I have always believed in justice. But, poetic justice had always been a thing synonymous to an illusion for me. Whenever someone talked of poetic justice, I had always put it at par with poetry — a thing which is good to listen to and talk about, but which never happens in reality. This had continued to be my perception till I met Shahid Qadri.
Shahid came across as an affable person in his mid forties when I met him sometime in the year 2004 in Ahmedabad, the most prominent city in the Western Indian state of Gujarat. The state is also referred to as ‘Manchester of the East’ given its rich history of housing dozens of textile mills until early 1980s.
The time when I met him was in the aftermath of the anti Muslim pogrom that had followed the torching of fifty nine Hindus in a train burning episode in Godhra, some one hundred and forty kilometres from Ahmedabad, in February 2002. These Hindus were returning from the north Indian town of Ayodhya where they had gone to perform voluntary services for a proposed temple for which a mosque had been demolished in 1992 by thousands of members of India’s majority community egged on by leaders of a right wing party. The temple movement had been a bloody one.
The Godhra train burning had been followed by targeting of Muslims in the most violent manner that resulted in a large number of deaths. The civil society reported of those dead in the communal violence at more than 2,000, the majority being Muslims, while the government recorded it at more than eight hundred. The number of those raped, maimed, made homeless and disabled were over and above these figures. It was in these developments of post Godhra train burning that Shahid’s story stood intertwined.
Well, he was a regular at informal gatherings held at the office of two local builders who were both partners as well as brothers. The office was located in the Muslim dominated locality of Behrampura and the brothers were living off the legacy of their father Imtiaz Khan Pathan who was a community leader of sorts who are normally reflected as Mafia Dons in films. The old man had run the ‘Matka’ (Gambling) and ‘liquor’ (alcohol) trade during his day but as a principle had kept off prostitution along with smuggling of drugs and gold. Upon his death, the safest route for legitimising his wealth and gaining respect and acceptability in the society where political scenario was changing was to get the tag of a builder. This is precisely what the brothers Matiq and Shafeeq had done. They had a younger brother Altaf who was behind bars at that time on charges of having shot a ‘Police informer’ and the one older to them named Sadiq had been killed in a gang war while their father was alive.
After the 2002 Hindu Muslim violence, the office of Matiq and Shafeeq had become a sort of a ‘Control Room’ for the community with multiple closed circuit television cameras and telephones with someone always manning the room. Carrying forward the legacy of their father was not an easy task and like everything it came at a cost. The vulnerable members of the community had looked up to the bothers at the time of the 2002 violence and the latter had not let them down. Three years down the line as I sat in their office with Shahid, the result was right there to be seen — people in the entire neighbourhood swore by these brothers and were ready to die for them. That is how loyalty breeds when someone with resources helps the vulnerable at a time of distress.
The two brothers had obtained a license to run an ambulance service when the violence was at its peak and had used the vehicle for distributing essentials like food grains, tea, sugar and milk powder sachets to members of the community when the region was under curfew. They also rushed sick and injured to various public health facilities.
This gesture had worked wonders for them as they cultivated a force of loyalists that was willing to go to extremes for them. Encouraged by this outcome, the two brothers went on to contribute food grains and other essentials to the families of the riot victims lodged in one of the biggest relief camps that had been set up in Shah-e-Alam locality that was hardly two kilometers away. The area was named after the mausoleum of a Sufi saint located there.
They had come to realise that maintaining contact with the people they had helped paid a great humanitarian dividend. Shahid had also come in contact with them as a shattered man. He was an employee of the state run bus service who had been at the receiving end when violence had erupted.
When I met him three years after the riots, I could not help wondering how a towering personality like him could end up a victim of violence. He came as a person who seemed to have come to terms with life. I had met him at one of the informal chat sessions at the office of Matiq and Shafeeq. I had gone there on a professional journalistic assignment that called for interviewing people who had suffered a personal loss during the 2002 riots.
I was surprised when Shafeeq asked me to talk to Shahid Qadri. I looked at Shafeeq questioningly unsure whether Shahid was the ideal subject for the story I was supposed to file. “You must talk to Shahid Bhai. He lost his young teenaged son to a one sided unprovoked police action in his residential locality of Rasoolabad,” said Shafeeq as I sat rattled.
In all humility I asked Shahid if we could sit in the adjoining room as I had to record his story on my audio recorder that would be played on the international radio network with which I was employed then. He agreed in a tone that shattered all communication barriers we had.
We went to the adjoining room where I set up my paraphernalia of a recorder, microphone and a headphone. After a minute of brief introductions on the microphone as I adjusted the audio levels, I asked him to narrate his tale.
