The Innocence of Loss

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Ishrat Jahan’s 2004 death has left her family in Mumbai without a sense of closure. Investigators have confirmed that she was murdered. But what she was doing on a highway in Gujarat with three shady characters, they have no idea

The Mumbra locality of Maharashtra’s Thane district is something of a Muslim ghetto. It is here, on the fourth floor of a shabby building, that Ishrat Jahan’s family now lives. They moved here after she was killed by the Gujarat Police in an ‘encounter’ in 2004. It’s a nondescript house, like others in the Rashid Compound. There are no house numbers to help an outsider locate any particular home. Yet, Ishrat’s seems marked out. An outsider always arouses curiosity in the area, attracting stares and whispers all around; everyone seems to guess that the visitor is headed there. The case has generated much interest in this locality, home to daily wage labourers, auto-rickshaw drivers, meat sellers and others.

Once you cross a dirty pool of water at the entrance of one building, you climb four floors up a decrepit staircase past heaps of rubbish till you see an unwashed synthetic curtain at an open door, shielding the flat’s residents from prying eyes. The first person you meet is Ishrat Jahan’s mother, Shamima Kausar, 48. In a few minutes of talk, it is clear that she is not just displeased by all the public interest in her slain daughter’s life, she is far from any sense of closure on what happened. It does not help that Mumbra, a ghetto to which many Muslim families fled after Mumbai’s 1992-93 riots, is considered notorious for being a refuge for outlaws of all kinds.

The Gujarat Police had claimed that the 19-year-old Ishrat was an operative of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. They alleged that she and three accomplices—Pranesh Pillai alias Javed Ghulam Shaikh, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar—were intercepted on their way to Ahmedabad to assassinate Gujarat Chief Minister Naren- dra Modi. However, inquiries by multiple agencies, including a Special Investigation Team (SIT), have uncovered evidence that the encounter was staged; the four victims were killed before the recorded date of the incident. The case is being re-investigated by the CBI now.

Seven years later the incident, few social workers, mediapersons and politicians come visiting. Even after the recent SIT announcement, only the odd visitor bothered climbing the stairs to Ishrat’s house. “People are definitely scared to interact with us,” says Shamima, who blames it on police threats to those known to the family. In the years since Ishrat was killed, they have given up on neighbourly interactions and friendly exchanges. They live a quiet life of seclusion behind their unwashed synthetic curtain.

Ishrat’s kid brother Anwar Shaikh, 23, is the lucky one in the family. For, he moves around town freely, unlike his three sisters in the house—two sisters are married and away—who were robbed of their regular lives by the ‘encounter’. Unmarried Ishrat, a BSc student at Mumbai’s Khalsa College at the time, was the second of seven siblings. Anwar and the three sisters (aged 24, 21 and 19) are also single, if not entirely by choice. Poverty and the stigma of being a ‘terrorist’s family’, as they were branded, have made matrimonial alliances difficult.

In such circumstances, being there for one another has become crucial. “We are a very close-knit family,” says Shamima, “Ishrat’s death has brought us all closer. I am very strict with the children. The daughters are not allowed outside the house without a chaperone.” In 2004, the news of Ishrat’s killing had been a particularly rude jolt because they were still limping back to regular life after the death of Ishrat’s father Muhammad Shamim Raza, the family’s sole earner.

None of the children pursued school studies after their sister’s death. Fear, persecution, and lack of financial and emotional support saw the children being pulled out of school and confined to their home. Anwar took his class XII examinations as an external student.

In the seven years since the killing, the family has moved five houses. The present house is in bad shape, but it’s all they can afford. When they have visitors, the girls recede to the kitchen behind another unwashed synthetic curtain. As we sit and chat on a bedsheet-covered cotton mattress, Shamima’s daughters listen from behind the curtain. An occasional head pops out and then pops back after a glance from their mother. “I know my daughters have their dreams, but I have never asked them what they are. We do not have the money to fulfill their dreams,” says the mother, who had once wanted all her children to pursue higher studies. These years have been harsh on Shamima, who has developed diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension. They have very little money for treatment, she says. “Ishrat was our strength, we depended a lot on her.”

