Exonerated, Still Anxious: ‘Harassed For Being Muslims’

09 Jul 2021 18 min read  Share

In custody, they were tied to a table for interrogation. On bail, they were summoned summarily to police stations for years. Some were sacked, some relocated their families, none could travel for work, for 19 years. Their businesses, jobs, families destroyed, they were acquitted in March 2021, their faith in India’s democracy eroded.

Ziauddin Siddiqui, a resident of Aurangabad, could not expand his pharmacy business, lost one store and now owns a single store. Siddiqui runs social initiatives including a school and an orphanage/PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAVITHA IYER

Mumbai, Surat, Aurangabad, Pusad: Arrested on terror charges one winter night almost two decades ago, Ziauddin Siddiqui, 58, remembers the humiliation vividly. 

“Our wrists tied with rope to one another, we would be led in a line for court hearings,” he told Article 14, seated at his office in Aurangabad, central Maharashtra. When he was interrogated, policemen would tie him to the leg of a table, “bakri ki tarah”. Like a goat. 

A father of three and a post-graduate in politics and journalism, a writer and an orator who was  already active with Muslim socio-cultural and educational institutions in the nineties, Siddiqui owned two pharmacies in Aurangabad at the time. As police officers asked him questions about his work and beliefs, he would be made to squat on the floor. He said he was slapped across the face once and often shoved around while he was in police custody. 

Siddiqui and 123 other Muslim men belonging to places across the country were arrested from a banquet hall in Surat, south Gujarat, in the wee hours of 28 December 2001, before the scheduled start of a three-day conference on improving educational standards among Indian Muslims. 

The men were charged with assembling under the pretext of a seminar with the real objective of  enrolling new members and bolstering the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and for storing objectionable literature related to SIMI. For 19 years, they stood trial under sections 3 (declaring associations unlawful), 10 (penalty for membership of unlawful associations), 13 (punishment for taking part in or abetting unlawful activities) and 15 (act that threatens the unity, integrity, security or ­sovereignty of India) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967.

The men spent 10 to 15 months in jail before being granted bail, in batches, by the Gujarat High Court and the Supreme Court.  

On 6 March 2021, the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Surat acquitted every one of them. 

“No cogent, reliable and satisfactory evidence is provided to suggest that the accused are the members of the unlawful organisation SIMI and they had gathered to boost the activities of this particular organisation…” CJM Amitkumar Narendrabhai Dave wrote in his order in Gujarati.         

The men welcomed the long-delayed exoneration. They rued the lost years and the impact of the long drawn out trial on their personal lives, their children’s prospects, their businesses and finances and on their mental and physical health. Most believed there should be some form of compensation for wrongful incarceration. 

Several weeks later, eight of the acquitted men in three cities gave detailed interviews to Article 14. In the first of a two-part series, Article 14 investigated how procedural lapses marred the 19-year trial. In Part 2, we speak to the acquitted men about losing two decades of their life to a case built with no evidence. 

They saw the case as a violation of their civil rights. A vague ‘intelligence input’ about SIMI men regrouping appeared to have replaced evidence-gathering for criminal proceedings. Over 19 years, investigating officials and their superiors would have recognised that there was no evidence, but pressed on anyway.    

None of them was in favour of pursuing a case for compensation—they didn’t want a renewed spotlight on their families, nor a fresh risk to their freedom. 

“Much more than in 2001, we feel concerned about being Muslims in India today,” said another of the acquitted men, Bismillah Asif Shaikh of Pusad, a small town located in eastern Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, about 250 km from Nagpur. 


Life Under Police Gaze 

Siddiqui recounted a run-in with a senior police official at an Aurangabad police station, in 2008, about six years after he was released on bail. It was a hot May afternoon, and nine bombs had exploded in Jaipur the previous evening. Siddiqui had been summoned to the police station through a phone call. 

This was not at all unusual. For the first several years since procuring bail, his bail bond required Siddiqui to mark his attendance at the City Chowk police station in Aurangabad once every week, a condition he fulfilled conscientiously. 

“Every time a bomb went off somewhere, I would be called to the police station,” said Siddiqui. In the years between 2001 and 2008, when there were several terror attacks across the country, he said, he would be summoned to the police station each time.

After serial bombings on suburban trains in Mumbai in July 2006, several of the accused in the ‘Surat-SIMI terror case’ who lived in Maharashtra were summoned from their towns to the office of the Maharashtra Police’s  Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) office in Mumbai. 

