18 months in jail: How one day during the Delhi riots changed Mohammad Saleem Khan’s life forever

In a set of 12 letters to his family, Saleem detailed a year of desperation and loss. His ‘only fault’ was that he went to work as usual that day.

WrittenBy:Diksha Munjal
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“I was 47 when I came to prison, but I have started to look like 60 now,” wrote Mohammad Saleem Khan, who turned 48 years old on October 2. Saleem wrote this on the first page of a set of 12 letters that he has sent to his family so far from Delhi’s Mandoli jail, where he has been lodged since March 13, 2020 for his alleged involvement in the northeast Delhi riots in February last year.

“My only fault,” he wrote, “is that I was present in the lane from where I have been running my export business for the last 28 years.”

Saleem’s garment export unit is located in gali 3 in the Chand Bagh pocket of Mustafad. He was at work last year on February 24, one of the bloodiest days of the riots which left 53 people dead, of which 39 were Muslims.

Saleem was named as an accused in the three FIRs filed by the Delhi police on February 25, March 5, and March 6. Two of the FIRs have penal charges including criminal conspiracy, culpable homicide, and voluntarily causing hurt, as well as charges under the Arms Act. The Delhi police described him as “one of the main organisers of the riots” who played a role in “instigating the crowd”.

He was arrested on March 13 and has been in jail ever since.

While he was granted bail in both these FIRs, Saleem remains in prison because of the third FIR, where he’s charged under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

A common piece of evidence across the three FIRs is a 29-second clip of CCTV footage which shows Saleem holding a floor wiper, the sort you use to push water in a bathroom. The Delhi police called it a “wooden stick” in one FIR, while the other two described it as an instrument used to destroy the CCTV cameras.

For Saleem, his life has fallen apart in unprecedented ways.

During a September 29 hearing of multiple applications filed by those accused in the Delhi riots, he told additional sessions Amitabh Rawat, “I don’t see anything apart from dying now. I have gone so deep into depression...I am supposed to secure admission for my two daughters. My son has stopped his education.”

Not a single argument on the UAPA charge against Saleem has been heard so far.

Uncertainty of when Saleem will come home

Saleem has three children – Saima, Adeeba and Sahil – with his wife Shavina, 43. The family lives in Yamuna Vihar, about one km from where his garment unit is located.

Saima, 23, is in her final year of a bachelor’s programme in dental surgery. Adeeba, 16, is in Class 11. Sahil, 22, has a degree in business administration and planned to do an MBA. His father’s arrest, however, threw a spanner in the works; he’s now preoccupied with legal issues related to the arrest and helping to run Saleem’s business.

Since March last year, the family has been grappling with his imprisonment, the subsequent legal battle, and the uncertainty over when he’ll return home.

“For the first three months that he was inside, all of us just lost our wits,” said Shavina, her voice quivering. “We then gathered strength and made it a mission to get him out.”

Newslaundry met the family at their apartment on Saleem’s birthday. “We had planned to go on vacation this time for his birthday,” Saima said. “Dad would say, ‘I will come out by then and we’ll go to Dubai.’”

But Saleem is feeling more depressed with each passing day that he is inside, she said. “He worries that our lives are getting disturbed outside, about what will happen to the business and our education.”

She walked into her room and returned with a bundle of letters, carefully rolled up without a single crease. The family wants to publish Saleem’s letters as a book.

A drawing by Saleem.

“He hands each letter to those who get out on bail and we collect it from them,” she explained. “He really has a talent for writing. He even wrote something for the judge in his case.” She added that Saleem’s writing was even praised by the judge when he submitted it during a bail hearing.

Saleem wrote in one of his letters, “I am still not saddened by the fact that I am in prison. What pains me the most is to see the future of my family, my kids, get ruined in front of my eyes.”

The events of last year

In a four-page letter titled “The reason for being sent to jail”, Saleem detailed the events of February 24, 2020.

It all began on January 15 last year, he wrote, when a langar was started on the Wazirabad service road, about 300-350 metres from his factory, for those protesting against the citizenship laws. Over the next few days, he would often pass the langar site and stop to listen to what the protesters were saying.

“In the next five to six days, the atmosphere of the place transformed,” he wrote. A huge tent was erected and a stage, where students and women protesters would talk about the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, and sing songs.

“In the evenings, after closing the factory, I would also stand there for a while,” he wrote, “while walking home to Yamuna Vihar.”