Like millions of Indians of his age group, Shahid too had dreamt of a government job growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Coming from a lower middle class background, he had grown up in Chawls (cramped community neighbourhoods that mark industrial cities) where his father had struggled as a mill worker to get his son along with four other children educated in a municipality run school and one of those government run colleges that produced individuals with a clerical mindset by the hundreds every year. Shahid had not let his father down and was soon employed with the state-run transport department that ran inter-district and interstate bus services as a clerk within a year of having graduated. He succeeded in realising his family’s dreams. The only responsibility left for his father was to get his son married which he did in another year.
“It was a routine life for me and my wife Zakia as we went on to have three children Faraz, Noor and Farzan. Being the eldest and the first born among the families of my siblings, Faraz was my favourite child. And I must admit I pampered him more than the others trying to fulfil all his demands. We were a contented family enjoying what we could from my small income. I had managed to buy a small house in Rasoolabad locality despite the Disturbed Areas Act being there,” he said.
The Disturbed Areas Act prevents sale of property by Hindus to Muslims and vice versa in localities that have been notified as ‘Disturbed Areas’ unless prior permission has been sought from the local administration. The Act was promulgated in the 1970s to check ghettoisation. But like the adage goes ‘Laws are made to be broken’ this one has also failed and the prevailing religious polarisation has led to people purchasing properties without bothering to get the ownership transferred to their name in areas where their own community is in majority. They know the hostilities will ensure the seller never dares to come back to make any claims later.
“Despite the communal tensions and riots, life continued to move at a fixed pace. Ahmedabad was a frequent witness to Hindu-Muslim violence. I had grown up watching the major riots of 1985 when a social strife was converted into a Hindu-Muslim riot. Then there were riots around the developments in Ayodhya. The worst were those that had followed the demolition of the Babri Mosque on 6 December 1992 by a Hindu mob. The mosque had been built in the 16th century,” said Shahid.
“Yet the Hindus and Muslims continued to co-exist and there has been a complex kind of social interdependence that has continued. For example let’s take the auspicious Hindu festival of Uttarayan on 14 January every year that is marked by the Hindus by flying kites by the thousands. Hindu scriptures underline that Uttarayan is the period when Sun travels from South to North. There is hardly a Hindu household that does not purchase dozens of kites. And these kites are made and sold by Muslims in neighbourhoods like Jamalpur. When it comes to kite flying how can Muslims be behind since this is among the most popular recreations among the community. So, this always used to be an occasion to further strengthen my bonding with my children, especially Faraz as we climbed the rooftop of our building and flew kites through the day. We even had our daytime meals on the rooftop taking a small break from flying kites amid blaring popular Hindi film songs,” he went on.
But the Uttarayan of 2002 was the last one they had celebrated and enjoyed with gusto. “I still relive Faraz and me going to the old Teen Darwaza area of the ancient Walled City of Ahmedabad around midnight on the Uttarayan eve where we had spent a considerable time selecting kites, strings etc. We had purchased the ‘Chinese Manja’ (string laced with shards of glass to sever the kites flown by rivals) and for the first time I had agreed to Faraz’s request for a ‘Tukkal’ (a paper lantern in which a small fire lamp is lit before being flown in the sky as a kite).
“The Uttarayan kite flying had been marked by me ordering a sumptuous meal of minced mutton and leavened bread besides the mixed vegetable delicacy of ‘Undhyu’ that is relished on this festival by vegetarian Hindus,” he said.
He then jumped to the day the Godhra training burning took place. “The tension was palpable in the air and I could foresee another round of Hindu-Muslim hostilities. Many Muslims from my locality who sold eatables on makeshift carts and also other wares in Hindu dominated parts of the city had told me that they had been warned by their regular customers not to go for work for some days as there was threat to their lives and property. But I was pretty confident of weathering this storm as well since I was residing in a Muslim dominated area and none of my family member had to go to any place outside the Muslim part of the city. In fact, I was more worried about the poor Hindus at the bottom of their caste segregated strata residing in the slums near my locality. I knew that the antisocial and fanatic elements having a criminal bent of mind within my community would not let go of any opportunity of plundering whatever little they had besides targeting their women for sexual assault. I had seen the two communities indulging in this kind of behaviour whenever there was Hindu-Muslim violence in the past,” Shahid kept on narrating in a flow.
He told me that despite his past experiences, he had failed to factor in an important aspect of these riots — the role of police. A large section of cops in India is known for their sectarian approach in such scenarios. For them their faith comes before duty and there have been several instances across the geographical expanse of this diverse country where cops siding with perpetrators of violence or themselves indulging in violence has come to light. This has continued blatantly right from the time when India was divided into a Muslim Pakistan and a Secular India in 1947 on the eve of the departure of the British colonists.
