Acquitted in the Sabarmati Express Train-Blasts Case, Gulzar Ahmed Wani Recalls His 16 Years In Jail

Gulzar Wani, now 44 years old, stepped into his home for the first time after 16 years of imprisonment on 6 June. Siva Sai J
14 June, 2017

In the summer of 2001, Gulzar Ahmed Wani was a 27-year-old student at the Aligarh Muslim University, in the second year of his PhD programme in the university’s Arabic department. During the summer break, Wani visited his hometown in the Tapper Bala area of north Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Upon his return to the university, he stayed at his friend’s residence in Azadpur, in Delhi, for a few days. On 30 July that year, the Delhi Police arrested Wani from his friend’s house. He was accused of orchestrating a bomb blast on the Sabarmati Express train, which killed at least nine people, when it was near Barabanki, in Uttar Pradesh, in August 2000. Wani then spent more than a decade incarcerated in different jails in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. On 20 May 2017, he was acquitted by a trial court in Barabanki for lack of evidence. On 6 June, Wani, now 44 years old, stepped into his home for the first time after 16 years of imprisonment.

I visited Wani at his house in the afternoon of 7 June. In a packed hall on the second storey of his home, Wani sat quietly in a corner. The edges of his beard, most of which had been recently dyed with henna, were grey. Wearing a prayer cap and a white Khan dress, he was sitting among many visitors, neighbors and relatives, all of whom had been pouring in to congratulate him on his homecoming. As they came in, he would stand up to shake hands or hug his guests and relatives. When Wani was unable to recognise a few relatives, Mudasir Ghulam, his younger brother, introduced them. The visitors took turns to embrace him tightly, their eyes brimming with tears after seeing him return home. As they left, he thanked each of them for visiting.

When he was arrested from Azadpur on a humid morning in July, Wani told me, he was blindfolded and taken to a secret location by personnel from the Delhi Police Special Cell, the anti-terror wing of the Delhi Police. He did not know where he was taken, but he said he was kept in a large two-storey for ten days. He was not produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of his arrest, which is the procedure prescribed under the code of criminal procedure in India. “During those ten days, I was tortured,” Wani said, without giving any further explanation. “It was very painful.”

“Those days [in the early 2000s], they [Delhi Police and Special Cell personnel] would take Kashmiri youth such as myself to some unknown location, keep you in an illegal detention, and put a gun on your head to coerce you into confessing whatever they wanted,” he said. He told me that after his arrest, he was afraid because he did not know what would happen to him next.

After ten days of illegal detention, Wani was produced before a magistrate in Delhi. “Media se kuch nahi bolna”—Don’t say anything to the media, he recalled a police officer sternly instructing him before producing him in court.

After spending ten days in police custody, Wani said he was sent to Tihar jail. The Special Cell filed a chargesheet against him for offence of conspiracy in relation to the Sabarmati Express case, and claimed to have recovered explosives from him at the time of his arrest. He told me he remained imprisoned in the high-security ward at Tihar Jail for nearly seven years and was then shifted between several jails in Uttar Pradesh for more than nine years.

In the written submissions of the final arguments that the prosecution submitted before the sessions judge in Barabanki, the prosecution alleged that “the blast … was done in pursuance of the conspiracy which was hatched up [sic] in May-2000 at Habib Hall (AMU).” The chargesheet also alleged that Wani was a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. It stated that Wani “organized meetings of Hizbul cadres and SIMI [the Students Islamic Movement of India, a banned Islamic organisation] activists.”

Since his arrest in connection with the Sabarmati Express case, Indian investigative agencies such as the Special Cell and Uttar Pradesh Police have accused Wani of being involved in several cases where explosive devices were used. MS Khan and Abubakr Sabbaq, the advocates representing Wani in the Barabanki sessions court, told me that he was accused of: planting an improvised explosive device at India Gate in January 1999; carrying out a blast in Agra ahead of a visit by the former president of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, in 2000; and carrying out a blast at the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly in Lucknow in August 2000.

Wani told me he was implicated in a total of 16 cases. The trials for these cases took place in courts across Uttar Pradesh, including those in Barabanki, Kanpur, and Lucknow. For nine years, Wani was sent across the state, from jail to jail and court to court, and tried as an accused in these cases—he told me that he could no longer recall several details, such as the location for each trial, or the court in which it was held. By April 2016, he said he had been exonerated in all except the Sabarmati Express case. In all these cases, though, Wani told me he had been acquitted or discharged because the investigative agencies could not prove his involvement.

Wani was never released on bail throughout his incarceration. The Lucknow bench of the state’s high court denied bail to Wani in August 2015, stating that the “release of such a person would adversely affect the interest of the society.” He challenged the order before the Supreme Court, which heard the case in late 2016 and directed the trial court to complete the trial within six months. After the six months ended, Wani filed another bail application. While hearing the application, on 25 April 2017, the Supreme Court called his continued detention a “shame.” It directed the Uttar Pradesh government to complete the examination of witnesses by 1 November, failing which he would be granted bail. The bench observed that the accused was acquitted in all other cases except the Sabarmati Express blast case before stating, “The problem is that you want to keep him inside the jail but not complete the trial.”

