Ishrat’s family’s long, grim and daily fight to come to terms with reality goes on as old allegations are revived
Geetanjali Minhas | March 16, 2016 | Mumbai
As Ishrat Jahan Raza is once again making headlines from beyond the grave, her family in a small town near Mumbai has to force itself further behind the veil. On a March afternoon, I climb up four stairs of a dilapidated building known as Rasheed Compound in the Muslim-majority suburb of Mumbra, 28 km northeast of Mumbai in Thane district. On ringing the door bell, a young woman with her face covered in a pale yellow dupatta, revealing only the eyes, peeps out of the door ajar. When she learns the purpose of my visit, she closes the door, opens it after a few seconds and allows me in. And then bolts the door from inside.
Now uncovering her face completely, she offers me a lone wooden chair in the room as I remove my shoes. Nuzhat is a pretty and bubbly twenty-something younger sister of Ishrat. “Aap reporter hain?” she asks me as I nod. She tells me her mother would join us in a moment and goes to get me glass of water.
As I make sips, her nine-month-old daughter Sufiya crawls out of the adjacent room. Mother Shamima Shaikh comes out and greets me. I ask her how she is keeping, and in her soft voice she replies that she has not been well: she has diabetes, frequent bouts of fever, recurring body pain and is unable to do much work. Periodic allegations and counter-allegations about her daughter’s June 2004 killing in Ahmedabad have left her stressed out.
Making place to sit, Nuzhat spreads a nylon mat on the floor saying that even though the family had won the case (the Gujarat high court found the police encounter fake and termed Ishrat’s death as murder), “they” are once again raking it up with more issues. Yes, the controversy has been revived as David Headley this year reiterated before Indian authorities his claim that Ishrat was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative. “Even after the case is over, how much more will they drag it? They can collect as much ‘evidence’ they want but they cannot change the truth. They will lose again,” she says. “We are not able to do any other work and have to travel for this case. My mother is not able to find spouses for my sisters and brothers because of this,” she adds as she goes into the kitchen to prepare lunch.
I ask Shamima how her life changed after Ishrat’s death. Sounding restrained, she says that though the family has now come to terms with the new reality, Ishrat is not there anymore and the family does not sit down to eat food together. “Jo baat pehle thi woh ab nahin hai,” she says with a choking voice. After a pause, she adds, “Everyone has to go one day but this is not the way to die. It was two years since their Abbu [father, Mohammad Shamim Raza] passed away, and we were still trying to put our lives back on track when Ishrat was killed. She was the backbone of our family. Our lives went from bad to worse. My children were heartbroken.”
Mohammad, a construction contractor, had suffered heavy losses in business, and died after a brain haemorrhage. The family was impoverished and did not have money to pay the house rent which was overdue for seven months at the time of Ishrat’s death. Ishrat, a student of Guru Nanak Khalsa College in Mumbai, would give tuitions to make ends meet. “Though we were very poor and didn’t have anything, the family was pulling along together. Ishrat was educated; she would have secured a good job and got married. But the family had to face this big stigma,” says Shamima.
“When Ishrat died we were going through a very hard time. There were no bedsheets to spread or cover ourselves. This mat, TV set, fridge, washing machine, bed, table, computer and everything else in this house has been donated by well-wishers. I was not able to buy anything for this house,” says Shamima adding that all children (seven in all) were young and there was no earning member.
Slowly opening up, she adds the family moved into this home which was gifted to them by her older daughter’s in-laws after Ishrat’s death. “My husband and Zeenat’s father-in-law were very close friends. They liked my daughter and our children got married. I got my two daughters married but was not able to give them anything,” she says.
As Nuzhat lays out a lunch of dal, subzi and rice, I ask Shamima if she goes out for routine chores like buying groceries. “I am unable to walk up and down the stairs due to pain in joints. Such constant stress will make anyone sick,” she says. After an attempt on life two years ago she has been provided police protection. “Irrespective of threats and bodyguards we go out when we want,” adds Nuzrat with a laugh. “I am here because ammi is not well. Who will keep the house in order and cook meals?” Nuzhat lives close by with her in-laws but says she does not like to come to her mother’s house often as the atmosphere is very tense and media is always hounding.
