Of nightmares and labels

Syed Zafar Mehdi

It was September 13, 2008. The day I had a miraculous escape from the jaws of death. Blood and splinters were splattered all around me. Maimed bodies were lying scattered on the road. Smoke and dust was blowing up in air, blinding the vision. A pall of gloom had descending amidst the scenes of chaos and mayhem. Frantic people were running helter-skelter for cover. Victims and survivors were screaming desperately for help. Some were wailing inconsolably, others were too flabbergasted by the horrific scenes. It was a truly spine-chilling sight, when I was trapped in the line of fire, and no escape route seemed visible. For a moment, I thought it was all over, but destiny had other plans for me. So, I survived to tell the tale.

It was just another Saturday, a week-off at my university. I happened to be in Central Delhi’s Connaught Place with some friends. After a pleasant day, we dispersed at around 6 o clock. My friends left for nearby metro station while I rushed to the Barakhamba Road bus stop. I had to catch my bus near Statesman House on Barakhamba Road, not too far from the Iranian Embassy in New Delhi. One of my friends who was supposed to board the same bus with me had left early. It was Ramadhan and I was fasting. It was getting increasingly dark and I had to reach home to break my fast and offer prayers. I took long and swift strides and finally reached my bus stop at around 6:20 pm. I looked around, but no bus was around. After a tiring day, I was feeling exhausted. I made myself comfortable on a bench nearby. Around that time, a bus going to industrial city of Noida came speeding and hordes of waiting passengers scrambled to get inside it. Since my bus was still nowhere in sight, I got up and went to a small shop selling snacks.

As soon as the Noida-bound bus sped away; a massive, earth-shaking explosion took place right on the bus stand. Next moment, it was a somber picture of chaos and mayhem. Smoke and dust had filled the air. The explosion had ripped apart the hustle and bustle, bringing life to a grinding halt. All hell broke loose before my eyes, and it felt like a doomsday.

As dust began to settle down, I found myself in the pools of blood, encircled by scores of fatally injured people, lying in helpless state on the road. Since, I had stood up from the bench and moved backwards, I was lucky to escape unhurt. But, I was tremendously jolted by the gory scenes of bloodshed. I saw people bruised and wounded, holding on to their maimed body parts. It was a horrifying sight. Some severed body parts were strewn across the road, and some were hanging on wires and sign boards.

Suddenly, my eyes caught the sight of a little girl, badly injured, lying on the road with tears trickling down her cheeks. Her mother, in her 30s, was lying unconscious on her side. It was heart-breaking. I somehow mustered courage and picked up the girl and handed her over to people engaged in rescue operations. It was already too dark by then, and Iftaar time was long over. Amidst the commotion and uproar, I started looking for auto. Area was seized by police and all roads were jammed. My friends and teachers were worried and calling non-stop. Network was jammed. It was a nightmare. Soon, I found myself cornered by a bunch of police sleuths. My fair complexion and the distinct features have often gotten me in trouble. I knew it was coming and I was not going to hide my identity. The moment I said I am a student from Kashmir, they started to grill me in full public glare. It took me two hours to convince them that I am a Kashmiri and not a terrorist.

Finally, I took an auto rickshaw and left for home. It was a traumatizing, forgettable experience. But it was not over yet. A week later, as we were having breakfast at our flat, suddenly we heard some noise outside. I peeped out of the window, and saw people running amok. It was an ‘encounter’ between some ‘terrorists’ and police, in an adjacent building. We came out and rushed to the spot and found huge number of people there. The cross-fire was on, and for next few hours, it was commotion all over. After the ‘encounter’ was over, we were ‘informed’ that the two ‘terrorists’ had been gunned down and two had managed to slip away. According to police, these were the ‘terrorists’ behind the September 13 serial bomb blasts in Delhi.

The next day, pictures of slain ‘terrorists’ were flashed in all the newspapers. As I grabbed the copy of a newspaper, I was taken aback. One of the faces appeared strikingly familiar. The guy branded as the ‘mastermind’ of Delhi blasts and gunned down in the encounter happened to be a student of my university and an acquaintance. I remember exchanging pleasantries with him at university just a day before the encounter. Soon, human rights organisation got into the act. They began pointing to the glaring loopholes in the police theory of the ‘encounter’. If police knew they were engaging ‘terrorists’, why did they not seal the exit to the building and ask the alleged ‘terrorists’ to surrender without going in? Could two persons have escaped, considering there were no escape routes save one which was the entrance from which the STF entered heavily armed? If they were truly the terrorists behind the bombings, they would surely not have given their correct personal details in a tenant verification form to the police on 21st of August, 2008, just after the Ahmedabad Blasts and before the Delhi Blasts. Why were the post-mortem reports of the two youth and the policeman who were killed in the house not made available to their families and to the public?

More than four years have passed and the answers are still eluding us. When I look back, I consider myself lucky to be alive. In this city and in this country, if you fit a certain stereotype and label, you are living on the edge, and always an ‘encounter’ away from being dubbed a ‘dreaded terrorist’ and ‘terror mastermind’. Pity is you cannot even defend yourself from the grave.