Mumbai, Surat, Aurangabad, Pusad: When 124 Muslim men were arrested in December 2001, in a post-midnight operation in the city of Surat in Gujarat, and charged with conspiring to boost the illegal activities of a banned Islamic terrorist organisation, it instantly became a sensational case.
The arrests took place just six days after five Pakistani terrorists barged into and opened fire inside the complex of the Indian Parliament. Images of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center three months earlier were still fresh in public memory. Scraps of information about some of the arrested Muslim men having travelled abroad were fodder for canards about “foreign links”.
Nineteen years later, on 6 March 2021, every one of these 124 Muslim men was acquitted, along with three men arrested later. This time, the order of acquittal, bail orders, accounts of the men and those of their lawyers etched a narrative that has none of the bluster of December 2001—a high-profile case involving the arrest of a large number of Muslims, charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967.
What has emerged from the court orders and our interviews with eight of those acquitted across three cities is how police tapped into popular Islamophobia with claims of terror plots and foreign counterparts, and a long, humiliating legal battle for the accused, while their personal lives, families and reputations were slowly ravaged.
In the first of a two-part series, Article 14 investigates how the sensational arrest of 124 men in a single terror case unravelled amid procedural lapses and absence of any evidence. Part 1 delves into the trial court’s order of acquittal, panchnamas or search reports, witness depositions and orders in response to bail pleas. Part 2 will look at the price paid by the accused men exonerated after 19 years on trial, the destruction of their lives, businesses and families.
An Investigation Debacle
The 124 men were charged with assembling under the pretext of a religious and educational seminar with the purpose of keeping alive the outlawed Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), boosting its illegal activities and storing objectionable literature related to SIMI. All these charges were without substance, the court held.
They were charged 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 or with intent to strike terror in the people or any section) of the UAPA.
In its 6 March order, the Surat chief judicial magistrate’s (CJM) court said the prosecution had failed to produce any evidence that the men were members of SIMI or that they had assembled to strengthen its activities. It was an investigative debacle.
The other reason cited by CJM Amitkumar Narendrabhai Dave was a serious technical lapse.
The Gujarat government’s prosecution team had failed to take prior Central government sanction for proceedings under UAPA as required by the law—the application of the stringent law without following due process had sullied the trial. “Thereby, the entire process of this case has lacunae,” the court said.
Article 14 accessed the court’s order of acquittal, the Surat police’s charge sheet, First Information Report (FIR) and original panchnamas, and translated these from Gujarati. Together, they provide evidence of a hasty case, sloppy investigation, inexplicable delays and a prosecution apparently unmindful that its case was held up by paper-thin evidence.
Only 20 prosecution witnesses deposed over the years. Of the modest 25 items in ‘documentary evidence’, there were several formalities, such as death certificates of four accused, and 445 pages of emails that the trial judge set aside as not having evidentiary value on account of how they were procured.
In 2005, the Gujarat High Court ordered the trial expedited. Two separate bail orders had a high court judge commenting on the flimsy evidence as early as 2002. Yet, the trial dragged on for 19 years and two months, overseen by multiple judges, argued by multiple public prosecutors.
The arrests took place about two months before by-elections to the Gujarat state Assembly. One of the three constituencies going to polls was Rajkot-2, from where newly appointed chief minister Narendra Modi would contest, and win, facilitating his entry into the state legislature.
At least some of the now-acquitted men do not deny that they were once members of SIMI, not just before it was outlawed in 2001 (in the aftermath of 9/11) and as volunteers for social causes, but also several years in the past, when they were below the organisation’s age limit of 30 years for members.
Among the series of public prosecutors appointed in the case a few years later was Jagroopsinh Rajput, a former deputy mayor of Ahmedabad and one of those named by witnesses in the Gulberg Society massacre during the Gujarat riots of 2002. Rajput was not added as an accused in the Gulberg case trial owing to inconsistent witness accounts and inadequate evidence, despite witnesses demanding that he be arraigned.
In the years subsequent to their arrest, the ‘Surat 127’ watched ‘SIMI men’ being arrested (here, here and here) across India in various cases, old copies of SIMI literature, now banned, serving to incriminate them among other things.
