She was a key witness in the Naroda Patiya massacre trial. That is not the only way Shakeela’s life is embedded in history though. The lives of three generations of Shakeela’s family tells the story of modern Ahmedabad.
By Neha Dixit | Grist Media
The Garba season was about to begin. It was already mid-day and Shakeela still had three chaniya-cholis to go. Stitching five sets would get her Rs 200. Her legs moved frantically on the sewing machine as the red satin chaniya, with its immaculate pleats, went under the needle. She didn’t want to be disturbed but her two boys, Ashfaq and Junaid, 10 and 8 respectively, just wouldn’t reduce the television volume. She wanted to make enough money this Navratri season to be able to pay the monthly Rs 1,500 rent and buy a new pressure cooker.Since she moved back to this neighborhood in 2006, it has mostly been about putting up a sometimes stoic, sometimes aggressive front, displaying her will to survive and fight. She can’t afford to be seen as being weak and struggling. She needs to prove that she is there to stay, no matter what.
Shakeela has been provided with two policemen – security arrangements by the Special Court for being a witness in its 2002 ‘dhamaal’ trial – but she does not always let them stay with her. They sit in the beat box on Naroda Main Road. Nor do they like being inside Patiya. There is only one narrow entrance to the ghetto. There are small alleys, open drains, garbage piles, choked gutters, flies and mosquitoes. Every other day, there is sparse water and even sparser power supply. Even the autos refuse to go inside. Who would believe that this is also a part of the ‘Manchester of the East’ or the ‘Gujarat model’ that the country wants to imitate?
The areas outside Patiya, in the rest of Naroda, are not like this. The neighborhood of Naroda has a rising skyline, new residential societies, hoardings with banks offering low interest rates to buy houses, new BRTS (Bus Rapid Transport System) stops, industrial parks, malls, multi-storey parking complexes, new factories and broad clean roads; some of it is even visible from the garbage dump a few meters from Shakeela’s house.
Shakeela calls the guards only when needed, like when she needs to leave home to go to the market. How can she trust them? It is the police who were mute spectators when her mother Qudrat and brother Mahmood cried for help twelve years ago. The police did nothing to save them when they were doused in petrol and set ablaze while still alive. Her brother Shabbir, his wife Zubeida and their children Sameena and Asif were maimed in front of their eyes. Nadeem, her three-month-old nephew, the prettiest child born in their family till date, was thrown alive onto a mass pyre. Shabnam, her 14-year-old niece, was raped and then cut into pieces by the same people who had cut open the womb of her cousin, Kausar Bano Shaikh. The police repeatedly misdirected them to areas where the tolas, a colloquial term used for mobs, were waiting to kill.
A fortnight ago, Shakeela’s husband Saleem worked for daily wages in a mill that was being renovated. This week he didn’t get any work. A year after the ‘dhamaal’in 2002, Saleem was forced to move back to Naroda Patiya while Shakeela and her four children stayed back in the Shah Alam camp. It was not safe for them, but all the daily wage jobs were in this part of the city. Real estate, new highways, airport renovation, the expansion of the industrial area – it was all happening here. He worked as a daily wager for a year.For the next eight years, Saleem was a street vendor in the Nehru Nagar market in Ahmedabad. In 2012, 200 street vendors were evicted from the market, following complaints of traffic congestion on the road. Since then, he has largely been doing odd jobs.
From 2003 to 2004, Saleem visited his family every 15 days, sometimes once a month. For the longest time, the children believed that Saleem was working in some other city. Almost like Shakeela’s father, Khurshid Ahmed, who worked in the textile mills in Ahmedabad and visited them in their village in Bulsar, on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border, every month, four decades before Saleem.
In the early 1960s, Khurshid and several thousands of other workers migrated to Ahmedabad to work in the textile mills. It was here in 1861 that Ranchhodlal Chhotalal established the first textile mill in Ahmedabad and successfully established the ‘Made in India’ brand in the next three decades. In the early years of Independence, there were 75 textile mills here, which reduced to 40 in the 1960s. Workers claim this was the last time pay was revised for them before 2012. On September 25, 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ‘Make in India’ campaign to invite corporations from across the globe to invest and manufacture in India, the number of the mills here had shrunk to 15.
Around the time Khurshid settled in Naroda Patiya in the 1960s, migration to Ahmedabad had led to a 38 percent rise in the city’s population, Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer’s book Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisations indicates. The book also suggests that most of them were landless Dalits and Muslims from rural areas in the vicinity who had moved, eyeing employment opportunities in the mills. Khurshid’s job as a weaver brought some respite to his family’s economic situation but it predictably didn’t go on for long. They worked as agricultural laborers before that.
Towards the end of the decade, seven mills shut shop. Seventeen thousand workers were left unemployed. Khurshid was one of them. The Majdoor Mahajan Sangh, a once-powerful and still extant trade union founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917, could do nothing. Fewer jobs and greater competition eventually resulted in divisive, religious politics. The 1969 communal riots that began in Ahmedabad and spread to other parts of Gujarat were the last nail in the coffin. These Hindu-Muslim riots, the worst after the 1947 partition, took place during September-October of 1969 and claimed 660 lives, according to official records. Khurshid didn’t find a job after that for the rest of his life. Shakeela remembers her mother’s efforts to get Khurshid off alcohol. He was convinced he couldn’t find a job because he was a Muslim. Her mother Qudrat Bibi always retorted that he wasn’t getting a job because he was sinning by drinking alcohol.
