The day that Ishrat died, was her youngest sister Nusrat Jahan’s first day at school.She had been to the madrassa before, but her proper Urdu-medium school was a whole new universe. As she walked home, tired, exhilarated and hungry, she was looking forward to a treat from her elder sisters. The family was poor — the sum total of their belongings was one wooden cupboard, a mat, a stove and several tattered books — but whenever a school milestone was achieved, the family made sure it celebrated.
For some reason, no one appeared to notice Nusrat when she walked in. Two strangers stood at their door, claiming to be Ishrat api’s classmates, asking for a photograph of her “for a college function”. Zeenat and Musarrat — left in charge when their mother Shamima was away — simply assumed Ishrat had won another prize. But soon, more strangers began to appear. Finally, a young female journalist pulled the two eldest sisters aside, holding up a news clipping — “is this Ishrat Jahan?” she asked in a whisper, adding, “she has been shot dead in an encounter.”
Unfortunately, the only member of the house who would have understood this English word, ‘encounter’, was lying dead in the photograph in the strange woman’s hand. Zeenat screamed, snatching the photograph, and stared at it. Their sister was lying lifeless on a street next to three other men, mouth open, eyes half shut, dressed in her second-favourite salwar kameez.
It was an image that would haunt them for nights to come.
For the next half hour, Zeenat and Musarrat panicked in silent desperation, racing through ways to keep the news of Ishrat’s death from their younger siblings, and break it to their mother when she arrived. Before they could make any decisions, Nusrat, plagued with curiosity, found the newspaper clipping where her sisters had dropped it. Already a heart patient since the age of seven, she fainted immediately, regaining consciousness only twelve hours later. By the time Shamima came home, her children were hysterical. They had lost their father only two years ago. Now, Ishrat api was dead, and Nusrat appeared to be on the verge of joining her.
That photograph, reproduced every time Ishrat’s story is told, has become iconic, the grim archetypal illustration of the sordid story of fake encounters in Gujarat. Even now, as the first CBI chargesheet on 4 July has established Ishrat Jahan was innocent — and that the deaths of Ishrat, Javed Sheikh, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar were not the result of an ‘encounter’, but a joint operation by the State Intelligence Bureau (SIB) and the Gujarat Police, under the Gujarat Central IB director Rajinder Kumar — it is that photograph, rather than one of Kumar, or the seven police officers charged that continues to appear on the front pages of newspapers. It is a photograph from which Ishrat Jahan’s family has been averting their eyes for the past nine years.
Two months before she was captured thus in death, another photograph of Ishrat had frozen forever the details of her life for those who cared to remember it. In their only family portrait, the elder siblings, Zeenat, Musarrat, Ishrat and their brother Anwar are standing, while the three younger ones, Nusrat, Nuzhat and Amaan flank their mother, Shamima, seated at the centre. Nusrat, seated to her mother’s left, had secretly worn Ishrat’s lipstick before the picture was taken. Everyone is dressed in clothes that Ishrat made for them on her mother’s sewing machine. The picture was taken en route to a neighbour’s wedding, when Shamima decided that the occasion of having all seven of her children washed, scrubbed and presentable at the same time needed to be documented. Musarrat had always wanted a family photograph like the other girls at her school, but since their father’s death two years ago, Shamima had never felt like getting a picture taken. That she had agreed to visit the studio, even the fact that they were going to a wedding at all, was a sure sign that the family was finally healing.
The man missing in the picture, Mohammad Shamim Raza had worked at a construction company in Mumbai for the past 14 years. Shamim and his wife Shamima had always struggled to make ends meet since they’d moved to the city from the outskirts of Patna, but were determined nevertheless to educate each of their children. If Shamim, who insisted that his daughters wore a veil as soon as they turned 10, was troubled about sending his wife to work (Shamima had a job at a medicine-packaging unit in Vashi) he never let his children sense this. But Nusrat, now 20-years-old and a student of psychology, says that her father’s diabetes was a sure sign of the mental stress he was under.
