A Portrait of Yakub Memon

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My partner was a Gujarati Hindu, Chetan Mehta, with whom I managed a chartered accountancy firm. This country gave me a degree, respect and so much. Why should I inflict havoc here and on people with whom I had no equation, let alone hatred?”

So Yakub Memon, slim and well dressed with a neatly trimmed beard and hair parted in the middle, was trying to explain to me in the dilapidated makeshift canteen of the specially designated TADA court for the trial of Mumbai’s serial blasts of March 1993. The court was carved out of the high-security precincts of the Mumbai Central Prison, since ferrying the 100 odd accused to the sessions court at Kala Ghoda every day was quite a challenge. I was doing research for my book, Black Friday, and making efforts to understand the complexity of the case which had got a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the sheer size of the chargesheet—it was over 11,000 pages, appended with several thousand pages of supplementary chargesheets, of which there were 21.

Most of the accused were school dropouts and wary of me. However, customs officer SN Thapa, Sayed Sultan and Yakub Memon had become my friends.

Yakub Memon spoke flawless English and had a keen analytical mind. Each time I went to court, I tried to speak to him, and we usually managed to have a chat that left me pondering our conversation. He was the most optimistic of the accused, and had more hope than even filmstar Sanjay Dutt, who had a Parliamentarian father and was fighting a smaller battle against charges of possessing an assault weapon in the notified area of Mumbai. “Among all the countries of the world, only this country prides [itself] in having the cardinal principle of ‘Satyamev Jayate’. It gives me so much hope. You know, with my education and background, I could have settled abroad. But I prefer India,” said Yakub Memon with a beaming smile, offering me tepid tea poured from a thermos flask, as we stood once in the open air under a scorching sun.

As a determined reporter, I kept goading Yakub Memon to open up and give me the inside story, but he was cautious and worried that nothing should go wrong and affect his case, as at that juncture he was positive that he would soon be a free man, like ‘police witness No 2’ Usman Jaan Khan, who had helped the police strengthen their case. Yakub Memon too had risked his life and brought a suitcase full of evidence against his own elder brother Tiger Memon, the Dubai-based ISI agent Taufiq Jaliawala and other key operators in the serial blasts case.

During the research for my book, I realised that right from the beginning it was Tiger Memon who was part of the initial meetings where the conspiracy was hatched. It was Tiger Memon who had got Dawood Phanse, a landing agent at Srivardhan, to meet the gangster Dawood Ibrahim. It was Tiger Memon who had helped land the RDX, hand grenades and AK-56s at Srivardhan. It was he who had travelled with the deadly cargo to Mumbai. It was he who got the young men to train in Pakistan. It was he who decided which of them were suited for affixing detonators and pencil timers, which of them would park the scooters and which of them would go to the five-star hotels.

Yakub Memon was nowhere in the picture even at meetings held at Hindustan Soda Factory in Mahim, where his elder brother met the young men who were to plant the bombs. It was Tiger Memon who listed out the targets and it was he who flew out on 12 March, the day of the blasts. According to Yakub, who was in Dubai at the time, he learnt of the blasts from a BBC broadcast at 4 pm that day; the Memons sat around their TV set in Dubai and watched the devastation with glum faces.

It was also only Tiger Memon who seemed upbeat after the news filtered in. But the smile was wiped off his face soon enough, as the Mumbai Police recovered seven AK-56 rifles, 14 magazines for the weapons and one pencil timer from a Maruti van owned by the Memons. In its glove compartment was found a duplicate registration book that belonged to Rubina Memon, wife of Suleiman Memon, a resident of Al Hussaini Building in Mahim. The discovery put the police onto the trail of the Memons.

The story of Tiger Memon’s involvement unravelled with this crucial piece of evidence. Traces of RDX were also found in the garage of the same building.

Later, Abdul Razzak Memon, an ageing man with five middle- aged sons, the eldest being 45, was said to be so furious that he actually beat up Tiger Memon in front of the entire family in Karachi. The family was against the idea of going to this Pakistani port city, but Tiger warned them that the Indian Government had branded all of them as ‘proclaimed offenders’ in the case and that they would be deported; besides, there was already a red corner Interpol notice against them.

Dubai was their second home, jokingly referred to as their ‘gaon’ (village). ‘Gaon jaa rahein hain,’ they’d say, and even their neighbours thought it was their native village. The family had been flying to and fro, as two of the brothers Ayub and Suleiman had resident visas and lived with their families in Dubai. In March 1993, when they flew out in batches, it was under peculiar circumstances. Mumbai’s riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition of 6 December 1992 had been relentless, unsettling the family. Their office in Mahim had been burnt to cinders. So when they left, it was not with the intention of ever returning to India.

