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Turning Hostile: The story of Zahira

By Abhishek Kapoor

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, I’ve 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 roasted below.

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 don’t 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 them—a 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.