On February 24, Saleem reached the garment factory as usual at 10 am. As the day progressed, he wrote, crowds began gathering near at gali 3, trickling into his lane too. He heard people shouting from all sides. The labourers in the shop adjoining his left in a hurry, he wrote, leaving behind construction material, a water drum, and a floor wiper.

Saleem “picked up” the water drum, the wiper, and other odds and ends and put them aside to clear the way, he wrote.

As the situation in Chand Bagh worsened, he went to a relative’s home nearby, on the advice of his family, that evening. He later returned to his home in Yamuna Vihar, he said.

“The factory remained closed from the evening of February 24,” he wrote. “TV and newspapers were only showing news about the Delhi riots. On March 2, I left home to go to the factory. There, Mohammad Irfan [a local] told me that a crime branch inspector had come asking for my number.”

Later, when he was at a friend’s home, he got a call from one of his employees, telling him that one Gurmeet from the crime branch had called looking for him.

“That very moment, I called Mr Gurmeet and he told me to come to Dayalpur police station to talk about something,” he wrote. Saleem proceeded to the police station, accompanied by his son and three friends.

“We ran into Mr Gurmeet at the police station’s gate itself and he told me to come to the Daryaganj crime branch with him...There, I was asked about the riots of February 24,” Saleem wrote. “I didn’t know much because I was in my factory the whole day.”

Saleem went home but was summoned two or three times more by the police for questioning.

Saima recalled how Saleem didn’t flinch when he was summoned. “My father said that if the police are calling him, he should go willingly. He said: ‘I have not done anything wrong, so why should I hide?’ A lot of people told him to not go, but he did what he felt was right.”

Saleem was summoned once more on March 10 to a showroom called Aman Motors – one of the showrooms torched during the riots – where other accused in one of the FIRs were also present. The next day, they were all called in for questioning again and were presented in a court that same evening.

Saleem and the others were remanded to two days in police custody. On March 13, he was presented in court again and sent to prison.

“I have been in jail ever since,” he wrote.

In another letter titled “Please help me and advise me”, Saleem wrote: “Since I have come to jail, everything has been destroyed, I see no meaning in life. I have started falling sick worrying about my family. Many bails have gotten rejected. Please help me in this situation and guide me about how to proceed.”

Saleem's letter titled "Please help me and advise me".
Saleem's letter with a map of the area where his factory is located.

‘I spend every hour thinking about what my fault is’

Saima said her father spent years working hard so that he could educate his children and make them independent.

“He was so determined that I complete my education in dentistry and that Adeeba and Sahil stand on their feet,” she said. “Why would a person work so hard all these years only to sabotage all of it one day?”

Saleem poured out his feelings in a letter titled “My life of 48 years”.

“Not even in my worst nightmare did I think that a person like me would go to jail,” he wrote. “A person who, in the 48 years of his life, has not even been to a police station.”

Across his letters, Saleem detailed his life story, from childhood up to his imprisonment. He had moved to Delhi in 1990 with his brother Suleman, both of them hoping to set up business there.

“A lot of struggle over the next few months could not yield success in the business,” he wrote. ”Suleman bhai got exhausted and moved to Ghaziabad to do business...A good education and money is needed to set up a successful export business, and I had none of the two. But God has blessed me with ample strength.”

He married Shavina in 1994. Saima was born in 1997 and then Sahil in 1998. In a story punctuated by struggles, he wrote, “It felt like there was nothing to celebrate. You feel joy and sorrow when you’re around those who can call your own. Two small kids, a rented flat, little to no food to eat. When I am writing this today, memories of that time have brought tears to my eyes. I would not be able to buy even little things worth two to five rupees for the kids.”

Business soon picked up, however, and then Adeeba was born. Saleem bought a house of his own and the factory in Chand Bagh, and made multiple international trips for work.

In 2015, he was offered the opportunity to move to the United Kingdom, where a lot of his clients were based. “But I left the chance saying that our country is very nice,” he wrote. “Today when I think of that time I feel like laughing and crying at the same time.”

Saleem’s long-term plans included taking a loan and setting up a free hospital once Saima completed her dentistry programme. “I would send Sahil to England for his MBA and Adeeba would study further,” he wrote. After settling the kids, “I would go to Hajj with Shavina and a couple of others in the family.”

“But God had another plan in store for us,” he said. “Riots took place near my factory on February 24 and I was made an accused by the police and sent to prison in March. I spend every hour thinking about what my fault is.”

He ended the letter, “Please, please, please.”

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