They are the ones who dropped out of sight as soon as the TV cameras turned elsewhere. And they never quite made it back, suffering silently, accepting it as destiny but confused about the way forward.
Meenaben lost her husband, Satish Bhai, in the fire that killed 58 passengers of the Sabarmati Express in 2002, in an incident widely known as the Godhra carnage. And her life has kind of stalled.
“I shared the compensation with my ageing in-laws,” says Meenaben, “and that money is now finished.” She has a daughter of marriageable age and she doesn’t know what to do.
As with the families of the people accused of the crime, families of the victims are breaking up — a son snatched from a helpless mother, girls in apprehension of staying single, and mothers unable to do much.
Meenaben herself is ailing and doesn’t even have the money now for her medicines. But her failing health is not her primary concern, her daughter is her biggest worry.
Most of the Godhra victims were from in and around Ahmedabad. And the lawyer representing them in various courts, Vijay Patel, believes his clients have been wronged and cast aside by everyone concerned.
He blames the media the most. “Media coverage was biased and unfair. It has shown and written things in such a manner that you reach a pre-decided conclusion. The plight of the victims’ families was blacked out.”
Carpenter Harshadbhai Panchal had gone to Ayodhya with his wife and three of his six daughters; the other three stayed home in Ahmedabad. On February 27, 2002, four of the family was killed in Godhra; one daughter was spared.
The four girls now survive on the salary of the eldest sibling, Komal. Immediately after they lost their parents, the girls also had to leave their house in Ahmedabad “as it was in a riot affected area”.
One of the younger siblings, Gayatri, who was a witness to the Godhra incident, says, “Only those who suffer have to bear the consequences. Nobody else is affected and the world moves on. Our lives have changed forever and I wonder whether the ongoing case is of any importance for us. Politicians say many things, but we really don’t know how much to believe them.”
Some organisations like the Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad has been working closely with some of these families, even arranging the marriage of girls of marriageable age. Patel says the VHP has provided a great deal of assistance. “One of them was recently married with the VHP’s help; three others remain,” he said.
Another Godhra victim, Rajaji Sardarji Vaghela, died leaving behind his wife Chandaben, a son and a daughter. A dispute soon broke out between Chandaben and her in-laws for the custody of the son. Chandaben and her daughter now live with her parents while the son is with her in-laws. “My life is already ruined, but I wanted my children to grow up as good people. I don’t know why my in-laws kept my son.”
Locals say veteran civil surgeon Dr Girishchandra Rawal, who lost his 76-year-old wife, Sudha, and son Ashvin, in the fire, died fighting for the cause of Godhra victims. “Dr Rawal was leading a campaign demanding adequate compensation for the victims’ families. Till he died he would always say that he did not want any price for the death of his family members, but that those shouting about the sacrifice of Kar Sewaks should publicly announce what help they offered to the affected families,” said his neighbours.
The families are all struggling to make sense of a world that changed drastically overnight. Some are getting help, some more battle on without any support, while others have given up all hope.