Picked up by BSF on suspicion during troubled 90s, Riyaz Ahamd Hajji ended up spending 19 years in torture centres and jails across India. Syed Asma tells his painful journey from guilty to not guilty
In May 2015, after 19 years of wait, when a judge in Jammu Court told Riyaz Ahmed Hajji: Tum ab ba-izzat barri (You are freed honourably), he couldn’t help but think whether to rejoice or curse his luck. He had just one question on his mind: What about 19 years of my life that I spent inside jails.
Riyaz was jailed for his alleged involvement in terrorist activities along with a Pakistani national, Syed Sajjad Bukhari. Both were exonerated of all charges but Bukhari was slapped with PSA and kept under ‘preventive custody in Sangrur, Punjab.
In 1995, Riyaz and Bukhari were arrested at two separate places at two different times. Bukhari, then a teenager, a resident of Pakistan administered Kashmir had perhaps crossed the border recently was arrested in the interiors of Qamarwari, Srinagar.
A few days later, the army cordoned off the Fruit Mandi area in Parimpora and rounded up youngsters for an identification parade. “We lived in a different era then. Anybody was picked up or shot at and you could not question or ask for any explanation,” says Riyaz.
Riyaz remembers one particular army officer who was posted at his locality. The said officer had a peculiar way of catching ‘suspects’. He would stop his jeep anywhere randomly and suddenly catch some boy by his collar. “He (officer) would place his hand on the youngster’s heart. And if the heartbeat of the boy increases he would be taken into custody,” Riyaz said. “Any normal guy would react by shivering. But the officer used to pick him, take him to his [army] camp and torture. He was mad…crazy. Such were the times.”
During 90s army cordoning off areas and making men – young and old – to parade in front of an army vehicle was almost a daily exercise. Inside the vehicle, they would have informers called cats, who would blow horn whenever a suspicious person passes by. Riyaz was caught during one such parade.
After being singled out by the informer Riyaz, then thirteen was bundled into an army vehicle along with six others. Before his arrest, Riyaz used to support his six-member family (two brothers, one sister and parents) by rinning an autorickshaw. After Riyaz’s arrest, his father suffered from haemorrhage and the right side of his body stopped working. Since then he is home. “My father had to sell his shop to get treated.”
In Karan Nagar
Meanwhile, Riyaz was taken to a BSF camp in Karan Nagar. It was a Kashmiri Pandit’s residence which, after their migration, was taken over by the BSF. Riyaz spent two months there. “I don’t know how I survived those two months.”
Riyaz recalls the Pandit house turned BSF camp had a few empty rooms kept for torture. The first day inside the camp was difficult for him. He was hung upside down and beaten ruthlessly. After that, his legs were rolled with iron rollers for hours. “They wanted to see us in pain,” says Riyaz. “There comes a point when your wounds don’t hurt anymore. And you stop screaming.”
The memories from that haunted Karan Nagar house seem fresh in Riyaz’s mind. “It was the winter of 1995. They would keep me inside a drum full of cold water for hours. And when my body would get numb they would pass an electric current through that drum,” recalls Riyaz.
Riyaz claims that the intensity of the torture was such that many innocent boys would accept crimes they had never done. Some of them, just to get some break from torture, would accept keeping huge ammunition dumps at their houses. “They knew BSF would take them along to recover the ammunition. But their (boys) motive was simple: they just wanted to see their family. Whatever way that may happen.”
Two months later Riyaz was shifted to Papa II – a notorious interrogation centre of the 90s now turned into CM’s official residence. “Papa II was not that painful but it was scary.”
Riyaz claims that during his detention at Papa II, he saw many young boys getting killed during interrogation. “Some of them were simply shot dead.”
For Riyaz the days spent inside Papa II are part of his nightmares now. “There was a room, a very scary one. It would stink. It looked like as if many boys were glued to the wall and bullets were fired at them. Blood was not cleaned and bullets were not moved. Only bodies were removed from the scene. Can you imagine what will it look like?”
Riyaz laughs and says, “No you can’t imagine. No one can.”
Riyaz remembers that the interrogation in Papa II would stop by 11 pm, but the screams won’t. “I could hardly sleep during my two-month long detention.”
The next stop for Riyaz was the Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC) Gupkar. “This place was relatively better as I had already seen worse.” After that, he was shifted to CIK, Humhama. “I was much relaxed there…Tatyuk interrogation khot ni mei fikrey (That interrogation was nothing for me),” he smiles.
