In November 2012, Hamid Ansari, a 27-year-old techie, left his home in Mumbai, presumably to explore a job opportunity in Kabul, Afghanistan. But soon after, he went missing without a trace. His worried family finally discovered he was in Pakistan, where he had travelled to help a friend from being forcibly married off.
In spite of his good intentions, Ansari got embroiled in a conspiracy and was accused of being an R&AW spy. Held in prisons, often in solitary confinement, he struggled to survive and keep his morale up, while back home, his mother Fauzia campaigned tirelessly for his release, knocking on every possible door, including that of the then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Finally, in 2018, Ansari was released and returned to India.
In the excerpt that follows, Ansari recalls the time he spent in a death-row cell in 2016 in a memoir co-written with journalist Geeta Mohan and published by Penguin Random House India recently.
I was shifted to the death-row cell, a place where they kept convicts who had been sentenced to death. I thought this would be a safer place, but lo and behold, I had just taken my first step through the doors when I heard someone say, ‘Main jaan se maar dunga, kyunki yeh India ka jasoos hai!’ (I’ll kill him! He’s an Indian spy.)
What rotten luck! There was no escaping. My Indian identity was becoming difficult to handle. The head warden strictly instructed me not to interact with anyone.
‘This is not child’s play, my son. These people are hardened criminals, waiting for the gallows. They have nothing to lose. So stay out of their hair,’ he warned.
‘But they already know I am an Indian. One threatened to kill me, sir,’ I said.
‘Do not react to anyone and report this matter to Javed Khan first thing tomorrow morning,’ he said as he let me into a cell, a separate cell with no inmate. Back to solitary confinement, I thought. Thanks to Goga, I at least had a blanket.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, the gates to our cells were opened and we were allowed to stroll outside. The other prisoners also stepped out. I was alert, waiting for someone to pick a fight. But nothing happened. Instead, everyone was nice and warm. When death was staring you in the eye, you must only look for solace, introspection and peace, I thought.
A while later, Javed Khan entered the section. He came up to me and asked if everything was fine. I pointed at the man who had threatened me the previous day and told him what he said.
‘His name is Shabib. I will talk to him and I assure you he will not harm you in any way.’ Khan delivered the message not just to that man but all the prisoners in that section.
But Shabib was not the kind to let go. After the officer left, he walked up to me, stared me in the eye and said, ‘I have read about you in the papers. If it is true, then you better watch out for me.’
‘What the papers are saying is absolutely untrue,’ I protested, but to no avail.
My one big discovery in that Pakistani prison was the deep sectarian divide in the country. Forget about the sub-sects and minority sects within Islam, Pakistanis were divided between Shias and Sunnis.
I learnt that Shabib, a Shia, was on death row on the charge of murdering a Sunni imam. This would not have been of any consequence to me as an Indian, but because Pakistan was a Sunni majority nation, I had the advantage of having most of the prisoners on my side. Who knew that these things would matter. But they did.
Every evening, a patrolling guard would check my well-being and give updates about three high-profile prisoners on his wireless set. I once asked him who the other two were, since I knew I was one of them. He replied, ‘It’s you, your neighbour Shabib Hussain and Dr Sahab.’ I knew Shabib was a Hizbul commander and a wanted man but not who Dr Sahab was. He replied, ‘Dr Sahab is Dr Shakil Afridi, the man who informed America about Osama Bin Laden.’ I was taken aback at the thought that I was sharing prison space with a man who had taken down the Al-Qaida chief. Why was I on this list, I wondered.
Nobody ever called Dr Afridi by his name. He was known only as Dr Sahab.
An elderly prisoner named Aamir Ali came and sat beside me the next day while I was trying to soak some sun. He said, ‘Son, nobody really cares why you are here and what you did. Just be mindful of the fact that you do not interfere in their matters till the time you are in the confines of these walls.’
‘But I really am not the person they have made me out to be in the papers.’
‘Like I said, what you did out there is your business but what you do here is everybody’s business,’ he said.
He pointed to a man and said, ‘You see the fat man over there, that is Ahsan. Stay away from him. He is pure evil. He was imprisoned at a very young age for the rape and murder of his own niece who was just six years old.’
He started pointing out others in the prison and telling me their crimes. Not all of them were condemned to death. Of the thirteen prisoners, six, including me, were kept in this section because we were under protection. We were called hifazati (protected).
The days passed peacefully. It was nice to know that nobody knew about anybody’s case in detail so I was not troubled or harassed. Necessity became the mother of invention, and I started making things out of plastic bottles. I borrowed a pair of scissors and cut up the bottles to make a glass and a mug for the toilet.
The cells were separate for prisoners but the conversations at night were free-flowing. The entire death-row section was filled with talk and laughter. But they were strict with the rules—complete silence after 9 p.m.
Around the third week of March, Shabib came to me with a newspaper in his hand, saying, ‘Tumhara ek aur saathi pakda gaya. Woh bhi RAW ka jasoos hai aur usne har cheez qabool bhi kar li hai.’ (Another friend of yours from R&AW has been caught and he has admitted to everything.)
In my head, I kept thinking of Atta-ur-Rahman and what purpose it would serve for him to admit to lies since my case was over.
But then Shabib held up the paper and I read the headline, ‘Indian Spy Kulbhushan Jadhav Caught in Pakistan’. That did sound like an Indian name. Before I could read further, Shabib walked off with the newspaper.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.