These men would be sometimes acquitted later (here and here), the evidence not standing up years after the arrests were presented as being part of a wider war on terror. The trajectory of their case was similar. Only, it dragged on for nearly two decades.
Where It Began: A Banquet Hall In The Heart Of Surat
Decades before it was converted into a banquet venue, Rajshri Hall was a cinema auditorium. Some auto rickshaw drivers in Surat still call the road Rajshri Talkies Road, a bustling part of the city-centre. The building is now under reconstruction, but defence lawyer Abdul Wahab Shaikh himself participated in mushairas at the venue, a somewhat popular venue in the historical city.
Kikubhai Bhatt, who worked at the hall, told the trial court that a man he remembered only as ‘Mansuri’ booked Rajshri Hall for the period from 27 to 30 December, paying a deposit of Rs 15,000 and collecting receipts. A hundred mattresses and arrangements for freshly cooked meals were made.
On 27 December, a banner was strung up in the hall announcing the 8th annual seminar of the All India Minority Education Board (AIMEB) on Constitutional provisions for minorities, on 28, 29 and 30 December. Staff went about preparing the day’s meals—there was undhiyo, puri, dal and rice for lunch, khichdi and kadhi for dinner—even as people began to arrive by mid-morning.
According to eight of the accused who Article 14 spoke to, they had been invited to the seminar, by virtue of their involvement in educational or charitable activities or their associations with various Muslim trusts and institutions. Some others were friends or acquaintances of those who received the invitations.
The Surat Police FIR said policemen had kept a watch on the venue through the evening of 27 December, and had entered “when the movement of some of these persons was found suspicious”. But the raid began around half past midnight, and by accounts of several of those present and also according to some panch witnesses’ deposition under oath in court, the men were mostly in bed or readying for bed.
According to the FIR, the Athwalines police station received confidential fax messages from the state’s additional director general of police (intelligence) and from the zonal deputy police commissioner, relaying that former members of SIMI were planning a “secret religious meeting” in Surat. “...it is wrong to believe that SIMI ceases to exist,” the fax message said, according to the FIR.
‘Incriminating’ Evidence: What Police Witnesses Said
Panchnamas or search reports and witnesses’ depositions, accessed by Article 14 and translated from Gujarati, set out the events of the night, the subsequent days’ investigations, and also items seized from the men at Rajshri Hall.
The raiding party comprised about 25 policemen, including an assistant commissioner of police, a deputy commissioner of police, and some civilian witnesses.
One panch or witness’s account said 100-125 persons were in the hall, and “their Muslim identity was displayed by the beard and cap”.
Beyond a curtain in the hall was a small dining area, where “three dubious individuals” were seated. These were Ataur Rehman Qureshi, the main accused in the case as the chairman of the seminar. Based in Saharanpur, in Western Uttar Pradesh, Qureshi ran the pan-India Wahadat-e-Islami Hind, considered by investigators as being associated with or a frontal organisation of SIMI.
His age was listed in the panchnama as 65, but later stated by the investigating officer in court as 73 at the time of arrest.
Apart from a cell phone, a visiting card and diaries, also seized from him was a sticker-like card bearing the word ‘Students Islamic Movement of India’ printed in Hindi, and a similar card with the inscription in English. These would be cited later by the Gujarat High Court while denying him bail.
The other two men were Mohammed Jalil Siddiqui, 45, a Lucknow resident and secretary of the AIMEB; and Mohammed Abdulhai Abdul Sattar, 47, professor from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. A file in Siddiqui’s possession had blank Ikhwan (ordinary, part-time membership) forms of SIMI. Siddiqui was also in possession of copies of the Ahadnama (a prayer or vow from the Quran).
Most Significant Evidence: Poetry Booklet
The most significant seizure from the police’s point of view was a poetry booklet titled Mera Sher, Osama Bin Laden (My Lion, Osama Bin Laden), represented by newspapers and news channels in following days as pro-terror literature. According to the first information report (FIR) and the first panchnama, this was discovered on the person of Sattar.
