Restoring the faith
Salim Mohammed Hussein Sheikh drives an auto in the busy streets of Ahmedabad. This youngish man hasn’t changed his profession in the last 10 years – since 2002 when the Gujarat riots killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, following the Godhra train burning. He is still driving an auto.
Talking to me in the narrow streets of Naroda Patiya last week, Salim is quiet, confident and willing to speak his mind. It is election time elsewhere in Ahmedabad and Gujarat, but there’s little activity here in the hovels of Naroda Patiya.
After meeting up near the Naroda Patiya police chowki, we walk to the house of Shakila Bano, who lost eight members of her family, including her mother and brother, in the February killings in this very locality in the heart of Ahmedabad, India’s fifth largest city.
Both Salim and Shakila were key prosecution witnesses that led to the August 29 judgment, convicting Mayaben Kodnani, a former Minister in Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government, and others, in August, of massacring 97 Muslims in Naroda Patiya.
“Samvidhan [Constitution] ke saamne kuchch nahin chalta hai,” Salim said. It was a short sentence, but replete with meaning not just for him, but for many others who believe that justice has been done and the rule of law has prevailed.
“A Hindu panwallah was killed because he tried to shelter some Muslims,” Salim, talking about events as they unfolded in his locality in February 2002, as Shakila chipped in from time-to-time.
“Many people came to us and told us. Take money and say that you didn’t recognise anyone in the mob. But I had a duty to perform towards the victims, my own family members,” Shakila said.
“Nyay ke prati mera vishvaas barh gaya hai [my faith in the law has increased],” Shakila, who works as a tailor, said with a degree of confidence.
“Marad log gaali dete the. Isse kuchch nahin niklega [many men used to abuse me and say nothing will come out of this].”
Their faith in the rule of law has been restored after the August 29 judgement. Not that they have any trust in the Narendra Modi government, but they are aware that the courts have given them justice in this case at least.
It’s, clearly, not easy to be living in the same locality where families of the accused, now convicted, live. But both Salim and Shakila tell me that the August 29 trial court judgement has done one thing – it has stopped the threats and the intimidation.
“Ab yeh log kuchch nahin bolte,” Shakila said, referring to the families of those convicted living around hers.
In her judgement, Jyotsna Yagnik said about the state of the witnesses:
Even on the date of the deposition, they [prosecution witnesses] were noticed to have been very much afraid…at least two to three PWs [prosecution witnesses] were so disturbed that their physical health was affected and [an] ambulance had to be called to take them to the hospital.
Though Shakila and Salim still have some police protection, the judgement has sent a signal down the line – that if the investigation is proper and the judiciary is diligent in doing its job – then justice is not far away.
Salim also says that they are grateful to the media and to non-governmental organisations that took up their case. “Media aur NGOs ne ham par barha ehsaan kiya hai,” he stated.
According to him, unlike the riots that rocked Ahmedabad in 1969, some of the perpetrators of 2002 have been brought to justice owing to the media, NGOs and, of course, the judiciary.
In an ocean of impunity, one must welcome a major instance of justice. More cases where justice is done can reinforce the people’s faith in the law.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.
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