The burden of innocence and a biased regime: A book review of Abdul Wahid Sheikh’s Innocent Prisoners
Aiman Khan and Arpita Jaya are researchers associated with Innocence Network India
“Tumhara shahar, tum hi qatil, tum hi mudai, tum hi munsif, humein yaqeen hai hamara qasoor niklega” (The city is yours, you are the murderer, you the petitioner, you the judge, I am sure I would be held guilty) – Ameer Qazalbash
In 2015, Abdul Wahid Sheikh was acquitted of terrorism charges stemming from the 7 July Mumbai train attack case. During the period of his detention, he wrote a detailed account of his time in prison. The book, originally written in Urdu and titled Begunah Qaidi, has been translated into English by Yousef Choudary as Innocent Prisoners. Several years after his acquittal, Wahid Sheikh has continued to campaign for the innocence of those who are still incarcerated in the same case as well as the countless other unknown innocents who languish in India’s prisons.
Nothing marks the deterioration of rule of law in India more than the incarceration and prosecution of innocent civilians, especially from minority communities and marginalized castes, on charges of terrorism. Still others are convicted on grounds of fabricated evidence and confessions extracted through torture. Even in the cases of acquittal, the extent of damage caused by false implications, relentless media trials, incarceration, torture and social ostracization is never accounted for in the aftermath. When individuals are wrongfully imprisoned for months and years, their acquittals can hardly be seen as due process or justice. The long-term impact of these arrests, often based on one’s religious and caste identity, not only affect the individuals who are jailed but also affect those who belong to the same community. The experience, struggle and resistance of the wrongfully prosecuted and their families usually go missing in India’s civil liberties frameworks.
It is in this context that Wahid Sheikh’s Innocent Prisoners becomes not only a powerful work of faith, courage and resistance, but also a necessary text for anyone who is committed to ideas of justice and equality. The book acts as a guide for those who are not familiar with the nature of India’s state structures which have denied justice to so many innocent people. Wahid Sheikh’s book can also be seen as an exercise in liberation theology, envisaging Islam as a praxis of hope, endurance and resistance.
Wahid Sheikh’s attempt to understand the laws that turned against him led him to complete a formal legal education while in prison, which he used to defend not just himself, but other Muslim youth falsely implicated under anti-terror legislation in India. The sheer number of these allegations enabled by special laws in India suggest the magnitude of the State’s attempt to further the global War on Terror and the narratives that construct “Muslims” in the popular imagination as “threats” to national security.
This book, written while sitting in the solitary confinement of Arthur Road Jail, results from Sheikh’s thorough sociolegal audit of documents, confessional statements, witness testimonies, statements made under oath by the accused, thousands of pages of charge sheets, court judgments, replies by the Right to Information department, media reports, Police reports and his own first-hand experiences and that of other defendants in the case. It is important to remember that he wrote this book in the face of torture, hostility and censorship from prison authorities. The purpose of the book, in his words, is to make clear the scope of these false accusations and the appropriate legal steps for defending oneself before the law, Police harassment and torture.
Divided into six chapters, Innocent Prisoners recounts the 7/11 case, in which thirteen Muslim men were accused of detonating seven bombs in first class compartments of a Western Railways train on 11 July 2006. The Anti Terror Squad (ATS) investigation claimed that the attack was systematic and meticulously planned, creating an atmosphere of fear among the public. After a protracted trial of nine years, the Session’s Court convicted twelve out of the thirteen accused; five men were sentenced to death, seven were sentenced to life in prison and Wahid Sheikh was acquitted. The recurring theme that runs through Sheikh’s writing is the question of the State’s modus operandi and the ideological underpinnings that govern it. The logics of India’s War on Terror discourse has provided cover for equipping the legal regime with legal amendments, provisions and sanctions to substantiate claims in court, ensure a high conviction rate and enable Police excesses and torture.
Wahid Sheikh demonstrates how *allegations of terror plots are levelled without any substantive evidence. In the 7/11 case, claims were pinned on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), an organization of Muslim students banned by the government. The allegations have never been proven in the Court. This needs to be understood, Sheik argues, in the larger context of the several hundreds of thousands of arrests that took place in the wake of the ban. Many rights activists and legal scholars have documented cases filed across the country, most of which led to acquittals.
One chapter of the book is dedicated exclusively to the various forms and mechanisms of torture in Indian prisons. Torture is justified by Police officials and medical officers in the name of India’s national interest and are often not recorded in medical records. The State also uses psychological torture as a threat or a means for confessions. Stripping the accused naked, for example, is a common practice, and if the prisoner attempts to hide their genitals using their hands they are severely beaten. Wahid Sheikh reminds us that the goal is humiliation, but urges the importance of bearing the pain to preserve the truth. Victims must never believe the false stories of Police.
The accounts of torture reveal that India runs, in effect, its own Guantanamo Bay. The torture described by Wahid Sheikh is as chilling as it is inhumane. Waterboarding, freezing temperatures in ATS torture rooms, playing loud music very close to the ears and solitary confinement are used as common tactics to dehumanize individuals completely. These mechanisms are used despite several directions from India’s apex Court against the use of torture in India’s prisons. Despite domestic anti-torture activism, India has neither passed laws to curb torture mechanisms nor has the State ratified the International Convention Against Torture.
