Dr Rafat Seema Fights for Prisoners’ Rights in India

The capital of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, is known as a city of the former nizams, historical monuments, centres of learning like the Osmania University, institutions of cyber technology – and for the infamous Mecca Masjid blasts of May 2007. The blasts that took place in a 17th century mosque shattered the peace for which the city was noted. Nine lives were lost, and many more died later in the twin blasts at the Gokul Chat Bhandar and Lumbini Park, which took place a few months later.

Soon after the blasts, dozens of young men in the city were picked up by the police and charged for waging a war against the country. While the accused were in jails and their cases were being heard in the courts, their families went through harrowing times despite not being involved in any way with the blasts, ‘tainted’ because of their relationship with the accused. Many, including elderly parents and young children, faced social boycott, were thrown out of rented accommodation and forced into a penurious existence. Even those inclined to help them stayed away for fear of a police backlash.

That was when Dr Rafat Seema, 42, a teacher by profession, who is now working on her second doctorate, felt she had to step in to help the women in these families. She met with a lot of resistance initially, and people advised her against involving herself in an issue that was so controversial.

But Seema was determined to push ahead. She began by setting up the ‘NISA Research and Resource Centre for Women’ (WHEN WAS NISA SET UP?) and today she is the general secretary of the organisation. “We work as an NGO based on individual contributions. We do not have any employees. All our programmes are sustained through volunteer work done by women. They could be PhD students from Osmania University or sympathetic housewives from local neighbourhoods,” says Seema, who strongly believes that it not the money that matters but the zeal of people to reach out to helpless women and children.

Soon women from almost all the corners of Hyderabad and from all walks of life began rallying around Seema in her bid to help the affected families. But the task at hand was not an easy one. It was not like doing charitable work to help the destitute. Most of the accused came from poor and marginalised families, with little economic or social clout. As for the women – wives, mothers, sisters – they left behind, they were for the most part poorly educated with few skills to make ends meet. The little assistance that did come their way was clearly inadequate. The situation demanded not just the rehabilitation of the families with some temporary financial help, but a long-term training programme that would give them the skills to actually manage in the absence of the family’s breadwinners.

According to Seema, it was a complex situation and demanded a lot of time and commitment from everyone involved. “We began by giving these women some money to buy sewing machines or open a shop or boutique. Setting up small enterprises and running them required training. Those who were educated were given jobs of teachers, tutors or social workers,” she says.

Meanwhile, the imprisoned men faced difficult times fighting tough legal battles. Every day they spent away from home meant no income for their families. Recalls one of these men, now out of prison and an electrician by profession, “My world was completely devastated. Even my good friends were reluctant to talk to me. It was in such a situation that NISA extended a helping hand. If NISA wasn’t there as a source of support when I was in jail and after I was freed, I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know what would have happened to my family. I owe a lot to this organisation,” he says, adding, “I only had to go to jail but it was my family which was really punished. They were alienated from the rest of the world. Only Seema baaji would go to my house and talk to the women, consoling them and helping them whenever possible.”

Another young man, acquitted by the court in 2008, could complete the final year of his Bachelor of Unani Medicine and Surgery degree. He now runs a clinic. Says he, “No one wanted to marry a ‘terrorist’, even though I was proved innocent. But Seema baaji helped me find a bride.”

Seema puts it simply, “There is an entire life left to live. More than anything, what these broken people need is human support and the assurance that they have people by their side.”

Despite the hostile environment and repeated visits to the police station to face repetitive interrogation, Seema – who prefers to remain covered in a ‘burqa’ (veil) from head to toe – was undeterred. After all, showing sympathy for those jailed for terrorism could invite the charge that she was “anti-national”. So how did she muster the required courage to come out publicly in support of the prisoners? NISA’s initiative was the first of its kind in Hyderabad and there could have been a possible error of judgment. After all, there was no way of checking the innocence of the accused before the trial had run its course.

Seema remembers those difficult days well, “Yes, just their arrests made them ‘traitors’ in the eyes of the Hyderabadis. We did initially face a lot of road blocks. The police would often come and ask questions of us. I felt resilient because I knew instinctively that I was on the right path. In any case, I also knew that even if they were convicted, even criminals and terrorists have some basic rights and those rights need to be protected.”

She also points out how the fundamental rights of women and children related to these men were violated in the process, “What was their crime? Can you imagine the suffering of the relatives of innocent men, wrongly picked up by the police? Nobody is even prepared to listen to their side of the story!”

Today, many of those accused in the Macca Masjid blasts have been pronounced by the courts as innocent and their long months of suffering have come to an end. Although it is impossible to make up for that lost time, life still beckons. As Seema says, “Their return to the mainstream is not a matter of a day or two; it is a process. It will take time. The best thing we can do for them in order to rehabilitate them fully is to trust them.”

Which is what she has done. In the process she has also reminded people that dignity and rights are an intrinsic part of being human.

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