It was already more than a year since Riyaz was detained but he has not met his family. “They had no idea whether I was dead or alive.”
Finally, in 1997, Riyaz was presented before a City Court. An FIR had been lodged against him for his alleged involvement in terror activities. It was at City Court Srinagar where Riyaz first met Pakistani national Sajjad Bukhari. Surprising both Riyaz and Bukhari were named in a joint FIR.
After the first hearing, Riyaz and Sajjad were shifted to the Central Jail, Srinagar. “There (in jail) I could feel I am a human being.”
In 1998, Riyaz’s lawyers managed to get him out on bail. He was out on bail till 2008.
Once out Riyaz started piecing together his life bit by bit. The first concern was to earn a living to support his ailing father. “With my brother’s help, I started driving a taxi for a living.”
In a year’s time, Riyaz got married to Tabassum. They have a son and a daughter. “Apart from his regular court appearances we were living like any other normal couple,” said Tabassum.
But there was more in store for Riyaz. His ‘normal’ life was soon to turn upside down once again.
Panthers Party chief Prof Bhim Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer, was fighting for the speedy trial of the foreign prisoners lodged in different jails across India.
Under the Apex Court’s directives Sajjad Bukhari, the Pakistan national who shared an FIR with Riyaz, was also considered. Soon Bukhari’s case was shifted to Varanasi. Within no time an arrest warrant was issued against Riyaz in Srinagar too.
A Self Funded Arrest
Thus began an interestingly painful journey for Riyaz. “State police was supposed to hand me over to the Varanasi police for my trial. But, instead, I had to arrange a vehicle on my own and take two policemen along.” Reason. Policemen assigned to take Riyaz to Varanasi said that they have no idea where this place is! “I bore all the expenses of the trip.”
But his sincerity in going all out in reaching Varanasi on time proved futile as he was lodged inside a 6 x 6 cell for the next two years. “There were seven small cells in Varanasi Jail reserved for Kashmiris. Six were occupied by Pakistanis nationals including Sajjad. I was in the 7th cell.”
Riyaz’s interaction with local cops helped him understand the place. Kashmir Barrack, as it was called by the cops manning it, was a tower-shaped structure with seven underground rooms. These rooms were kept far from the rest of the jail premises. One had to at least unlock seven gates to reach there. These small cells had no windows for ventilation. Inside the cell, there was just one pot fitted in the corner for a pee. “It was hard to know when it is dusk or dawn outside.”
Riyaz was taken out only when his case was listed for hearing; that too blindfolded.
“I was told that this barrack is Jammu and Kashmir government’s property. They bear all the costs including maintenance, paying the electricity bill, water bills and meals of the inmates,” says Riyaz.
For a person like Riyaz who has been through some of the most challenging situations in life, Varanasi proved a tough battle. “My skin literally started to peel off with heat in that hell hole.”
Riyaz says that the isolated prisoners like him were served food and tea through a funnel and a pipe. “You can imagine how that daal and tea would taste when served through a rusted pipe.”
For first one month, Riyaz literally survived on water and tea alone, avoiding the rusty daal. “But then I had no option but to eat whatever used to come through that funnel.”
After spending two years in Varanasi, Riyaz’s wife Tabassum finally arranged a bail order for him. Interestingly it was Prof Bhim Singh who has intervened on Riyaz’s behalf to get him out. “I visited Bhim Sahab with my two kids and told him everything about Riyaz. He instantly agreed to help,” says Tabassum. “He didn’t even charge a penny.”
Since Riyaz was exonerated honourably Tabassum and her children pray for Singh’s wellbeing every single day. “He is a better human being than those who claim to be our leaders.”
Riyaz is free but there is nothing much to rejoice about. Varanasi Jail has taken a toll on his health. “I cannot drive a taxi anymore. My back aches like hell now. I had slept on the concrete floor for two years.”
With almost no source of income, Riyaz and Tabassum struggle to manage their day-to-day expenses. “For the last two years, I have not paid my children’s school fee. Their principal is kind enough to let them continue. But how long we will live like this,” asks Tabassum. “My husband was innocent yet they (state) took his 19 years. They should at least help him now.”
Sitting at a corner and looking at his wife’s gloomy face Riyaz has just one question: What was my crime. Why I was made to suffer for 19 years?
“They may be the rulers here but my Allah will make them pay,” says Tabassum.