While the police say that they left in the nick of time, the blasts were not supposed to happen on 12 March in the first place. Tiger Memon had planned a later date, but when one of the operatives, Gullu or Gul Mohammad Khan, was picked up by the police for the Mumbai riots, he advanced the date fearing that Gullu would talk. Indeed, the young man did spill the beans to the police, but nobody took him seriously.

Tiger Memon left for Karachi on 14 March, but the rest of the family was not at all inclined to go. They knew that going there would seal their fate. But Tiger was insistent that Dubai would deport them and Pakistan was their best bet. So, on 17 March, almost a week after the Mumbai blasts, the rest of them reluctantly boarded a PIA flight to Karachi. Upon landing, they were escorted through airport immigration without any formalities. Armed security men in plainclothes escorted them as Tiger Memon waited outside. The family was driven to a bungalow called Qasr-e-Rayaz, which Yakub later came to know belonged to Taufiq Jaliawala, Tiger’s partner.

However, though apparently living in freedom, they were being watched all the time. Armed guards would follow them everywhere. A week later, they moved to another bungalow at 25-Roofi Coottage, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi. But there was no respite from the vigilance. They also realised that it was the Pakistan government that was taking decisions on their behalf. For instance, within a year of their arrival, they were issued new passports with new identities and told they were flying to Bangkok. They were accompanied in their journey by men they presumed to be ISI agents. They were told that Pakistan was facing the heat for harbouring the Memons and they would have to stay in Bangkok until the furore died down.

Like in Karachi, they were received at the airport by officials of the Pakistan Embassy and were put up in a bungalow near the Bangkok-Pattaya Highway. Barely had they settled down when they were once again whisked away to Karachi and given yet another bungalow, this time in the Defence Housing Authority area. All this constant moving and identity obscuring would play heavily on their minds. Yakub Memon said he was not at all at home in any of the places the ISI was taking them. Even his parents, two of his brothers and their wives were not happy. Tiger Memon’s own wife Shabana had begun quarrelling with him, according to Yakub.

Tired of his entire clan being captives of the ISI, one fine day almost 16 months after the blasts, Yakub Memon took it upon himself to return to his motherland and also bring the rest of them home. But he knew that if he returned empty handed, no one would believe his innocence. According to Yakub Memon, he went about collecting evidence against the Pakistani government, Taufiq Jaliawala and even his elder brother. Tiger, who could not believe his ears when he heard of his return plan, issued him a stiff warning. “You go there as Gandhi and will be hanged as Godse,” as Yakub recalled his brother saying. In response, he argued that he was not a jihadi and his biggest support was the truth. “In time, I will prove you wrong,” Yakub replied.

The family was polarised, with most of them backing Yakub. Tiger and Ayub decided to stay back, while the rest wanted to return as they believed that the Indian Government would believe their innocence. So Yakub contacted a cousin in India who, after some hesitation, agreed to meet him in Dubai in June 1994 and later in July 1994 in Kathmandu. By now, Yakub Memon was using his new Pakistani identity: Yusuf Ahmed Mohammad.

During the second meeting at Kathmandu, the cousin advised him to take it easy and not jump the gun. The cousin told them that he had still not been able to obtain a firm legal opinion on his case and that he was still consulting lawyers. The chargesheet had been filed on 4 November 1993, and over the next six months Yakub had managed to consult legal experts who had assured him that the blast investigators have nothing against him, his family or parents. Only Suleman’s wife Rubina was in a soup because of the Maruti van caught at Worli.

Here, Yakub Memon’s story takes a curious twist. Yakub had travelled to Kathmandu on 21 July 1994 by a PIA flight for his second meeting with his cousin. He was to return to Karachi on 24 July by a Lufthansa flight. The previous night in Nepal had been a restless one for him. On the morning of 24 July, at the departure terminal of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, he was going through Security Check when a bunch of keys in his briefcase appeared like a gun on the scanner screen. He was asked to open his briefcase, and out tumbled a number of Pakistani passports and other documents. Taken aside, he lost no time telling the Nepalese police that he was Yakub Memon from India. By 1 August that year, he was in Indian custody, to be handed over to the CBI four days later.

At that point, Yakub was considered by the Mumbai Police and prosecution as one of the serial blasts’ key conspirators. To use against him, they only had some extracted confessions which were later retracted. There was no tangible evidence against him. That he might have been innocent was not taken into account. It is surmised that his other brothers, who were neither as savvy nor educated, got away with life sentences because they were far less voluble and much more socially inhibited. Yakub was the closest to Tiger Memon in terms of looks and personality. He seemed ideal to be strung, quartered and hung. He was suave, spoke well and seemed an ideal candidate for a proxy culprit. The rest is history. It had a force of its own. SB Chavan, the then home minister, claimed Yakub Memon was caught at New Delhi Railway station! Yakub later wrote a letter to the Supreme Court saying he had never been to this railway station in his entire life.

