A ceiling covered in black soot, an old trunk, some broken photo frames, old clothes, and a cracked window pane — as Imtiaz Qureshi, a survivor of the 2002 Gujarat riots, stared at these things at his ancestral house in Ahmedabad's Naroda Gam locality, past memories came rushing back.
"These items are more than 20 years old. We've never had the heart to take them to the house where we live now," he said, his voice cracking.
On 28 February 2002, communal riots broke out across Gujarat following the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. As per official figures by the state government, 1,044 people including 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the violence that followed. Of these, 11 deaths were reported from the Naroda Gam locality.
After the riots, the Naroda Gam case was one of the nine cases in Gujarat in which a speedy day-to-day trial was ordered. Monitored by the Supreme Court, these trials were committed to designated courts.
When the riots broke out in 2002, Qureshi — 30-year-old at the time — lived with his wife and two children in Naroda Gam. He later became a prosecution witness in the case.
On Thursday, 20 April, 13 years after the case was registered and 21 years after the incident, a special court in Ahmedabad, acquitted 69 accused including former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Maya Kodnani and ex-Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi in connection with this case.
Following the court's order, The Quint spoke to Qureshi about the riots, the trial which on for 13 long years, and the verdict. Here are some excerpts:
What happened in 2002? What did you see?
After the Godhra incident, there was a sense of alarm across the state. A bandh was announced in Ahmedabad. We were worried but not to a level where we thought there was a need to panic. Then suddenly on the morning of 28 February, the situation got out of hand. A mob surrounded our locality. Armed with sticks, swords, and petrol, they started burning houses down. We had to leave our house and run to save our lives. When I left my house, my wife and my children were not with me. I found them later at a relief camp. For two days I had no idea if they were alive.
Was there absolutely nothing that you managed to take with you from your house?
No. Not even clothes. Till years after the riots my wife lamented how we should have grabbed some cash or jewellery but there was no time to think. I remember that when we were at the Shah-e-Alam relief camp, some people donated clothes to us. There were few clothes and too many takers. I got a pant which had a waist size of 36 inches. At that time my waist size was 28 inches. I wore that pant for two weeks with the help of a string.
How do you feel about the verdict?
Honestly, I have no words. 11 people were killed that day in Naroda Gam. I saw them butcher five of them including a 10-year-old girl in front of my eyes. I remember the faces of the people who did that, the clothes they were wearing, the weapons they were carrying. But as per the court, nothing happened that day, nobody killed those people, nobody burnt our homes.
Since I was a witness in the case, I faced multiple threats, calls telling me to back out or I'll be killed. But in these 13 years, I never missed a single hearing of the case.
How is this justice?
When an FIR was filed in connection with the case at the Naroda Police Station, 86 people were accused under multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including section 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons), 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy), and 153 (provocation for riots).
Of the 86 accused, 17 of these died during the course of the trial, leaving 69. Nearly 182 prosecution witnesses were examined in the case.
You spoke about relief camp, tell us about your time there? What were the difficulties you faced?
When we were at the camp, my son was four years old and my daughter was six. They used to cry for food, water, milk. Those who set up the camp did everything in their capacity but the fact was that there were too many people and too little space and resources.
People in the camp including children were depressed. I remember that once to cheer them up, I gathered some children at the camp and asked them to draw something. This was to distract them. I also said that the person with the best drawing will win an award.
What happened after that, is something I will never forget. A girl named Rubina drew a riot scenes. There was a masjid that was burning, some auto-rickshaws, an angry mob. I choked. That drawing haunts me till date.
Post the riots, several temporary relief camps were set up for Muslims across the state by organisations such as the Jamait-e-Ulema-e-Hind, Gujarat Sarvajanik Relief Committee, Islamic Relief Committee, and United Economic Forum.
Most of these camps turned into permanent slum settlements. Currently there are over 3,000 families living in 83 relief colonies across the state.
Were there any communal tensions in your locality before the riots?
No. When the riots happened, I was 30 years old. I had grown up with Hindus. Went to school and college with them. We celebrated festivals together. I can't recollect an Eid that we celebrated without my Hindu friends. During Diwali, I was always invited to their homes.
What happened after you left the (relief) camp?
Life outside the camp wasn't easy either. In the riots, we lost our home, our flex printing factory, and all other valuables. There was absolutely nothing that we had. My family had to start from the scratch. In that process, we lived a life worse than animals. You can't even imagine the kind of places we lived at because we couldn't afford to pay the rent.
Later, however, I was able to stand on my feet again. This was with the help of a Hindu businessman who started a flex printing unit. He had the money and I had the expertise. By God's grace, our business is running smoothly now. My children are educated. My daughter completed her BSc and got married, my son just finished his MSc.
Among those acquitted by the court in the Naroda Gam case is former BJP MLA Maya Kodnani who was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in jail in the Naroda Patiya riot case where 97 people were massacred. She was later discharged by the Gujarat High Court.