Debating India

GUJARAT

Untold Tragedies

Tuesday 19 August 2003

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 17, August 16 - 29, 2003.

It is now round three for the Gujarat riot victims. First, they were attacked. Then they were forced to live in relief camps. (In the Modasa and Vadali relief camps, there are refugees still living in tents.) Now, they have to deal with a criminal justice system that is skewed. The police investigations were deliberately shoddy. No effort was made to gather evidence. In many cases, those who planned the violence hung around the police stations while complaints were filed. Today, culprits roaming the streets are listed as "absconding". Witnesses allege that public prosecutors representing them have not done justice to the cases. The proceedings in the rural districts often escape media coverage. In an environment where the state machinery supports the accused, the penniless witnesses, with their memories of terror, persist in their battle for justice. Legal activist Navaz Kotwal of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative writes about some of the cases in the Panchmahals district, which witnessed the worst violence.

Safiya’s story

I MET Safiya in a hospital. She lay in a corner, adjacent to the toilet. The stench was unbearable. She was in no condition to talk. She tried, but her mouth, wide open, was filled with blisters. She was on intravenous drips, unable to eat or drink anything because her intestines had been ruptured. Suddenly, somebody removed the sheet covering her body. Her intestines were exposed, raw and infected. I felt a faint. It took an effort to draw closer. As I stroked her head I saw the pus oozing from the wounds. There was no skin. I felt helpless - frozen. Her daughters and other family members were all beside her. They told her story. I had no words then but I write for Safiya now.

Safiya lived in Jhalod, a town in Dahod district of Gujarat, seven hours’ drive from Ahmedabad. Hindus and Muslims - the majority of them landless agricultural labourers - had been living together for years sharing their poverty and small joys. Living under the same yoke of want had blurred any differences of religion. Occasionally there had been minor clashes between the two communities but none too serious. They went to the fields together, celebrated each other’s festivals respectfully and pulled along as best as they could. March 1, 2002 changed all this amity forever.

Safiya’s brother Mohammadbhai tells the story. Returning home from his daily namaaz in the afternoon, he saw a well-armed mob of about 500 people, in khaki shorts with saffron headbands, attacking his modest home. On second thoughts, it was not a faceless mob. The faces were familiar. They all had names. Most of them were his neighbours. The door was broken in. They entered his house - his sole possession... While most of the mob left after looting and burning, a few remained behind to perform more devious crimes. His 80-year-old mother, Bibiben was beaten on the chest, kicked in the abdomen and then hacked to death. His wife Khairoon was also stabbed in the abdomen. She collapsed. They left her for dead. His 11-year-old niece was also stabbed in the abdomen and upper arm. By some luck she was spared from further injury. A few men grabbed his widowed sister Safiya, who had come home for Id, and beat her till she could no longer stand. Then they raped her and stabbed her repeatedly in the abdomen and the pelvis. For good measure they beat her with metal pipes until her abdomen tore open and her intestines spilled out. They left her for dead and moved on.

Three long hours passed. Mohammadbhai hid near the masjid, frozen, his senses not responding to anything that he saw. He watched it all. Even today he asks himself why he did nothing as a son, a husband, a brother and an uncle to protect his family.

The police arrived. By then everyone had left, save Mohammadbhai, and a disturbing calm had settled down on his mohalla. He was taken away to another locality where he would be safe. But by some twisted official logic, the injured women were left behind. Hours later, some villagers gathered courage to take Safiya and her mother to hospital. Her mother was declared dead on arrival but Safiya was operated upon. Later the police came to record her statement. She could barely speak, but she told her story. The first information report records "minor injuries".

Complications developed from Safiya’s first operation and she was shifted to the Baroda Civil Hospital and operated upon for a second time. Still there was no improvement. After a month Safiya was shifted to the Dahod Anjuman Hospital, where I met her at the end of April 2002. How she had survived for two months amazed me. I knew that if she lay in that hospital she would never make it. I had to shift her to Ahmedabad. But it was not an easy task. We were up against a system which was proud of its deliberate and prolonged incompetence. Hindu-owned private hospitals refused to accept her. Others demanded impossible sums of money. A Muslim-owned private hospital was the last resort. The seven-hour journey from Dahod to Ahmedabad was a gamble. There were chances of complications arising on the way. The ride was a nightmare. The two doctors, her daughters and I sat in silence as we all prayed that nothing would go wrong.

