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‘We saw rioters slam babies on stones’

Naroda Patiya saw the worst attack of the 2002 Gujarat riots; 95 died as the settlement was set alight. For many victims, the nightmare continues, report Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit & Stavan Desai.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2009 00:16 IST

Naimuddin Ibrahim Sheikh regrets only one thing: That he never sold his wares in Naroda Patiya on credit.

“Had I done that, I would have the names of my customers written down and could have passed them on to the police. It was those people, whose children I sold bread to every day, who killed my family members,” said the 40-year-old who sold bread and biscuits on his cycle in Hussein Nagar, Naroda Patiya, one of the worst affected areas during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Sheikh, who lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law, among other family members in the riots, could not name those who were part of the mob that killed 95 and burnt down nearly every house in the settlement. “I know their faces, but I never asked their names,” said Sheikh, in his crammed two-room apartment in Ahmedabad’s Khanpur area, where he moved after the riots.

He has given his statement to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) twice. “At least the SIT recorded my statement accurately, something the Gujarat police did not bother to do,” said Sheikh, who was injured in the riots. “In se bahut ummeed hai. (We have a lot of expectations from the SIT.)”

For the victims of Naroda Patiya, a settlement of around 1,200 one-room houses where migrant labourers from Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh stayed, 25 kilometres from Ahmedabad, the wait for justice has been very long. Located off what is now a four-lane highway, the settlement is made up of chawls and apartment blocks housing both Hindus and Muslims.

The torching of coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, caused a backlash this sleepy area has never seen. A mob of thousands, many known to the victims, entered the settlement, began throwing stones and burning houses. The victims fought back and hid on rooftops or a nearby godown. Many were set alight, some hacked. “We saw the assailants slam babies on stones,” said 45-year-old Zulekha Bano Sardar Ahmed, a survivor. “Pleas to the police fell on deaf ears. They simply stood by and watched.”

Hours later, a police van rescued those who had survived and took them to the Shah Alam relief camp.

“Even when I saw rickshaws being torched, I did not feel the need to flee,” said Ahmed, who lost her home and saw neighbours and relatives being burnt alive. “I was sure nothing would happen in our basti.”

Ahmed, a frail vegetable vendor, spent over six months at the relief camp but returned to Naroda Patiya once relief committees rebuilt their homes. She could not afford to live anywhere else. Victims now have brick-and-concrete houses as opposed to the shanties they lived in earlier. “We have cable TV too,” said Ahmed’s 18-year-old daughter Anisa Bano. “Dhamaal hui, lekin baad mein cable aa gaya. (There was pandemonium, but now we have cable television.)”

Today, Hindus and Muslims in the locality do not see eye to eye. A new police post stands guard at the entrance to Hussein Nagar, but the divide is apparent. “If we meet [any of the accused], we just turn our faces away,” said Ahmed.

Today, the police drop in to inquire if they are doing all right. But the initial experience was different. The complaints are the same across cases — the police did not record their statements accurately and left out names of influential Hindu leaders.

The first information report registered by the police in Naroda Patiya named only five attackers, including then local Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi. He was one of the last to be arrested, over a year after the killings. Like 55 others, he was soon released on bail.

After it was formed 10 months ago, the SIT arrested 61 more; 27 of them are still in jail.

Now that the SIT has begun netting the small fry, the victims are waiting to see if the big names face a similar fate.

Upset that Minister of State for Women and Child Development Maya Kodnani, an accused in the case, is still free despite statements from witnesses, Ahmed said she has no faith in the police or the government.

“Only God can give us justice,” she said, looking up at the bright afternoon sky. “Even today I see the people who did it walk past us on these streets without fear. Some even taunted us, saying it was gutsy of us to return.”

Back in Khanpur, as the muezzin called the faithful to the evening prayer at a mosque outside Sheikh’s home, the father of two closed his eyes trying hard to shun the bloody images of February 28, 2002. It took him years to come to terms with his loss. But for his sister, the battle has only begun.

Mehboob Bibi was only 19 when her husband was killed. Today, she has a 10-year-old daughter to bring up and no source of income. “I won’t find peace until those people are punished,” she said.

First Published: Feb 19, 2009 00:14 IST