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Bombay Riots of 1992-93: Akhtar Hasan Wagle’s Long Struggle for Justice

by Geeta Seshu, 14 March 2009

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Women’s Feature Service

India: Mumbai’s Mother Courage - Turning Grief Into Justice

Mumbai (Women’s Feature Service) - "I know that my son will not return but I want punishment for the culprits. I want justice from the government," says Akhtar Hasan Wagle, in a quiet but firm voice, as she sits by a grilled window that overlooks the spot where the police shot her son, Shanawaz, in an alley near Dockyard Road in South Central Mumbai.

Shanawaz was only 17 on January 10, 1993, when he was gunned down by police of Byculla police station. He died a day later in hospital. He would have remained just another statistic in the second phase of the violence that tore through Mumbai in 1992-93 in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but for the refusal of his family to remain mute and beaten. Around 900 were killed in the riots; 356 of them dying in police firing.

Today, Ahktar, 58, and her husband, Tahir, live with the slender hope that the overwhelming evidence before the authorities will awaken them. "Even the report of Justice B.N. Srikrishna, who was appointed by the Maharashtra government to investigate the riots, terms the death of my son as ’cold-blooded murder’ (para 5.58 of the Srikrishna commission report). Surely, someone will listen to us," says Tahir.

In contrast to her husband, Akhtar displays a calm and stoic demeanour. Ten years ago, her first daughter, Arifa, died in a drowning accident in Ratnagiri. Thereafter, her life revolved around Yasmin, her other daughter and Shahnawaz, her youngest. But, for the 16 years since the death of her son, she and her family have continued to live in the same small corner room on the second floor of Pathan Chawl. The same room which looks into the alley where her son’s body lay.

Each day, she relives those moments. It happened just here, she says, her voice shaking. Controlling herself, she continues, "The police came from house to house and pulled out all the men - young and old. They pulled him from my hands and took him down. Before anyone could say anything, they shot him. My daughter saw them from a crack in the window. She ran downstairs to him but they hit her with rifle butts and drove her back upstairs."

The family watched as the police put the youth’s body on to a vehicle and took it to J.J. Hospital. Tahir, to his eternal regret, had remained in Ratnagiri where the family had gone to visit a ’dargah’ at Vishalgadh. His wife, son and daughter chose to return to the city, despite reports of the breakout of violence. He returned to Mumbai four days later and only then could the family claim the body of the youth. "I’m told he survived for a day in hospital but no one could go to him. The city was under curfew and the women of my family could not stir out. They did not even tell me that he had been shot, they just told me to come back," he says.

The Wagles take pains to reiterate that their son did not die at the hands of Hindu groups or even their Hindu neighbours who lived in the adjoining Rustom Daruwala chawl. According to their painful reconstruction of the events, the police had acted on an anonymous complaint that bottles had been thrown by someone from Pathan chawl. "My son and his cousin, Arif, were daring and helpful boys. They braved the violence to get milk, bread and food for the women stuck at home. I guess this was why they were targeted," he feels. While police even dragged an 85-year-old blind man out, Arif managed to escape as he hid under a bed and women sat on the mattress, nearly suffocating him in the process.

Tahir is very active in local social groups and is a well-known figure in his area. Familiar to the local police, he owned a jeep that was, ironically, requisitioned by police during the riots. "They came to our house and shouted to us to thrown down the keys of the jeep. We told them it had no diesel but they said it didn’t matter and took the vehicle," recalls Akhtar. Perhaps if they had known the boy they shot was Tahir Wagle’s son, they may have given him better medical help and he could have survived, they wonder.

But the violence in its madness picks its own victims, without any reason. The police who shot Shanawaz reportedly boasted that beneath their uniform they were Shiv Sainiks to the core.. (The Shiv Sena is a Hindu political party that led the riots and attacks against Muslims in Mumbai).

The Wagle family determinedly set out to secure justice against police officers K.L. Bishnoi, then DCP of Zone III; Kishore Mankar, then Senior Inspector (SI) of Byculla police station; Ulhas Patankar, Senior Police Inspector; Wahule and Balme, Police Inspectors (PIs) and Ramdesai and Gorasawant, Police Sub-Inspectors. Their daughter, Yasmin, as an eyewitness, gave evidence before the Srikrishna Commission.

"We went for every hearing of the Commission. Yasmin was at first very frightened but I told her that whether she was afraid or not, she must go and give evidence. We went before the Commission with great hope," says Akhtar. Yasmin, who is older to Shahnawaz by two years, was so shaken by his death that she didn’t want to appear for her Class 12 board examinations. But Akhtar recalls, wiping away her tears, "I told her: ’your life is before you. You must study further. He won’t return but you have to make your life’."

Later, the Commission, in its recommendations, sought action against police of this police station, naming SI Patankar, PI Wahule and SI Ramdesai. The Commission’s report stated: Their conduct during the riots was extremely communal. They refused to record complaints in which Hindus were the accused and harassed and ill-treated Muslims. Their conduct indicated attempt to shield miscreants belonging to Shiv Sena (C.R.No.591 of 1992). The Commission was also critical of an enquiry conducted by DCP Surinder Kumar, into the death, terming it an eyewash.

Today, the family tries to piece their lives together. Yasmin got married in 1996 and moved to the Middle East but is committed to coming back to give further evidence if required. Every festival, birth or death in their large family, every report that a friend of Shanawaz has got a job, got married or had a child, brings joy but sorrow, too, as they recall their son’s hopes and dreams. "He was such a smart boy, so good at studies. He was studying in
Elphinstone College and wanted to join the shipping line like his father and grandfather. He loved playing cricket," Akhtar whispers.

When the Wagles tell whoever wishes to hear about their son’s death, they keep alive the hope that he will get justice. For them, forgetting is not an option. Akhtar is puzzled when I ask her whether she ever felt angry at the death of her son. Reports on the escalation of violence all over the world that claim scores of people, of hate and discrimination or political happenings that stoke these flames - all these are issues far removed from her simple routine and sorrowful reality. "Yes, the politicians are responsible for communal violence. It is all a game for them. I do read the newspapers but I don’t get involved in politics. I only want justice for my son, that’s all," she says.