Khairunisa believes she doesn’t have the right to live, as she cannot feed her family of four – herself, two children and an ageing mother-in-law, whose daily collection of alms is no help. She wants to commit suicide. <b1>
The breadwinner of the family, her husband Shamsher Khan Pathan, is in jail with his two brothers. They are all accused of involvement in the Godhra train fire that killed 58 passengers.
As a carpenter, Pathan was not a millionaire, but brought home a decent amount of money to look after them and also afford a good education. That’s until the day they had a knock on the door.
Pathan was arrested in 2002. But the case is in animated suspension, stayed by the Supreme Court while it looks at the question of where the trial should take place outside the state to ensure the accused got a fair trial.
The train – Sabarmati Express – was returning to Ahmedabad, when during a scheduled stop at Godhra, one of its bogies caught fire (set on fire, allegedly) killing passengers, including kar-sevaks.
Soon rioting broke out in Gujarat in which nearly 1,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims. There are two sets of accused on trial now – the first are accused of setting fire to the train, and the second for the riots that followed.
Pathan and his brothers belong to the first set. They’ve been in jail for six years now and they are still as many years away from finding out whether they will be held guilty or let off as innocents.
There are many like them, more than 100. Their families are falling apart. Ageing parent are dying uncared for, wives are leaving tired of waiting, mothers have gone blind and beg to survive, and children have had to drop out of school.
Khairunisa works as a domestic help, her children don’t go to school any more and the mother-in-law goes begging for alms from door to door.
The issue before the Supreme Court is this (apart from the where to try them): why should these people be tried under POTA, the controversial anti-terrorism law that stands withdrawn. The state government is pushing for it.
Amina Biwi, a 70-year-old mother of another accused, Firoz Khan, doesn’t wish to live either: “Few days after masked policemen arrested my son, my daughter-in-law left us. My husband is dead and with no news of my son, I don’t want to face the humiliation of begging. My only worry is who would perform my last rites?”
An ageing blind widow, Nafisa, whose two sons — Allaudin Anwar Ansari and Sabir Anwar Ansari — ran a small bakery before they were picked up and jailed, can’t recall her age. “Allaudin’s wife has severed links with us, I turned blind looking at the door, expecting my sons to return.”
Afsana Bano, wife of another accused Firoz Khan Gulab Khan, takes her two daughters and son to the houses where she works as a maid. She says the employers often humiliate her. “I am given all sorts of advice ranging from getting my children to work early for extra income to preparing my daughters to earn a handsome amount if they want. I just listen quietly.”
“But I have decided not to beg,” she said.
And then there is Saeed Umar, who nearly became a terrorist. He says his father had been allowed to visit the family only once for a few hours to attend his marriage. “Seeing my father surrounded by policemen made my blood boil. I would have become a terrorist, but my religion and family compulsions did not grant my wish.”
The case against Saeed’s father, Moulvi Hussain Umarji, was made out a year after the train carnage. “He was a respected community leader of Godhra, who ran a relief camp for riot victims. Maybe that angered the state government.”
Was his father arrested wrongly? Is Khairunisa’s husband guilty? And how long must they wait to find out and move on? These are not easy questions to answer, but they need to be answered.