Akhtar Wagle’s quest for justice – and what this journalist learnt from her…
“ Life is all memory, except for the present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going. ”
— Tennessee Williams
Often, in the course of our work as journalists, as we record endless narratives of people who have suffered unimaginable violence and still persevere in their struggle for justice, we ask ourselves: “what are we doing? Is it fair to poke and prod the memories of those who suffered? Should we be reminding them of their plight and asking them all these ‘how did this happen’ questions? Is it fair to raise their hopes when all we can offer in return is an article in a newspaper or magazine?
Thanks to Akhtari Wagle, I got some answer to these uncomfortable questions a few years ago. Women’s Feature Service (WFS), the well-known syndicate of features of women, commissioned me to work on a special series of women in conflict. The features were to record the voices of women who suffered violence in conflict situations and survived to struggle for justice. I was told of Akhtari Wagle who lost her 17-year-old son in the second phase of the Bombay riots of 92-93.
Today, of course, the story of the death of Shahnawaz Wagle is very well documented. No less an august body than the Justice Srikrishna Commission appointed by the Maharashtra government to investigate the riots, has maintained that what happened to Shahnawaz was nothing less than ‘cold blooded murder’ ((para 5.58 of the Srikrishna Commission report).
As Akhtari Wagle put it, “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 (Yasmin) 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 Wagle (her husband), 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.
Akhtari gave courage to Yasmin to give her 12th Std board exams : “I told her: ‘your life is before you. You must study further. He won’t return but you have to make your life’.” Later, she stood with Yasmin to depose before the Srikrishna Commission. As she recalls, “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,” Akhtari said, adding, “”I know that my son will not return but I want punishment for the culprits. I want justice from the government. ”
Just a few days before the 20th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, Akhtari Wagle filed a writ petition before the Mumbai High Court demanding action against the police officers – Then D.C.P., K.L. Bishno, then A.C.P. Jadhav, Byculla, Mumbai, then Sr. P.I. Ulhas Patankar, Byculla, then B. B. Patil, P.I., Byculla P.S., Mumbai then P.I. Vaivle, Byculla P.S., Mumbai, P.I. BhamLe, Byculla P.S., Mumbai, then P.S.I. Phartade, Byculla P.S., Mumbai, then P.S.I. Ram Desai, Byculla P.S.
So where’s the lesson for me and for all the journalists who chronicle the grief of survivors of violence, you may ask? Well, like so many other journalists before me and after me, I went to meet Akhtari Wagle and Tahir Wagle in their residence in Pathan Chawl, the same house they lived in from where their son was so senselessly dragged out and shot. I sat with the couple and they patiently remembered every detail and showed me photographs of their son and their young daughter, Arifa, who had died young in a tragic drowning accident.
Arif’s wife was cooking when I went to interview Akhtari Wagle. Towards the end, she couldn’t contain herself and burst out, “ Why do you people keep coming here to ask her to speak? Why do you want her to remember and tell you all these painful details? How will this help?”
How indeed? But before I could struggle to pacify the young woman and try to answer, Akhtari answered,” Let her ask. Let me tell her what happened. Only if we keep speaking about Shanawaz, can we hope to get some justice. If we forget what happened, we will not get justice.”
So quietly and so gently, with no anger or vehemence, she helped give me a rationale for the work I, and my journalist colleagues, need to do, over and over again.