“The violence broke out on the morning of 28 February. On the previous evening, the burnt dead bodies of the rail passengers had been brought to their native city of Ahmedabad and had been taken around Hindu localities to arouse passions. The partisan newspapers had also done their job that morning by shifting the masthead of page one below while putting screaming headlines on the top. One of them had read ‘Khoon ka Badla Khoon’ (Blood has to be avenged with blood) or an eye for an eye,” he explained in detail.
As expected, there were violent skirmishes between Muslims and the Hindus living in the slums nearby. The pattern of violence was the same that he had seen on several previous occasions.
“It was towards dusk when I was sipping my evening cup of tea in my balcony while watching children play who had gathered in the common courtyard between several buildings of my locality that a Police party arrived along with some Hindus. The armed group of cops was led by Inspector Jayant Patel. The cops had started picking up young Muslim boys and it was no secret to the local residents that they would be taken away for torture and assault. It was a one sided police action,” he said.
By this time I could hear a tremor in his voice. I raised my eyes and came across a totally different man. His eyes were bloodshot and there were small convulsions in his body. Shahid had started muttering abuses at those who had perpetrated the Hindu-Muslim violence. He was cursing the fanatics from both the sides — Hindus as well as Muslims.
“I lost Faraz on that day. As I told you, the police had started picking up young Muslim boys hurling vulgar abuses at them. I could see that sneer of arrogance on Inspector Patel's face. All of a sudden there was resistance from the Muslim residents and some of them hurled stones at the police party. There was a commotion. This was the opportunity Inspector Patel and his team had been looking for. They had achieved the grounds for opening fire. And they resorted to firing. The Inspector targeted Faraz, aimed at his head and pulled the trigger. It was right before my eyes. I heard the sound of firing and saw my 16-year-old beloved son crashing to the ground with his head split to a pulp…,” he had started sobbing hysterically by now.
“I continue to yearn for justice for my dead son. Be it any party or any government I just want justice for the killing of my boy,’’ he said in reply to my question on what he wanted at that point of time.
I had all this narration recorded in sound. My journalistic job had been done. Yet something stopped me from leaving the room. I put my hand on his shoulder in a gesture to console him. I gave him a glass of water from the table close by thinking this was the painful end of our conversation. But I was wrong as I could hear him muttering.
Perhaps it was the seething, simmering anger that continued to rage in him. His eyes along with the curses he muttered said it all. “I just wanted to kill that Police Inspector who had shot my boy,’’ he kept on repeating. He also said that he had lost his mental balance since the boy had died and nothing could bring solace to him thereafter.
When he continued to repeat the words “I just wanted to kill the police official who had shot my boy’’ for the umpteenth time, I just asked him casually, “What stopped you from doing so?’’
This seemed to bring an expression of sarcasm, call it mockery, or even a sinister triumph, on his face. He just replied, “All these years I had faith in God and it was reposed.’’
Still unable to understand what he meant, I kept on waiting patiently for him to continue his talk to get the reply to my query.
He said, “The bastard committed suicide six months after shooting my son. He had seen his wife sleeping with someone else.’’
Perhaps this was the poetic justice I had never seen!
“I was told that Inspector Patel had seen his wife in a compromising position with another man when he had returned from an outstation assignment. He could not stand it. He shot himself with his service gun at the doorstep of his Police residential accommodation,” he said with a strange smile on his face that appeared to be an expression of contentment to me at that point of time.
“So how did you react when you heard the news of his suicide?” I asked.
“I quickly left my house, started my humble scooter and rushed to the nearest sweet shop. I bought a one kilogram packet of sweets and landed at the police station where Inspector Patel had been posted. I had stood outside this police station on several occasions after Faraz’s killing. I used to land up there and hurl choicest of abuses at the cops and the government for killing my son. But on that day I walked in with a smile on my face. I opened the packet of sweets and went around offering them to every cop present there with the words, ‘Relish these sweets today because a Shaitan (Satan) has perished’. I repeated these words again and again. That was the night when no cop had the guts to say anything to me,” he said.
I put an end to the conversation and he left for his home telling me that I was the first journalist to whom he had opened his heart.
I collected my paraphernalia and before leaving the place decided to have a cup of tea with Shafeeq. I needed my nerves to relax before I could even think of filing the report later that night.
“How has his daily life changed after he lost Faraz? He will never be able to forget his dead son but has he come to terms with the loss in any way?” I asked Shafeeq.
Shafeeq’s reply to my query was all the more sad, “If you happen to pass this area anytime after midnight, go to the local Muslim graveyard. You will see him reciting Al-Fatiha prayers with tears rolling down his eyes as he sits by a mound beneath which his son sleeps. Be it any festival, including the Hindu Uttarayan, the intensity and frequency of prayers increase.”
It has been sixteen years since I last met Shahid Qadri. I have relocated to my hometown up north. But there are many nights when I am reminded of him and I have images in my mind of this robust man and pained father reading Al-Fatiha sitting beside the grave of his beloved Faraz.