Fighting for justice

Even as investigations into the Gujarat riots continue, Stavan Desai and Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit meet some of the men and women who, despite threats and pressure to give up, have been fighting for justice for victims for seven years.Braving traumaMukhtar Muhammad, 41 When Mukhtar Muhammad drove his Tata Sumo through a burning mass of rubble and loot from shops in Panchmahal district to escape a murderous mob of rioters on February 28, 2002, he did not know he would be facing such trial by fire repeatedly for the next four years.Bringing culprits to bookHimanshu Banker, 34As a child, Himanshu Banker had seen Dalit children being made to sit in the back benches in class and being given low ranks even if they performed well in exams.
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Updated on Feb 23, 2009 10:07 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByStavan Desai and Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit

Mukhtar Muhammad



Footwear wholesaler

When Mukhtar Muhammad drove his Tata Sumo through a burning mass of rubble and loot from shops in Panchmahal district to escape a murderous mob of rioters on February 28, 2002, he did not know he would be facing such trial by fire repeatedly for the next four years.

"That day, when the riots broke out, I picked up the phone to make calls asking for help," said Mukhtar, seated in his footwear store in one of Ahmedabad's most crowded areas near Lal Darwaja. "That first phone call started it all and it went on until 2006."

Mukhtar is one of those who lived ordinary lives until the riots took place. After February 27, 2002, the day when the Godhra incident took place, this 44-year-old has seen it all. He has seen the police watch as the horror post-Godhra events unfold in the place he had lived for 24 years. He has seen mobs stone and kill Muslims in his area and shops and homes being reduced to ashes. He has participated in rescuing thousands of Muslims from affected areas and helped them rebuild their lives from scratch. He helped victims file their statements before the police and even familiarised himself with the laws so that he would be able to guide them through the trial.

The Bilkis Bano case, which he brought to light, may have made headlines but for Mukhtar, it was one of the many cases he helped fight. "When I got into this, it was purely to rescue victims and rehabilitate them," said the father of three. "My priority back then was to help these people cope with the mental trauma, build their homes again and ensure their children get good education."

But as he began speaking to victims, he realised they would all need help to get justice. Mukhtar, with a few people from his neighbourhood, visited victims in camps and took down every detail of what they had experienced. These statements were given to the police and the National Human Rights' Commission. Mukhtar was also among those who fought against the application of POTA on those accused of torching the S6 bogie of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. "All this while, we had to ensure that the victims were being rehabilitated and the communal divide created then was not a permanent fixture," he said.

Mukhtar even helped over 300 families return to their villages after things had settled down.

But he had no time to grieve his own losses. He had to shut down his steel forging factory and sell off his property in Kalol to move to another location in Ahmedabad. "There were threats and offers of money to withdraw but I did not give in," he said. "Then I was falsely implicated in three cases including a rape case and spent a month in Godhra jail and two days in Kalol jail."

Still unstoppable, Mukhtar decided to slow things down for the sake of his family. Today, having finished his part of the job of helping victims get legal recourse, Mukhtar is waiting for the judicial system to bring the culprits to book. "I only tried to ensure the victims become strong and independent," said Mukhtar. "So that, god forbid, if such a thing were to happen again, they don't need a Mukhtar."

Himanshu Banker, 34

Lawyer and activist

As a child, Himanshu Banker had seen Dalit children being made to sit in the back benches in class and being given low ranks even if they performed well in exams.

The son of a banker and a Dalit rights' activist, Banker decided that he would fight to end this discrimination and grew up to be a lawyer. So when the 2002 Gujarat riots took place, it was a natural extension of his work as an activist to extend help to those affected. "A large number of Dalits were falsely implicated in riots cases," said Banker. "We were worried that our pressure on the administration to prosecute the guilty would lead to many innocent Dalits and tribals to get framed."

Banker, with other lawyers from the legal cell of the Behavioural Science Centre, Ahmedabad, helped victims in relief camps file complaints in riots cases. They conducted detailed surveys across the camps to understand exactly what conspired during the riots in places like Naroda, Gulbarg and Vatva.

"The survey revealed that many witnesses felt that the entire episode was pre-planned. We analysed nearly 200 FIRs and found that names mentioned by the victims were missing," said the stocky 34-year-old, seated in his office near Juhapura, a Muslim-dominated area. "We created a detailed map depicting the sequance of events of those days. We approached the Supreme Court because we had lost faith in the state administration."