Though the family goes about its routine chores, it continues to live in fear. “Life is unpredictable, my health is not good, I have to get my children married,” says Shamima. Besides Ishrat, Shamima’s daughters Zeenat and Nuzhat are married. Her worry now is to get daughters Mussarrat and Nusrat and sons Aman and Anwar married.
We call up Mussarrat, who along with Nusrat, has gone to her grandparents’ house in Patna. She says highest authorities like the Gujarat high court and CBI found no evidence against her, and yet if anyone says her sister was a fidayeen terrorist, they are wrong. “It is being done for political gains. My sister was murdered for political issues. Yet, even after we fought and won the legal battle we are not spared.” She adds everybody has their own views and now the media trial has resumed.
“People tell us not to call them. They tell us we agree injustice has been done to you but please do not call as we don’t want any problems with your association. Everyone wants to exploit the poor, but we are humans after all. It is media’s responsibility to investigate and bring out the truth instead of fanning rumours,” Mussarrat says over the telephone.
Shamima is concerned that constant stress and travelling has affected Mussarrat and Nusrat’s health too. Nuzhat says, “Once Mussarrat is back from Patna, I will go back to my in-laws’ house. We take turns to come and stay with ammi.” Shamima adds, “They too have to look after their children, family and guests. They come and spend their own money. This is an added burden on them.”
The family’s financial condition is much better now. The elder son is now working and earns Rs 15,000 a month out of which Rs 5,000 goes towards his own travelling expenses and food, and another Rs 1,000 for Shamima’s medicines. The family makes do with the balance of Rs 9,000. Worries, however, are not over. “If he falls sick, we will be unable to make ends meet,” Shamima says. The younger son has just finished his class 12.
Though her two unmarried daughters would like to work, Shamima would not allow them. “We are going through a very rough time. The situation outside is very unsafe, so I do not allow my daughters to go out and work. We will make do with chutney and roti.” I ask her if she will allow her daughters to give tuitions. She replies that parents do not want to send their children for tuitions given the shadow of the controversy. She seems lost in a thought for a while, and suddenly resumes her conversation: “It’s very difficult to trust people, yet life cannot go on without some amount of trust. Those with genuine intentions will immediately help, but when it comes to girls, there are no good people. Even so-called good people change colours. I want my daughters to stay right here with me.”
Recalling the days soon after the calamitous June 15, 2004 killing, she says, “As I was not able to leave home because of the four-month mourning period, all my children lost their academic year. Seeking help is ok, but after some time you feel ashamed to go and request again and again. Moreover, you need money to make trips; you need to be strong willed to chase people.”
Shamima goes further down memory lane – 15 years ago when her husband’s business went bust, he went sick and there was no food in home. With a sewing machine, she started taking bulk job-work orders at home. Five frocks at Rs 2 per piece would earn her Rs 10 and 15 trousers at Rs 3 per piece in three days would get her Rs 45. In this kind of work, one is not paid immediately, but she would insist on payment the same day – to feed her family. “For Rs 5 I would buy rice, dal for Rs 2 and oil for Rs 3. I’d prepare thin and watery dal so that entire family could have some. One day the man who used to give me the job-work sent his wife and daughter-in-law to check on me. After she saw my grocery shopping, his wife told him how badly we needed money. The man started paying me immediately, even without checking the pieces.”
Soon, recollections turn to Ishrat. “Aapi chhoti thi, 19 saal ki. She was giving tuitions from home. How could she be a terrorist?” asks Nuzhat as she shows me family photographs on her mobile phone. “Who are we to go and kill Modi? Hamari kya hasti hai?” asks Shamima saying, “My children were busy with their studies. I had no time to think of anything other than their education and household work.”
Among those who helped after 2004, she mentions former NCP leader Jitendra Awhad (who was instrumental in making advocate Vrinda Grover take up the case), Mumbra corporator Rauf Lala and social worker Munna Sahil. “I feel very relieved and confident whenever I meet Vrinda. She has been a big support to the family and she has not taken any fees,” she says with a smile. “It is only because of community help that we could fight the case.”
With the call for prayers from a nearby mosque, I start to leave. Shamima concludes, “We are financially better placed now and my two daughters are married. But the happiness we have lost will never come back; I want the stigma to go. My daughter is gone now and we have been dragged into this political game.”
(The article was published in the March 16-31, 2015 issue)
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