27, Feb 2022 | Deborah Grey
Azhar Mody went missing in 2002 during the Gulberg Society massacre. Today 15 years later, in an exclusive interview to Citizens for Justice and Peace, Rupa Behn Mody, Azhar’s mother, shares how she still hopes he will return to her on his birthday on October 25.
“It’s my Azhu’s birthday on the 25th. He would have turned 27 this year,” says Rupa Behn Mody, her voice eerily calm for a mother whose son went missing in one of the bloodiest riots in Indian history over 15 years ago. “Seven years after he went missing, he was declared legally dead. But I did not believe it. I won’t unless I see a body,” asserts a mother who has already seen more dead bodies than any mother should ever have to in her quest to find her son.
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Rupa Behn and her two children Azhar and Binaifer were taking refuge in former parliamentarian, Ahsan Jaffri’s house in Gulberg Society during the Gujarat genocidal carnage in 2002. As they were trying to escape the violent mob, Azhar’s hand slipped away and he was left behind. That was the last time Rupa Behn saw him.
“How can I forget? I still have my half burnt clothes from that day,” she recalls. But what happened afterwards did little to provide a hapless mother any comfort. “I went and filed a missing person’s complaint in the police station, but they were lax and disinterested in looking for my son,” she says. That’s when a mother was forced to do police work.
Rupa Behn and her husband Dara Bhai printed hundreds of posters using a picture of Azhar in his school uniform, proudly holding an Indian flag. “We distributed the posters to all our friends and family. Some of my husband’s friends who were in the cinema business used their influence to have Azhar’s posters pasted alongside movie posters. Meanwhile, my husband and I pasted posters at railway stations, bus stands and other public places,” she says. They also distributed posters in 19 different police stations.
But what showcased their resolve most was how the couple didn’t shy away from visiting more morbid places. “We had to be practical, so even though people advised me that I might not be able to deal with the trauma, I personally went into morgues and rooms where post mortems were being conducted. I also visited burn wards,” she recalls in a calm voice. “Some of the people were so badly burnt they were bandaged from head to toe. I went to each and asked if they were my son Azhu. When they indicated they weren’t, I persisted and showed them Azhu’s pictures and asked if they had seen my son,” she continues with her characteristic composure.
Rupa Behn had to look at hundreds of dead bodies. “Some bodies were so completely charred, they were beyond identification. In these cases, I would look at the feet. My Azhu had large feet,” says Rupa Behn. Other times the red shirt Azhar was wearing when he disappeared helped her narrow down her search. There were also a few false leads. “We had given the contact number of a family friend on the posters and one day a young boy called and addressed the family friend as ‘mama’. Azhar always used that word, but turns out it was a child playing a prank,” she recalls. Other callers also claimed to have spotted him at bus stops, on the road and even in a mental hospital. But none of the leads panned out.
Rupa Behn decided to widen the search area. She traveled to Baroda, Rajkot, Jam Nagar and Surat. “I visited every police station, jail, hospital and mental hospital asking if people had seen my son,” she says. She even went all the way to Kerala once and also investigated leads from Delhi and Madhya Pradesh! But even today, 15 years after he first disappeared, Azhar’s whereabouts are still a mystery. “They insisted I take the compensation. But what good is money if my son is still missing? Why do people think the matter ends with compensation? Can the loss of a child every really be compensated,” she asks with the first hint of emotion in her voice.
Unwilling to cause her further distress, we end the interview and Rupa Behn signs off with “Main khojti rahoongi mere Azhu ko. Kya pata kisi din shayad kaheen mil jaye…”
Feature Image by Amir Rizvi
Azhar Mody Missing Poster courtesy Rupa Mody
*This story was originally published on October 23, 2017.