All the other seized items came from a search of the room, where papers and belongings were scattered. This “incriminating evidence” included “a newspaper cutting about Islam and against other religions”, visiting cards of people from different states, railway reservation slips, a 68-page admission guide to Aligarh Muslim University, a Nokia mobile phone, an audio cassette of Hindi film Dhamaka, files in yellow and saffron, seminar forms, blank sheets, 70 forms of the AIMEB.
In a zippered black pocket file were 13 photographs of “gatherings, meetings, schools and training activities”, leaflets in Urdu, a book on the Indian railway, old Urdu newspapers with some news items underlined, 10 diaries of various years with writing in Urdu. There were also a PAN Card, a couple of driving licences, two voter identification cards, more visiting cards, Urdu magazines, Urdu pamphlets, Urdu books, notebooks with handwritten notes in Urdu and in books in English, Hindi and Gujarati. There was also a question paper for a chartered accountancy exam.
“The above-mentioned objectionable items” were found during the search of the hall, according to one witness in the panchnama.
Thirty-four items were seized, according to the deposition of investigating officer and police inspector M J Pancholi of Athwalines police station, also the complainant in the case and a member of the raiding party—a departure from practice.
A separate panchnama was conducted during the search of a white Santro car parked in the compound of Rajshri Hall. It belonged to Mohammed Rafiq Ismail Dada, among those arrested, who had driven down from Modasa in Kutch. The search was conducted on 30 December, two days after the arrest. “No objectionable item was found,” said the panchnama, but in the general vicinity of the car was a SIM card “with some writing” on it.
The Surat Police arrested everyone who had gathered for the seminar, 123 men in all, and slapped them all with identical charges. The 124th arrest was recorded on 1 January, 2003. According to the FIR, the men had gathered under the pretext of a seminar to “propagate the ideology of SIMI”, to enroll new members and to “indulge in anti-national activities”.
‘Secret information’ Led To Raid
The raid that stretched into the wee hours of 28 December was conducted based on “secret information” relayed to the intelligence department, according to the Surat police FIR. Investigating officer Pancholi said in his complaint that the hall had been booked in Qureshi’s name by Arif Majid Mansuri, a resident of Surat’s Salabatpura locality, believed to be related to Sajid Gulam Mansuri.
Shown as absconding in the case, Sajid Mansuri is said to be a national-level SIMI operative, and a former president of the organisation’s Surat unit. He was arrested in August 2008 from Bharuch in southern Gujarat in connection with a serial blasts case, but was never arrested in the Surat case.
During his cross-examination, however, Pancholi told the court that he was indeed a part of the raiding party, and had also filed the chargesheet, but “the information received was not by me, but by other police officers.” Referring apparently to the intelligence information, Pancholi said it was true that he did not “know what the information was”.
He did not record the statement of the officer who received the information, nor did he know if an entry was made in the station diary about the alleged tip-off. Pancholi in effect conceded that he arrested all the men who had assembled for the seminar, not knowing what the original tip-off was. He did not record the statement of DCP (South Zone) Prafulla Kumar Roushan, the senior officer who accompanied the team.
“It is true that the officer Dr Amin is in jail custody for the fake encounter case,” Panchal said.
Senior police officer Narendra Kantilal Amin was arrested in 2007 in the Sohrabuddin Shaikh fake encounter case and was behind bars until 2015. Then a deputy superintendent of police at the Ahmedabad crime branch, he was charged with murder, conspiracy, destruction of evidence and kidnapping.
The chargesheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation said Amin was not a part of the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) that conducted the extra judicial killing, but was in touch with top officers and co-accused throughout, and also with Amit Shah in a flurry of phone calls. Shah, then a junior minister in the Gujarat government, was also arrested in the case. Amin was alleged to have been involved in disposing of the body of Sohrabuddin’s wife Kausar-bi, also killed in the encounter.
Shah, Amin and other top Gujarat police officers DG Vanzara and RK Pandian were all later discharged by courts for want of evidence. Amin was also discharged in a case pertaining to the 2004 encounter killing of 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan, one in a series of Gujarat police encounters in the 2002-06 period following intelligence inputs on alleged plots to assassinate Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister.
