Among the hundreds of inmates in Hyderabad’s biggest prison, the Cherlapally Central Jail, is a Pakistani citizen― Shaik Gulzar Massih, alias Gulzar Khan. A native of Kulluwal village in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Gulzar, 55, has been in jail for more than a year. His release remains uncertain, but one woman each on either side of the India-Pakistan border is desperately awaiting it.
One of the women is Sheela Lal, a paramedic who lives in Rawalpindi and works in Islamabad. Gulzar is her younger brother, one of her seven siblings.
Sheela had been trying to track him down since 2010, when he disappeared from Saudi Arabia without a trace. The family had been clueless whether he was dead or alive. “My mother cried so much that it ruined her health,” Sheela told THE WEEK on phone.
Gulzar hails from a Christian family. His father, Lal Khan, was a shepherd. He died when the children were still young. Sheela and her sister were sent to missionary institutions for higher education, while Gulzar dropped out of school and went to Sialkot. The city was a sports goods manufacturing hub; he joined a factory that made footballs.
Sheela said Gulzar disliked the job and sought money from the family to move to Saudi Arabia. “My mother had to sell land to sponsor his journey,” she said.
Gulzar landed in Saudi Arabia in 2005 and became a house painter. He would wire money and call the family regularly, but became cool and distant as the years went by. Then he vanished.
The family tried contacting him though his employer and colleagues, but they did not know his whereabouts. “Nobody knew where he went,” said Sheela. “We pooled money and sent a brother to Saudi Arabia to find him. He came back empty-handed after two years,” said Sheela. The family thought Gulzar was dead.
In January 2011, Gulzar appeared in Gadivemula, a nondescript village in Andhra Pradesh, and met Daulat Bee, a widow and mother of one. They had known each other since 2009, through long conversations on phone. The couple got married at a mosque in Kurnool on January 25, 2011.
Daulat did not know that Gulzar was from Pakistan. Her father had been the imam of the Gadivemula mosque, and her late husband had been a mason. A series of tragedies had struck her after the birth of her first child. Illnesses claimed her husband, parents and elder brother in quick succession. Her younger brother, who was mentally disabled, went missing. When Gulzar landed in Gadivemula, Daulat was in search of her brother, much like Sheela in Pakistan. “With him gone, there were no male members in my family to support me,” said Daulat, now 41.
She remembers the first time Gulzar called her. She was living with her younger sister, who is also mentally disabled, when she received a call from an unknown number. She picked up the call, and a man asked her mischievously, “Mujhe pehchane (Recognise me?)”
Unnerved, Daulat switched off her phone for two days and told colleagues at the school where she worked as a maid about the incident. The calls, however, did not stop. Gulzar was persistent, “and I started sharing little details about myself,” said Daulat. “He came across as a nice person. We also exchanged photos. We spoke every day, sometimes even twice a day. He told me he was a painter working in Saudi Arabia and was from Punjab.”
Daulat said she liked Gulzar so much that she began rejecting marriage proposals from her relatives. Some of them talked to Gulzar, who said he did not mind that Daulat was a widow with a child.
One day, Gulzar called Daulat and said he had reached Mumbai. She gave directions to Gadivemula, and found out that he had arrived with just a pair of clothes. Her relatives became suspicious and informed the police, but they gave Gulzar a clean chit. Everyone thought he was from Punjab, India.
After the marriage, Gulzar settled in Gadivemula, taking up painting jobs and mingling freely with villagers. He told Daulat that he would introduce her to his family “when the time was right”. The couple had four children between 2011 and 2019.
“He never discriminated against his stepson,” said a villager. “He was closer to him than other children because the boy sometimes acted as his translator. Once, when his children said they craved to eat meat, Gulzar travelled 30km just to get it from the best butcher.”
Gulzar was a poet, too. Daulat’s relatives said he wrote poems in Urdu and sometimes read them aloud to Daulat, who struggled to understand them. Daulat said the names of his children―Seher, Gulshan, Kurum and Gulnaz―had deep meanings.
“His home and children were his life,” she said. “He asked me not to work, and gave me most of his salary. There were times when I would lose my temper and hit him, but he always remained calm.”
Along with a smattering of Telugu, Gulzar learned a local vice as well―boozing. “He had no vices, except that he would make a nuisance of himself after getting drunk,” said Ashok, who has known Gulzar for five years.
Daulat said Gulzar started missing his family in Pakistan in 2018. He wanted to go back and reunite with his mother and siblings.
