All the charges pressed against him by the Indian police proved to be false and it took the courts 12 years to come to that conclusion.
For Bashir Ahmed Baba, Srinagar, the place of his birth, has completely changed since he last saw it on February 20, 2010.
During his 12-year long incarceration in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Baba often missed the streets and bylanes of Srinagar's Rainawari neighbourhood, the place where he was raised.
He would dream of returning home one day and walking down his favourite childhood streets as a free man.
Now 44-year-old Baba finds himself in a place he barely recognizes. He talks, almost complains of traffic jams, haphazard building constructions, new roads and flyovers that have come up in his absence across India-administered Kashmir. But one thing that he doesn't talk much about is his time in prison.
Last week he was cleared of all charges including the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a law that has come under heavy criticism as several activists and journalists have been booked under it by the government led by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I spent 12 years in prison because I was accused falsely of a crime I didn't commit. But this too must be a test from Allah or maybe even better. Maybe I was meant to go through something even more terrible. Maybe I would have met an accident and spent the next 12 years in a comma. Who knows, maybe this was Allah's way to protect me,” Baba told TRT World while sitting beside his ageing mother at his home.
In February 2010, Baba, then a 32-year-old, left his home to attend a training workshop that was arranged for him by his employer, a German non-governmental organisation that ran a project in India for the medical support of children in rural areas.
The venue for the training was Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who at that time led the state as a chief minister. Baba was supposed to return home in two weeks. But six days into his training the anti-terrorism squad or ATS of the Gujarat police picked him and his colleague from their dorm room in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat.
According to Baba, between February 27 and March 13, the ATS kept him under detention and interrogated him until they pressed charges against him. India's reputed media organisations ran stories about Baba, portraying him as a terrorist who had set out to recruit Muslim men in Gujarat. Quoting unnamed sources, the Indian media also branded Baba as the “Pepsi bomber” for his supposed skill to make explosives in soft drink cans.
“I didn't even know about the crimes they were accusing me of. I was beaten badly. During my detention, I fell sick as well. I was taken to the hospital for treatment. Finally, I was presented in front of a judge. The next 12 years were just about spending time in jail and attending court hearings every now and then,” Baba said.
Baba has a diploma in computer applications. Before falling prey to police brutality in Gujarat, he devoted his time to building a computer training centre for the Kashmiri youth. He also worked for an NGO that provided medical help to poor and vulnerable children. In light of his performance at the NGO, he was sent to Gujarat for a sophisticated 'camp management training'.
“It was a horrible experience. I had heard about youngsters of Kashmiri being arrested randomly. I could see my future playing out in front of me,” he said.
Baba's case is one among several cases in which Kashmiri youth have been imprisoned in Indian cities under terrorism charges. This trend started three decades ago when an anti-India insurgency began in Kashmir in the late 1980s, renewing calls for the UN-sanctioned right to self-determination in disputed Jammu and Kashmir, a Himalayan region claimed by India and Pakistan in full but control only parts of it with a heavy military presence.
In July 2019, three Kashmiri men, Lateef Ahmed Baja, Ali Bhatt and Mirza Nisar, who had spent 23 years in jail, were released after the court cleared them of charges of carrying explosions in various Indian cities.
In March this year, a court in Gujarat acquitted 127 men who were booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2001 for participating in a meeting allegedly organised to promote the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The court said the evidence against them was “not reliable or satisfactory enough”.
Baba said he did not give up on the hope of walking out of the prison as a free man one day. During his imprisonment, he studied and finished a master's degree in political science with a special focus on public administration and the intellectual property act.
Baba's absence from home left a deep psychological and emotional impact on his family.
“Many of our uncles and aunts passed away during this decade but the biggest blow to our family came when our father passed away,” said Baba's younger brother Nazir Ahmed.
Ahmed, who works as a salesman, toiled for his brother's freedom after his ageing father Ghulam Nabi Baba, who also went from pillar to post for his son's release, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Ghulam Nabi Baba had worked his entire life as a small-time contractor. He passed away in 2017.
The Baba family's finances dwindled because they had to bear the costs of both the terrorism case against Baba and his father's illness. The family's poor conditions became so visible that one day when Baba's lawyer Javaid Khan visited the family he decided not to charge any fee. The veteran lawyer, Baba said, passed a week before he was cleared of all charges.
The Baba family had some moments of joy, too. Two of his younger sisters were married. His nephews and nieces were born during his time in jail. Seeing them offering him the welcome, Baba was moved to tears.
“I would only ask Allah one thing. Return my son in the same way he was taken from me. All these years, the sadness, the tragedies and everything our family faced shook us to our cores. But not our faith, I knew he would return one day,” said Baba's mother Mokhta.
Baba's younger brother, seeing her mother get emotional, chimes in, “All his (Baba's) friends got married. Now only he and I are still bachelors. Hopefully we will marry soon and celebrate the event together”.
Hearing that, the room lit up with the smiles of relatives and neighbours, who sat nearby.
Baba hopes to make use of the education he received during his jail term.
“I have studied a lot during my time in jail. I want to teach now,” he said.