In his final years, Shamim Raza had lost all movement in his right hand. Shamima, running from one hospital to another to seek treatment for her ailing husband, had no option but to leave her children at home to look after each other. The three eldest siblings had already learned to cook, clean and care for the younger ones by the time they were 11 years old. “Ammi and Abbu had taught us never to ask anyone for help. Weeks passed before the neighbours even found out that Abbu was in the hospital. Some of them only found out about our struggles once he actually died,” recalls 22-year-old Nuzhat.
After her father’s death, Ishrat, the brightest of the seven children, had discovered a notebook with her father’s ghazals and stories. As she read them to her siblings each night, she internalised the idea that the family was now her responsibility. Zeenat was the eldest, but she was better at looking after the children. Anwar too was older than Ishrat, but he was meeker than her in temperament. As soon as she was home from college, Ishrat would devote her free time to working on the sewing machine, or giving maths and English tuitions to children in the neighbourhood for extra cash. “Api had no time to eat. One of us was always on duty, standing by her side, mixing her food and feeding her while she taught classes,” says Musarrat.
Right after the family portrait was taken, the sources of Ishrat’s small income, which had kept the household running after her father’s death, began to run dry. Schools had closed for summer vacations, and most families in the neighbourhood had taken their children home to the village. But her skill with numbers soon brought her another opportunity in the form of Javed Shaikh, an acquaintance of her mother’s who needed an accountant. Ishrat would, on occasion, travel with Javed, a man in his 30s, for work. Shamima didn’t like the idea, but she had implicit faith in her daughter’s good sense.
Even before news of Ishrat and Javed’s death broke, and details of his alleged terrorist links emerged, Shamima was criticised by friends and family for letting her teenage daughter travel with a man, that too without full hijab. It didn’t matter that with a monthly income of 2,000 to help feed a family of seven, Ishrat simply could not afford to buy a hijab, priced at 1,000 even at the cheapest stores in Mumbra. “No matter what anyone said, we were not ashamed that Api was working for Javed uncle,” Nuzhat says now, “it made us proud that she could already do such important things”.
Nineteen-year-old Ishrat Jahan, who like her father, had learnt to never let the stress of work show, sounded worried on the phone that day. She was travelling with Shaikh to Nashik, and had called her mother from the bus-stop there. When Shamima asked her — “itni dari dari kyun lag rahi ho?” (why do you sound so afraid?), she said “Ammi, kuchh log ghoor rahein hain humko” (Ammi, some people are staring at me). Shamima remembers the cold fear creeping down her spine, transmitted through her daughter’s voice. Certain that a bunch of local boys were harassing her daughter, she was reassured only when Ishrat called back again — “Javed uncle aa rahein hain saamne. Sab khairiyat hai” (Javed uncle is here, everything is fine). This was the last time Shamima spoke to Ishrat — before that photograph appeared in the newspaper, robbing her forever, of a peaceful night’s sleep.
What happened between 11 June, when Ishrat hung up the phone, and 15 June, when her body was discovered? The CBI chargesheet offers some clues, but is still far from a cogent explanation of the exact events that led up to her death. It is certain that Ishrat and Javed, at least, were sedated and kept in illegal confinement at Khodiar farms in Ahmedabad. State Intelligence Bureau Chief and now Special Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Rajinder Kumar, along with three of his junior officers, met Ishrat and Javed while they were still in confinement. Later, Kumar and Additional DGP, Gujarat Police PP Pandey, and DIG, Crime Branch, DG Vanzara, all met at Vanzara’s office to discuss what should be done with their captives. The day that she was killed, Ishrat was driven along with Javed and Zeeshan Johar in a blue Indica to the spot where their bodies would eventually be discovered. Amjad Ali Rana, the fourth victim, was brought to the spot in a different car. All four were shot at close range and “in cold blood” as the chargesheet indicates, and in an attempt to stage an encounter, the (SIB) planted weapons and cash (Rs 2 lakh) on the bodies. Yet another photograph of Ishrat — dressed in white, trying to suppress a smile — stared back at the officers who came by later and “discovered” her body. It was her college id, bizarrely hung around her neck, instead of being tucked away in her purse, where it usually stayed.
