For Ishrat Jahan’s mother and younger sister, the incessant interviews are an ordeal they would rather not go through because of the constant rewinding to the nightmare of June 15, 2004 — when Ishrat was reported killed in a police encounter outside Ahmedabad along with three alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives, among them Javed Shaikh alias Pranesh Kumar Pillai, claimed by the police to be her close friend.
Some of the questions are too probing — not out of any hostility to Shamima Kausar (46) and Musarrat Jahan (21) but because that is the only way the journalist can make meaningful additions to a story that to this day remains a jigsaw puzzle.
The Mumbra-based Ms. Kausar and Ms. Musarrat are in Delhi in connection with the Special Leave Petition the former has filed in the Supreme Court seeking vacation of the stay granted by the Gujarat High Court on the S. P. Tamang report.
The Ahmedabad Metropolitan Magistrate’s September 7 ruling that the police had stage-managed the encounter deaths of Ishrat and others had vindicated the family which had all along maintained that the girl was killed in cold blood. Nonetheless, other questions remained: What was Ishrat’s connection with Javed Shaikh? What was she doing in the company of suspected Lashkar terrorists? Could it be that the encounter was fake but not the terrorist antecedents of the group?
“No, that is not true,” asserts Ms. Musarrat, adding that Ishrat met Javed Shaikh only a month before the alleged encounter. Ishrat, who was second among five sisters and two brothers, was the brightest of the lot. She was good at Math and English, and became the family’s breadwinner after the death of their father, Mohammad Shamin, in 2002. Mr. Shamim, who was in the construction business, fell gravely ill after suffering heavy losses.
“The family was bankrupt, and the three of us, Ishrat, my eldest sister, Zeenat, and I started taking tuitions at home,” says Ms. Musarrat. But it was Ishrat, at that time in second year in Khalsa College in Matunga, who was the family’s biggest strength: “She would come home from college at 3 p.m. and then take tuitions until 9.30 p.m. She taught the senior classes while we taught the junior students. We were in turn taught by Ishrat apa.”
Was the family outraged by the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom? “Our father was very ill, and he died in June that year. We were in such dire straits financially that there was no time to think of anything else. We would come home from school and college, take tuitions, do our own homework helped by Ishrat, cook dinner and go off to sleep exhausted. Do you think the punishing schedule left us time to get outraged?”
Ms. Musarrat says that they did not read newspapers, they did not even have a television at home. “All we wanted was to get a decent education. Ishrat apa would tell our two young brothers that their future was bright, that we would work hard and the bad days would pass.”
“Little did we know that we would go from bad to worse,” says mother Kausar. Then the Javed Shaikh connection comes up. The family found the tuition income drying up in the summer break. Ishrat needed to find a summer job, and that is when a neighbour suggested that she meet Javed Shaikh. The job he offered was in Pune and it entailed frequent travel. One such trip with Javed was to Lucknow. “She was away for six days but was always in touch on the phone.”
Did the family not worry for Ishrat’s safety? After all, as Ms. Musarrat and Ms. Kausar themselves emphasised, the girl had led a very sheltered life under a disciplinarian father “who never let us out of sight.” Ms. Musarrat looks distressed: “How do I even begin to tell you about our financial plight? There were nights when we had nothing to eat. When our very survival was in question, how could we have objected to her going out to work?”
The mother and daughter say that they last heard from Ishrat on June 12 from Nashik. “She went from Mumbai to Nashik by bus where Javed was to meet her. But she called on June 11 to say she was very frightened, that there were strange men around. She called again on June 12 to say she had met Javed. We never heard from her again.”
Ms. Musarrat has counter questions for those who interrogate her on Ishrat’s possible extremist links. One, how does a 19-year-old girl from a protected background become a hardcore terrorist, and without any training? “From college to home to tuitions, this was Ishrat’s life. Her college attendance record shows she never absented from classes. How could she have been trained to become a terrorist?”
“She was so gentle”
Secondly, “Do you know apa was afraid of cockroaches? She was so gentle, she would not hit her students or even scold them. How could she pick up a gun and shoot?”
Ms. Musarrat strongly refutes the suggestion that Ishrat was influenced by the post-Gujarat discussions in her locality. “Forget heated political discussions, the first time I heard about an FIR or an encounter was after Ishrat’s death.”
Says Ms. Kausar, “We never had money but we had izzat (respect). Now we have neither.” Adds Ms. Musarrat: “My brother, Sheikh Anwar, found a job but they sacked him when they found out Ishrat was his sister.”
Ms. Musarrat’s final words as the interview winds up: “We want to be rid of the terrorist tag. We want justice for Ishrat and punishment for all those who killed her and brought shame and humiliation upon the family.”