Later in the book, Wahid Sheikh produces a daring exposé of one of the most important and chilling components of the continued incarceration and conviction of the falsely accused – what he terms the curse of confession. In India, as in common law across the world, confessions before the Police are not considered a strong piece of evidence. Article 20 of the Indian Constitution affirmatively states that no person accused of any crime shall be forced to bear witness against themselves. In order to make sure that such confessions are not achieved through means of coercion by the Police, the law has placed strict guidelines and lengthy processes to ensure that the accused is protected and aware of the consequences of a confession.
Despite these regulations, in the vast majority of terror cases, conviction is secured through the confessions of the accused. As an example, eleven of the thirteen people implicated in the 7/11 case were convicted exclusively based on their confessions. How could such a high number of confessions be achieved despite such stringent guidelines? This is the question that the author explores in depth and which, in turn, exposes the oppressive violence and corruption that lies at the heart of the legal governing regime, the Police and the judiciary.
The media and the wider public have a perception of confessions as hard truth and a clear admission of guilt. Especially in terror cases, videotaped confessions and their media circulation are quite common. This was true in the 7/11 case as well. As a pattern, it can be noted that through a series of special provisions for cases categorized to address “national security,” the Police have enjoyed growing discretionary powers rendering many regulations essentially meaningless in practice.
Wahid Sheikh further demonstrates instances of fabrication using confessional statements in the 7/11 cases. While most of the accused were Urdu speakers, for example, their statements were all in Hindi. Almost all of them contained several paragraphs that were identical, suggesting that the Police used a readymade template when taking the confessions. At the same time, family members of the accused are routinely harassed, intimidated and threatened with violence, rape and incarceration. The ordeal that families are put through is usually not addressed in the discourse on wrongful prosecution, but receives important attention in Wahid Sheikh’s book.
After his acquittal, the author campaigned to expose the nature of marginalization that the accused and their families face. Wahid Sheikh extensively documents the relentless threats made by the Police through first-hand testimonies. This harassment was carried out strategically, as the Police would threaten rape of family members as a tool of intimidation. The accused were also coerced by being threatened that, if they did not cooperate, other male family members would also be accused by the State in the same case. Wahid Sheikh continues to face continuous harassment and intimidation by the local Police but, as a result of his work as a human rights campaigner and his extensive knowledge of the legal system, he fights back by challenging and questioning the tactics of authorities.
The last chapter of the book addresses the structure of policing in India. It offers a detailed analysis of several terror attacks in India and the ways in which police officials themselves admit to an anti-minority mindset. The impunity that police officials get in the country – to fabricate cases, torture, arrest, and dehumanize individuals – is clearly outlined in the chapter, which analyzes the nature of terror investigations in cases such as the German Bakery Blasts, the Malegaon Bomb Blasts, the Aurangabad arms haul case and the Akshardham attack.
The chapter highlights the fear of the lone convict in the German Bakery blasts, Himayat Baig, who continues to suffer solitary confinement in Maharashtra. In his own words, Himayat worries that “Muslims will have to live as second grade citizens in India. They will have to give up namaaz, roza, symbols of Islam, masjids, and live like animals in the country.” Himayat claims that he was told that if he spoke about the torture he’s experienced, he would be killed by the Police. His narrative underscores the terrifying reality that the State sees Muslims as a threat to India and determines their guilt simply by virtue of being born with this religious identity.
Under the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, there have been arbitrary arrests of young students, activists, and human rights defenders under special laws, more specifically terror legislation and sedition laws. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data suggests that “ninety-three cases of sedition were filed in 2019, a 165% jump from 35 in 2016. In 2019, 1,226 UAPA cases were filed, a 33% increase from 2016.” Most of these arrests have been politically motivated, designed to stifle dissent and curb freedom of expression. These wrongful incarcerations shed light on the draconian nature of the State and the impunity of the Police.
Rather than any legal interpretation or advise, Wahid Sheikh chillingly asks other accused to stand tall under threats and torture and implores them to say no at every turn. “No policeman will step forward to bear witness in your favour,” he writes. “They all are brothers-in-crime. They commit all transgressions of law and violations in mutual consent and cooperation. They consider it is their duty to support fellow policemen, help them, even if they are on the wrong side. If a non-policeman stands against their fraternity, they are ought to oppose him to the end irrespective of whether he is on the side of the truth.”
Innocent Prisoners is critically important not just for those who are engaging with the law and the criminal justice system in India, but for anyone who wants a complete picture of the nature of excesses and failures of the State system. The very structure of these mechanisms operates on a presumption of identity-as-guilt and is based on a conspiracy to hide its own incompetence and prejudice.
And yet, at the heart of Wahid Sheikh’s writing there is a stark ambivalence in his relationship with the law. On one hand, he has been at the receiving end of the legal regime, which has time and again dehumanized Muslim subjects and justified Police excesses. On the other, he has mastered the very language of law and found avenues in it for seeking justice. His writing has systematically exposed the workings of the Police system, the judiciary and the State apparatus in contrast to the otherwise assumed objectivity of the rule of law. This ambivalence is evident throughout, where the claims of law and justice are contrasted with the tyranny of its practical realities.
Innocent Prisoners is a valiant note of refusal and defiance, a constant reminder that incarceration cannot break the spirit of resistance. This is especially salient in the context of rising majoritarian violence in India. As such, Wahid Sheikh’s book is one of the most important political texts in contemporary India. It goes beyond mere political autobiography and prison literature and fashions itself as a practical handbook of resistance – above all for those ordinary subjects for whom the unjust regime might one day come.