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Published in the 16-30 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Zahira episode: questions for the community

By M H Lakdawala

Mumbai: Is Zaheera’s volte-face a result of the fear or greed? Speculation for the reason behind her about-turn is the talk of the town and subject of media’s lead story. 

Zahira Zahira

Zahira then 

 and now

From Times of India editorial to Muslim organisations here, many are blaming Zahira Shaikh for betraying and lying. Is it correct to blame Zahira alone? No doubt, her consistent about-turns need to be condemned. But before assigning a motive to her action one need to analyse what background and situation led her to change her statement. 

Zahira had to relive the nightmare of March 1, 2002, several times for the media. This took its toll on her. Zahira told her story over and over again to the press, relief agencies and government officials. We should not forget that she is an ordinary Muslim girl who had witnessed the drama of life and death in its gory details.

The first question Zahira’s episode raises is: is she and her immediate family safe? The very protectors who are providing shelter to her of late are themselves now stand accused. To what extent they can pressurize a witness like Zahira is for the court to look into as Teesta Setalvad’s Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has already approached the Supreme Court with the said question.

There are reports in the media about Zahira demanding flat and economic security in exchange for her continuous cooperation. Whether she really asked that and even if she did then also it does not matter now. But this raises one more question: was Best Bakery case Zahira’s battle alone? What was the role of the Muslim leadership? Was providing economic security to her not the responsibility of the community? If we had fulfilled our responsibility, Zahira perhaps would not have done her U-turn. 

Another question, which needs probe: what happens to millions raised for the relief of Gujarat riots victims. Isn’t Zahira a riot victim? Why she and her family were not offered help from the relief funds? There are reports about a Gujarat relief committee giving her family a flat worth Rs 55,000,which she sold off to raise funds for her day-to-day expenses.

Many Muslim organisations have joined media in condemning Zahira. What they conveniently forget is that it is this helpless Muslim girl who had stood up to the communal forces for nineteen months and rendered help in fighting the cause of justice. We should also not forget that her testimony in April 2003 forced the Supreme Court to condemn Gujarat Government and its police force and ordered re-trial outside Gujarat. Before that it was she who gave statements to National Human Rights Commission on 21 March 2002. Zahira moved to Mumbai under activist Teesta Setalvad’s Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) care much later, on July 7, 2003 and continuously cooperated in the fight for the justice.

If she was greedy for money as media is projecting, then the question is: why she waited for nineteen months? She could have easily approached many of the community forums or individuals and minted money. But she did not. Thus accusing Zahira of being money-minded is not justified. Then what led her to change her statement? There is every chance that she might have been threatened, or even kidnapped, by the communal forces to change her statement. If that’s true then Zahira needs to be protected from the communal forces that are currently parading her before the media. No doubt, her life is in danger.

Another argument against Zahira is that she was very confident while speaking at the press conference in Vadodra on 4 November. A person, who had undergone emotional and physical trauma at such a tender age, tends to become emotionless and more of mechanical.

As for Zahira, Teesta Setalvad speaking to the media said that “she may have misjudged her”, but she added quickly that it’s still too early to say since the girl’s motives remain unknown. ‘‘It’s sad that she chose to hurt her own credibility,’’ Setalvad said. ‘‘She can’t say one thing in court, something else in Supreme Court and then flip-flop.’’ Now that’s quite unfair. Without knowing the facts Setalvad cannot herself question the credibility of her former star witness.

No doubt Teesta Setalvad fought for the Best Bakery retrial and her efforts are praiseworthy. But those close to her say that her style of functioning may also be responsible for the Zahira fiasco. She is too dominating a personality, which others find suffocating to cope with. That’s why many from the secular groups here withdrew from the cases which Teesta was fighting for. Teesta is no doubt very sincere for the cause she has undertaken but she alone cannot stand up against the communal forces attacks. 

While fighting for justice, activists unintentionally start seeing the victims as mere tools and means for the fight, totally neglecting the human angle. May be this was one major reason for the U-turn of Zahira.

Now the biggest question: Where was the community leadership all these long months when legal battles were being fought? Just because Teesta has espoused the cause of Zahira and other Gujarat riots victims, community cannot afford to go to sleep. Unlike Mumbai riots hearing by the Srikrishna commission, when the community was in the forefront of the legal battle, this time around it seems we had totally left everything to one single person: Teesta Setalvad.

Irrespective of whether Zahira testimony is accepted by the court after her volte-face, the fact is she has become a symbol of Gujarat riot victims’ fight for justice. The Muslim community cannot afford to hand her over to the very forces which stand accused in the Gujarat riots. Teesta Setalvad’s Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), has approached Supreme Court on the issue. Muslim groups must immediately network amongst themselves with secular groups and be a party to the case.

Various Muslim groups must also approach secular and national forums to put pressure on the Gujarat government and its police force to release Zahira from captivity and hand over her custody even for security reasons to a reliable group under the guidance of judiciary. The first step to unearth the truth of the latest Zahira U-turn is to get her released from the clutches of the very forces that stand accused in the Gujarat riots.

No doubt, Zahira U-turn is seen as a setback for the Gujarat riot victims cause. But the fact is that Gujarat riots took place and the entire world bears testimony to that fact. The truth always triumphs irrespective of minor setbacks. Let us do some self-introspection and start afresh our fight against the perpetuators of one of the worst communal carnages in India.

There are many victims of Gujarat riots who are willing to give testimony before courts. The much needed groundwork is still to be done. As during the hearing of Srikrishna commission when the witnesses were identified and their testimony documented, similar exercise is also needed to be done in the case of Gujarat riots.

Sikh community fought for two decades to get justice in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Muslim community should not feel disheartened by the Zahira U-turn. We just cannot afford to concede even a symbolic victory to Modi and his government. Hence let’s concentrate on the legal battle ahead for bringing justice to Gujarat riots victims.

See also: Best Bakery after Zahira U-turn

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