We were abused, handcuffed, packed in tiny, dirty cells…

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Muthi-ur-Rahman Siddiqui, who was a reporter with Deccan Herald at the time of his arrest for alleged terror links, gives a first-hand account of his experience behind bars — from Aug 29, 2012 till it was found that the charges had no substance and he walked free on Feb 25

It was August 29, a Wednesday, when it all started. I had worked the previous day and had come back home late, at around 12.00-12.30 am. After reaching home, I had some snacks and was reading some Urdu literature till 3.30. That night was different from the others. I was feeling a bit anxious, restless, and could not sleep properly.

I lived in a one-bedroom house in Kempaiah block in J C Nagar with four roommates — Shoaib Ahmed Mirza, Aijaz Ahmed Mirza, Riyaz Ahmed and Mohammad Yusuf. I barely interacted with them as their routine was quite different from mine. They came back home earlier than I did, and left before me. Trying to force myself to sleep, I had set an alarm for 9.30 am as I had a Bangalore University assignment the next day. I was woken up to the biggest horror of my life.

THE BREAK-IN   I was sleeping on the bed facing the wall and Aijaz was sleeping on the floor. He could afford to sleep late because he had a holiday on account of Onam. Yusuf was looking for his ID card in the hall. A heavily-built man whisked off my blanket. I sat there dumbfounded at the sight of a group of 15-20 well-built armed men who had barged into the house. They were in plain clothes. I saw that the door of the house had been broken open. Of the men there, I recognised assistant commissioner of police (Crime Branch) Jithendranath. I looked at them and knew they were going to do something big.

Riyaz was in the bathroom. They did not wait for him to come out. Instead, they broke open the bathroom door and dragged him out. The others laid siege to the room and surrounded us. For the first few seconds, my heart and mind both stopped working and I was completely numb. I was still trying to make sense of what was happening.

‘One of the men woke Aijaz by slapping him several times. He kept asking him, where is ‘chhotu’? We did not answer as we did not know who ‘chhotu’ was. Later we realised he was referring to Shoaib. They had picked him up from outside but still they asked us where he was.

 CHOICE ABUSE   They threw questions at us and abused us in the most disrespectful Hyderabadi Urdu. I was hoping that Jithendranath would recognise me, but he was very cold. I introduced myself and said, “I am a reporter at Deccan Herald. What do you guys want? What have we done?” Nobody told us anything. All that we got was sarcastic facial expressions.

I came to the hall and saw that all our belongings were taken, including our laptops, wallets and mobile phones, after which they handcuffed us. I was wearing a track pant and vest. I pleaded with them several times to let me change my clothes. After refusing initially, they asked me to put on whatever clothes I had. I laid my hands on a jacket and washed my face, still clueless. I could see Aijaz was shivering next to me.

They escorted us down and put us in a silver Qualis, and it all looked like a well-executed plan to me because there were at least six to seven cars along with ours. Shoaib was picked up and was in another car with Abdul Hakeem and Mohammad Akram. They lived in Marappa Garden. Their faces were covered with masks.

IN COP CUSTODY   Gathering my senses, I sat in the back seat of the car. Riyaz was sitting next to me and Yousuf was sitting on his lap. A constable sat next to Riyaz. In the front row, Aijaz sat with policemen on either side. There was just one feeling in my heart — one of bitterness. We were taken to the Palace Grounds through the Krishna Vihar entrance, where we were made to wait for 45 minutes. All the other cars were parked in separate corners. I was given idlis for breakfast and Yusuf was given chitranna (lemon rice). I thought I was about to be killed in an encounter but consoled myself by saying that I had done whatever I could. From the constables to the inspectors, everybody abused us, calling us anti-nationals. I tried to reason with them but all I knew was that we couldn’t do anything about it. I submitted myself to fate and God.

