Saleem Khan was granted custodial parole mid-August, to attend the funeral of his brother. From Delhi’s Mandoli Jail, he was brought to the graveyard in a prison van, stoking the neighbourhood’s curiosity. They rushed out of their homes; some took to rooftops. Armed men in uniform jumped out of the van, and went to check whether the body had arrived for the burial.
“Dad,” called out Saima, 26, the eldest of Saleem’s three children. “Dad,” repeated Sahil, younger to Saima by two years. They and their mother Shavina wondered at the impact the sudden demise of his brother had had on Saleem. They could not see him, as the prison van did not have windows, only small openings high on both sides of the vehicle.
The body arrived at dusk. Saleem was taken out of the van. He walked slowly, hand-in-hand with a cop, a precaution against the prisoner fleeing. Countless cellphones began to record the scene. He broke down. On that evening, along with the dead, was also buried Saleem’s dignity.
Saleem Khan, whose family says he never participated in the anti-CAA protests
Once again, on September 12, Saleem came in the prison van, with 18 armed escorts, to the family’s apartment at Yamuna Vihar, Northeast Delhi, to attend the ceremony observed on the 40th day of the death of a person. They entered the living room, where the recital of the Quran awaited his arrival. No, he could not sit there, for that would have a whiff of normalcy. Prisoners on custodial parole must always experience the denial of freedom.
Saleem was taken to an adjoining room. Its door was left ajar for him to listen to the recital. Relatives and visitors, one by one, went to meet him, including a neighbour who had described Saleem Khan’s family, in Shavina’s presence, as that of a terrorist. Perhaps repentant, he, like others, told Saleem, “All things must pass.” In the present, though, the cops disallowed the family to serve food, specially prepared for the ceremony, to Saleem. To partake of a tasty meal is to also savour freedom! Next moment, Saleem was gone.
Two days later, I am in the living room, listening to Shavina, Saima and Sahil recount their travails in the aftermath of the February 2020 Delhi riots. The police would summon Saleem, engaged in an export-import business, and place four or five photographs of protesters on the table. He was unable to identify them, explaining he had not participated in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. On March 10, he did not return home. Next morning, they were informed of his arrest.
For the next three months, they did not know of his whereabouts. “Those months…” Shavina sighs, her eyes welling up.
On June 25, they were summoned to the Delhi Special Police Cell office. Saima was taken to a room. Soon, a man entered, in clothes hanging loose on him, his beard and hair silvery. On coming close to her, he said, “Saima.” She jumped. The man was her 47 years old father, whom she had never seen without his hair and beard dyed black. Besides two other cases, he had been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which, with its stringent bail provisions, implied a long haul awaited him.
Saima and Sahil had been thrown into the deep end. They had to learn to swim, to stave off economic misery. A graduate, Sahil renamed his father’s company and strove to build upon the one customer who chose to stick with them.
A Bachelor in Dental Surgery, Saima juggles two jobs, pitches in for Sahil on Sundays, and tracks the cases against her father. She withdrew the legal brief from a lawyer representing Saleem pro bono. The reason: he had twice disconnected the calls her father had made to him from jail. She handed over the brief to another lawyer, willing to forego his fees. But lately, he would send to court juniors lacking in skills. And so, she engaged a third lawyer, again free of charge.
Saleem was granted bail in one case in 2020. Another had gone in appeal to the High Court. Would it not help to have a lawyer of repute argue the bail matter? Saima called up Congress leader and lawyer Salman Khurshid, who invited her over for a meeting. She narrated to him the family’s woes. Khurshid agreed to argue pro bono, and secured bail for Saleem in 2021.
“My father felt so, so proud of me that a lawyer of Khurshid’s standing argued for him—and would also do so in the UAPA case,” she says, beaming. Khurshid also spoke to the school where Adeeba, Saleem’s third child, studies, and persuaded the management to rework the fee structure for her.
A Persian cat comes out of a room and walks over to us, with the feline grace, unafraid of the stranger in the room. Saima says Khurshid inquired whether she would in the future stand up for another person deprived of his or her rights. Petrified by the arrest of innocent student leaders, she told Khurshid she would not. “But now, after months of reflection, to the same question, I would say, yes.” Billu, the Persian cat, purrs, as if in approval.
The writer is a senior journalist.
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