Hostile: The story of Zahira
The Indian Express
21 May, 2003
The judge asked her if she could identify any one of the accused lined
up in the court. She gave the lot a cursory look at them and then, without
a blink, said No. This was Zahira Sheikh, complainant
and key witness in to the gruesome Best Bakery murders, which claimed
14 lives in the post-Godhra frenzy. Nine of the dead were her relatives.
I shall not marry
till the accused are adequately punished, Zahira had told
me when I had met her just a few months ago for a piece I was doing
to mark the first anniversary of the riots. After tens of
panchanamas, dozens of visits to police stations and scores of appearances
before government officials, Ive nothing left to lose,
she stated, with steel in her eyes.
And there she was standing
in the witness box, head bowed, telling the judge that the police records
were false. That she did not recall any of the happenings of March 1,
2002. That she could not identify any of the accused, who were chargesheeted
only some months ago based on her testimony. She did not even know what
the mob of 15,000 was doing in front of the bakery building in which
they were holed up for one full night, even as 14 bodies were getting
The public prosecutor flashed
a wry smile towards the group of defence lawyers before starting the
cross examination. A very rare sight it must be when the advocates on
both sides nod agreement in public. The cross examination continued
for about 15 minutes and, then, it was all over. The defence counsels
refused to ask any questions and sat happily in their chairs, their
job already done by the prosecution. Zahira Sheikh then ran out of the
court room and met the supportive local BJP MLA, after which she was
not allowed to speak to anyone.
I ran after her, wanting
to know why she had retracted from her earlier statements. Why when
even two months ago she was a picture of resolve? But as she stood in
the witness box, burqa clad, she was just not the girl who had steel
in her voice. Who had refused to cry in the aftermath of the incident.
Who had irritated the investigating police inspector enough to make
him remark, Why dont you die!
I recall some moments I had
spent in the Sheikh household this March. My sister died
in the inferno. My elder brother has gone mad, attacked on his head
with a sword. And my mother lost her brother, she had said.
No one from the community too has been of any help, her relatives claimed.
They now stayed in new accommodation bought from the relief money that
was given to thema good eight months after the episode. They had
claimed some intimidation from some sources. But is it so easy to forget
the tragedy of those crazy days?
Let bygones be bygones is
the cliche that is used a great deal in Gujarat today. Life moves ahead.
Perhaps Zahira Sheikh also wants to move ahead. The MLA who was the
part of the mob baying for blood, is today her protector.