This is the first time Nuzhat, 22, has met a photographer who does not immediately ask for pictures of Ishrat. She adjusts herself to the camera’s gaze with the instinctive ease of a beautiful woman, yet her eyes, the only part of her visible through her black veil, never look directly into the lens. This is also the first time since she was 13, that Nuzhat is looking at a young man who is not her brother or her uncle. She decides it is not a moment of contact suitable for public consumption.
In some ways, life seems to have moved ahead since Ishrat’s death. Her eldest sister, Zeenat, married a neighbour’s son and moved to Malad, and is with child. Her brother Anwar, who made it only to class 10 without his beloved Api’s tuitions, now works at a call centre and is the sole earning member of the family. Even as Musarrat, the most vocal and obstinate of the siblings, has come out of purdah, two of Ishrat’s youngest sisters, Nuzhat and Nusrat, have stopped going out of the house altogether. Her youngest brother Amaan, just six when Ishrat died, barely remembers a time before his family was regularly featured in the news; the camera crews and news items about his dead sister don’t worry him as much as the fates of his as yet unmarried ones do.
In truth, from the moment that the family saw Ishrat, the brightest spark of their lives, extinguished, they lost all sense of purpose apart from fighting to clear her name. Even when her grief was new, Shamima was prepared to approach the highest authorities to investigate her daughter’s death. Nine long years later, Musarrat has abandoned her college degree to travel with Shamima. The two attend press conferences and case hearings for weeks on end. With each milestone – the Tamang Report which first declared that Ishrat was innocent, the current CBI-filed chargesheet, Musarrat is preparing for the longer battle ahead. “Ammi is too shy. She needs someone to do her screaming for her,” she laughs. Even Nuzhat and Nusrat, who claim to be quite content without “interference” from the outside world, have given up on once certain dreams. Nusrat the psychology student, would love to go to a “regular college” but does not see how that will ever be possible when Shamima is so afraid to let her daughters out of sight. Nuzhat, dressed now in an electric blue, purple and pink churidar kurta she stitched herself, once applied to a design school but wasn’t accepted when the faculty discovered she was related to Ishrat Jahan, “the female terrorist”.
There is also the unshakeable sense of fear, that prickly feeling of dread each of them has that they are still being watched. Just days after Ishrat’s death, four men appeared at the door late at night demanding to be let in, claiming they were from the press. “What journalist comes for an interview at 2:30 in the morning? They didn’t even have cameras or notebooks on them,” says Nuzhat. Nusrat says they would have opened the door if it wasn’t for the fact that neighbours had warned them against letting anyone in. Even more suspicious about these late night visitors was the fact that the two Mumbai policemen posted outside for the family’s protection disappeared when the men came and returned as soon as the men left.
Whether or not the men really were from the Gujarat Police, as Shamima believes, the fear from that night would return in weaker echoes of its former self. Just a few weeks ago, bikers, who were later discovered to be carrying a gun, hit Shamima’s car when she was on her way back to Mumbra from Ahmedabad. Rauf Lala and Munnabhai, representatives from Mumbra who helped the family finance their legal battles before lawyer Vrinda Grover took on Ishrat’s case pro bono, have been attacked on several occasions in the nine years since Ishrat was murdered. Musarrat and Shamima, though visible public figures themselves, are reluctant to let Anwar and Amaan appear on television — “The boys need to stay safe. Who is going to take care of the family once Ammi and I go?” Musarrat asks, polishing her spectacles.
At present, Musarrat and Shamima are giving their third interview of the day. A TV camera pans across the room, over their faces, focusing on a monitor where Amaan checks his Facebook account. The reporter begins with a soundbite describing how the family has “finally recovered” from the death of Ishrat Jahan, now that the “IT revolution” has reached their doorstep. Behind the curtain, Nuzhat rolls her eyes. Once the TV crews and photographers leave, Amaan himself leaves to meet a friend. Anwar is still at work. The women of the house gather on the double bed over chai, laughing, reliving happy memories, planning their next visit to Zeenat’s house. In this rare moment of abandon, Nusrat finally unfastens her veil, and settles her head on her mother’s lap. It is a gesture of casual affection made haunting by the fact that Nusrat, who once stole her sister’s lipstick for a family portrait, is now the living image of Ishrat Jahan.