own locality.”
In the group, three were doctors and two were engineers. Abdul Qader Habibi now has a PhD.
Khan had a diploma in electronics and telecommunication and another in industrial electronics.
“I wanted to work outside for a few years, make some savings and then move back to my city and start something of my own. That is why I had applied for the passport, but this case ruined my life,” he told Al Jazeera.
After being accused, he lost his professional job. He now repairs home inverters for a living.
“This case ruined our lives,” he said.
Mohammed Yunus, 63, is a doctor by profession and runs a small clinic in his hometown.
“After coming out of the jail on bail, for months people wouldn’t visit my clinic. A prefix, TADA, was added to my name,” he said, referring to the acronym for the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.
Though TADA was repealed by the government in 1995, the case stalled because of administrative hurdles.
There is a systematic investigative bias in terror-related cases against certain communities in India. Whenever there is a terror attack, the first instinct is to arrest Muslims, which is very sad.
The Maharashtra government in 2003 claimed that no offence was filed under TADA and recommended dropping proceedings.
But a judge in Nashik rejected the recommendations.
“For years, the court didn’t drop the TADA charges despite the state government’s recommendations. We then approached the Supreme Court in 2012 appealing that charges under TADA be dropped against us,” Jamil told Al Jazeera.
In 2016, they approached Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a Muslim civil rights group, for legal aid.
After they received legal support, the group approached the Supreme Court again. On this occasion, the court directed the TADA court in Nashik to complete the trial in one year.
The trial began in July 2018.
When TADA court judge SC Khatti acquitted the men, “we cried a lot in the courtroom and hugged each other. It took 25 long years for us to prove that we were innocent”, said Jamil.
“It was like Eid here,” said Jamil’s wife, Rehana. “There was so much happiness.”
In December 2016, Innocence Network, which campaigns for the wrongfully prosecuted, released a report calling on the government to pay compensation to victims of wrongful convictions.
Indian officials behind wrongful arrests and prosecution should be held accountable, the report said.
“There is a systematic investigative bias in terror-related cases against certain communities in India,” said Manisha Sethi, an author and member of the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association human rights group.
“Whenever there is a terror attack, the first instinct is to arrest Muslims, which is very sad.
“It’s unfortunate that there wasn’t any discussion on that report. Unless the police and investigating agencies are made accountable, things won’t change.”
Muslims in India, according to several recent reports, believe they are unfairly targeted by police.
Arshad Madani, president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (Council of Muslim theologians in India) said that within moments of an attack, fingers point towards Muslims.
“Action is not being taken against the officers involved in these bogus cases that have destroyed lives of thousands of innocent Muslims,” he told Al Jazeera. “And the reason given is that it would demoralise the police force.”
“Are police superior to people? This lack of accountability and denying of justice only shows that no matter to what extent injustices are done to Muslims in India, their perpetrators will not be punished.”