Mian Sanaullah

 (Asim Rafiqui)Mian Sanaullah of Kalear Manand, Punjab, spent ten years on death row for a murder he did not commit. A land dispute that resulted in the killing of a man, and accusations of murder being placed against Mian Sanaulla, his brother and two other members of his family. Though the rest were acquited, Mian Sanaullah was sentenced to death for his alleged role in the murder.

His handsome features, height and elegant, composed walk makes him stand out amongst the dismal surroundings of Kalear Manand, the village where I have come to meet him. After our introductions he suggests we head to his family dera (public meeting area) where we can speak in private. Sanaullah asks his assistant at the general store where he works to take care of things, and jumps on to his motorcycle, gesturing to us to follow him in our car.

A short drive away from the village, the dera turns out to be a walled compound next to the family home. An old sheesham tree stands at the center of the compound, and we are invited to sit on hard, wooden chairs arranged in a small circle underneath it. After some brief pleasantries, I ask him to tell me about the incident the led to his being sentenced to death. Sanaullah gets right to the story.

We worked this land, having rightfully leased it from the owner. But at some point the owner gave away the land, without really taking us into a discussion. He exchanged the land for another plot. We asked him to not give to someone else – we even offered to pay for it, but he said that the deal had been done. That there was nothing we could do.

A gentle breeze is blowing across the compound, which I now notice is also used as a storage area – the rear plow of a tractor, some spades and pick-axes, cut tree trunks, an old motorcycle, and a child’s bicycle sit leaning against one of the walls. The gate to the compound lies open and I can see rows of small children, some with their burqa-clad mothers, walking by – school must have ended.

The other party came to us and asked us to leave the land, but we refused, arguing that we had a right to cultivate it and their exchange was unfair. They started to harass us, making it difficult for us to work on the land itself.

The sounds of children reading the Koran at a nearby madrassa can be heard. There is a small storage room in one corner of the compound, its mud walls cracking from age and neglect. It is only then that I notice the walls of the compound, and the general decay of the place.

Inevitably there was an argument, a fight – a man was killed.

Did you kill him? I ask. Sanaullah is a tall man – over six-feet two I estimate. And sits with his knees are bunched up close to his chest – the low wooden chairs being designed for men far smaller than him. On hearing my question he stretches his legs and looks at me, and answers with a practiced tone – he has been asked this before.


He pauses before continuing.

They – I can’t get him to tell me more about who the argument was with – are a political family. This was a political matter. I think that the land wasn’t the critical issue. The confusion on my face makes him smile. We are supporters of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and the owner of the land and those who bought it in barter supporters of a different party. They made an arrangement, and they wanted us off the land.

Sanaullah shifts in his chair, as if uncomfortable discussing the details.

They made it difficult for us to work the land – they would release their animals on it, or prevent us from going to the lands. There was a fight – a confrontation late one evening and a man was killed. I wasn’t even there – I was away in Bhawalpur, but my name was placed in the FIR. He is clearly uncomfortable discussing the details of the question of the land. I can’t help but feel that I am not being told the entire story about what transpired that night. But I don’t push him further. I was sentenced to death – their paid witnesses swore that I had carried out the killing. That was the only evidence they had – false witnesses.

I try to hear if there are sounds from the house – of children, cooking or any other sounds that would show occupants and a life. I hear nothing. We lost a lot. We lost the lands, we lost our animals. The house fell into disrepair. I sold a lot of my lands, and leased some out to other people. I borrowed money from friends and family – their support was crucial. But regardless, a lot was lost in the process. The entire balance and system of the family fell apart in my absence. When the master is not home, how can you expect it to work.

We sit in silence for a while and I listen to the sounds of the village – children playing games, women washing utensils, the bleating of goats, the sound of bells on cattle returning from the fields, a tractor being parked at a home, and somewhere from inside the house, the sound of a hookah being smoked. I want him to continue at his own pace, and not push him to hard. 

I spent five years on death row, but ten years in prison. I was eventually released when the High Court examined my case and dismissed it for a lack of evidence. I returned to a barren home. Sanaullah’s voice is different – more relaxed. He has crossed his legs, and Abandoned and empty. I could not work the lands and had to lease some and sold the rest. I mean, I went to jail when I was nearly forty. Now, at fifty, you can imagine, it takes a lot to try to put the family back together, back on its feet. He looks around the compound as if to offer its neglected feel as an explanation. We don’t have a lot of money, which has affected my ability to educate the children – legal fees, court fees and so much more.

I can hear tractors working in the fields, and the sound of birds in the trees around us. We are nearly an hour away from the closest town and I think that these sounds must be part of a routine that has been followed here for generations. I scold myself for my romanticism. It took some time, but I slowly put my life together – got the family back, fixed up the house as best I could, and went back to the lands to earn a living. We are finally getting it back together.

Suddenly the door at the far end of the compound opens, and an elderly man enters with a tray of tea. I can’t remember if Sanaullah had even asked for it, but perhaps the mere presence of outsiders in the house is a signal enough.

Now, I work some of the land on my own, while I earn some from the leased lands. We are slowly getting back on our feet, and we are grateful. The tea is placed on a low table in front of us, and we each take a cup. They are a powerful party – we belong and support a weaker political organization here, so it is even more difficult. We can’t fight them. The courts belong to them. The entire area belongs to them, and that too makes it very difficult to put things back together. He gets up to offer me a biscuit, and more sugar if I want. 

We sit quietly again, staring into our cups, warming our hands against the cold late afternoon breeze. What I lost, I can’t get back – not my life, not my lands. There is no going back. He asks if I would like to smoke a hookah, but I decline and we continue to drink our tea quietly. I look at Sanaullah and am once again struck by his strong, handsome features. The years in prison don’t seem to have affected them much, but I could be wrong.

People came out in droves to meet me. His mind has drifted to that moment of his return. This has been my strength – it was like a carnival here the day after I returned. They all knew that an innocent man is returning after nearly ten years in prison. For twenty days or so people came to ask after me. His face – its handsome lit by the sun, wears a small smile with the memory of that time.

I was welcomed back, they prayed for me at the mosque, they helped me find my place back in this village. Loans, and other help, and much more, to help me get back on my feet. It is a blessing – I was garlanded, money was showered, and the neighbors have been my anchor and strength. I am grateful.

Sanaullah has spoken more openly now, and his voice has taken on a happier, lighter tone. Prison never leaves you. It is difficult to explain, but prison weakens you in many ways. Mentally and physically. It is hard to describe. It never leaves you.

Later, while walking us to the car, we stop to take a look at the fields. The sun is starting to set, and a crimson light bathes the entire scene. I watch men returning from the fields – some on the back of tractor trailers, other walking in groups. A couple of young women are sitting on the side of the road that leads away from the village – perhaps they are waiting for local transport. A harvester sits idly in the midst of a field, its silhouette against the setting sun making it seem like a pachyderm. Sanaullah says nothing as we take in the evening light, but just as I am getting into the car he wishes me farewell by saying I am grateful to God for saving me. Its only his blessings, not the wisdom of the courts, that allows me to stand here with you today. I nod and give him a smile in acknowledgment, and wish him good luck.