Mohammed Abdul Vakil, 59, principal of a private school in Pusad, among those who travelled to the financial capital, at their own cost, to subject themselves to interrogation, said they were treated like hardened criminals and history-sheeters.

On being summoned after the Jaipur blasts, Siddiqui said he snapped. “I told the police officer that I’d executed the bombings, and I’d just returned from Jaipur," he said. "They stopped summoning me to the police station after that.”      

Most of the acquitted men describe intrusions by policemen into their homes, not only for post-arrest search-and-seizure operations but visits that continued years later. 

“When your home is raided and the police take away piles of items, people have no idea whether they’re seizing  paperwork or drugs,” said Siddiqui. Their image was dented for good, he said. Those raided by the police were simply seen as different.

Siddiqui does not deny that he used to be a member of SIMI, long before the organisation was banned in September 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings. 

In the 1990s, Siddiqui was among a group that ran a school with 1,400 students and an orphanage for 250 girls in Aurangabad. He continues to be associated with these institutions. Before that, he had been associated with SIMI, working mainly on anti-narcotics outreach programmes in colleges. 

“We worked to target social ills, drugs and alcoholism, for example,” he said. He and fellow activists used religion as a tool of persuasion. 

“Certainly, the basis of our work was Islam," said Siddiqui. "We told youngsters Islam does not permit these activities.”  

He continues to mobilise Muslims on human rights and social issues, through a federation of organisations.      

A few days after the arrest, the homes of almost all the accused men were raided and searched. Literature and paper cuttings were carted away, and never returned. 

Siddiqui said he underwent a police process colloquially known as “chehrapatti” multiple times, literally translated as ‘face display’. When a new senior official is posted at the City Chowk police station, or in charge of a police jurisdiction, individuals with a serious criminal record may be summoned just for the new officer to recognise them by face. 

In the initial years after being released on bail, he would be made to sit at the police station for hours, as other visitors and complainants came and went, until the officer had time to see him.  

Policemen would sometimes show up at his doorstep in the heart of Aurangabad  past midnight. “They would say, ‘Chalo saab bula rahe hain. I was expected to cooperate.” Saab could be anyone from the senior police inspector to the deputy commissioner of police. 

The Night Their Lives Changed 

Attendees who had a long journey to Surat arrived on 27 December 2001, the day before the start of the three-day event. Six men from Pusad travelled 130 km to Akola railway station, where they met others and together boarded an evening train that arrived in Surat the next morning. They arrived at the venue, Rajshri Hall in the busy Sagrampura area of Surat, around mid-morning.  

Among them was Bismillah Sheikh, now 60, then a teacher at a private school in Jalgaon. A friend from Jodhpur in Rajasthan, also a teacher, had written to him about the opportunity to discuss improving Muslims’ education levels, and he had been immediately interested, having attended seminars on language and literature organised by the Maharashtra Urdu Academy. 

A little over an hour after this group arrived, a small posse of policemen showed up, with questions on the event and on the men. The gathered men were eating lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by a regular caterer at the premises. The hall is located in a densely populated area. Very close by is a police outpost of the Athwalines police station, Shaikh told Article 14. “A banned organisation would hardly pick such a spot for an event,” he said. 

Siddiqui, who took a bus from Aurangabad, arrived later in the evening and would later remember the disquieting silence. The police had left, but the mood was sombre. He  brushed off the visit by the police—“there was nothing to hide about the seminar”. None of those Article 14 interviewed thought of leaving.

By late evening, 123 men had gathered in the hall from all over the country, including a few fresh graduates, several traders and businessmen, and many connected with education in one way or the other, such as teachers, professors, trustees with educational institutions, etc.  

 Around midnight, a police team entered and began to round up the men, paying no heed to their arguments. Papers, some electronic goods, a few cellphones, some personal belongings were seized, and every attendee’s name and details registered and verified. A couple of hours later, they were bundled into two police vans and taken to Athwalines police station.

The mood was tense, Siddiqui recounted. There weren’t enough handcuffs so the men’s hands were bound with rope. Many argued angrily with the police, but nobody resisted, a fact acknowledged by police witnesses during the trial. 

It was almost dawn by the time they were taken to the large compound of a police station. “They made us sit mujrim ki tarah (like criminals), on the floor,” said Mohammed Murtuza Sharif, then a small-time land developer in Pusad and also a member of a handful of Muslim socio-cultural and educational trusts. 



They were denied permission to wash and offer the morning prayers—this continued for two days, many of those interviewed said. Sharif said he tried to murmur prayers under his breath. “Abhi doon kya? (Should I land a blow on you?)” a constable threatened him, he said.  

