Srinagar: Most men who are wrongfully arrested and spend decades forgotten in Indian prisons before they are eventually acquitted, struggle to get back to the business of living. Once out, some feel desperate enough to say they were better off in jail.
This is the story of a Kashmiri man wrongly accused of terrorism who reinvented himself and who now provides solace to everyone, including policemen.
Retired policeman Ghulam Hassan, 60, was just one of many at a double-storied residence in Srinagar’s Solina area on the day we visited. Like others, Hassan was awaiting treatment in a large room.
Unlike in 2017, when people assembled in large numbers at this house to welcome the man who had returned after being incarcerated for 12 years, falsely accused of being the chief conspirator of the 2005 Delhi bombings (which claimed 67 lives), they flock to the former prisoner’s residence every Friday afternoon for a more mystical reason.
Anxious visitors carried gifts of fruits and vegetables, a token of their gratitude for the faith healer who sat in a smaller, private room where he called his ‘patients’ one by one, as any doctor would.
“Put your hands in my hands,” the faith-healer commanded Hassan when he entered the room. “And look into my eyes.”
The eye contact lasted for over 10 minutes before the faith-healer started reciting Quranic verses and said, “Close your eyes now.”
Soon the possessed policeman fumbled and told the faith-healer: “I used to pee towards the jungle when I was posted in Udhampur.” Apparently, his frequent urination had fouled a djin’s (demons or spirits) forest habitat and in a vengeful huff the spirit had possessed him.
After some time, the former policeman left the faith-healer’s room dazed and disoriented.
While such faith-healing visits for exorcism, to settle family disputes and for better health have been an age-old tradition in Kashmir, the rise of Tariq Ahmad Dar , 44, as a popular faith-healer in the Valley can also be seen as the rebirth of the man who dramatically landed in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in 2005.
Twelve years later, when Dar came home, he was still carrying that prison inside him, as Morgan Freeman did in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption.
It took some time for Dar to make peace with his past and start life afresh in his hometown, which changed in the time he had been away. Spending the prime years of his life in a dungeon was life-changing for him and for the family that waited outside.
Dar’s ordeal began on 5 November 2005 when he was a successful medical representative with Johnson & Johnson in Kashmir. On the way home from an official trip to South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, he was picked up by the Delhi Police Special Cell.
“I could see some people following me in a car,” said Dar, recalling that day clearly. “As I stopped my vehicle to inquire who they were, several guns were pointed at me, and I was blindfolded and whisked away to an unknown location.”
The next day, a shocked Dar was flown to Delhi for the crime he said he never committed. His desperate pleas were ignored, as he was driven to the headquarters of anti-terror police, where he saw representatives from multiple Indian securities’ agencies waiting for him.
“You have carried out the Delhi blasts, I was told by my interrogators,” he said. “I told them I did nothing wrong. But they started beating me ruthlessly.”
Along with two other Kashmiris, Mohammed Hussain Fazili and Mohammed Rafiq Shah, Dar was accused of planning the 2005 bombing that ripped across crowded marketplaces in Central Delhi on Diwali that year.
On 25 February 2017, The Indian Express reported that the police and government had become aware as early as 2009 that the three Kashmiri men who were then under trial for carrying out the 2005 blasts had no role in the attack. But still the case against them continued for over a decade.
“During that period, they let loose big rats in my trousers and rubbed my body with a pig to hurt my religious sentiments,” Dar said, with a shudder.
“At night, they would make me stand naked and beat me for falling asleep,” said Dar. “My head was forced into cold water for hours. They would stretch my legs and make me drink urine.”
The Delhi police, said Dar, wanted him to sign a confession but he resisted despite their “brutality”. Representatives from his employer, Johnson & Johnson, were questioned. “They told Delhi Police that the company was satisfied with me and that I can’t be a terrorist,” Dar recalled. The police also flew him to Bangalore for a narco-analysis test. However, Dar said the Court didn't entertain the report as it was released by a news channel before it was submitted to court.
The torture eventually stopped when they could not extract anything from him. “Even they knew that I was innocent and being framed in the case,” he said.
