For a dreaming teenager a vacation in Delhi turned into a lifetime in jail – for no fault of his. For Syed Maqbool Shah his acquittal by a court after more than 14 years of incarceration has meant a journey from one jail to another. Majid Maqbool meets the young-old man who struggles with the lost potential of his life.
Syed Maqbool Shah, 34, pulls out four hand written diaries from a small cloth bag and reads an entry he had made some 6 years back while in Tihar jail: “yae woh jagah hai jahan insaan sab kuch bool jata hai…”(It’s a place where one forgets everything).On April 8, 2010, after serving14 years and 6 months in the notorious Tihar jail and district jail Rohini,Maqbool was finally acquitted of all charges in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar blasts case,and declared innocent by a Delhi court.
“Maere galti yae hai ki main Kashmir main paida huva (My sin is that I was born in Kashmir),” Maqbool recalls shouting at the judge inthe Patiala House Court acquitting him of all charges after ‘lifetime’ of incarceration.
More than a year after his release, Maqbool is unable to adjust back to normal life. He is jobless and unmarried.He finds everything changed at home. His sister and father passed away while he was in jail. He couldn’t attend their funerals. His neighbors can’t recognize him. He is amused to find little kids of his neighborhood having grown up in his absence. They can’t recognize him, but he does. His teenage friends are all settled in life now,married and working at good posts. More than a decade of confinement has taken a toll on his health. His legs ache. He has to wear a beltto walk properly. He shows a packet full of medicine prescribed by the doctors.
Maqbool spends most part of his days in isolation at his home. The only place he frequents is the neighborhood mosque. The habit of praying five times a day in jail has stayed with him. Outside world frightens him. He is not used to talking on mobile phones, nor he is not used to family bonding.
Sometimes he sits for hours together in the room, mulling over all those youthful years lost in jail. Sometimes he thinks his life is a bad dream – and that more than 14 years of his imprisonment was just a nightmare. But flipping through the pages of his prison diaries brings him back to the harsh reality of his life. His jail memories return to haunt him on odd occasions, sometimes in the middle of the night. At times he wonders if he is still in jail.
Maqbool sleeps inside the kitchen of his house. He does not have his own room. And he says he doesn’t want to disturb his brothers who have their own lives and separate rooms.
His diaries, written in Tihar and Rohini jail, cover more than a decade of his detention. They are his most prized possessions now, an account of his stolen life. More than 500 pages written in Urdu chroniclehis detention and incidents of ill treatment’ meted out to him and other Kashmiris inside Tihar and other jails in Delhi.He has titled it “Apni Aap Beeti”, and his only dream is to get it published someday as a book. “This is my only property now and I hope it gets published someday so that our future generation knows what happened to us,” he says.
“It is not a day to day record of every mundane thing I saw in jail,” he points out.“I recordedimportant events in jail and how we were treated inside different jails in Tihar,” says Maqbool at his home in Jan Muhalla, Lal Bazar.
For the first three months of his detention, Maqbool says he wept and lamented on his fate, telling everyone that he was innocent.When months melted into years inside the jail, he knew there was little hope of his release. He took recourse to faith and prayed regularly inside the jail. In Tihar jail he met an elder Kashmiri detainee,who was called Masterji by inmates and respected by everyone inside the jail. Masterji has left a lasting impression on Maqbool.
“He was like a father figure for me inside the jail,” says Maqbool who was also taught Quran by him. He taught Maqbool and helped him to quickly adjust to life in jail. After some years, one day Masterji complained of illness.He was taken for treatment but he died inside the jail. Maqbool was shocked and wrote about it in his diary. And since then he kept a record of all the important events in the subsequent years of his incarceration.“The things I experienced and the people like Masterji I met inside the jail moved me to write about their ordeal,” he says.
Flipping open another diary written in neat Urdu, he reads another random passage: “Mujay yahan tareh tareh kay khayal atay hain..” Then he opens another diary and reads more about Kashmiris he met inside the jail. He believes many of them were falsely implicated in different cases. He wrote in his diary how he and other Kashmiri prisoners were kept with hardcore criminals inside different cells in Tihar.
One of his diaries reveals carefully maintained prison slips, mentioning small amounts he received from his family members and relatives who would infrequently visit him in jail. The prison slip of his sister, who had given him Rs 300 in Tihar jail some years back, brings tears in his eyes. “This piece of paper is worth millions for me,” he says, trying to fight back tears. “This paper is priceless for me,” he says after a pause with tears brimming his eyes. Years later, Maqbool was told that she had passed away at home soon after their meeting in Tihar jail.
Maqbool was a 17-year-old boy when he was arrested in a midnight raid by Delhi police on June 17, 1996 at his brother’s place in Jangpura. For the next 14 years he was imprisoned in Tihar and Rohini jails for his alleged involvement in the Lajpat Nagar blasts on 29 May, 1996,that killed 13 and injured 39 people. A class 12th student, Maqbool had come to Delhi to spend his vacations with his brothers who were papier-m?ch? artisans.Little did he know that his vacation would be turned into a lifetime in prison. “Who will return half of my life destroyed in these Indian jails?” he asks.
After almost a decade of detention in Tihar, Maqbool was sent to district jail Rohini. “Those last 5 year years in that jail were the toughest,” says Maqbool.“I was kept in high security zone in a small cell and lived in isolation without much contact with other prisoners,” he says. “It destroyed my health but I didn’t give up writing about my life in jail,” says Maqbool. He made sure to bring home all his diaries.
After his release last year, chief minister Omar Abdullah had made promises of rehabilitating him. However, more than a year after that announcement, Maqbool is still looking for a class IV government job. He says he wants any job to be able to support himself and his family.“But I will never work in Police,” he says.