It was in June 2008, a particularly hot June when I met India’s most talked about terrorist (or accomplice of terrorists depending on whose version you went by) in a dingy and compact meeting room in Delhi’s Tihar jail. We stood face to face and stared into each other’s eyes. We both had the same question for the other: “How did you get here?”
As a journalist covering national security, I was there to interview him. I was scared (sometimes, I still get goose bumps when I think of that day) at the prospect of being caught in the jail. I did not want to be occupying the cell next to my subject’s.
Worse still, I was afraid that intelligence and law enforcement agencies would harass my family. I was just two years old in the profession then and did not know enough people to get anyone off my back. Actually, I still don’t.
“How did you get in here? Who do you work for?” a visibly baffled Afzal asked me. If I was scared, he was equally surprised. He was hesitant to talk because no one except his family was allowed to visit him. He had not seen any outsiders for a few months.
“The intelligence people create a lot of problems for even my wife and son when they come to meet me. I have told them not to visit me. But how come they let you come here?” he asked me from across the thick glass wall that separated us. He was unshackled and wore a smile. His grown beard was touching his chest. Two guards stood by his side but hadn’t caught on that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
Though we both were holding telephone receivers at our respective ends, we had to literally lean towards each other to be heard.
I told him that I had lied to jail authorities and managed my way in after pretending to be one of his relatives (I know I won’t be able to do this now because Mint’s code of conduct prevents this sort of misrepresentation). He informed me that other journalists had tried that but failed. But I was not in a mood to waste time over my triumph; I was there to interview him. I had only 30 minutes to finish the interview and find my way out of jail without setting off alarm bells. I began by asking him about his health and well being.
I found him calm and composed. He patiently answered all my questions, and his mood varied from the stoic to the defiant.
He was clad in a white pajama and kurta and had a sports cap on his head, which appeared freshly shaven to me. He definitely didn’t look like the young man, whose clean-shaven pictures we continue to see on television news channels. He looked older and told me he had become more religious. he spent a lot of time reading, he said, and was about to finish Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom.
He was kept in a separate cell because of the nature of his crime and was hardly allowed to speak with other inmates. May be that was why, he spoke to me at length.
He told me that he was initially reluctant to file a mercy petition to the President but gave in to the wishes of his wife Tabassum and son Ghalib. He claimed his case had not been properly investigated and added that he may have had a better chance of acquittal had it been so. But he was non-committal about his role in the attack on India’s Parliament, neither accepting guilt nor claiming innocence in the attack that had killed seven.
“I signed my mercy petition in the last few remaining days of the prescribed time. My family had gone from pillar to post but our appeals fell on deaf ears. I am not very optimistic,” he said.
“It would be good, if they hang me today. It would be better to die now than waiting to hear from political masters. Whenever a jail official comes to my cell, I always think that he had come with the news of my mercy petition. Life has become a living hell,” he complained. He wanted veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani to become the Prime Minister and end his ordeal. It was Advani who had first sought his hanging. He accused the Congress party of playing a double game.
Guru always wanted to be shifted to a jail in Kashmir, but the government never gave in to his demand. It feared that other terrorists would launch an attack on the jail to free him. He spoke to me about his idea of freedom of Kashmir, his expectations from the people of Kashmir and how he had lost faith in India’s judiciary and executive. I found some of ideas inflammatory and extreme.
As we were conversing about his ideas, the jail authorities intervened to say time was up. I left. And made it out.