Now, Anwar’s job is the family’s prized possession. He works as a data-entry operator in the back office of a company at Mahape, and has been pursuing part-time computer courses to gain expertise. He has a serious air about him, his occasional smile never quite reaching his eyes. He keeps shaking his legs and darting glances all around. “We keep to ourselves, as we do not want anyone to get into trouble because of us,” says Anwar, “Besides, what is there to say to people?”

The house has barely anything of value. Even the kitchen is sparse. Anwar’s monthly salary of Rs 8,000 is hardly enough to see them through. As tenants, they have to pay the maintenance, electricity and water charges of the flat. And they live in fear of being asked to vacate the house any moment. “We are tenants,” says Shamima, “When the landlord so wants, we will have to leave.”

The mother and her daughters spend their day doing housework, sewing and embroidering. Hard up on cash, they make their own clothes. A rundown sewing machine is now their best friend. And to think they left Bihar for Mumbai in search of a good life. Keen on giving their children the best possible education, the Razas did not spend much on clothes or food, buying books instead.

“I should have given them a good life then,” sighs their mother, “Destiny caught me unawares.”

Then, there is the case to worry about. “There are so many questions,” says Shamima, “We hope that the CBI will find the answers. We want to know who murdered my daughter.”

Ever since that fateful day, Rauf Lala of My Mumbra Foundation has stood like a rock beside the family. Without his help, Shamima would have been lost on all matters legal. Lala, a family friend, has spent money on the proceedings, paying the lawyer’s fees and transporting Shamima for court hearings. The family’s stigma does not bother him.

There have been promises of help from a few other quarters as well. In fact, when the case first made headlines, the then deputy chairman of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, Vasant Davkhare, had handed the family a cheque of Rs 1.5 lakh.  Shamima returned it after he drew flak from across the political spectrum for this act of generosity. Now, with an eye on elections, Mumbra MLA Jeetendra Awhad has stepped in to help the family.

It has meant a political campaign that uses the SIT’s findings to whip up a frenzy against Narendra Modi. All through Mumbra, Awhad has put up political banners denouncing Modi and demanding an end to the persecution of Muslims in Gujarat. As elections near, Ishrat’s family is likely to emerge as a symbol for a strident anti-BJP campaign.

It is also true the SIT order has helped Ishrat’s close relatives find their voice. Anwar wants the case to be transferred out of Gujarat. “It is a clear case of murder,” he says, “We will file defamation cases against those who have levelled allegations against us without knowing the whole truth.”

The truth, though, will not be easy to uncover. Shamima has no plausible explanation for what Ishrat was doing on her fateful car journey in faraway Gujarat with three men, two of whom were reportedly LeT operatives. For a college student leading a conservative life, this is aberrant behaviour to say the least. Her mother claims to have known about all of Ishrat’s movements, but is clueless about that car ride.

“That is for the CBI to find out,” protests Anwar, “They will investigate and tell us why she was there. We are heartened [by the SIT order] and will live as law-abiding citizens. If someone defames us, we will file a case against them.”

While delivering its 2 December judgment, the Gujarat High Court had observed: ‘We find it proper to record that [though the investigation is now complete] on aspects of genuineness of the encounter, other aspects are yet to be investigated [with regard to the cause of death] of the persons concerned (deceased) and aspects related thereto.’ The court has also asked for the ‘terrorist’ angle to be probed.    

Shamima has nothing to say on the company Ishrat kept. She casts a glance at her son seated slightly away, and then lowers her eyes, as her lips quiver and tears roll down her cheeks. After a while, she looks up again—this time, with enough composure to speak with forceful clarity. “My daughter was murdered.”

But why was she at the Gujarat border instead of college that morning?

Silence. More tears.

The family is counting on the CBI investigation to clear Ishrat’s name of all charges. Her alleged terrorist links have been particularly painful. “Ishrat was a very good dressmaker,” says the mother, “The dress she wore that day was stitched by her. She had promised that all our money problems would be over...”

While the CBI is yet to conclude its probe, there is still no saying what light it could cast on Ishrat’s role, if any, in the trail of events that led to her death. The encounter was almost certainly fake, but her family still has several sleepless nights to go.