Zubair Mirza, then only 20 and a first year BSc student, had gone along out of curiosity about conferences and in the hope of buying new clothes from Surat. Once they were in police custody, he said, he could hear the call for prayers from a nearby mosque. “A constable once said about the azaan, ‘Dekho kutte bhaunk rahe hain. (Look, the dogs are howling.)’ That’s how the policemen spoke to us,” said Mirza.

‘We Were Treated Like Animals’

Once they were remanded to 14 days in police custody, there were traumatic, humiliating interrogation sessions, SIddqui said.  

The accused would be interrogated one by one, tied to the leg of a table in the interrogation room of various police stations.  

Sharif said the men awaiting their turn for interrogation would feel anxious for hours. “One man’s interrogation could go on from fajr to the next fajr,” he said, referring to the morning prayer. 

The men remember the senior citizen from Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh, Maulana Ataur Rehman Qureshi, who was then already 73 years old, telling policemen they should be ashamed that they beat him. “Policemen even pulled him by his beard,” said Mirza. 

Qureshi was the main accused, as chairman of the conference. Qureshi also runs the  Wahadat-e-Islami Hind, considered by investigators as being associated with or a frontal organisation of SIMI. Siddiqui is also associated with the  Wahadat-e-Islami.    

During his interrogation, Shaikh was made to squat on the floor and bend deeply, the position and the fear aggravating his asthma. “I was extremely breathless,” he recollected. A policeman handed him his inhaler, and just then the azaan for the morning prayer began and the interrogation ended.  

Sharif said he was asked personal questions about his family. “They asked me why my sister-in-law was divorced,” he said, adding that the language was routinely abusive.

Siddiqui said he was slapped during interrogation. Others were kicked and beaten with sticks, he said. “They wanted us to parrot their story. None of us was willing to do that.” 

He was asked some academic questions—“what is the definition of jihad”—and whether he was acquainted with various prominent Muslims in Aurangabad. 

A few days later, Sharif developed acute pain in the abdomen which he assessed as being on account of dehydration and stress. He was taken to a government hospital, wrists tied, men with machine guns guarding him. Unnerved by this and the behaviour of doctors at the hospital, he later provided a written undertaking that he preferred not to seek treatment. “I overheard the doctors say I am an Osama bin Laden man,” he said.  

The men expected to be released on bail, certain that there was nothing incriminating found against them, but the lower courts rejected bail pleas. The men felt the “media hype” over their case and the sensational narrative of more than 100 Muslim men conspiring an attack appeared to influence their chances.

Eventually, between 2002 and 2003, they procured bail, mostly from the Gujarat High Court, but continued to visit Surat every month for the court hearing. It was only in the last five years that, following more litigation, all the accused residing outside Surat were exempted from appearing. 

Sacked Three Years Ago While On Trial

Surat resident Asif Iqbal Anwar Shaikh (53), also known as Asif Sharbati, was not in Surat on the night of 27 December, 2001. He knew some of those helping to organise the three-day seminar to be held by the All India Minorities Education Board (AIMEB), but decided at the last minute not to attend. He had already sought four days’ leave from work, and decided to go visit an uncle in the Mira Road suburb of Mumbai. 

Then the arrests happened, and his worried family advised him to lie low. “A couple of months later there were riots in Gujarat, so I stayed back longer,” he said. He also knew by then that he was listed as an absconding accused—the police case was that a preparatory meeting had taken place at his home. 

His employer, the Surat Municipal Corporation, had sent men to serve him a notice of suspension, for his alleged involvement in a criminal case. The notice was pasted on the door of his home in Behrampura, Surat.  

A primary health worker in the municipality’s vector-borne diseases department, Sharbati had spent seven years on the job. His father drove an autorickshaw. Arrested from Mira Road, and later released on bail, he tried to return to work, but the suspension was final. 

Sharbati assumed the suspension was until the verdict, he told Article 14. He didn’t receive a chargesheet for the suspension until 2008. It cited the criminal charges against him as cause for suspension. He received suspension pay (50%, or Rs 2,700 per month) until 2018, after which he was served a termination notice, with the court verdict still nowhere in sight. 

The dismissal notice said only that a review committee’s report had recommended his termination from service. Sharbati was slated to retire in 2027, but is now in dire financial distress. At one point he didn’t have cash even for the family’s daily needs. 

“Despite the circumstances, I wanted to educate my children,” he said. The family lives in a single room and kitchen, he and his father both drive an autorickshaw. 

