From Godhra to Una
July 4, 2017
"My birth is my fatal accident."
— Rohith Vemula
Are suffering and oppression mere accidents of birth? If so, resistance must also be an accident of birth. Harsh Mander has titled his recent book Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance after the powerful phrase from Rohit Vemula's suicide note. Published by Speaking Tiger, this book carries compelling stories from two decades of journalism and activism.
August 2016. In a surge of collective rage, hundreds of Dalits joined the Azadi Kooch, a protest march from Ahmedabad to the village of Una in Gir Somnath district against the public lashing of Dalit men for skinning a dead cow. One among them was a middle-aged man who repaired shoes on a street-corner in Ahmedabad and who, for many years, had slept on the pavements of the city. He declared that he would work for Dalit-Muslim unity. His name was Ashok Mochi. Fourteen years earlier, in 2002, when angry mobs surged through the streets of Ahmedabad, burning and looting the homes and shops of their Muslim neighbours, murdering and raping thousands, this man’s face stamped itself indelibly in public memory. The man himself slipped quickly back into oblivion, from where he was briefly resurrected by the Azadi Kooch.
For the world, one picture became a symbol of those terrifying days in February 2002 when angry mobs roamed the streets of Ahmedabad, killing, raping and looting Muslims. The camera captures a lean, bearded young man in khaki trousers and a loose black T-shirt with sleeves folded, his hair parted in the middle, a saffron band on his forehead, standing with both his arms raised, one hand brandishing an iron rod, one with fist clenched. His mouth is open, as though he is shouting slogans. There are blurred images of men in the rear, and a burning heap of materials. Behind him the sky is black with smoke rising from burning homes, cars and shops across the city.
This photograph, by Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer Sebastian D’Souza, was carried across the world in newspapers, on newsmagazine covers and, later, in books which reported and analysed the carnage. It quickly became a symbol of those gruesome days, of the hatred that breached its dams and unleashed one of the most bloody communal massacres after Partition.
In the decade that followed, striving for the healing of the survivors of this carnage, and fighting for justice for them, became a dominant concern not just in my life but also the lives of many friends and colleagues. Together, we fought several hundred cases in the courts, trying to bring those responsible for this massacre to justice. A few cases were won, but the large majority ended in acquittals. Even so, this was the largest collective striving for justice after communal massacres in the history of the country.
My colleagues in Aman Biradari, peace-workers who helped fight hundreds of criminal cases after the carnage, were idealistic young lawyers and women and men from the ravaged communities. They measured their success not only in the outcomes of these protracted legal battles, most of which were ultimately lost, but in the success of at least engaging the perpetrators in the criminal justice system. It was the first time that this happened on this scale after any major communal riot in the country.
Yet, as the years passed, we realized that most of whom we succeeded in engaging in these legal battles were the foot-soldiers of the carnage, not its leaders. Who were these men, we wondered. What happened to them in the years after?
These questions led me to seek out the young man in the AFP photograph that had transfixed the world. I contacted Kishore Bhai, a dedicated colleague with the Aman Biradari, and a justice-worker who had pursued the man’s criminal case in court. Kishore Bhai told me that the man was Ashok Mochi, a cobbler from the working-class neighbourhood of Shahpur in Ahmedabad. His full name was Ashok Kumar Bhagwan Bhai Parmer.
His name did not appear in the initial police complaints, but that could have been because the police mostly did not record the names of the men the complainants said were part of the mobs which attacked them. However, Ashok Mochi’s name entered the records in the course of later police investigations. A local resident, Mohammad Hussain Ramzanbhai Sheikh, in his statement to the Madhepur police in September 2002, charged that Ashok Mochi was part of a riotous mob of men, armed with daggers and sticks, who attacked and looted several Muslim homes on the morning of 28 February 2002. Since the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) had called for a bandh, most Muslim residents were in their homes. They watched with alarm as the mob, which included in its ranks Ashok Mochi, gathered at Shahpur Chowk, which is where Mochi was when this photograph was taken. It was at the chowk that they were alleged to have burnt a couple of autorickshaws. According to Sheikh, he saw the men enter the homes of his brother and other relatives, loot suitcases, gas-cylinders, television sets and other items before dousing the houses with petrol and setting them on fire. Light bulbs filled with acid were hurled at the taller buildings and was followed by death threats to the residents, all of whom left for relief camps by evening.
