Trembling With Fear, We Lied In Court
By Abhishek Kapoor & Ayesha Khan
Sunday Indian Express
06 July, 2003
Barely one week after the court set free all 21 accused in the Best
Bakery massacre in the Gujarat riots, Sehrunissa Sheikh, one of the
main witnesses and wife of the bakery owner, has come out and told The
Sunday Express that she lied in court trembling with fear
for her life. She is still afraid of being killed, she says, but if
she gets support, she will speak the truth.
admission, in a tape-recorded interview, puts a question mark on the
entire case. For she and her 18-year-old daughter Zaheera were two key
witnessesnine of the 14 burned alive or hacked in the massacre
were their relativeswho retracted their accusatory statements
in court, leading to the collapse of the case. Three Hindu labourers
at the bakery were also killed in the attack.
Announcing the verdict on
June 27, the judge called the incident a blot
on the city, slammed the police and the quality of the prosecution.
The Sunday Express met Sehrunissa,
50, at her house in the Ekta Nagar slum on the outskirts of the city.
Dehelte dehelte kaanpte kaanpte jhooth bola tha court mein,
she said. (Trembling with fear, we lied in court).
And she says she wasnt
the only one to do so. In fact, out of the 73 witnesses who deposed,
as many as 41 turned hostile. Just as we lied, others also
lied. Everyone lied. Who knows why? They may also have been under pressure.
The pressure must have come from where we used to stay (Hanuman Tekri).
Nobody supported us.
She doesnt name BJP
MLA Madhu Shrivastava, who accompanied Zaheera on the day she turned
hostile but keeps referring to a daadhiwala aadmi(a
Shrivastava, who sports a
beard, admits to having supported the accused, he claims were all wrongly
Contacted by The Sunday Express,
Shrivastava denied any role, saying that it was out of humanity,
that he had gone to court. Zaheera had come to the court,
he said, but I could not see her as she was in a burqa.
Asked whether he gave any
assistance to the witnesses, he was cryptic: They were left
alone in time of need even by their own people. No one from their community
or any leader counselled them. What could they have done when faced
with a dozen lawyers? So they turned hostile.
But Sehrunissa said the pressure
was intense: Apne ko dhamki bhi aayi ki tum bole to tumko
yahan aane nahin denge. Mar denge. (We received threats that if we speak
we will not be allowed to come here. We would be killed).
She said some of the threats
came through another critical witness in the case, a local scrap-dealer
Lal Mohammed, who also turned hostile.
aa kar bola tha mere ko. Kayi bar doosro se bhi bulwaya usne. Usne phone
par bhi dhamki di. Bola agar tum court mein jubani doge to marva denge
tumko. Zaheera court tak nahin pahunch payegee. To hum apne aap kya
karte. Dar ke maare jaban badal diye. (Lal Mohammad came here to tell
us this. Several times he sent threats through others. He called up
to threaten us as well. He warned that if we told the truth in court
we would be killed and that Zaheera would not be allowed to reach court.
In fear, we retracted our statements).
Asked why Lal Mohammed was
threatening them, she said: Kya pata, usko bhi dhamkaya
hoga... (How do I know? Perhaps he was also threatened.)
Lal Mohammeds family lives in the same slum cluster near Sehrunissas
house. His house too was burnt during the riots.
The Sunday Express questioned Sehrunissa to explore possible motives
behind her decision:
Why are you coming out now? Why didnt you complain to
I am speaking because I have
been approached by you (The Sunday Express). I havent even seen
the government pleader. I dont know who he is. (As for going to
the police) sab mile hue hain (everyone is mixed up).
Says govt lawyer Raghuvir
Pandya: Mine is a public office and anyone can come in.
If they (Sehrunissa and her family) did not come, its their responsibility.
Do you want the case to be re-opened?
I will speak the truth if
I get the support. Otherwise, wont I get killed?
Some say that money changed hands, that a rift within the
family has caused you to speak up now?
What do people think and
say? They speak of Rs 25 lakh, Rs 12 lakh being paid, weve not
got even 1 lakh.
His daughter told The Sunday
Express today that her father was away, there are reports that he is
in Pune, ever since he testified in court. Asked about the speculation
that witnesses were paid to turn hostile, Sehrunissa said: What
do people think and say? Some say we took 25 lakh, some say 12 lakh,
but I did not get even a lakh.
When it was pointed out that
it was because of their turning hostile that the accused got away, she
said: Chhoot gaye to mein kya kar sakti hoon usme (What
can I do if they went free?)
On being told about an NHRC
team arriving from Delhi, which might have the case re-opened and re-investigated,
she said she would tell the truth if supported by her people.
Yehi jubani denge jo pehle wali hai...ki inhone hi kiya
hai...hamara saath denge to...nahin to itne jan chootenge to maar nahin
dalenge humko. (I will depose as I did in my original statement if my
people support me. Otherwise, if so many people are acquitted, they
will kill me), she said.
Sehrunissa said that on the
day of her deposition, the presence of a large number of goons, including
the daadiwala aadmi (reference to Shrivastava) was intimidating. Lots
of people were there, some signalling at us with their eyes. I put my
head down and deposed. After all, one is afraid for ones life.
The bearded man was also there. They all stood there staring,
That fateful night she said
they were all neighbours; In court a yearlater: I couldnt see,
it was dark
What happened at Best Bakery
On March 1, 2002, two days
after the Godhra carnage, a mob attacked Best Bakery. The Muslims inside,
including the Sheikh family which ran the bakery, were the target.
Some of the bakery workers
were Hindus. The mob killed 14, including 4 children, burning and hacking
them. Bodies of two persons were never found. Police came across burnt
bones. Forensic tests confirmed the bones belonged to more than one
What they said and what
Sehrunissa and daughter Zahira
Sheikh the day after the attack: Jayanti chaiwala, Mahesh
Munna, Thakker ke do ladke were leading the mob. There were shouts of
Kill them, kill the Muslims, burn their houses.
We ran towards the terrace, some 20 of us. The mob was hurling petrol
bombs at us...threatening to rape us...My mama, my sister Shabira and
my mamas children, Zainab and Shabnam (twins), were burnt alive...In
all, 14 persons were burnt and killed. My chachas entire family
and a sister were burnt alive. All the attackers were from the mohalla.
Sehrunissa in court on May 9, 2003:
know what the mob was doing below. We were scared, hiding. I couldnt
see anything as it was dark and there was smoke all around.
Zahira also turned hostile on May 17
As the mob gathered,
I ran upstairs with my family. I was very scared, so I hid. I dont
know what the mob was doing below. No, I had not gone to make a complaint.
Police took my statement and signature. My statements of March 9 and
April 1, 2002, to the police are false. It was dark, full of smoke,
I cant recall anyone.
With Sehrunissas statement that she lied in court, The Sunday
BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava:
Kanoon andha hota hai (The law is blind). Its
based on evidence. Once the case has been decided in court, not much
can be done. I dont think the situation will change even if the
case is reopened.
Gujarat Home minister Amit Shah: The government could
have acted had it been informed of the threat by Zahira or her mother.
If they had complained to us or to police or even to the court, then
we could have done something. How do we know? They should have come
out in the open. Why now?
Investigating Officer P P Kanani: Now posted in Ahmedabad, he
was unavailable for comment.
D A Desai, former Supreme Court judge: Reinvestigation
is unlikely. If done, it will produce the same result. I think it wont
do now. They can be prosecuted for perjury.