The evidences and records Banker and his colleagues provided are part of what the SIT worked with for its investigation. All this took up so much of his time that Banker had to forget about his law practice. Today, seven years later, there are developments on this front and Banker is happy to see his efforts bear fruit. "But too much time has passed," said Banker who is now with an organisation called Vikalp which works in the area of rural employment. "So many people gave up the fight because they had to go back to living with the same people, in the same society."

However, for the sake of those who continued to fight, Banker still hopes that justice will be done.

Nirjari (54) and Dr Mukul Sinha (57)

"Trouble attracts us."

Dr Mukul Sinha and his wife Nirjari joke about it but this physicist couple knows more than anybody else that the last seven years have been anything but a joke.

Founders of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, the Sinhas have been at the forefront in getting justice for victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Whether it is the Nanavati Commission or the SIT, the couple and the Manch's network of activists have played a crucial role in every major development in Gujarat since Godhra.

Dr Mukul and Nirjari met in 1973 at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad where she was working in space sciences, analysing moon rocks and he was a PhD student, fresh out of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

Those were days when the PRL was experiencing problems between the staff and management and trade unions were not allowed in scientific and technical institutions. The Sinhas defied this rule, organised the employees of the institution into a union and fought in the High Court until they were allowed to register the union in 1979. "We were marked by then," said Nirjari, a Jain born and brought up in Ahmedabad. Dr Sinha, who had a two-year work contract with the PRL, lost his job while Nirjari had to face some hostility.

However, Dr Sinha used his time off from work to spread the trade union movement to all scientific and technical institutions in the state, including the Indian Institute of Management and the National Institute of Design. Without being affiliated to any political party, they went on to form unions of working journalists, newspaper employees, even temple priests. "We were totally unpadh (uneducated), indegenious as I call it," said Dr Sinha, who also armed himself with a law degree in 1989. Nirjari added: "Until 1979, we did not even know where the Gujarat High Court was."

But after February 2002, their life became all about courts, inquiry commissions and legal battles. The Jan Sangharsh Manch has managed to bring victims of the riots together and handed over evidence to show how the police and the entire administration had failed to perfom their duties during the riots. The material collected by Dr Sinha and his team has helped the SIT investigate nine of the most serious riot cases of 2002.

The Manch also tried to bring working class Hindus and Muslims together and fight communal forces. "Communal politics is the greatest threat to the country," said a soft-spoken Dr Sinha.

Today, as investigations into the Gujarat riots continue, the Manch has taken up the issue of police encounters in Gujarat.

Before the riots broke out, the Manch was toying with the idea of forming a political front. After the riots, it felt the necessity for such an organisation even more. "When we saw the violence we realised our civil rights' bodies were meaningless because there were no civil rights," said Dr Sinha. "It took us six years to get out party registered because we did not know how to go about it."

The party, New Socialist Movement, participated in the last assembly polls in the state despite very little knowledge of how to fight polls, just to let people know of their existence.

Rahul Sharma

When Rahul Sharma procured call records from service providers Cellforce and AT&T to find out if there is any truth in the allegations that politicians and the police were responsible for the worst communal riots in the history of the country, he probably did not know what to expect.

What the 1992 batch IPS (Indian Police Service) officer of the Gujarat cadre got on two compact discs went on to become the most important piece of evidence in the investigation of the post-Godhra riots of 2002 threatening to nail some of the topmost police officers and political names from the state.

Sharma, who was then deputy commissioner of police (control) in Ahmedabad, had presented the CDs containing records of who was in touch with whom during the Gujarat riots to the Nanavati commission and the Justice U C Banerjee commission set up for inquiring into the riots.

A graduate from the batch of 1987 of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Sharma was the superintendent of police, Bhavnagar during the 2002 riots. He made news when he along with nine policemen saved nearly 400 children hiding in a madrasa from a bloodthirsty mob. His feat drew praise from then deputy prime minister L K Advani too. He was then transferred to Ahmedabad as DCP (control). His non-partial stand in the investigation of the riots resulted in him being shunted out to an insignificant posting as State Reserve Police commandant in the diamond hub of Surat in south Gujarat.

He then joined the Central Bureau of Investigation as superintendent of police (anti-corruption bureau), Gandhinagar before being transferred to Mumbai to serve in the same capacity.

He was later promoted to the post of deputy inspector general, economic offences wing. He was reptriated to his home cadre on February 16, 2009 after completing his deputation.

Sharma is now a strong contender to join the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team due to his in depth knowledge of the post-Godhra riots cases.

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