Despite Ramzanbhai Sheikh’s statement, the police did not arrest or even question Ashok Mochi at that time. His was one of the two thousand criminal cases registered after the carnage. Most of these were closed by the police, who simply claimed that they could not find sufficient evidence against the perpetrators. Within a year, the police proposed that half the criminal cases connected with the carnage be closed, and the lower courts concurred. I became an intervener in a case filed by the National Human Rights Commission which, under Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma’s leadership, was deeply perturbed by the failure to deliver even elementary justice to the survivors of the carnage. In my petition, argued by leading human rights lawyer Indira Jaising, we established, with the help of several examples, that the police had deliberately undertaken shoddy investigations to protect the perpetrators. The Supreme Court accepted this petition and, in a historic judgement, ordered the reopening of all the closed cases and also supervised their re-investigation and retrial.
Various human rights groups took charge of these criminal cases. The case in which Ashok Mochi was an accused was among the several hundred cases that Aman Biradari took responsibility for. Ashok Mochi, accused of looting and burning Muslim homes and shops in the area falling under the jurisdiction of the Madhepura Police Station, was charged under Sections 435 and 436 of the Indian Penal Code (crimes of arson and causing destruction by fire), and arrested. He spent fourteen days in jail after which he was released on bail furnished by his elder brother. The case dragged on for several years, and Ashok Mochi attended every hearing with more than twenty other accused men. Justice-worker Kishore Bhai attended as many of these hearings as he could to sustain the morale of the complainants. But the cases were adjourned month after month, and the complainants were wearied by their struggles to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Altaf Sheikh, a young lawyer working with Aman Biradari, recalled that on the day the court wished to record the statements of Ramzanbhai Sheikh, he was unable to attend the court. Vexed by his absence, the court closed the case for lack of evidence and acquitted Ashok Mochi and all the others who had been accused in the case. Ashok Mochi joined the thousands who had been charged with crimes in the carnage of 2002, but ultimately walked free.
Years later, in 2014, I asked Kishore Bhai if Ashok Mochi would be willing to meet me. He was. I walked with Kishore Bhai to where he plied his trade on the corner of a sidewalk near Lal Darwaza in old Ahmedabad. He was around forty, but looked older. I would not have recognized him from his photograph. His hair had greyed and he wore it short-cropped. His face was lined. He did not wear the beard he had in his photograph of over a decade earlier. I told Ashok that I would sit with him while he worked. To this he said that business was slow that day, he would shut shop and we could sit in a hotel and talk.
Ashok had inherited his father’s trade as a cobbler. It was not what he wanted to do. He would have liked to do something else, something ‘better’, as he put it. But, ultimately, he could not break out of what his caste had prescribed for him, or the limitations poverty had imposed upon him. The family lived in a small one-room tenement in Lal Darwaza, an area inhabited mostly by people from the working class. On one side of the road lived Muslims, on the other were mostly low-caste Hindus. The inhabitants worked largely as labourers, construction-workers, house- painters and mattress-makers. Ashok’s father’s earnings were meagre. Ashok liked to study and hoped to make something of out his life. But his father died when he was in Class 6, and his mother a year later. He was left in the care of his elder brother.
His brother married and had four children in quick succession. The family fed Ashok, but he often quarrelled with his sister-in-law about money for food and for clothes. After he passed his Class 10 examination, he decided he would fend for himself. He tried his hand at many professions. He said, ‘Maine Hindustan ke woh saare chote kaam kiye jo chota insaan kar sakta hai,’ and described all the mean, low-paying jobs an uneducated, underprivileged man in India is forced to take on. He worked as a sweeper, a security guard, a house painter, and tried many other trades, but could not establish himself in any one. In many, he said, caste was a barrier—people pass on their trades only to people of their own caste.
He finally took on his father’s profession and inherited many of his father’s customers. For a while, he would give most of his earnings to his brother but when tensions in the family grew, he left home and began to sleep on the streets, at the same place where he plied his trade. In the day, next to him sat Nazir Bhai who repaired autorickshaws for a living and, on the other side, sat an upper-caste Hindu who traded in old clothes. Since Ashok slept at his workplace, he would take care of his neighbours’ goods at night. It was an arrangement that worked well for all. He would eat at cheap roadside eateries. There was a working men’s dormitory close by, and he used its bathroom and toilet in the mornings.
