20, Oct 2017 | Deborah Grey
The year 2002 was particularly bad for two women. Asiya Begum’s son Khwaja Yunus was arrested after being accused of playing a role in the Ghatkopar blast case, where a bomb placed on a BEST bus exploded killing two and injuring 50 people. He was later allegedly killed in police custody. In neighbouring Gujarat, Rupa Behn Mody’s teenaged son Azhar went missing in the Gulberg society massacre during the Gujarat genocidal carnage. Both mothers underwent tremendous mental trauma as they dealt with the aftermath of losing their sons. While Asiya Begum was forced to move court to have her son’s murderers tried for their crimes and to get fair compensation, Rupa Behn was forced to conduct a bulk of the investigation into her son’s disappearance with only her husband for support.
27 year old Sayed Khwaja Yunus Sayed Ayub, originally from Parbhani district in Maharashtra, worked as a software engineer in Dubai. He was arrested from Chikaldhara and police claimed that he escaped while being transported to Aurangabad. But a Crime Investigation Division (CID) inquiry revealed that he had actually died in police custody in January 2003. The inquiry had indicted four policemen including ‘encounter specialist’ Sachin Vaze and constables Rajendra Tiwari, Rajendra Nikam and Sunil Desai. They have been charged with murder, voluntarily causing grievious hurt to extort confession, fabricating evidence and criminal conspiracy. Trial in the custodial death case commenced at the Mumbai Sessions Court this year where Dr Abdul Mateen, who was previously a co-accused in the Ghatkopar blast case and was subsequently exonerated, deposed that he saw Khwaja Yunus being beaten mercilessly till he vomited blood.
But Asiya Begum has been crying tears of blood for 15 years. First her son was falsely accused in the case. Then he was tortured in custody and died of his injuries. However, the police claimed that he had escaped while being transferred and his death only came to light after a CID investigation that was conducted on an appeal from Yunus’s father Sayed Khwaja Ayub. But shortly after Yunus’s death was confirmed, Asiya also lost her husband. But at least this time Asiya could give him a dignified burial, a right she was denied in case of Yunus as his body was never found.
What was most humiliating though is how she was made to run from pillar to post to get a Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) appointed to expedite the case. The trial was getting delayed as two previous Special Public Prosecutors RB Mokashi and Yug Chaudhry had resigned from the case. Asiya was also virtually treated like a beggar when she demanded rightful compensation from the state given how Khwaja Yunus was the sole breadwinner in the family. In 2008 the Maharashtra government decided to award a meager Rs 3 lakhs to Asiya, and that too only after she moved the Bombay High Court. In fact, it was the Bombay High Court that enhanced the compensation amount to Rs 20 lakh and directed the Maharashtra government to pay the balance. Instead of helping salve the wounds of a grieving woman whose loss could perhaps never be recompensed with money, we made her jump through the hoops at each turn.
In 2002, Rupa Behn Mody was living peacefully with her husband Dara Bhai, son Azhar and daughter Binaifer in Chamanpura’s Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad. But that year the post Godhra reprisal killings broke out in Gujarat and her city was engulfed in maddening mob violence. Rupa Behn and her two children were seeking refuge in Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Ahsaan Jafri’s home when a violent mob descended on their neighbourhood and engaged in a bloody rampage, butchering people and burning homes. Rupa Behn was with Ahsaan Jafri till the bitter end and after he sacrificed himself to the mob when she and both her children tried to escape to the second floor of his home, Azhar’s hand slipped and he was left behind. To this day her son’s voice pleading numbness in his arm holding on for dear life, haunts her.
Rupa Behn registered a missing person complaint with the police but their inaction forced a mother to become a cop! Undeterred, she began a frantic search for her son. Rupa Ben personally visited 19 police stations to look for her son and share missing person posters with Azhar’s picture holding a tricolor.
She even pasted these posters at railway stations, bus stands and got her husband’s friends who new people who pasted movie posters to paste Azhar’s posters alongside them. Rupa Behn and Dara Bhai, searched hospitals, morgues, relief camps, jails, orphanages and even a mental health institution as she frantically searched for her son. They had to look at corpse after corpse, in order to find even a sliver of closure. The red T-shirt that Azhar wore the day he was last seen became the only clue that the parents had. Rupa Behn in fact once shared that they always looked at the feet of the corpses that were too badly burnt, mauled or decomposed to be identified, as Azhar had unusually large feet. She also walked into the burns ward at the Civil Hospital where she could not recognize anyone because they were bandaged from head to toe. However, she went to each person in the ward to ask if they were Azhar and showed his picture to inquire if they had seen him. This was something the police should have done. One cannot even begin to imagine the horror this mother felt. But Rupa has always maintained a stoic demeanour and stayed focused on finding her son.
In the last 17 years Rupa Behn has looked for Azhar in orphanages, jails and outside temples in Baroda, Jam Nagar, Surat and Rajkot in Gujarat. There have been several false leads from Delhi and Indore. She once also traveled to Kerala to look for her son at an orphanage. But Azhar is still missing. While one would ordinarily presume a person dead if he remained missing as long as Azhar, Rupa Behn hasn’t given up. The state awarded her compensation when Azhar was legally declared dead after seven years of remaining missing. But Rupa Behn couldn’t care less about the money. Her greater worry is that now that her son has been legally declared dead, no one is going to look for him. The heart broken mother has retained her half burnt clothes from the day her boy went missing. She diligently attends all court proceedings, and has also deposed during trial in the Ahsaan Jaffry murder case.
Is this how we treat mothers of missing children? Should they be doing police work and run from pillar to post to look for their children? Both these cases show how India humiliates, punishes, restrains and shames its mothers for standing up for what’s right. And if this is not the India of your dreams, perhaps you can take a small step to help restore the dignity of the Mothers of India.
Feature Image: Amir Rizvi (Adapted Collage : Part of Picasso’s Guernica, a mother is holding the limp corpse of her child. She is wailing with her head thrown back, and her eyes are looking upward; perhaps she is asking God why the circumstances of her life are so miserable)
Image of Azhar Missing Poster courtesy Rupa Mody