The forgotten man
He could be an Indian cricket fan, the tricolour stretched out in his outstretched arms as he shouts 'Indiaaa! In-dia!' from the stands. He certainly seems dressed up for a big occasion — a loose, black t-shirt with rolled-up sleeves and 'Best Classic American Football' emblazoned along the shirt front. His khaki-coloured trousers are pleated and he's tucked in his t-shirt, smartly rounding things off with a wide-buckled belt. And doesn't he look exactly like Chetan Sharma, the Indian cricketer marked for life for being hit for a last-ball six by Javed Miandad in Sharjah in 1986?
Except this isn't Chetan Sharma. Or a cricket fan. This is Ashok Mochi, accused of leading a mob that set fire to the houses of some 40 families in Ahmedabad's Muslim-dominated Shahpur area during the Gujarat riots in 2002. After spending some 10 days in custody in 2007, he was acquitted. Mochi, now 40 or 45 — his age depends on who you've asked — walks about freely in the same area in Ahmedabad that he helped destroy 10 years ago.
In the Gujarat riots photo album, the most famous picture is that of Qutubuddin Ansari, the then 28-year-old man whom Reuters' photographer Arko Datta captured pleading for his life with folded hands and his face scrunched up in tearful fear. But if Ansari is the iconic image of Gujarat's 'victim', Ashok Mochi is the iconic image of Gujarat's 'perpetrator'. Shot on February 28 by AFP photographer Sebastian D'Souza, Mochi forms the flip side of the Gujarat 2002 story, the one left relatively unexplored.
I called up D'Souza, now photo editor of Mumbai Mirror, to ask him about the picture he had clicked on that Thursday morning long ago. "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 raised spot. I took a few long-shot pictures with 300 mm lens."
I ask D'Souza whether the man — he didn't know his name — spotted him with his camera and posed. It certainly looks as if he's staring directly at D'Souza. "No, I was too far away. He was just shouting when I left."
I learn from Kishore-bhai, who has worked in the courts, more about the man. Despite witnesses coming forward in 2002, the police didn't charge Mochi. "Not even an FIR was registered," he says. Despite several attempts, bringing Mochi to justice was proving to be futile — till 2007, when the trial against Mochi and seven others started. But with witnesses not showing up, Mochi was acquitted in 2008.
Altaf Shaikh was the advocate in the trial court in 2007. He tells me that Mochi was charged with Sections 435 and 436 (arson and causing destruction by fire). "The police tried to get out of it. It was only after we got in touch with the commissioner that he was chargesheeted," he says, adding that the lack of witnesses closed the case.
Mohammad Hussain, a gutka-cigarette-biscuits shopkeeper, is one such witness. He is also a victim, his being one of the houses in Shahpur gutted by Mochi and his henchmen. "I was there in the court every time," he says, sounding aghast. "Every time the court went into session, there was a ruckus. Even when witnesses were there, they said we weren't there." Hussain tells me how in 2002, Mochi was a local goon, taking protection money from cloth and vegetable shops in the area. "He was politically well-connected. They came to help him out," he says. Kishore-bhai had earlier told me how the local BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal ("When a family member is in trouble, they keep shifting him into different rooms of the house.") had provided him with a lawyer.
Today, Ashok Mochi walks about freely. The case against him (141/02 registered at the Madhupura Police Station, Ahmedabad) has been re-opened and is currently pending in the high court. I was told that over the last several years, he's kept a low profile on the 'ideological' front, preferring to focus on his bootlegging operations.
If Qutubuddin Ansari was not killed, Ashok Mochi was also never accused of killing anyone. But if the former is a symbol for not forgetting Gujarat 2002, the latter symbolises the ease with which it can be allowed to be forgotten.