Life was routine until the storm of 2002 broke. He had seen many riots in his life, said Ashok. He was ten years old in 1985 when, for several months, Ahmedabad was torn by communal violence which took nearly three hundred lives. Minor riots occurred every two or three years. But none were like the riots of 2002, said Ashok. The riots reminded old people of the riots of Partition, when thousands were forced to live for months on end in relief camps. Ashok recalled the morning of 28 February 2002, and that the street on which he worked and slept was tense and uneasy. The newspapers, he said, had been full of ghastly pictures of burnt bodies from the train in Godhra that made every Hindu’s blood boil. He did not watch television, but he was told that they, too, carried graphic images of the corpses. The Hindus were incensed and furious with the Muslims, he said, and Ashok, too, was angry. The VHP had called for a bandh. Muslims hid in their homes as Hindu men gathered on the streets with weapons and petrol. Ashok worried that the riots would swallow up his earnings for weeks, even months.
Ashok had grown a beard at that time. (He said it was because of a failed ‘love story’. He had wanted to marry the daughter of an upper-caste neighbour but her family had found out and married the teenaged girl off in a hurry to a man of her caste. ‘Therefore I began to grow my beard. Like Devdas, you know. Except that I did not drink!’) Not many Hindu men sported beards and he was afraid that the mobs would mistake him for a Muslim. He looked everywhere for a barber but could not find one. He then tied a saffron scarf on his forehead to mark himself as a Hindu. He joined other young men at the Shahpur Chowk where, months earlier, the VHP had installed a board announcing that Gujarat was a Hindu Rashtra.
It was there, said Ashok, that a journalist walked up to him. The journalist asked Ashok what he felt about the burning of Hindus in Godhra. He replied that the Muslims had committed a vile crime and that he was angry. Ashok claimed that that the journalist then asked if he would pose for a photograph. He agreed, picked up an iron rod, and posed for the picture which was to become history. Sebastian D’Souza, who took the picture, has a different version of the story. In January 2012, he told Indrajit Hazra of the Hindustan Times, ‘Mobs were burning cars and I saw people stabbing people. The driver I was travelling with had fled. In the distance, I saw this man leading a group get up on a raised spot. I took a few long-shot pictures with a 300 mm lens.’ Hazra asked if he knew the man’s name, or if he posed on spotting the camera. It certainly looked as though he was staring directly into the lens. But D’Souza denied this. ‘No, I was too far away. He was just shouting when I left.’ To me, Ashok claimed that he did not lead any mob, nor did he participate in any arson, looting or attacks.
By late afternoon, the mobs started to thin. By evening and through the night, Muslims fled in police buses to the safety of relief camps even as their homes burned. Ashok knew that he would not be able to buy food at eateries, and it would be unsafe to sleep on the streets at night. So he went to his brother’s home, intending to stay there for a few weeks. He was not on speaking terms with his sister-in-law but at such a time, she did not turn him away.
By the following morning, Ashok recalled, the mobs gathered once more and only grew. He told me that people everywhere were saying: ‘Kuch dinon ka chhoot de diya hai hamein Musalmanon ko marne, katne, lootne ke liye’ (We have been given freedom for a few days to kill, attack, loot Muslims). The riots in Ashok’s neighbourhood went on for more than a week. He lived with his brother’s family for three months before returning to his spot on the pavement. During this time, he said, he stayed mostly at home. His picture was published in many newspapers and people believed that he was a major leader with the VHP or the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the VHP. He was worried about his own safety after his new-found fame. He decided, therefore, that he would not sleep on the streets for a while. He found a place to bed down in a corner of the working men’s dormitory whose facilities he used in the mornings.
After several months passed, the Muslims began to return from the relief camps. Muslim relief agencies gave them money to help rebuild their homes. The help was meagre, but at least they could have a roof over their heads. Gradually, they also began to rebuild their livelihoods. Nazir Bhai restarted his business of repairing autorickshaws. Ashok returned to sleeping on the streets. He never married. ‘If I did marry, what would I give my children? My father was able to give me neither food nor education. Why should I do the same with my children? I am better living alone,’ he said to me.