Khan and Sabbaq, Wani’s advocates, stated to the court, in the written submissions of their final arguments, that “There is no iota of evidence” connecting Wani to the Sabarmati Express case. The advocates also submitted that the only material items of evidence against Wani were “either his statement or the statements of co-accused made by them while in police custody, which are not admissible in evidence.” (The Indian Evidence Act prohibits any statement made during police custody from being admissible as evidence in court.)

While recounting the trial proceedings in the cases against him, Wani told me that many witnesses did not appear in court for several hearings of the cases. He added that some of the witnesses stated in court that they had not given the statements the police attributed to them in their chargesheet. “The police had produced many fake witnesses to falsely implicate me,” Wani said.

Despite filing several applications seeking a speedy trial, Wani saw no progress in the trial of the cases against him. “I had been moving my applications for speedy trails since 2004,” he said. “Once when I was presented before a court in Agra, I saw all my applications kept in a file before the magistrate. Nothing had been done about my multiple requests.”

Ajaz Ahmad, Wani’s brother-in-law, who was sitting next to Wani and silently listening to our conversation, intervened at this juncture. “Speedy trail is a constitutional right of a citizen but even that was denied to him,” he said. Ahmad told me he would often travel to the jails in Uttar Pradesh and to Tihar meet Wani. “Although he was acquitted after 16 years, this is not justice. His golden years were lost in prison.”

As the years passed after his arrest, Wani’s hope of release diminished. He recounted an incident, which he said occurred in either 2003 or 2004. He told me that police officials took him from Tihar jail to a district court in Uttar Pradesh for the pronouncement of judgment in a case being tried in that court. “I was acquitted in that case, but when I was taken back to Tihar jail, I discovered that the Special Cell had listed my name in two more terror cases,” he told me. For more than a decade of his imprisonment, Wani said there were times when he lost all hope of being released because of judges who would delay pronouncing the judgment on the cases in which he had been named as an accused person. It was only in the last few years of his incarceration, he said, that “whenever I would get acquitted in one of the cases, I would become hopeful [of being released].”

In 2007, Wani was transferred out of Tihar Jail in Delhi and taken to Uttar Pradesh, where he was imprisoned for the subsequent nine years. According to Wani, the jail conditions were worse in Uttar Pradesh than in Delhi. He told me he was kept in cramped cell—“about seven feet by seven feet”—in the high-security ward. “The Kanpur district jail in particular, where I was imprisoned from 2007 to 2010, was terrible,” Wani recalled. “For those three years, I didn’t have much food and the jail lacked proper latrine and washrooms.” He added that the jail authorities did not respond to his applications requesting proper bedding and latrine facilities. Ahmad told me that when he and Wani’s neighbours from Kashmir went to Kanpur to visit him in jail in 2009, they were denied the meeting. “We were put under house arrest by the police for three days in hotel near the jail that we were staying in,” he said.  “We were harassed by the police agencies during our stay in Kanpur and had to return home without meeting him [Wani] in jail.”

After Wani's acquittal in the district court in Uttar Pradesh, his next acquittal came after almost ten years. In 2013, Wani was acquitted in a case being tried in Agra. At the time, he told me, there were at least a dozen cases still pending against him. In the subsequent years, one by one, he was acquitted in other cases as well.

Wani told me he was relieved when the Supreme Court passed the April 2017 order directing that the trial must be completed before 1 November. “It was an unprecedented order,” Wani said. “It gave me hope that I can be released now.” Less than a month later, on 20 May, the Barabanki sessions court acquitted him in the Sabarmati Express case. It was the last case pending against him.

For two weeks after his acquittal, he was unable to leave the district jail in Barabanki because the jail authorities were awaiting a clarification from a jail in Nagpur, where Wani was previously acquitted in a case pending against him. He left Lucknow on 4 June, and returned to his house in Srinagar with his younger brother Mudassir Ghulam and Ahmad, both of whom met him in Barabanki. After returning home, he discovered that during the 16 years of his imprisonment, he had missed the wedding of two sisters and one of his brothers. His father, who regularly travelled to visit Wani in jail and pursued his cases with the lawyers, had become diabetic.

As we sat in Wani’s house, Ahmad proudly told me that Wani was the only PhD scholar in their neighbourhood at the time of his arrest. “Everyone in the area looked up to him with respect,” Ahmad said. He added that Wani had twice cleared the National Eligibility Test, which determines the eligibility of an applicant for college and university level lectureship, before his arrest. “He also wanted to set up a school in this area where he could teach kids from underprivileged backgrounds,” Ahmad said. “But look how all his dreams were shattered in prison.”

Before Wani stood up to leave for his afternoon prayers to a nearby mosque, I asked him about his future plans. “I’ll see what work would be suitable for me now,” he said. “But I have to do something with the rest of my life.”