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A brave effort

JAYA BHATTACHARJI ROSE.
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Despite a sense of clinical detachment, this account of the Godhra massacre fallout is a must-read, says JAYA BHATTACHARJI ROSE.

Aril Ansari. Age 18 at the time of arrest. Resident of Jamalpur, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Cameraman. Coincidentally Adil Ansari was in the same Sabarmati Express coach (S6) that caught fire at Godhra. Somehow he managed to find his way home to Ahmedabad. “As the story of the fire was told again and again to the police, Adil saw it growing into a conspiracy and a tale of arson. Some kar sevaks said in their depositions that they had seen burning rags being flung into the carriage. Mashals , they said, burning torches, hurled by the crowd of Muslims outside….But Adil had not seen anything like that, nor had the passengers who were sitting near him.” He realised that something was amiss when he was constantly told by autorickshaw drivers that it was not safe. When he tried locating his mother, a teacher in an Urdu school, he only saw children milling about and no sign of his parent. His sister, Faiza, spots him and drags him away. Fortunately with the help of a police officer, Vijay, they are able to find their mother in a hospital, in a coma after being attacked.

The communal violence that ensues is horrific. Shah Alam relief camp is set up overnight at the Shah Alam dargah. When Faiza and Adil spend a day, there they see “some of the women sat in the graveyard, to the right of the mosque and the courtyard in front, staring blankly into the distance, not a part of the world of the living. They looked like zombies.” These were women who had been raped, burnt, and had their breasts chopped off. Children witnessed their families being decimated. Faiza went on, “I mean burns. They are not used to so many eyes staring at them all the time. These are the kind of women who have lived all their lives in purdah.”

Later Adil is arrested during a night raid by the police at his home. He is the youngest suspect of a bunch of young men accused of making bombs that killed a minister in the government. The “suspects” were picked up by the state police invoking POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), a reincarnation of horrendous TADA that allowed the State/police to arrest and question any one they felt like. They are tortured and made to sign false confessions implicating them in the crime. Their lawyer, Ramya, requests Delhi-based linguist Dr Deepa Sahai to help her with the case. Deepa has immense experience in verbatim testimony having analysed the testimonies from the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984. She had found a way to assess the communal flavour of a text numerically with red and blue ballpoint pen. The red ink would be used to underline any words and phrases that look like something a policeman would say, but not a young Muslim boy. “Please be careful where you start to underline and where you stop: we are going to count the words later.” Blue ink was used to underline any words and phrases that a Muslim boy would use but definitely not a policeman. To prove her case to the judge Deepa conducts and records a mock interview, compares and analyses the text with the actual confessions. Only to discover that in the former, “a bit under 5 per cent of the text consisted of typically Muslim usage. There were no instances of typical police usage.” Whereas in the actual confessions it was the opposite: about 3 per cent of the text consisted of police words or highly Sanskritised words that I would not expect the suspects to use, or maybe to even know. And there were no instances of typically Muslim usage.” Adil and many of the suspects are let off, primarily with the assistance of Deepa’s meticulous research. Many of them seem to vanish into thin air once they are released. It is assumed that they have left the State fearing for the safety of their lives.

The Youngest Suspect is based on research and much of it shows in the particularly disturbing accounts of the communal riots, the description of the violence towards Muslims (especially women), the atmosphere of sheer hopelessness that finds many of the young men wrongly trapped under POTA. It is rare for such violent acts to be described in fiction in such detail, so close to the incident. ( The Youngest Suspect has been published a decade after the Godhra fire.) Usually it takes at least a generation or more for these details to emerge in fiction. Despite the details in the novel there is a sense of clinical detachment from the subject. The rawness of language and emotion is missing of the lived experience as in Anne Frank’s Diary or her Tales from the Secret Annexe or Ruth Septy’s Shades of Gray . Yet The Youngest Suspect is a brave effort by Peggy Mohan and a must read.




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