Ashok claimed that the statements made by his Muslim neighbours against him in court were false. The attackers had all been strangers from other parts of the city, he maintained, and the Muslims, angry about their loss, just listed the names of the local Hindu men they knew. Years passed before he was arrested and spent a fortnight in jail. He initially refused to give his brother’s address to the authorities. He told the police that his only home was the streets. But they said that he could get bail only if someone with a proper residential address was willing to vouch for him. He then reluctantly gave them his brother’s details, who bailed him out.
The case again went on for many years and over many hearings, so many that Ashok lost count. It was his belief, he said, that with the passage of time the hatred the Muslims felt for the Hindus ebbed. The Muslims knew in their hearts that he—and all the others accused in the case along with him—were innocent and therefore did not testify against them in the end. It was a mellow Ashok Mochi I spoke to, a far cry from the firebrand he appears in the photograph. Riots, he said, are created by political parties that spread falsehoods and hatred. According to him, 5 per cent of the Muslims, like those who set fire to the train in Godhra, were bad, and it was wrong to punish 95 per cent of the Muslims for the crimes committed by the five. He added that Narendra Modi had been chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, but it had made no difference to the ordinary person, who continues to struggle for roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothes and shelter). ‘I slept on the footpath in 2001. I am still sleeping on the footpath today,’ he declared.
If Ashok Mochi’s was one defining picture of the riots of 2002, the other was that of Qutubuddin Ansari, taken by Arko Dutta for Reuters. In the picture, Qutubuddin, a tailor from Ahmedabad, stands with his hands folded, his eyes clouded with tears, desperately begging security forces to rescue him from the first floor of his home in a slum, Sone-ki-Chawl, where he is besieged by mobs clamouring for his blood.
In 2014, I read news reports that Ashok Mochi and Qutubuddin Ansari had been invited by the CPI (M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]) to an unusual programme to mark the twelfth anniversary of the carnage in Gujarat. The CPI (M) brought the two men together for the programme in Kannur, Kerala, and got them to share a stage and even a room. Zahid Qureshi and Swapna Pillai, who were reporting the event for the Mumbai Mirror, wrote that while on stage, Ansari accepted a rose from Mochi. A visibly overwhelmed Ansari said, ‘Even though we are both Gujarati, we could not have met in Gujarat like this. This is a new experience for me.’ He went on to disclose that Mochi was not the first Hindu to apologize to him for the riots. ‘A retired army officer named Anand Shroff, a resident of Pune, had apologized to me on behalf of the Hindu community some years back. Today, my brother Ashok Mochi has asked for forgiveness. It means a lot to me. Let this be the beginning of a new chapter in humanity.’
When it was Ashok’s turn to speak, he declared that the riots were a mistake, ‘a huge blunder. I do not know what to say, I have never addressed so many people in my life. But I cannot leave without talking about insaaniyat (humanity)—that is what I have learnt over these years.’
He then sang the song, ‘Hai preet jahan ki reet sada…’ (Where love has forever been tradition…) from Manoj Kumar’s patriotic film Purab aur Pashchim. Ansari joined in. The journalist P. Sudhakaran, reporting the event for Times News Network, described the event: ‘They sang off key. The audience didn’t get a word of what they sang. But they moved hearts. The applause was deafening.’ As we drank coffee together, Ashok Mochi told me that he and Qutubuddin Ansari still met once in a while. Ansari once even invited him home. Ashok had no home to host him.
I do not know for sure if Ashok Mochi was indeed an innocent bystander, as he claimed, or if he led or joined the mobs that looted and burned the homes of his Muslim neighbours in those hate-charged days in Ahmedabad in 2002. I think he did.
But at least he has expressed public remorse for those crimes. And I think he is sincere in this remorse. It is sobering to remember that most of those who led and organized the massacre have never once said that they are sorry.
Read extract from Harsh Mander's Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India and the Enquiry Committee Report written by Harsh Mander et al on Proselytisation of Adivasi in Dang.
Excerpted from Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance, by Harsh Mander, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.