Lucknow: In prison, Izhar had twenty minutes each month to make phone calls. The calls were awaited eagerly, for reasons beyond the obvious. The men of his family were away in Saudi Arabia, and the women, like in any North Indian family, couldn’t travel alone to visit Izhar in Ahmedabad prison, where he had been stuck for four years. His phone calls were the only way to learn his whereabouts.The last time he called them, it was from Hyderabad. He had just been moved there from Ahmedabad, three days after Holi. “He loved Holi,” says his older sister, Rukhsana Khatoon. “He was tense that day, but still the first thing he asked was ‘Aapa did you play colours?’” She sits in a small room with peeling walls and floor-paper, watching her daughters and nieces read duas for Izhar.

On April 7, in Nalgonda district in Telangana, five men accused of terrorism were killed in a police encounter. They were being taken from Warangal jail to a Hyderabad court when, according to police, one of them grabbed a police weapon and tried to escape. There were 17 policemen in the bus. The five undertrials were partially handcuffed, and still inside the police van when they were shot. One of them was Izhar.

“The day they were transferred to Hyderabad, the police instigated them to run away, but they didn’t,” Rukhsana continues. “They knew it was a ploy to kill them in an encounter. Izhar usually didn’t tell us about all these things, but that day he did. He had a hunch that the police were planning something. He didn’t know they would actually do it.” In Hyderabad, Izhar, along with two other boys, submitted an affidavit in court claiming their lives were under threat. The following day he made his last phone call home. The call was short, and Izhar said he might not be able to call again for two or three weeks, while they shifted him to Warangal.

“As always,” Rukhsana adds, “he told us not to worry.”

The photos released by police of the alleged terrorists killed in the encounter do not include Izhar's picture. Credit: Neha Dixit

When the first news of an encounter reached the family on April 7, they were desperate to confirm it wasn’t him. “We kept searching for news on TV, online, but found none,” says Zia, Izhar’s niece, but just three years younger than him. “There was no court hearing that day either. The news stayed uncertain. The five photos put out by the police didn’t include Izhar, and media reports only claimed that one Izrar Khan was killed.”

It was only the next morning that an acquaintance called and confirmed that Izhar was dead. To date, he is absent from the file photos released by police, his place taken by an unknown man, ‘Izrar’.

Young blood in Old Lucknow

Izhar Ahmed Khan grew up in Naya Gaon, a busy street in Aminabad bazar, a market for electrical goods, hardware and guns in Old Lucknow. “He was a dabang. No denying that,” says his elder brother Tanweer, using popular north Indian slang for a man who is macho and has swagger. “Pampered, but responsible. As the only man in the house while we were away, he obliged anyone who had a problem. He would do whatever it took to solve it.”

Growing up in Old Lucknow, Izhar was popular and always a bit of a 'dabang'. Credit: Neha Dixit

Their father, Shamshuddin Ahmed Khan, a lawyer who ran an Urdu weekly called Awadh ki Pukaar, was ill and bedridden. Three older brothers worked in Saudi as a driver, a mechanic and a fabricator. And Izhar, like like any young man in UP, dressed in style and hung out on the street, playing Robin Hood, and being popular.

After graduating from Vidyant Hindu PG College (where he was known for organizing ‘Durga Pooja’ stalls during the Navratras) Izhar got into real estate as a small-time player. Old Lucknow was unplanned and congested, and the Hindu and Muslim families whom it housed, in equal proportion, had just been introduced to the marvel of ‘builder flats’. People were auctioning tenders for real estate players to pull down old houses and raise standardised, multi-storey apartment buildings. In August 2010, Izhar, who had also enrolled in a law course, bagged one contract, just a few houses away from his own. “After he grabbed the contract, which was worth 60 lakhs, trouble began,” says Tanweer. “There was a fight over the contract, an he and some others were arrested for five days.”

Just a few weeks after that first arrest, on October, 20, 2010, Izhar was arrested again: this time by an Anti-Terror Squad from Gujarat. In a December 2010 chargesheet, filed by the Gujarat police, he was accused of selling a pistol to one Viquar, who had allegedly killed a policeman in Maninagar, Gujarat, while preparing to avenge the Gujarat massacres of 2002. Later, in a 2011 chargesheet, the SIT and counterterrorism team of undivided Andhra Pradesh accused Izhar and seven others of killing policemen and home guards in 2008 and 2009, to mark the anniversaries of the Mecca Masjid blasts.

Police also claimed to have recorded Izhar’s ‘confessional’ statement, made in front of the Deputy Superintendent of Police, just a few months after his arrest. The statement had it that Izhar met Viqar in Lucknow in 2004, through two young men, Salim and Shariq. Viqar had introduced himself as Nazeer. It was then that Izhar sold arms to Viqar, alias Nazeer, for Rs. 20,000. Similarly, he sold factory-made pistols and revolvers for Rs 20,000 and 22,000 in 2007 and 2008. In his statement, Izhar supposedly claimed that he had no idea the weapons would be used for terrorist activities.