After breakfast we set off for Madiwala, to the investigation centre. There was a heavy traffic snarl on the way. After we reached the centre, we were asked to get down from the car. I saw the other three guys get down at the same time. Their faces were covered with masks. Meanwhile, I heard my phone ringing in the car. I assumed that it was the PRO of Bangalore University, because I had already missed the council meeting. As we entered, Yusuf kept begging to make one call to his office to tell them that he wouldn’t be turning up, but our captors blatantly refused.

We were dumped into two cells that were four feet wide and eight feet long, separated by a low wall and with a toilet behind. We were given a dirty, torn ‘chatai’ to sit on. They locked us from outside. The whole place was untidy and looked like it had not been cleaned for ages. We somehow gathered courage, cleaned the floor and sat there trying to figure out what we could do. We were given a bucket and mug, and used them to freshen up in the toilet.

GRILLING BEGINS   After some time, a CCB inspector came to us and took down details like our names, address and profession. He didn’t abuse us. This was how it all started.

In the afternoon we were handed out some rice and daal. The questioning started the same day. The other three who were in a different cell were taken first. We could see them walk past us with some five more, who we learnt had been picked up in Hubli and put in the same cell. I was called for interrogation at around 11. At the interrogation room, I was made to sit on the floor even though there were many chairs. I knew some of the people who interrogated me as I had done crime reporting.

The first question that the interrogator asked me was: “What were you planning to do? Who were you planning to kill? Were you aware of the conspiracy that was hatched in your room?” I told them, “Sir, I have not done anything. I am innocent.”

He showed us daggers and said, “These were found in your room, along with a pistol.” I was clueless and told them it was not possible. To this he said, “Either you are very stupid or you are lying. I can only pity you.”

LOSING ALL HOPE   I was sent back to my cell and went back to sleep trying to comprehend what was happening. That horrible day was over. The next day, nothing much happened. All that we did throughout the day was offer prayers that things would get back to normal. I could see that people around were being summoned time and again. On the night of the second day, Yusuf and I were taken together at around 9 pm.

We were made to sit on the floor again and none of us said anything. They were preparing the remand notice to be produced before the magistrate. I happened to glance through it and I saw that I was accused no 3. It said that we were the members of LeT and had plans to assassinate a few people. We pleaded and told them to listen to us at least once. “Do not destroy our lives,” we said, but nobody paid any heed.

I had seen these cases very closely, which is why I could not compose myself. I tried to speak to a senior officer but he said, “Hogaiyya” (Go away). I was taken to a magistrate’s office in Koramangala. It was then that I lost all hope and was in a state of complete despair. But I didn’t cry. I never did. I fought my tears — I knew that I had to fight it out.

I saw that Akram’s name was not there because he was beaten by the police. Many others were also stripped, beaten and even given electric shocks. We were made to sign around 30 blank papers each and one of them was a fake arrest memo. I am scared as I do not know how those papers will be used now.

On August 30, we were taken to the magistrate’s home where he asked us just one question: “Thondre aagideya (did you face any difficulties, meaning were you tortured)?” He then remanded us in police custody. Meanwhile, my J C Nagar neighbours had already filed a missing person complaint. My parents are no more, even though some papers said that my father was alive and operated a terror unit in Pakistan.

GRILLING CONTINUES   From August 31 till September 27, we were in police custody. Many investigative agencies came to question us, like Intelligence Bureau, the Delhi Police, the Andhra Police and the Gujarat Police. We were taken for questioning where they asked us all sorts of questions, from when we were born to our day-to-day activities.       My first call to my family was on September 5. I called from a police inspector’s phone and it was for just two or three minutes. I spoke to my brother, consoled him and calmed him down, and told him that things would be fine.

Through the day we sat there and did small chores. Cleaning the cell was our only way of passing the time. Though those who were in custody with me were very strong, a few wept hoping that somebody would come to their rescue. We kept discussing about a way out but the fact was that there was no way out. We had no choice but to sit through the interrogations with patience and face it with courage.