The Tihar Days
After this, he was dispatched to Delhi’s Tihar Jail where he was imprisoned in a small cell. “I wept on the first night there,” he said. “That cell felt like a grave to me.”
But Dar would spend over eight years of his life in that “dead cell” which was part of an eight-cell high-risk Ward.
The first cell housed parliament convict Afzal Guru, hanged in Tihar Jail on 3 February 2013. The second cell had Khalistani militant Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, while third and fourth held two top criminals sentenced for life. Dar was lodged in the fifth cell.
In his recently released prison memoir, Fractured Freedom, activist Kobad Ghandy, describes his time in this cell with this group of men.
“It was not solitary confinement,” said Dar. “We would be allowed to gather outside for 2 to 4 hours in a day where we would talk and interact with each other.”
It was at this time that Dar turned to spirituality. He spent hours reading and praying inside his dark cell. “I rediscovered my lord there,” he said. “And that’s what made these years a redeeming experience, and an enlightening one, too.”
Dar said he discovered his faith-healing abilities accidentally when, one day, he bumped into a criminal called Rattan in the high-security ward. “He started crying after seeing me and apologized repeatedly,” Dar recalled. “I could understand that he was possessed, so I gave him some spiritual treatment.”
After “exorcising” Rattan, Dar’s popularity as a faith-healer grew among his inmates. “They would come to me for spiritual guidance,” he said. “This continued till I was released.”
But Dar was inside Tihar, the Delhi police submitted a compact disc (CD) of his narco analysis test as alleged evidence against him before the court. But even before it was submitted in court it made prime-time news.
“The CD was dubbed by police and telecast. The judge took note of the incident and asked how a report was telecast by a news channel, which was supposed to be confidential,” Dar said. “The judge castigated the Delhi police saying, ‘It means you are framing an innocent' and didn’t entertain the CD.” Article 14 could not independently verify what the judge had said.
Dar was accused of serving as the “spokesperson, finance manager, and conspirator of the Lashkar-e-Taiba”.
On 20 February 2017, after being held for 12 years in various jails across India, but mostly in Tihar, Dar was released. The prosecution, said the judge, failed to prove his involvement in the blasts.
The Delhi court issued bail orders to Dar and the two other Kashmiris—Mohammed Hussain Fazili and Mohammed Rafiq Shah—who were later found innocent and acquitted.
“In the absence of any evidence regarding Dar being involved in the conspiracy behind these blasts, none of the charges framed against him are made out,” The Hindustan Times quoted the judge as saying.
Dar was, however convicted for the offence punishable under Section 38 (being the member of a terror organisation) and Section 39 ) Offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation) of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) but released since he already served 12 years in jail.
Senior advocate Rebecca Mammen John, who represented Mohammed Rafiq Shah, told Article 14 that the Delhi Police in July 2019 appealed against the trio’s acquittal.
Dar’s long walk to freedom became yet another instance of how Kashmiris are framed by Indian security agencies.
“There is a flaw in our judicial system regarding the action against investigation officers who deliberately frame innocent people in criminal cases,” advocate Salih Pirzada, who practices at the J&K High Court told Article 14. “There is a law for malicious prosecution, but you again have to prove it in the trial which also takes years.”
Dar struggled to make ends meet after his acquittal. To support his two daughters and wife, he worked as a marketing executive at a local magazine, which shut after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019.
Meanwhile, Dar’s neighbours got to know of his faith-healing abilities and spread the word. The former captive soon witnessed a rush of people at his doorstep.
He does not charge for his services. Many visitors give him a token amount, which has now become his primary source of income. He supplements this income by being a distributor for water purifiers.
Dar sees around 2,000 people a month and keeps a record of his patients. At present, as per Dar’s records, he has consulted with 27,000 people. “I get patients from all over the world,” he said.
Today, as much as he regretted the years he lost, Dar said he regretted the fact that the victims of the Delhi bombings got no closure. The court, he said, did not order any action against the police officers who implicated the trio in the case.
“While those officers were rewarded for framing innocents, I lost my precious life behind bars when I could have done so much for my family,” he said. “Like me, no one was ever compensated for this miscarriage of justice. Who can return my 12 years of youthful life?”
(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist.)