A year later, Qudrat Bibi packed her family of four children and mother-in-law to Naroda Patiya. There were no jobs but there was work as a very poorly paid daily wager. This is how, all members of the family except Khurshid, who was an incorrigible alcoholic by then, started working in the nearby mills. Shakeela and her three siblings worked in the packaging department earning Rs 10-12 per day while Qudrat and her mother-in-law worked at the loom and earned Rs 30 a day. Their collective monthly wages matched what Khurshid had earned. And this how the family lived for twenty years.Once, while working at the loom, the edge of Qudrat’s saree pallu got stuck in the machine. She got twenty stitches in her scalp, but the factory didn’t pay for her medical expenses. Shakeela remembers the factory manager telling them that they only paid for permanent workers. Qudrat was not one of them in spite of working for them for 10 years. By then, Khurshid was dead, and Shakeela’s elder brothers Mahboob Shaikh and Shabbir Ahmed had started receiving contracts from readymade clothes factories as tailors. They were paid per piece, like Shakeela is now.
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Shakeela’s cousin Kausar was much younger than her. She had learnt diamond cutting and polishing. She fell in love with Shahid Sheikh and the two got married in 2001. On February 28, 2002, she was pregnant with their first child. She was due to deliver that night.
Shakeela was in the Shah Alam relief camp with Kausar’s father Khaliq Noor Mohammed Sheikh, when they found out what happened to Kausar. Earlier in the day, Sheikh had escaped to a nearby dhabha where he fell unconscious and had been brought to the camp. That day, Shakeela, her two kids, her sister in law, her niece and nephew had hid in the same dhabha. Her mother Qudrat was still alive though completely burnt, her legs and arms charred. When the rescue team came after several hours, there were very strict instructions for the only ‘properly alive’ to enter the rescue bus.
Shakeela still remembers her mother asking her to take her along but they were forced to leave her behind. She shivers each time she remembers that decision to leave her mother to save the rest of the family. They stepped on charred corpses to escape. She found the corpses of Qudrat, Mahmood, Sameena and Asif four months later. She never found the rest, nor has she ever managed a death certificate or a post-mortem report for any of them. Eighteen of her clan were killed in the dhamaal.
In the Shah Alam camp later that day, Reshmabano, one of the eyewitnesses who also testified in the Special Court later, told them what she had seen. The tola had dragged Kausar Bano and cut her stomach open. Her unborn child was swirled on a sword. Kausar was then set ablaze. In 2002, Kausar’s father, 70-year-old Sheikh, was the only surviving member in a family of 12. He was a contract painter who earned Rs 4,000 per month. Decades ago, with Khurshid, he too had lost his job in the mills. He had tried several times to get Khurshid work as a painter, but Khurshid was too far gone. Since the incident, nobody has been able to trace Kausar’s husband Shahid. In 2002 after his family was killed, Sheikh sold his two houses and moved to Karnataka where his in-laws still lived. No one knows if he is still alive.
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In 2008, Shakeela told Jyotsanaben Yagnik, the judge of the Special Court, how the police did nothing to save them or the hundreds who were killed in Patiya in 2002. The killers were also from the neighborhood, people who had once brought orders from readymade factories for Mahmood and Shabbir. Shakeela says some of the killers used to call themselves Dalits back then. After 2002, they began to call themselves Hindus – the ones who stay on the other side of the electric pole that divides the Hindus and the Muslims.
Shakeela remembers that in 1969 after the riots, the Majdoor Mahajan Sangh organized Hindu-Muslim unity rallies. She still remembers the posters and big processions. None of that happened after the dhamaal. After all, they were just daily wagers, not permanent workers with a union to support them, get them together.
After the 2002 dhamaal, none of the Sindhi mill owners or the Hindu factory owners wanted to employ Muslims, but lots of Dalits in her neighborhood found work at the same places. In a neighborhood that once had a large population of Dalits and Muslims, today only 500 Dalits are left out of the roughly 4,600 people who live in the ghetto, according to a rough estimate by Nazir Khan Pathan, who runs the only school in the Patiya. In 2002, he says the population of the area was close to 15,000. Most of them have managed to afford houses in better, ‘developed’ areas. More Muslims are moving into the area for safety in an increasingly paranoid city.
Qasimbhai, for example, who recently moved next to Shakeela’s house after the 29 August 2012 verdict in which 32 people – including Maya Kodnani, former Gujarat cabinet minister and BJP MLA from Naroda Patiya and Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal – were convicted. Nineteen members of Qasimbhai’s family were killed during the dhamaal in Gulbarg society.
The Muslims in this area have since found work as daily wagers in the factories for Rs 50-80 per day. The very skilled ones are paid Rs 150 per day. The minimum wage fixed by the Gujarat government for unskilled labor in these industries is Rs 214. The rest turned to street vending like her husband Saleem, with paan shops, tea shops, clothes, Chinese electronics, ceramic etc. Though with Ahmedabad being developed every month with new road-widening, road-beautification and flyover projects, there’s no room for street vendors with this progress. Shakeela’s cousin, who once sold panipuri on by Kankaria lake, has had no more access after its ‘beautification’ in 2008. Only licensed kiosks can now sell snacks to visitors. The cousin is now a daily wage laborer in a chemical factory. His entire family now accompanies him to work. Just like Shakeela’s did three decades back. The children are paid Rs 30 a day and the adults Rs 100.
After the 2012 judgment sentencing 32 convicts to life imprisonment, the threats to Shakeela have increased. The families of some of those 32 still live in that area. Every day, as they pass by, somebody or the other mentions how they will teach her a lesson for testifying in court. They do the same with other witnesses in the area.
Just yesterday when Shakeela was on the sewing machine, a woman whose husband has been convicted for rape and murder came to her door and said, “Stitch as much as you can. Will make sure this does not happen next year onwards. Tyohaar humara, paisa bane tumhara? (The festival’s ours, but you make the money?)”
Was garba-dandiya not hers to participate in? No time to waste thinking about it. She has to stitch the rest of the chaniya-cholis before the power cut in the evening.
Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.