Viqar was also killed in the encounter.

Guilty until proven dead

“Once, on our visit to Ahmedabad jail, I asked him to swear to me that he was not tortured in prison,” Zia says. “That time he told me he’d been beaten and given electric shocks. He had to slit his wrist and neck so he would be admitted to the hospital, and escape the police encounter. I remember the marks on his wrist. And they want us to believe that Izhar-mamu confessed in front of those police?”

Izhar’s advocate, Shafat Ullah Khan, says that no other evidence exists to link Izhar with Viqar or the alleged terror attacks. The police have not located Salim and Shariq, the two boys who allegedly introduced Izhar to Viqar. “A confession before the police in custody remains inadmissible in the court,” he says.

Sitting under a tarpaulin on the first-floor balcony of her house, Najma is burning with fever. Her body is frail: She has been on dialysis for the last year and still doesn’t know that her son, Izhar, was killed in an ‘encounter’. The family told her that he had an accident in prison.

“Had his father been alive, Izhar would not have rotted in the prison for so many years.” Izhar’s father died two and a half months after Izhar’s arrest in 2010. “What will give me hope to live, now that my son is gone? Nobody even tells me what happened.” Najma chokes as she speaks. She can’t stop crying. “Once I had asked Izhar if I should fix up his marriage with a girl he’d liked since they were children. He said, don’t make them wait for me. If they find another match for her, before I’m released, they should go ahead. Which boy says that?”

In his final phone call, Izhar told Rukhsana that the case was about to turn and he would get bail. Thirty-eight out of 52 witnesses examined in the trial had failed to identify him as the culprit. “The police may have been scared, after keeping an innocent person in confinement for almost five years,” says Rizwana, Izhar’s other sister. “That is why they killed him.”

“Look at this mohalla. Hindu or Muslim, every single person grieved on Izhar’s death,” she says. “They say he was avenging the deaths of Muslims in Gujarat. He had only been outside Lucknow twice in his life. That, too, to Kanpur.”

The days of judgment

Rizwana is joined by a girl in her twenties, also from the neighbourhood. She is Munmun Singh, Izhar’s munhboli (proclaimed) sister. “Once, he said on the phone, ‘Don’t be ashamed of your brother. I’m not a terrorist just because someone called me that’,” she tells me later. “Even Sanjay Dutt was accused and sent to jail for providing guns. He wasn’t killed for that. Izhar-bhai wasn’t even proven guilty, and look at these media people now – calling him terrorist.”

The news of the encounter appeared in media in every language, all of them referring to the dead as terrorists. In the Hindi newspaper Hindustan, the headline ran, ‘Telangana mein mara gaya Lucknow ka atanki’ (‘Lucknow terrorist killed in Telangana’). Dainik Jagran had ‘Lucknow mein kunba badhane mein jute atanki’ (‘Terrorists trying to expand their tribe in Lucknow’), and ‘Izhar ne Gujarat mein banaya tha network’ (‘Izhar had built a network in Gujarat’). The English media were not going to be left behind. The Hindu: ‘Five Islamist militants shot dead in encounter.’ The Times of India: ‘Five terrorists trying to flee shot dead in Telangana.’

‘One reporter even wrote that Izhar had amassed lots of property and wealth,” Zia says. “If that were true, would we be in this dilapidated house in a narrow alley where there isn’t even a proper room to have guests?”

Tanweer Khan with a photograph of his brother Izhar, an undertrial killed in a police encounter in Telangana. Credit. Neha Dixit

Izhar’s family plans to send a notice asking media groups to apologise for calling him a terrorist. “We don’t want revenge for what has been done to Izhar, but we definitely want this false accusation removed,” says his brother Tanweer. They have the help of Rihai Manch, an organization devoted to the release of the falsely accused, and its director, the advocate Mohd. Shoaib. As an example of how false terror cases are further embellished by the media, Shoaib points to the case of one Kausar. ‘A media organization published a picture of a grand house, saying it was his. The house was actually owned by a cop.’

Anurag Sharma, Telangana’s Director General of Police, says, ‘There was no proof that the five men killed on April 7 in the police encounter had any link with SIMI, Indian Mujahideen or LeT. An inquiry by an executive magistrate and judicial inquiry has been ordered into the encounter, following a Supreme Court directive in 2014. The guilty will be punished.”

When asked if religion has anything to do with Izhar’s case, Tanweer replied, “Please don’t make it an issue of mazhab at all. Izhar was loved by all. But I just have one thing to say. Every single non-Muslim friend of his attended his funeral, but not a single one of his Muslim friends came. This is what a false accusation can do to a community.”

Neha Dixit is an independent journalist living in New Delhi who writes on social justice and politics in South Asia.