Shadow Probe: Sohrabuddin Encounter Cop’s Role
For the prosecution, a purported key part of the evidence was 445 pages of emails received by one of the accused, Ahmedabad-resident Sohail Iqbal Patel, including news reports of their arrests, news reports on the Babri Masjid issue, a copy of the order banning SIMI, and mails from an account called ‘Friends Of SIMI’. Eventually, the court set aside these emails as having no evidentiary value under the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
In his deposition to the CJM court, Amin said he had received a written order from then Surat police commissioner VK Gupta to join the investigation in the SIMI case.
He conducted an “in-depth” interrogation of Patel, who owned a computer firm, following which Amin reportedly called in panch witnesses while the accused provided passwords to four email accounts, opened the accounts, and printed out pages of emails.
Amin said the connection used was a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd dial-up connection registered in the name of the police commissioner of Surat. He said he conducted this investigation on 31 December, from 6 pm to midnight.
He orally advised investigating officer Pancholi to take note of certain pages, hand-wrote a panchnama, and obtained signatures of two panch witnesses. He advised Pancholi about the meaning of a couple of acronyms in the pages, including ISNA, or the Islamic Society of North America. Amin didn’t offer further explanation in his deposition, but ISNA has faced accusations of connections with the extremist-supporting Tablighi Jamaat of Pakistan.
During his cross-examination, Amin conceded that Athwalines police station, where the case was registered, does not fall under the jurisdiction for which he was assistant commissioner of police at the time. The investigating officer had not requested his help. Pancholi had not recorded any statements regarding Amin’s investigations.
On the date of Amin’s interrogation of Patel, the latter was technically in the custody of the investigating officer. Amin took no permission from Pancholi to interrogate Patel, he admitted in court, nor did he obtain permission from the court for such an interrogation, nor did he submit a report of his investigations to Pancholi, or even to police commissioner V K Gupta.
In addition, a witness in a separate panchnama of the seizure of Patel’s emails turned hostile in court. He said Surat Crime Branch officers arrived at his garage one afternoon. He flatly denied that he accompanied the police to Patel’s computer firm located in Thomsan Chambers building in Ahmedabad. In the panchnama bearing his signature, police are said to have searched Patel’s office on 3 January, 2002.
Panchnama 3 as presented by the prosecution pertained to the downloading of Patel’s emails. According to the panchnama, Patel volunteered information about four email accounts and their passwords. The password to one account was ‘SIMI’.
There was nothing incriminating in three email accounts, but a fourth inbox had 56 emails on variety of subjects connected with contemporary Islam--mails titled ‘Who after SIMI?’, for example, and others regarding Hindu outfits, fund-raising activities of Zakir Naik, etc.
In his deposition in court, one panch witness said he is a computer engineer and used to work at a cyber cafe. Four years earlier, he had been called in as a panch witness to Rander police station, about 7 km from Athwalines police station in Surat, where an email account was open on a computer. He said he does not know the details of those emails. In the present case, while the signature as a panch witness on the panchnama was indeed his, he said he didn’t know where the police had seized those papers from.
The other panch witness to the downloading of the emails was a former subordinate of the first witness. He said that on 31 December, he was called to a police post near the Adajan bus stand in Surat. The next day, he went to Umara police station and placed his signature on some papers. He recognised the signature on the panchnama as his, but said he does not know where the police seized the papers from.
The CJM said in his acquittal order that while these emails and the panchnama bear the signature of the witnesses, Amin had not stated that the documents were to be sealed, the signatures of the panch witnesses taken on the seal. “Moreover, it does not seem that he would have obtained any kind of certificate to consider the prints obtained from the computer as electronic evidence under section 65-B of the Indian Evidence Act.” This section pertains to admissibility of electronic evidence.
The documents obtained from the computer have no evidentiary value, the CJM ruled.
Some Denied Bail Due To Slivers Of ‘Evidence’
One of the accused, Ziauddin Siddiqui of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, told Article 14 some of them met the accused in the Godhra carnage in jail. Months passed while they attempted to piece together the police case against them.
