Year 1997. At 2.56 GMT on the 24th of December, a one para news story by the BBC News tells us of a double murder in the Sinaw region of Oman. Along with five Pakistanis, three Indians were awaiting their trial the following week accused of the murder of an Omani watchman.
The murder of the Omani security personnel created much hue and cry. The Pakistanis were sentenced to capital punishment. The Indians who were arrested as accomplice were deemed to serve life imprisonment.
After that, the world didn’t hear about what really happened that year or the years that followed. Didn’t seem like it mattered too much. Shahjahan, Sivan Pillai and Santhosh slowly became numbers and ceased to exist as names. Mr Abdul Rasheed Shahjehan ( Prison No 61/98) , Mr Madhavan Pillai Sivan Pillai ( Prison no 62/98) and Mr Santosh Kumar ( Prison No 63/98).
It chokes me to think about three men who lost the most beautiful piece of their lives and families to the walls of the Central Jail in Suwaiq, Oman for no fault of their own. The three men from Kerala, India worked in a hardware shop, one among the line of little shops in the Sinaw souq. The Pakistanis who stabbed the security personnel following an attempt of burglary happened to buy the burglary equipments from their shop. That was their fault. There was no reasoning after that verdict. An appeal that could otherwise be given after a verdict wasn’t provided. No legal aid came their way. India had forgotten them just as much.
In all these years, the wives got forlorn and old. A mother passed away without seeing her son, one last time. The children grew up, some got married. Grandchildren were born. The presence of the men felt distant and impossible. I remember Pa narrating the cry of Ajitha. Ajitha is Sivan Pillai’s wife. It was around the time of their daughter’s wedding. She was breaking down between each line. Around that time Sivan Pillai had lost most strength to sickness in jail. One side of his body had succumbed to paralysis. Ajitha was crying. She was more sobbing than talking. “Sir, I only wish for him to sit throughout the proceedings of the wedding. I do not want anything else, but his presence, Sir.” My heart aches even now to think of the sobs and tears that would have bathed these twenty years.
Uppa keeps talking of these Indian men in jail serving a very, very long sentence so many times that I have given each name a face out of imagination. Each, have in my head features peculiar to their names. So much so that if I told you about them you could possibly spot them in a crowd. And on one of his visits to Dubai,Pa said he hasn’t seen any of them. Thinking of it, he knows their faces only as much as I do. I imagine them to be lean and worn out, crippled by the injustice of the system, bent upon by unfair life, sick from the tasteless food, bearded and old.
Sivan Pillai’s health deteriorated. He was taken to hospital. There is where Pa would see him for the first time. As Pa walked into the room, he saw the man, one among the three he has been trying very hard to secure release for, for the past six years then. Pa walked up to his bed. Pillai held on to Pa’s hand and put it over his face, kissed it and cried. He cried. He kept crying. Pa cried too. I cry each time I think of such lives. Unfair and forgotten. How the system worked even in a fully developed country is guesswork. Left just to time to decide verdict.
Plea after plea, the Indian Embassy, Oman was finally moved and disturbed by the story of these three men. In 2011, His Excellency Anil Wadhwa, the then Ambassador of India to Oman had told Pa that during his last meeting with His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, Ruler of the Sultanate of Oman, he would request for the release of these men as his parting gift. That year, the Ruler was traveling and that meeting never took place. The next ambassador took charge soon after that.
In was in 2009 that Pa learnt of this case. A mercy petition was submitted in 2011. In 2013, efforts were made to bring the wives of Sivan Pillai and Shahjahan to Oman. Another mercy petition was submitted in 2013 drafted by a lawyer who knew the case. Following that, mercy petitions were prepared and submitted with the help of the Indian Embassy officials year after year. The struggle has been long.
Even when Pa would narrate such lives to me, each time, he has always warned me to exercise caution with my words, lest it backfires and worsens the help that could likely come their way. The media was kept out of the whole affair on deliberate.
Luckily for Pillai, his poor health saved his life. With a little bit of a push and tweak in the system, Sivan Pillai was released on 26th May, 2015 after having surrendered 17 years of his youth figuring out where he had gone wrong and what turned him accomplice.
The world outside looked scarily calm. Amidst its turmoils, the free world is lavishly undisturbed from behind the iron bars of jail. Some of us locked into the system and some locked in by the system. Santhosh and Shahjahan continued to remain there. Sometimes, I think they would have been so envious of Sivan Pillai’s paralysis. I am sure they think of physical paralysis stronger than the one they were tied down with, without a persuading answer to the injustice that paralyzed them much more than health could. At least I do.
As the years went by, winning on legal grounds seemed almost impossible. The appeal that could have saved them then, never came on time. Pa had told me once, “ I am not even sure, if there ever will be a release.”
A week back Pa called. He was very excited, way too excited. I could almost see his beaming face through the shrills of his voice over the phone, as he said,
“62 Indians to be released from jail. Among them, Santhosh and Shahjahan.”
If at all numbers and years can be erased, they can be names again. Live again.
Through Pa, I know of so many people who have helped, put in so much of effort, time and all their heart to see this day come. Each, who have strived, so silently, so selflessly, so consistently. No media attention or publicity ever came their way. Or never will. I am grateful I know such people, to live among them, to believe in hope.
I felt so proud to have been raised in a country, so compassionate. Oman is a beautiful country, more so are the Government and the people. Pa would always say, he wouldn’t leave Oman for any other place in the world. No wonder he says so.
“His name, unfortunately, isn’t there on the list.” Pa said as the excitement wore off.
Who is Gopalakrishnan? Gopalakrishnan is a story that scars me. Scares me.
Soon, I will write. Sooner, he will be out too.