Safiya was operated upon for a third time the same day. For the first time in two months she thought she was going to live. When I was leaving, she joined her hands. I thought she said "thank you" and "come again". I promised I would. She died a week later on May 6.

But Safiya’s story does not end with her life. The private hospital could not do a post-mortem, so Safiya had to return to Dahod. That meant another seven-hour journey, this time with a rotting body. At the Dahod District Hospital the authorities refused to do the post-mortem. Reason: The body had come from a private hospital in Ahmedabad; the history of the case was not clear; and there were no supporting papers. No amount of questioning or pleading could change their minds. Authority never needs to explain anything. So the body of Safiya was taken to the Jhalod Hospital, another hour’s journey. Finally, after six more hours of haggling, the doctors agreed to do the post-mortem. The final report, which came two weeks later, said the death was due to "Renal Failure and Septicemia".

The FIR with its record of "minor injuries" and the cruel end-joke of death due to "Renal Failure and Septicemia" in the post-mortem made certain that there will be no official record of the savagery that Safiya suffered; no recognition of the pain of those first hours; no punishment for her rapists and tormentors; no compensation for her family for all the neglect and agony of her months in hospitals; and of course, no investigation into her death.

Safiya was an Indian woman. In life the state could not protect her. But did it have to cheat her with so much deliberate and premeditated care in death?

(Case is closed. No further inquiry into the death.)

A mother’s quest for justice

MEDINA wants justice. That is all. It is painful for her to tell her story again and again: to the police, to the court, to the good people who visited her, but she will do it. There is nothing else to live for. In June Medina told her story again, in court.

"My daughter Shabana was only seventeen, we were to get her married next year. Those men - all our neighbours and `friends’ - caught hold of her and flung her around. I heard my daughter’s screams, begging them to get off her. But instead they continued raping her one after the other. They cut off her breasts. My niece Suhana and sister-in-law Rukaiyya were also raped. They hacked my old in-laws to death. They killed seven members of my family. Taufique was only 18 months old. They sliced off his thumb. They gathered all the bodies - piled wood and dry leaves on them and set them on fire. Then they left. Suddenly there was silence. It was all over. Right before my eyes I lost those very people who I lived for. After March 2, 2002, life has not been the same again."

An eerie silence prevailed as I heard a mother’s account of her daughter’s rape. I sat with her, weeping silently. That was all I had to offer; what consolation could I give her. And how do I promise her justice?

Medina lived all her life in Eral in Panchmahals district. Eral is a tiny village surrounded by jungles and hills. A dirt road connects Eral to the outside world. Among the 4,000-odd residents, about 250 were Muslims, who earned their living through farming and petty business. Medina’s family was one such. Bounded by a family of 11, looking after the house and the needs of the family members was what she did all day. Medina knew nothing of Godhra and nothing of the arson of the train that killed Hindus.

Since March 2002, Medina has been a refugee in her own land. For months she has lived in relief camps. In all these months of pain, passing those long hours with the pictures of her family members in mind, thinking why death forgot her, Medina has at least won one small victory. Unlike most of her camp-mates, she has managed to get her first information report registered. She identified all those who raped and murdered her daughter, niece and sister-in-law. She named seven of them in her report to the police.

The police investigated the case and filed the charge-sheet. The case was up for hearing. A few arrests were made but most of those named are said to be "absconding". But Medina sees them roaming free in the village. They continue to threaten and intimidate the witnesses. According to the law, the term "absconded" is not to be understood as implying necessarily that a person leaves the place in which he/she is residing. It is etymological and its ordinary sense is to hide or conceal oneself. But in this case the "absconding" are making no attempt to even hide. They are living in the village, free to do as they please and yet are treated as absconding.