“They had arrested and chargesheeted us with absolutely no evidence, so I was certain that we wouldn’t be released so easily,” he told Article 14 during an interview at his office in Aurangabad.
After being denied by lower courts, the bail applications of 20 men were allowed by the Gujarat High Court in October 2002. Article 14 has accessed one of the bail orders.
In his order, Justice D P Buch wrote that while the public prosecutor’s claim that articles seized during the raid would prove the men’s involvement in SIMI’s activities would be examined in the trial court, nothing incriminating had been found in the possession of the current bail applicants. “… and when their actual involvement in the activity of the aforesaid unlawful association is also prima facie, doubtful, in my opinion, this is a fit case for enlargement of the applicants on bail,” he said.
Siddiqui was among a second batch of 87 men who were granted bail by the Gujarat HC on 20 November 2002, by the same judge.
“It is not much in dispute that incriminating materials have not been seized from the personal search of the petitioners,” he wrote this time.
Justice Buch did, however, deny bail to others, including Sohail Patel and main accused Ataur Rehman Qureshi.
Denying bail to Patel, the judge said the record of his emails showed prima facie that he “continued his association with the said unlawful association” (after the ban on SIMI). Patel was a US citizen, the court noted in the order dated 20 November 2002, accessed by Article 14.
Qureshi and two others had sought bail contending, among other things, that the charges against them were punishable with imprisonment of not more than two years, and so they were entitled to bail. These applicants, including Qureshi, were found in possession of “certain incriminating documents connecting them with SIMI”. A sticker found on Qureshi’s person indicated that it was related to SIMI, the court observed.
The other two applicants with Qureshi were a former president of the Rajasthan unit of SIMI and a SIMI member since 1978, according to the prosecution. All three were denied bail, said the order accessed by Article 14.
Eventually, Patel, Qureshi and others were granted bail by the Supreme Court on 3 February, 2003.
In their order, Justices Y K Sabharwal and H K Sema said the men had been in jail for over a year and the prosecution had not shown any adverse incidents to disentitle them to bail in a case that could yield a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment under Section 10 of the UAPA.
The court also pointed out the Gujarat High Court’s doubts over whether the act of attending the meeting could be seen as “falling within the four corners” of Sections 10, 13 and 15 of the UAPA.
Investigation Fails To Back Up Prosecution Claims
If there were indeed incriminating items among the seizures, these failed to convince the trial judge.
The charge sheet was filed on 25 February, 2002. At the time, there was no formal sanction for prosecution under UAPA accorded by a Central government official, as required by law. In fact, the investigating officer had noted in the chargesheet that the approval of the government had been sought, and would be provided when it came through.
It is unclear how the court took cognizance of the UAPA case without the sanction.
Investigating officer Panchal also conceded in court that he did not conduct further investigations into the articles seized during the raid, such as where the seized visiting cards, telephone diaries, literature and forms had been printed. “It is true that I did not investigate to ascertain who printed the Osama Bin Laden-related poetry, or where,” he said.
The investigating team had taken no effort to verify if the seized literature belonged to SIMI, if the couplet indeed eulogised Osama Bin Laden. Pancholi said he had no idea that SIMI did not accept members over 30 years of age—the bulk of those arrested were well beyond that age-limit. Other police witnesses admitted that some items seized and presented as evidence had not been sealed. A panch witness said he had no idea which item belonged to which man being arrested, or who was in possession of specific literature.
Siddiqui told Article 14 it was such a half-hearted investigation that there could be no doubt that it was “nothing more than a motivated, false case”.
Another accused, Mohammed Murtuza Sharif, a former land developer in the little town of Pusad in eastern Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, said he felt the police and prosecution had “played with us like children playing with toy-things”.
Bismillah Shaikh, a former teacher and well-respected resident of Pusad who was also one of the accused, said it was a case with “political, religious” motivations that had devastated their children’s lives and opportunities as it dragged on for years.
Shaikh’s elder son Taabish chose to study law, as a result of the long legal struggle he saw his father and his acquaintances survive. “I wanted to see if the law can be equal,” he told Article 14, seated in their single-storey home in a rundown part of Pusad.
