Book Review: Darkness visible: Memories of barbarism and indignity

Book Review: Darkness visible: Memories of barbarism and indignity

By SRIJA NASKAR | | 27 February, 2016
Nandita Haksar (left) and Mohammad Aamir Khan (right) during the panel discussion at India International Centre in New Delhi on 20 February.
Damaged by barbaric torture in police lockups and hounded by utter despair while he was imprisoned, Mohammad Aamir Khan recounts his travails in this book, writes Srija Naskar.

Framed as a Terrorist

By Mohammad Aamir Khan and Nandita Haksar

Speaking Tiger

Pages: 234

Price: Rs 250


For me Pakistan was as foreign a country as Germany except that in Pakistan they spoke the same language as us”

— Mohammad Aamir Khan


The train, a symbol of continuity, movement, of connecting people from different places had become a ghostly reality of dead bodies being carried from across the border during India’s fractured independence in Khushwant Singh’s first novel A Train to Pakistan. A train journey to Karachi, several years after independence, in the winter of 1997, became a harrowing prelude to Aamir’s kidnapping and 14 long years of wrongful detention over allegations of him being an ISI agent, involved in cross border smuggling and a party to the Delhi bomb blasts of 1997 and a host of nineteen other terrorism related cases.

Accused of having been “radicalised” during his stay in Pakistan, which was in reality a sojourn with elder sister Aapa Jaan and brother-in-law, what awaited Aamir back in his homeland was an extrajudicial arrest, enforced disclosure agreements, deliberate assignment of false names like Kamran, Guddu, Imran, concocted prosecution witnesses who sometimes gave in, sometimes did not during court hearings as the wheel of justice spun at its own whim within a changing socio-political climate, which is to say, with a callous indifference towards Muslim undertrial prisoners post 9/11 and the Parliament attack later in the same year.

In its grappling account of convicts attacking other convicts, sexually abusing one another, the book, like a powerful optical zoom into the dark, salubrious spaces of a jail, somewhere questions the very existence of the prison system as a deterrent for wrongdoers.

“Framing” as a term has often been used as a double entendre in academic circles. In the rhetorics of her narrative communication of how Aamir, an 18-year-old, was picked up on the fateful night of 20 February 1998 by police dressed in plain clothes only to be later routinely tortured, stripped naked, and subjected to electric shocks from one lock-up to another, co-author and admired civil rights activist Nandita Haksar cleverly uses this double entendre in the recently released book Framed as a Terrorist. It is used to evoke the obvious implications of a framed image, how only certain aspects of a potentially bigger subject is highlighted to the audience while simultaneously discussing how certain sections of the society are fabricated in crime cases as a metaphor for reductive representations of religious minorities in India. ‘The insidious art of framing’ as Haksar chooses to call it, is highly communal, with Muslims being the softest targets of terrorism related charges. They write in the book how Muslims, particularly those from lower economic strata are often made to fall prey to the tactics of intelligence services, the latter being outside the purview of the RTI, hence unaccountable neither to the Parliament nor to public scrutiny in India  (precisely how one dubious Guptaji on false pretexts of patriotism had duped young Aamir into smuggling documents and photographs across the border but which the latter had failed to carry out because of fear of getting caught, an irony albeit!).

In this connection, it must be told that Aamir after the launch of his book in India International Centre (IIC), as part of the panel discussion had addressed this matter with grave importance. He said, “Although a quick look at all the Preventive Detention Acts show that religious minorities are the most targeted, it must also however be added that the affluent in those communities still get away. It is mainly the poorest of the poor, be it a Muslim or a Dalit, who are rotting in the jail of Tihar today.” The book does provide a few cases in point, one such being Shamim Akhtar from West Bengal, who could afford a Supreme Court lawyer to absolve himself of all charges and get speedy justice.

In fact, in its grappling account of convicts attacking other convicts, sexually abusing one another, the book like a powerful optical zoom into the dark, salubrious spaces of a jail somewhere questions its very existence as a deterrent for wrongdoers. Aamir shares with his readers that little acts of camaraderie shown by a fellow Gujjar prisoner who would secretly throw dates and packets of milk to his cell when the atmosphere worsened post 9/11 helped him to keep his sanity within dehumanised structures.  The evil premises of the jail did not deter him from getting a membership of the IGNOU ward, he recounts. Time devoted in reading as much as he could only kept him hopeful about getting justice one fine day. He became more and more aware of prisoner rights , which later on, he narrates helped him to fight against unnecessary judicial delays as he wrote long, well-argued and articulated petitions to the Bar Council of India coupled with signatures from all other inmates.

12 January 2012 marked the rites of passage in Aamir’s life.  His long fight to get justice had finally come to an end. He was a free man now, free to walk in any direction he wanted, free to sit or stand as per his choice. But a life lived in decadence over the past thirteen years and ten months had got the better of him. Four years on, Aamir shared with me that he often undergoes sudden memory lapses and needs to note everything down in writing lest he forget.

With financial aid from Islamic religious organisations, he writes of how he has been able to rehabilitate himself - find a job, rent a house, ask for Alia’s (his childhood chum who had waited for 14 years) hand in marriage. In this regard, Aamir also shares an important piece of information in which he says that Delhi government till date has refused to take any action on the showcause notice that was served by NHRC to it recommending Rs 5 lakh as relief for his wrongful confinement.

But free, although he might be from the shackles of  a high-risk ward, questions still remain as to whether poignant images of a father on the throes of his deathbed crying out for not being able to appear for his son’s court hearing or that of a struggling mother whom the long legal battles have left paralysed and wheel chair bound will so soon be forgotten? Will there not be a constant fear lurking within that men in khaki uniform might pick him up and shove him into darkness again?

Framed as a Terrorist is a painful eye-opener of how the pillars of democracy instead of protecting, brands the likes of Aamir as “political prisoners”, scarring them for life.

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