There are 32 other witnesses in the case. They were small farmers and shopkeepers. Most of them have lost everything and have themselves just returned from camps. As for Medina, she cannot even return to what was once her home. The rapists and murderers demand that her return will be conditional. Intermediaries have contacted her to bargain. She will be allowed to return only if she drops all charges and withdraws her complaint. Medina is scared. The police refuse to help. There is no one to guarantee her safety.

The case came up for hearing three times. Each time the Judge insisted that all 32 witnesses come to court. The prosecutor does not resist the order or seek to have just a few witnesses examined at a time. If every witness were to take at least half an hour to be examined, cross-examined and re-examined, it would take 16 hours of hearing and all in one day! Everyone knows that the cross-examination will not take place in one day but they have to obey the Magistrate. All the witnesses come. The court is about 70 km from the village. For safety, the witnesses travel together in a bus. Most of them are men. The women, who are left behind feel scared and vulnerable in the village so they have to be transported to the nearest camp to await the night journey home together with their menfolk. The Magistrate is aware of the situation.

On October 12, 2002, the day of the first hearing, just three witnesses were heard. The courtroom was packed with villagers and cadres of a semi-political outfit. The questioning of the witnesses bordered on the ridiculous - it was insensitive, crude and patronising. All three witnesses broke down at having to relive the trauma of March 2. The issue was rape. There were smirks and laughter in the courtroom. No one objected from the prosecution side. No one intervened from the Bench. The audience was not warned, nor was the court cleared. Outside these halls of justice, the other 29 witnesses waited nervously for their turn. It did not come. The exercise was to be repeated at the next hearing.

All 32 witnesses were again ordered to appear on October 25. The situation was no different. This time only one witness was heard. The rest waited outside. The next date for hearing given was November 12, the presence of all the witnesses being mandatory. This time no one was heard. The case was adjourned. After a long journey, witnesses returned home... some frustrated, and some without any hope.

Written submissions were made to the court to take notice of the "absconding accused" and the constant threats to the witnesses. Not much has happened in the case since then. No arrests have been made. The accused still roam fearlessly and the witnesses lead unpredictable lives. On June 4, Medina gave evidence in court. She asked for justice, she asked for the rapists to be arrested. The Magistrate reiterated that arresting the accused was the role of the police. He was here only to conduct the trial. Medina broke down in court... The next hearing was on June 18. The defence counsel failed to appear. Medina asked for justice. She got another date.

Outside the court Medina and the witnesses live in fear. They are constantly approached by agents of justice to withdraw their testimony. Medina says she has been offered money to give up the fight. She has been threatened that she will never be able to return home otherwise. Other witnesses are tempted by money and the need to get on with their lives. This is sapping their will. They know that court proceedings will last for years on end. Unsure of the ability to survive each day, the strength to force the justice system to respond seems too much to ask for.

No compensation

YAKUBBHAI sat in the police station, along with other villagers waiting for his complaint to be recorded. How many times he had visited the place in the past month! It was end of April 2002 - two months since his life had taken a turn for the worse. Every time he had returned empty-handed. His patience and determination was fading. He wondered if he would be lucky today. Did he say lucky? The policeman called his name. He jumped up in surprise. His legs wobbled as he walked towards the desk.

An ugly circus of intimidation unfolded. The officer was shouting at the villagers. He wanted them to go back as he had other work to do. He sipped his tea. Yakubbhai had come with the names of people who had murdered eight members of his family. He was witness to 18 murders. They were all killed and burnt. But how could he prove that when evidence was meticulously obliterated and even the ashes were swept away. He asked the officer at least to record his complaint. He was asked to remove all the names of the accused. Yakubbhai refused. The police officer asked Yakubbhai to produce the remains. He said he could not find any. Arguing with the providers of law proved futile. Reason is a stranger in this part of the world. Yakubbhai tried hard. In an emotionally exhausted voice, he repeated his story.