A police sub-inspector (PSI) from Umara police station, just 3 km from Athwalines police station, said in his deposition that he travelled to Jamianagar, Okhla, in New Delhi, along with a head constable from the anti-extortion cell and a cab-driver, to find the AIMEB office.
On 30 December, 2001, two days after the arrests, he filed a report saying there was no such office, appending a signed statement from the driver as a witness. His report was filed before the additional police commissioner Range-2.
During cross-examination, the PSI conceded that he had not reported his findings to the investigating officer. He also admitted he had not sought the assistance of the Delhi government to verify the existence of such an office of the AIMEB.
Investigating officer Pancholi admitted in court he had no idea that the AIMEB did indeed exist and had offices in various parts of India.
Delays, Fresh Dates, New Prosecutors
Abdul Wahab Shaikh of Surat, one of the defence lawyers, said he and other lawyers waited two years just to set out their final arguments, before the Covid-induced delays that began from April 2019. Speaking to Article 14 during an interview in his office in Surat, Shaikh said the accused, who were initially coming from states all across the country, were all very grateful for the acquittal.
“After the first public prosecutor resigned, a second PP was appointed. But he then got a ticket to contest the 2012 Assembly election and he won. He too resigned,” said Shaikh, explaining the delays around 2011-2013.
The now acquitted men said there were repeated instances of either the PP or the judge being unavailable even when the accused had been given a date for a hearing and had all gathered. At least two of them felt their trial was delayed as the focus of the investigating and prosecuting authorities shifted to the more urgent Godhra and communal riot cases.
In 2003, the Surat Police made two more arrests in the case, Asif Iqbal Shaikh alias Asif Sharbati, then an employee of the Surat Municipal Corporation; and Hanif Hasan Multani, also a Surat resident and a traffic police constable. The two had been declared absconding though they were not present at the venue on the night of 27 December.
Asif, who knew the organisers and was scheduled to attend the seminar, was in Mira Road in suburban Mumbai, that night. He decided to stay back in Mumbai on hearing of the arrests. He was arrested from Mira Road a year later, he told Article 14. By then, the Gujarat HC had released the others on bail, the communal riots had ended and it seemed investigations into their case would pick up.
Multani was arrested from Navsari, also in 2003.
In 2005, the Gujarat High Court, in response to a petition filed by the accused, ordered that the trial be expedited and completed within six months. But the case stayed on the back-burner. By now, top Gujarat policemen were facing accusations and arrest themselves in high-profile cases pertaining to extra-judicial killings.
The 127th accused, Mohammed Imran Mohammed Idris Ansari, was arrested in 2009, from Indore. Two supplementary chargesheets were filed. The acquittal order applied to all 127 accused, of which four were no longer alive.
Surat district government pleader Nayan Sukhadwala, who appeared for the prosecution in the final leg of the trial, said he is yet to submit a report to the state government on whether the case is suitable for an appeal against the CJM court’s order of acquittal. “The most important thing is that there was no sanction to try them under UAPA,” he told Article 14.
Meanwhile, Jagroopsinh Rajput, the public prosecutor who resigned upon being elected a BJP MLA from the Bapunagar constituency in Ahmedabad in 2012, lost the 2o17 election from the same seat to a Congress candidate. Article 14 was unable to contact him, but his Facebook profile said he works with the directorate of prosecution in Ahmedabad.
N K Amin, who was reinstated to service following his discharge in the encounter case, also received a year’s extension of service from the Gujarat state government in August 2016, when he was due to retire. When the extension was challenged, the state government filed an affidavit commending Amin’s performance as “outstanding”.
Among the men who were acquitted, an aspiring journalist took to selling chillies after being released on bail; an employee of Surat Municipal Corporation became an autorickshaw driver; a professor had to forego all promotions; the men also share updates of poor mental health and ailments among their former co-accused.
They said they are relieved, but there are also troubling questions about religion, freedom and the nature of justice.
Part II: Exonerated, Still Anxious: ‘Harassed For Being Muslims’
(Kavitha Iyer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This two-part report 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.)