Another Bakery, Another Parzania
By Harsh Mander
The carnage of 2002 changed everything for Abdulbhai and Noorie.... Today, more than six years after it was charred in the flaming carnage of 2002 in Ahmedabad, their small cottage bakery remains shut. The rebuilt furnace stands forlorn and empty, the metal trays and moulds piled unused and rusting in a corner, like the skeletons of the dead. None of their former clients agrees any more to buy their flour biscuits, cakes and bread, although these were popular in the past.
When they had built their bakery a decade earlier, they had proudly named it Jai Hind. “Others name their shops after gods and goddesses. But we wanted to name our bakery in honour of our country,” they would tell their neighbours proudly. When Abdulbhai and Noorie Bahen had bought the land for the bakery and their home in 1992, they had not worried for a moment that theirs would be the only Muslim home and establishment in the Hindu settlement Thakkar Nagar. “There was no discrimination, no hate, no suspicion at all in the hearts of our neighbours at that time, and there was none in ours.” But then came 2002, with its tempests and fires of loathing, and it changed everything.
When the couple had returned from six months in the relief camp to the ruins of their home, part of their family missing, and their life’s earnings scorched, they were still not defeated. They first rebuilt a makeshift earthen furnace, borrowed money for working capital, and reopened Jai Hind Bakery. But their goods remained unsold, as consequence of a still pervasive city-wide boycott of Muslim products, enforced not just through a shadowy network of communal organisations, but also through large mass consent.
Abdulbhai set out his wares on a wooden cart to sell in parts of the city where people do not know his Muslim identity, shamed by the fall in his economic status, distraught that he needed to hide who he was. They earned a small fraction of what they did in the past.
For years after the slaughter, they held firm to hope and the belief that the trails of hate would one day end. But Abdul and Noorie are now defeated and dispensable in Modi’s resurgent, triumphant Gujarat. The state has no place any longer for people like them, people who worship an ‘alien’ God.
They have still not been able to rebuild the roof over most of their destroyed house. Noorie’s voice quivers as she takes us on a conducted tour of what their home used to be, but is no longer. They are now resigned and vanquished, desperate to find a buyer of their properties, so they can move to the safety (and penury) of a Muslim ghetto. But people know their desperation, and are unwilling to pay more than a small fragment of the market price.
They have lost a lot in 2002: their business, their home, the money they had saved and stored away in crevices of their home to marry off their children, but even more importantly the friendship of their neighbours, their faith and their spirit. However, most tragically of all, they have lost two children, for whom they still wait with throbbing longing and with long-frayed, decayed but stubborn hope.
From the morning of February 28, 2002, relatives started pouring in from various corners of Ahmedabad weighed down with terrifying stories of mass murder, rape, arson and pillage.
Abdul’s old friend, Rajendra, a Hindu lawyer, also dropped by to warn them, but the couple was convinced that their neighbours would never allow them to be harmed. Rajendra still insisted on taking one of their sons Zahid who was at the bakery at that time to his own home, to protect him from any danger. This eventually saved this boy’s life.
Evening fell, and Abdul was baking biscuits and Noorie cooking food for the frightened relatives who had gathered at their home, seeking haven after fleeing desperately from the massacres at Naroda and elsewhere. It was then that mobs converged from two directions to the lone Muslim home and commercial establishment in the neighbourhood, baying for their blood. Some neighbours dissuaded the leaders of the mob, but shortly after, police vans gathered, further inciting the mobs. The relatives and family ran in different directions in the frenzied confusion that followed.
Two sisters Salma and Sanno, both barely in their teens ran to the inter-state bus terminal. Abdul screamed to them to wait there, until they reached them. Noorie grabbed their youngest son Allah Deen, barely five, and hid trembling in a ditch behind their home, her palm clasped over his mouth all the while, petrified that he would scream and give them away. They watched in secret the mob loot their home and bakery, and set it on fire.
They also saw their oldest son, teenaged Wahid run in another direction with his youngest sister Saira. This was the last time any of them have seen the two children alive, or dead….
Late at night, after the laggards in the mob dispersed and the flames that razed their home were still smouldering, Abdul and Noorie, with their little son Allah Deen, escaped in the shadows to the highway and eventually to the bus stand, in cold dread of the fires blazing everywhere, the calls for assault, and the smoke and the screams that crowded the gathering darkness. At the bus stand, they found to their great relief their two girls who sat waiting for their parents in a corner.
Luckily Noorie was wearing a sari that day, and people took them to be Hindus. They went first to the home of a Hindu friend Thakur, pleading that they take in their two daughters. But the man was out, and the woman refused to open the door, frightened that the mobs would avenge this by torching their home. Noorie does not blame her. “Those were terrible times,” she recalls. “People were too frightened to even offer us a cup of water.”
But they had more luck when they reached their other Hindu friend Rambhai. He readily — and hastily — took them in, but worried that the mobs would find them before long, as many knew of their friendship. He went out and found a para-military contingent, on whom he had more faith than the local police. The armed men in uniform escorted the family to a junior school building in a Muslim area, which the community had converted into a relief camp.
Their first task was to bring together again their family, scattered by the catastrophe. Two girls were with them. They were reassured about Zahid’s safety, as Rambhai spoke on the telephone to Rajendra, the lawyer who sheltered Zahid at his home for eight days. He finally dropped the boy at the camp, to be reunited with his grieving family. But Wahid and Saira were still nowhere to be found.
As the days and nights in the camp followed each other, laden with sorrow and loss for the thousands sheltered there, the camp organisers arranged vehicles for families to search for their lost loved ones. Hundreds went feverishly from camp to camp. Some like Shah Alam had more than 12,000 residents, and they had set up a unit near the large gate of the dargah to assist separated families to locate lost loved ones. The desperate Abdul and Noorie scoured the faces of several thousand children who were gathered there, but their own children were nowhere to be found.
The estranged parents finally accepted advice from the camp organisers to search among the unclaimed bodies at the mortuaries of government hospitals. There were rotting bodies piled one on top of the other, spilling out on to the corridors, and many frantic family members searched the faces of the dead, several burned or badly scarred by knife wounds. “In our desperation, we started tossing bodies aside, forgetting that they were bodies of loved ones of other people like us.” But they still could not find their children anywhere.
Their quest has not ended even after six long years. And who can say when their search will end, if ever? They do not have a single photograph of their children, as these too were burned down with the fire that the mob lit in their home, so they cannot advertise on television or the newspapers. People tell them that a child was spotted who looked like their children in some corner of this vast country, and they rush there, only to be disappointed. They have journeyed to Mumbai, Delhi, and their ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh, and always returned with empty hands and full aching hearts.
But who can ask a father and mother to abandon their search for their missing children, and by doing so affirm that they are slaughtered, never to return to them? They weep still inconsolably: “We do not know whether to hope any longer, or not to hope …”
Harsh Mander is human rights worker and writer based in Delhi. He is convenor of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for secularism, justice and caring.