Sheela vividly remembers the day she heard her brother’s voice for the first time in a decade. “I lost my voice and almost fainted. Seeing my expression those around me were stunned,” she said.
Apparently, Gulzar befriended on Facebook a person who lived close to Kulluwal. The person agreed to visit the village and inform the family that Gulzar was alive and wanted to reestablish contact. “There were cries in the mohalla and my family was elated,” said Sheela. Gulzar began calling his relatives regularly and introduced Daulat to his sister and mother. They accepted the marriage.
“Gulzar eats only chapatis and I eat mostly rice. He made me speak to his mother, who taught me how to make methi roti and his other favourite dishes,” said Daulat.
Gulzar was desperate to return to Kulluwal, but Sheela advised him to complete all legal procedures and avoid drastic steps. In 2019, he convinced his family to relocate to Kulluwal. In November, they left Gadivemula for Secunderabad to board a train to Delhi. Daulat’s relatives lodged a complaint with the police, but the family was allowed to leave. They reached Secunderabad, but a day before they could board the train to Delhi, a counterintelligence team of the Telangana Police arrested Gulzar.
The police said intelligence agencies had been monitoring his calls to Pakistan. Apparently, Gulzar had obtained an Indian passport, and Aadhaar and voter ID cards, and was planning to pose as a pilgrim to Kartarpur to get a Pakistani visa. He was charged under various sections of the 1946 Foreigners Act, the 1920 Passport (Entry into India) Act, and the 1967 Passports Act for fraudulently obtaining documents and illegally entering and staying in India.
The police said Gulzar had gone to the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia posing as a native of Uttarakhand, and applied for an emergency certificate―a one-way travel document to India given to Indian citizens whose passports have been lost, stolen or damaged. He entered India on January 19, 2011, and married Daulat Bee on January 25.
After Gulzar’s arrest, a shocked Daulat and her children were sent back to Gadivemula. Their home was raided and seizures were made. The police in Pakistan informed Gulzar’s mother of the case and verified documents. Gulzar was sent on remand to Chanchalguda Central Jail in Hyderabad.
Sheela said Gulzar’s “reckless actions” had put his family in danger. Daulat, however, forgave him. “He isn’t a bad person. He was born in the wrong place, and that led him to lie,” she said.
Daulat decided to fight for his release. To meet legal expenses, she collected Rs16,000 from supportive villagers and took out a loan of 01.5 lakh. She also returned to work at the school.
Gulzar was granted bail a year later. “It felt like a politician had come back home from a trip,” said Ashok. “Local people dropped in one by one and asked about his well-being. He answered them patiently. I pulled him up for his stupid ways, and he expressed regret. He said he would rather die than leave his children.”
The “Punjabi”, as Gulzar was referred to by the villagers, became the “Pakistani”. Nothing else changed. Gulzar resumed his life and gradually paid back the loan.
On February 9, 2022, the police took him into custody again. The family had thought that he would be on bail till the case was decided, but the police said the government had issued a detention order. Dated November 2, 2021, the order was signed by the government’s legal affairs secretary, and said the director-general of police had made a request to detain Gulzar till his “deportation process is completed”. Even if Gulzar was acquitted by the trial court, said the order, he had to be in a detention centre till he was deported.
Gulzar has since been in the Cherlapally jail, which has become an unofficial detention centre. Apparently, the government had issued at least half a dozen similar orders in October and November 2021. Illegal immigrants who were facing cases but were out on bail were rounded up and sent to Cherlapally in January and February, 2022. Most of them were Rohingyas from Myanmar.
Five of them filed writ petitions in the Telangana High court challenging the orders. In September last year, the court ordered that all five be released, and said their detention was “unjustifiable” and “illegal”.
The lawyer in Hyderabad who successfully argued the case, M.A. Shakeel, will represent Gulzar as well. “The very basis of the order has been challenged because [contrary to what it says] the state does not have the power to detain a person under Section 32 (2) (e) of the Foreigners Act, 1946,” said Shakeel. “An arrest can only be made by the Centre under section 32 (2) (g). When this power has not been conferred on the state by the Centre, how can they detain people?”
As another legal fight looms, Daulat is again trying to raise money. A silver lining is that she has grown fond of her in-laws in Pakistan, whom she video-calls regularly. Sheela says they would wholeheartedly welcome Daulat and the children if they decide to live in Pakistan. “And if they want to be in India, that is fine with us, too,” said Sheela. “I just want my brother to be safe and happy.”
For now, said Daulat, Gulzar’s release was her priority. “I just want to lead a peaceful life with my husband,” she said, “be it in India or Pakistan.”