On hearing the news of Yakub’s arrest in Nepal, the entire Memon clan, barring Tiger and Ayub and their immediate families, shifted to Dubai once again, hoping to join Yakub in India later sometime. Yakub gave the CBI his green signal to conduct an operation to bring them back, not knowing that they were sitting ducks now. They were confident that they may be accused of complicity through silence, at most, but certainly not of being terror masterminds. This confidence drew them back to India.

They returned and were put behind bars. The CBI and Indian Government kept hoping that Tiger and Ayub too could be lured to return to India if they kept Yakub under delusions of pardon. Yakub, who had fully cooperated with the investigative agencies in every manner, accepted all the suggestions of his handlers unaware that he was digging his own grave.

Yakub was put on Doordarshan to expose the Pakistani hand in the Mumbai blasts. He gave the minutest details of how the ISI had chaperoned them everywhere in Karachi and then rushed them to Bangkok when India had raised the issue of the Memons hiding in Pakistan. While Pakistan faced international embarrassment, Yakub found to his shock that even this got turned against him. Why did he quietly accompany the Memons and ISI bouncers to Bangkok? Why did he not just show up at the Indian Embassy at Bangkok and give himself up? When Tiger Memon had booked air tickets for 19 men who travelled to Pakistan via Dubai through a travel agency called East West Travels, the agency had apparently—as always—used Yakub Memon’s name in its bill because he was the one who would generally booked air tickets for his family. How and why were all four family accounts in HongKong and Shanghai Bank’s Bandra branch emptied before 12 March? Yakub’s financial acumen was blamed for all transactions made, and he was accused of funding their plan. Yakub was left aghast and devastated.

The CBI investigators also claimed that Yakub figured in a couple of statements for drawing hawala money and hence was in the loop of the operations (which they attributed to Tiger Memon’s manager); they could not actually pinpoint whether the money or any transaction was intended for the blasts. But many of the charges against Yakub Memon were framed on the basis of what they inferred from the confessions of others, many of which were later retracted. Yakub Memon was - fighting all these allegations with just one weak weapon—his sincerity of intention, which he had demonstrated by his audacious escape from ISI clutches and return to India, not to mention his effort to get the rest of his family back.

By the time most of the Memon family returned, Yakub’s wife Rahin had delivered a girl in Dubai. They left her alone with the infant and took a flight to Delhi. Rahin returned later with a week-old girl who has now turned 21.

My last meeting with Yakub Memon was around 2000, when I was just wrapping up my book. I was keen on getting his story. By and by, I realised that his hope was gradually turning into despair. He was no longer the same man brimming with optimism and positive vibes. But he surprised me on one occasion when he said, “Once I am out, I will narrate the whole story… will unmask many faces, and the truth will be revealed.” By then, he had already spent six years in jail, but he still hoped that some redressal mechanism somewhere would come to his rescue.

Instead, he finds himself headed for the gallows, with 30 July fixed as his date of execution as decreed by Indian law and political will. Ironically, there are over 279 convicts on death row in the country, some of them waiting since 1997. While the Supreme Court first cleared the decks for Yakub Memon’s hanging in 2013, it also commuted the death sentences of 10 other blast convicts to life terms. So the man who returned with good faith to help the investigation and strengthen would be the only man to pay for the events of 12 March 1993 with his life.

That he shares his last name with his notorious elder brother is not lost on anyone. Human rights activists and his lawyers feel that on humanitarian grounds alone, a man should not be condemned to 21 years of incarceration only to be hanged at the end of it. According to Farhana Shah, one of his lawyers, he is being hanged because it is politically expedient to do so.

Was he a convenient culprit? Is Yakub Memon being hanged because the real perpetrators were not caught? Is he paying for his brother’s sins? These questions may outlive his hanging.

Tiger Memon, who is now a much bigger force among jihadists and boasts of more affluence and resources, can plan revenge for his brother’s hanging, says a senior CBI officer. “Tiger Memon is a very vindictive and vicious man. He orchestrated the [12 March] blasts in collusion with the ISI even though he did not suffer any personal tragedy in the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993. Only his office of Tijarath International at Mahim was set afire by local hooligans. And he decided to destroy the whole city,” says the officer. “Now when his own flesh and blood faces capital punishment, imagine what can happen if he decides to get even.”

The ISI, which is always on the lookout for young men who nurse a sense of injustice, may get a chance to exploit Tiger’s rage. “Have you ever thought about why the Government has not hanged Beant Singh’s killer, Balwant Singh?” asks the officer. “Because they are afraid of a backlash from Khalistani terrorists if they see that one of them has been hanged. Because they all feel that Balwant Singh is a hero… It will raise a whole new set of problems for the country,” he warns.

India should be prepared.

(S Hussain Zaidi is a senior journalist and the author of Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts)