“I am unable to walk by myself. I haven’t walked for years without someone holding my hand,” he says. “I am trying though. It feels strange to decide when to cross the street. I have not taken such decisions myself for a long, long time. I am like a monkey who is used to commands.”
On June 17, 1996, at three in the morning, Shah, then a 17-year-old boy, was woken up and arrested by the Delhi Police from his rented room in Jangpura in south Delhi for alleged involvement in the Lajpat Nagar blast. Shah, then a Class XII student, had gone to Delhi to visit his brother, a trader in Kashmir arts.
For the next 13 years, 10 months and three weeks, Shah was in prison, most of the time in a high-security cell in Tihar Jail. On April 8, 2010, a Delhi court acquitted Shah of all charges and ordered his release.
There were 10 accused in the case, of whom four, including Shah, were acquitted for want of evidence.
After Shah’s arrest, the police claimed to have recovered the spare tyre of the white Maruti car that was used in the blast from his room in Jangpura. But the car owner, Atul Nath, told the court the tyre did not belong to his car, nor had he ever identified it. The police had also claimed to have recovered some photographs and clothes belonging to other accused, which were never produced before the court.
At 31, Shah says, “freedom” seems like a burden. “Everything has changed. My father and a sister died waiting for me to come back. Many of my family elders and neighbours are dead. I see my friends and it is a shock. Their appearances have completely changed. They have grown older and are all married now, with children. Fourteen years is a long time.”
He says he stopped thinking about his life in jail. “For the first three months, I would cry every day. But once time passed, life became routine. I sought bail dozens of times. I wrote letters pleading my innocence. My family knocked on all doors but nothing worked.”
A five-year-old boy, Adnan, enters the room. “He is my sister’s son. My sister is dead now. She died four years ago,” he says and recollects the last time she had come to meet him in Tihar. “We talked through a phone. She wanted to hold my hand but neither of us could reach out. I think about that moment each and every day.”
The other day, he went looking for childhood friend Tariq Ahmad. “We were together in school. His father would row a boat to carry people across. The waters have dried up and there is a muddy damp where people have constructed houses. Tariq drives a school van now. We used to play and laugh. He (Tariq) has become a serious person now and has no time.”
Shah feels he is in a time warp. “They gave me this little box to carry,” he says, taking out a Nokia phone from his pocket. “I didn’t know how to use it. The first time it rang in my shirt pocket, I jumped. There was just one landline in our entire locality in 1996,” he says. “Now I see even children carrying it. My brother explained to me how it works, I still can’t dial.”
The colour TV is another thing he is trying to get used to. “We just had a radio back then... Now my little nephews can flip channels. I can’t still understand how the remote control works.”
Shah’s brother Syed Hassan, busy working on a bangle, intervenes. “He is not able to sleep on a normal bed. He is asking for a wodden cot to sleep on,” he says. Shah says he is having muscle aches because he is not used to sleeping on a mattress. “I am asking for a blanket to be rolled over the cement floor.”
Shah complains about the clucking of the family chicken in the compound. “It irritates me,” he says. “Even the honking of the cars is strange. There are a lot of new sounds.”
Is he angry? “I lost 14 years of my life to a lie. Why won’t I be angry? But then I understand. I belonged to Kashmir, it was 1996, I was young and I was there (in Delhi) at the wrong time. What happened to me could have happened to anybody,” he says.
“I feel I have come out of a smaller jail to a bigger one. I am learning to walk again, I have to earn a living now and I have no clue how. I got the verdict, now I hope I get some justice.”
From Muzammil Jaleel's heartrending report in Indian ExpressTo read the full report click here.