Are you a terrorist?
Uta “Ammi…went to meet Aapa Jaan in Karachi several times. In those days many relatives and neighbours went to visit their loved ones in Pakistan; it was quite a normal part of life in Old Delhi. Abbu refused to accompany Ammi because he said he did not want to go to a country where Muslims killed each other...For me Pakistan was as foreign a country as Germany, except that in Pakistan they spoke the same language as us.”
Mohammad Aamir Khan was kidnapped sometime in 1998 by the police, forced into incarceration for almost fourteen years, and upon his eventual release, left to gather the broken fragments of his remaining family and his own lost identity. It’s strange really, one day you are walking the streets of a city, of a nation, that you feel is yours, and the next day, your sense of belonging itself is questioned, by that very nation itself. Why is it, that whoever speaks against dominant narratives in this country, is immediately branded? You are either a terrorist, or anti-national, a presstitute, or commie scum/sickular, the list of names, of course, goes on and on. The strangeness, I assume, comes from a general confusion amongst us. A confusion that arises from our understanding that there is one singular nation, that we all belong to.
You see a car, caught on fire. You cannot look away. The scene is set, it’s beautiful, and horrific, at the same time. You go back with unspeakable truths pressed within your palms, as people passing by force empty gestures in your direction. You try to breathe, you can’t. It takes time, but you force your palms open, and the event that you witnessed drips down to your elbows, and over the edge, drop by drop falling on top of a piece of paper, recording itself, in its sense of urgency. You have written about the event. This is now your car. You resume to walk the streets, a slight light tingle running up and down the palm you had held shut for so long, when suddenly you hear a laugh, from right next to you. Two people pass by talking about a car they saw on fire the other day, and exchange awestruck glances. Your palm stops tingling, as you realise that the car was never just yours, what moved you into pain, moved someone else towards relief, towards release. The car is the nation, and it’s on fire. The only difference is, you don’t want to listen to who else saw it burn, how they were affected, what they must be keeping inside, you don’t want to see their palms, you don’t want to see their nation.
This story is wonderfully aided by Nandita Haksar’s introduction. Though it is more than evident that what happened to Aamir is not an exception in the times that we live in currently, Haksar’s introduction also makes it clear that his story is, therefore, all the more relevant for us to read, and try to understand; a story of perseverance, when faced with an unknowable adversity, and an attempt to hold one’s idea of faith in the justice system provided to you; a justice system, where in Haksar’s words: “…in several judgements the judge said he was acquitting Aamir by giving the ‘benefit of a doubt’…[which]would be used later to deny Aamir compensation for illegal arrest, torture and illegal detention for nearly fourteen years.”
Aamir’s story, rolls out in a beautifully fluid narrative, where his childhood,
his life around the city, are all laid down till the moment of rupture, wherein he is forcefully taken away from his loved ones. The story till this moment could’ve been any one of our stories. It is this event, however, that leads the reader into the miasma that Aamir was to remain in for over a decade. His mother’s visits, his father’s eventual demise, his struggle for acceptance by his neighbourhood, upon his eventual release, everything is put in the most simplistic of forms: words. It is left up to us, the reader to look beyond the mere expression of the realities of being framed by the state mechanisms in place, and understand the emotions that engendered the words in the first place.
This is as much a memoir of Aamir’s, and many like him caught in similar Kafkaesque situations, as much as it is a warning flare seen through a looking glass at night, gently reminding us that something is amiss; and while it is both those things, yet it retains the hope one feels, as citizens of this country, for justice, for something a little more human. We tend to have this habit, upon coming across such experiences, of thinking, but this could never happen to us! Never to us! We are safe. But in a world where we are seen as guilty till we can prove our innocence, one doesn’t know where safety exists. Nobody asks who lit the car on fire in the first place. But perhaps, it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things, perhaps, all we need to concentrate our efforts towards is to listen to one another, converse, have discussions on all matters under the sun and beyond, not get angered every time we encounter someone with views in complete opposition to our own, and maybe the car won’t matter anymore, maybe the fire will finally be put out, maybe we will not be afraid every time we open a newspaper, or step out of the house, and maybe, just maybe, when innocent people such as Aamir return to their homes after fourteen years, there will be celebration, diyas will be lit, instead of fears.
“I still live with fear because the situation in our country is not good. Many Muslim youth are targeted and picked up by the police and I still feel vulnerable. There are still two appeals pending in the High Court and I hope I will be acquitted. Sometimes I do wish I could leave India, my country, and settle somewhere safe. But then I wonder where that place is?”