Terror broke loose in Yakubbhai’s village, Dehlol, on February 28, the day after the Godhra carnage. Muslims from the village fled. There was little they owned but had to leave all that behind. Yakubbhai had probably lost a little more than others... his house, his source of livelihood, and eight members of his family. He had fled the village with his family and others hoping that somehow they would escape the mobs. They hid in the nearby fields. The standing crops provided some refuge, but not for long. Armed mobs with saffron headbands scouted the area for any surviving Muslims. At Futewad Talaav, eight of them were caught, slashed with swords, doused with petrol and set ablaze.

The attackers seemed at ease with the killing as if it was something they did every day. As for Yakubbhai, he found a spot where the crops completely covered him. But he could see through the undergrowth. He watched his father, mother, brother, sister, niece, and nephew, all being killed. Yakubbhai was frozen. He could not move from where he was hiding. For two long hours the carnival of blood continued. The mob left. No help came in. The police were nowhere in sight. Considering the fact that the police station was less than 6 km away, their absence seemed strange. The foul odour of burnt flesh was repulsive. The smoke rising from the burning bodies was choking.

Those that survived came out of their hiding. Firdos, Sattar, Javed, Ezzaz, Yasmin, Ayyub, Hasina and others moved in search of a safe haven. What they had seen stunned them. Children failed to understand why their mothers and fathers were being killed. They remained silent. This was not the time to ask. Would there ever be one? They were walking for almost two hours now, moving from one field to another, each one praying that there would be no more attacks. But their prayers went unanswered. They realised that they were only moving in circles. As they reached the Goma river they were tracked down by the mob. The act was repeated. Nine of them were killed. One by one each one was slashed with swords and beaten with sticks. Yakubbhai, Firdosbhai, Ezzaz and Javed hid behind a tree and watched. Yasmin, a 13-year-old girl, was stripped and gang-raped. Then they tore her apart. They caught hold of Ezzaz’s mother and slashed her neck. Ezzaz screamed and darted forward to save his mother. But the mob was ruthless. They caught him but spared him for a macabre ritual. They piled 10 bodies, set them ablaze, made Ezzaz walk around the pyre and finally threw him in the fire as well. Benumbed - all that the other children and Yakub could do was hold on to each other and watch.

Yakubbhai walked for two days before he reached the nearest relief camp. It took him days before he could get hold of his senses. He sent a written complaint to the district’s Superintendent of Police by post two weeks later. His complaint was not recorded. When he asked for information he was not given any. They refused to say where the complaint was. Slowly Yakubbhai gathered enough courage to visit the police station to ask again. He has now been there at least 20 times, he has asked, pleaded, begged; he has wept and screamed for his dead family. The police say he is a liar. They ask him for evidence; for the ashes.

Yakubbhai does not know why the police won’t record his complaint. He is eligible for ex gratia payments for the lives that have been lost. For himself and for the children who saw their parents murdered. The rules have fixed the price of a murder at Rs.1,50,000. But if the body or its remains are not found, then the State need not pay that sum. Unless proof is produced, no compensation is given. Yakubbhai’s predicament is that he cannot find the remains of his family members.

Yakubbhai, a tailor, owned a tiny shop. He earned enough to feed and clothe his family. Savings were a luxury. The little that he owned is also gone now. The State paid him Rs.2,500 as compensation. He is living in the relief camp. In order to prove the deaths, he has to produce the collateral.

Next morning Yakubbhai wakes up, gets ready for his ritual, leaves for the police station. The policemen toss him around. But he refuses to give up. Another report is released. The words capture the facts. Yakubbhai’s pain goes unrecorded.

(Till date there is no FIR for 18 murders. There is of course no charge-sheet and no investigation into the murders. All 18 people remain in the government’s missing list.)

P.S.

Pic1:A destroyed workshop of a Muslim in Suksar, Dahod district.

Pic2:The house of a Muslim destroyed with precision while Hindu residences stand untouched in Sanjeli village, Dahod district.

Pic3:Provocative slogans ("Hindustan for Hindus only, Muslims go to Pakistan") on the walls of a mosque in Sanjeli.

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