His eldest daughter is completing her MSc in mathematics, a son is in engineering college. His younger daughter made it into medical college in Anand, 200 km north of Surat. Sharbati was asking acquaintances for help to pay Rs 60,000 in fees. The family will also have to raise funds for hostel fees. His youngest son, 17, recently began a course in an industrial training institute.

Sharbati said the children’s education was funded almost entirely through cash assistance from relatives and acquaintances. “Ehhsas hamesha raha hai ki kab tak haath phailata rahunga (There was always shame about asking for financial assistance.) But there was no choice,” he said.    

Sharbati considered himself a devout Muslim, but not an orthodox one. Relatives asked him often why he was educating the girls, they’ll be married and gone. He said, “Ladki padhegi toh ek peedhi padhegi. Ladka padhega toh ek khandaan padhega. (If a daughter studies, a generation is educated. If a son studies, a family is educated.) There’s a difference,” he said.  

Sharbati would be summoned to the police station or receive a visit from policemen, most often at night, whenever a senior politician visited Surat. He said policemen from various branches visited or summoned him, from the Athwalines police station where the case was registered, the crime branch, the special operations group. “If something happened, like a terror attack, they would call and ask where I was,” he said. 

 Sharbati’s family celebrated the verdict, but he is unsure if his termination can be reversed. His appeal against the dismissal was pending. He had not given much thought to missed opportunities for promotions and salary increments.  

Unfree: Boycotts, Business Losses 

Bismillah Shaikh’s son Taabish, 24, who studied law and began to practise as a response to his father’s long trial, said that in 2015, a team of the Maharashtra Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrived in Nanded, 110 km south-west of Pusad, where he was a college student, and made enquiries about him. The case pertained to an attack on a policeman in Pusad. “They made enquiries about me,” he said.  

As a child, he and his two elder sisters were pulled out of school in Jalgaon when Shaikh was arrested, and relocated to Bhusawal, 30 km away, to end the name-calling by other children in school. “Kids wouldn’t play with me in the weeks after the arrest, they would say my father is a terrorist," Taabish told Article 14. "Even teachers treated me differently.” 

The ATS incident set off other rumours about him, including that he was involved in a “love-jihad case”, a coinage by the Hindu right-wing to refer to Muslim men in relationships with Hindu women. Teachers would ask why he talked on his cellphone and to who. 

For Siddiqui’s daughters too, the arrest was a “turning point”, he said, a setback that led to disappointments and low exam scores. His son, then in Class III, would refuse to go to school where other kids one day called him the son of Osama bin Laden’s friend. 

Newspapers published reports about the accused, their families, their social circles. “Humari poori janam kundli chhapi thi. (Every detail of our lives was published),”  said Siddiqui. Upon his release on bail, he saw the near social boycott his family had been subjected to in their neighbourhood. 

Of their two medical shops, one had to be shuttered and eventually given up. One of his four brothers kept one shop running, still the mainstay of the Siddiquis’ finances. Overwhelmed by the stress, social pressures, legal costs and the long setback, his plan to open six outlets never materialised, he said. 

The men were also not permitted to leave their hometowns, for the first five or six years. They were required to inform the local police station about any travel, which would mean that the police at the destination city would be alerted of their arrival. Their passports were also seized, causing practical problems for those who wanted to work or do business abroad. 

The Gujarat journalism topper became a chilli vendor. Asif Sharbati began to drive an autorickshaw. They reported to one another critical financial losses, and how these impacted their families. 

The incarceration of innocent Muslims is a dangerous trend for the country, the men said. “As a Muslim, I feel many others have begun to believe this, that we are harassed beause we are Muslim,” said Sharif, the former developer. He recommended a wider engagement with Islam. 

 Sharbati said he continues to feel anxious, and wants to stay out of trouble and avoid run-ins with any kind of authority. He’d like to be involved in social causes, but said he also feared that the stigma of being a former terror undertrial would come in the way. “What use is anger?” he asked. “Who should I fight with? The entire system?” 

There cannot be any real justice for him, he felt, for there could be no adequate compensation or value paid for the time they lost and their lost identity as law-abiding citizens.  

Siddiqui said he thanked only god for the acquittal, nobody else. Justice from the judicial system is not a favour to citizens, he said. “It is the duty of the system.”

(Kavitha Iyer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This two-part series was produced with support from the Thakur Family Foundation. The Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this report.)

Part 1: How Gujarat Police Used Islamophobia To Build Terror Case With No Evidence Against 124 Men