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84-year-old hitches tempo rides to Bhopal, won’t give up till slain grandson gets justice

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For some families of the 8 alleged SIMI activists killed in the 2016 Bhopal jailbreak encounter, there is no hope for justice. But most are willing to fight.

Khandwa: Dada has gone missing again. He is not at the tea stall where he usually spends his days listening to the news on radio, nor is he in the bazaar taking a stroll. His phone too is switched off; it may have run out of battery.

“Did he go off to Bhopal again? Must have hitched a ride with a tempo early morning,” a local says. “Or maybe he went to Saleek bhai’s house?”

Three men head out to look for him.

Sheikh Kalan, popularly known as ‘Dada’, is 84 years old. Frail yet tough, he has been fighting for his grandson, Sheikh Mehboob, one of the eight suspected SIMI operatives who were gunned down on 31 October 2016 after they allegedly managed to escape from Bhopal central jail.

Since then, Kalan has travelled to Bhopal each month—300 km away from his hometown, Khandwa—hitching a ride with tempos or trucks to get an update on the judicial inquiry that was conducted by a retired high court judge. He hopes to find answers but returns dejected.

The judge, S.K. Pandey, submitted the report to the state government in August last year, but it is yet to be tabled in the assembly, as ThePrint reported Monday.

After an hour’s search in places he frequents, Kalan is finally found at home. It is already lunch time and he is busy preparing his meal on a stove kept on the floor of his almost crumbling, partially thatched room.

“Why are you all here? Did the lawyer send an update?” he asks, eyes firmly fixed on the stove.

Kalan, has a charpoy for furniture, two sets of kurta payjama, a sweater, and most importantly, a radio set carefully covered in a plastic bag—his only companion. His son died years ago, and his daughter-in-law was also sent to jail on charges of helping Mehboob hide in the house. Now, Kalan is alone.

Parents of Amjad Khan, a SIMI suspect who was gunned down by MP police
Parents of Amjad Khan, a SIMI suspect who was gunned down by MP police

“I just need answers. My grandson, who was in custody of the government, was murdered. I still do not know why he was killed. Police said he escaped from prison, which is an invalid argument since he was about to get out of jail in a few months anyway. It is impossible to escape from such a high security prison. Why would he try to escape and risk his life?” he wonders.

“On top of that, there are so many loopholes in the case presented by the police. Why would the men escape and go in the same direction together? Just to get caught? Also, why would they flee on foot, only cover 8 km in eight hours, and then sit there for the police to come and arrest them?

“They were murdered. They were all shot in the chest. I have seen the body myself.”

‘It’s impossible to have escaped’

Mubina, wife of Aqeel Khilji, who was killed in the encounter by MP police. Next to her is Aqueel's son Jaleel Mohammed
Mubina, wife of Aqeel Khilji, who was killed in the encounter by MP police. Next to her is Aqueel’s son Jaleel Mohammed

For support, Kalan has Khaleel, who too was lodged in Bhopal jail for his association with SIMI, but was later acquitted. Khaleel is now helping out the families arrange lawyers.

“I have stayed inside the prison, and I know it is impossible to escape from there. It is humanly impossible to put out your hand and open the cell locks, as the lock is far away from the gate, embedded in a wall. I refuse to believe the theory,” Khaleel says.

“Either there was someone from the jail staff who helped the men escape, as part of a larger plan to kill them, or they were taken to the village nearby and shot. They were all under-trails, just like me. What if they too were acquitted? They were not given a chance for a trial, and that is what we are fighting for.”

The other seven families too have been running from pillar to post, filing court petitions and requests with the government for a fair inquiry. While some are resolute, some have given up.

Some give up, some don’t

A few kilometres away from Kalan’s house stays Mohammad Ashfaq, brother of Saleek, another man gunned down in the encounter.

Ashfaq, who once served in the Madhya Pradesh Police as a constable, lost his job after his brother was arrested for being a SIMI operative. He was reportedly picked up by the ATS and tortured for giving out information, and was then asked to leave the police force. Since then, he has withdrawn from the fight.

Instead, it was Saleek’s mother Hujera Bi who kept in touch with the lawyers, kept track of all the updates and carried on the struggle, before her death six months ago. “She had kept all newspaper clippings. She would go and meet lawyers, officers, politicians, just to get Saleek justice. After her death, we have not kept track of anything,” Ashfaq says.

Salma Bi, mother of Zakir Hussain, who was gunned down by MP police
Salma Bi, mother of Zakir Hussain, who was gunned down by MP police

“I know this system very well, and to expect justice will be foolishness. I will be stupid in believing that the policemen who killed Saleek and others will ever be punished. I make these people understand, but they do not listen. They had to kill them, they did. Keep fighting for it, nothing will come of it.”

Kalan, however, disagrees. He is now awaiting the inquiry report before he decides the next course of action. “The administration thinks we will sit quietly. But I will fight this till I die. Till when will they ignore my questions? I will be like a bone stuck in their throat. I will not give up, no matter what,” he says.

Read more: One of India’s murkiest jailbreaks & killing of 8 Muslim men remains wrapped in mystery

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