IN JUDICIAL CUSTODY   On the night of September 27, we were taken to Parappana Agrahara jail. After around two hours of searching our bags and screening our belongings, we were lodged in a cell on the first floor. It was a 15 ft by 30 ft cell with two attached bathrooms. They locked us from outside. Initially there were just 11 of us. After two days, two more people were brought to the cell and by the end of November we were 15 of us.

The biggest concern in the jail was to get food. We were served breakfast at 7.30 am, lunch at 10.30 am and dinner at 4.30 pm — the most bizarre routine. They would open the door to give the food. We were given huge utensils in which the food was poured. Each of us were given a bedsheet and a thin ‘chaadar’ to cover ourselves. The ‘chaadar’ smelt horrible. We were expected to use that to protect us from the biting cold. We had no choice but to do so. We ate breakfast by 10.30, which was mostly rice items like puliyogare (tamarind rice), upma and chitranna. For lunch we were given rotis made of wheat chaff, and rice and dal. The food would turn cold by the time we ate them as it was served at such odd timings. We didn’t talk much to those in the neighbouring cells. An associate of Janardhana Reddy was housed in the cell next to ours.

FAMILY VISITS   My family members came to see me at least four or five times. They came regularly initially, but the harassment they faced from the constables was too much. For every visit, they had to pay a bribe of at least Rs 500 to various constables there. They would get some non-vegetarian food and some books for me to read. Those moments were the happiest for me. Even to pass on these items to me, the constable would demand a bribe. My elder sister, who is married, would weep most of the time and asked me when I would get out. I would tell her not to worry.

Convincing the constables to give us what they had brought was the biggest pain, which is why they just made a few visits. With the books that I got, I would teach English and Urdu to Sadiq and Mehboob. All of us developed a strong bond as time passed; we used to play indoor games to pass our time.

We used to get a copy of Deccan Herald in the evening around 5. We used to look forward to the Crosswords and Sudoku in the newspaper. While there was a big demand for the Sudoku, I used to spend my time solving the Crosswords. In fact that helped me improve my language to a great extent during that time. We could keep a track of the time by looking at the timepiece that our family members had given us. The jail officials opened the gate after three months and we were allowed to play badminton in an open space on the ground floor. That was a high point. Before that we could not even walk around.

FINALLY, FREEDOM   We were all waiting for the day when the chargesheet would be filed. One day, a police official came to us and said, “We might release a few of you.” Listening to that, our happiness knew no bounds. We were expecting that the chargesheet would be filed on February 23. But fortunately for us, it was filed on February 20. We used to get information from the newspapers and the lawyers who visited us.

On February 21, jail superintendent Krishna Kumar was on his weekly rounds. He asked about our case and then informed us that four of us had been left (out of the chargesheet). We immediately went down to get copies of The Hindu and Kannada Prabha which said that we might be released.

The lawyer came a day after the unfortunate Hyderabad blasts occurred. We thought we might be again held up because of that, but fortunately nothing of that sort happened. Two constables came to the cell around 7.45 pm and told us that we had been released. We were overwhelmed with mixed emotions because we were feeling bad for those who were still there; at the same time we were happy that we had been cleared of all charges. We hugged the others and prayed for their safety and hoped that they too would be released soon. It was a very emotional moment. Of course, the others were happy for me. I hope that many innocent people like me, who are in jail for no reason, find a way out soon. I might be safe but there are others who have been there for no fault of theirs. I hope they get justice just the way I did.       When I was about to leave the cell, one of the police constables said, “Are you Siddiqui? There are so many people waiting for you outside.” As I came out, I was greeted by familiar faces. My six-month ordeal had come to an end.

~ As told to Vandana Kamath; BM

He is a Software Engineer from Moodbidri currently living in Kuwait. He likes to travel and post interesting things about technology. He is the designer of Kannadigaworld.com. You may follow him on FB at fb.com/alanpaladka

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