A middle-aged man who repairs shoes on a street corner in Ahmedabad and who has slept for many years on the pavements of the city is one among the hundreds who joined the Azadi Kooch, the protest march from Ahmedabad to Una village in Gir Somnath district against the public lashing of Dalit men for skinning a dead cow. He declares that he will work for Dalit-Muslim unity. His name is Ashok Mochi.

Fourteen years earlier, when angry mobs surged through the streets of Ahmedabad, burning and looting the homes and shops of their Muslim neighbours and murdering and raping thousands, this man’s face stamped itself indelibly in public memory. The man himself slipped quickly back into oblivion, from where he was resurrected recently. And therein lies a remarkable tale.

Dark chapter

It was the morning of February 28, 2002, the day after 58 people had been burnt alive in a train in the neighbouring station Godhra. The killings and arson would continue for weeks to come.

Ashok Mochi’s picture became, for the world, the symbol of those terrifying and murderous days. The camera captured a lean and bearded young man, wearing khaki trousers and a loose black t-shirt with sleeves folded, his hair parted in the middle and a saffron band on his forehead, standing with both his arms raised – one hand brandishing an iron rod another with the fist clenched. His mouth was open, as though he was shouting slogans. There were blurred images of men in the rear, and a burning heap of materials that a mob must have set on fire. Behind him, the sky was black with smoke rising from burning homes, cars and shops across the city.

This photograph, by Sebastian D’Souza, was carried in newspapers across the world, on magazine covers and later, on books about the carnage. It quickly became a metaphor of those grim and dark days, of the hatred that broke out like a dam unleashing one of the most bloody communal massacres after Partition.

For the decade that followed, fighting for justice and rehabilitation of the innocent survivors of this carnage became a dominant concern not just of my life, but also that of many friends and colleagues. Together, we fought several hundred cases in various courts, trying to bring those responsible for the bloodbath to justice. A few cases were won, but the large majority ended in acquittals. Even so, this was the largest collective effort for justice after communal massacres in the history of the country.

My colleagues at Aman Biradari, who helped fight hundreds of criminal cases after the carnage, were idealistic young lawyers and working-class women and men from the ravaged communities.

Yet, after the years passed, we realised that most of those we succeeded in engaging in these legal battles were foot soldiers of the carnage, not its leaders. Who were these men we were able to send briefly to jails and engage in courts, we wondered? What happened to them in the years since the carnage?

The man in the photograph

These questions led me to seek out, years after the carnage, the young man in the photograph that had transfixed the world as a symbol of the communal violence that had shattered so many lives during those fateful weeks in 2002. Kishore Bhai, my dedicated colleague, is the Aman Biradari justice worker who had pursued his criminal case in court. He told me that the man was Ashok Mochi, a street cobbler from the working class enclave of Shahpur colony in Ahmedabad. His full name was Ashok Kumar Bhagwan Bhai Parmar.

His name did not appear in the initial police complaints, but that could have been because the police mostly did not record the names of the men that complainants said were part of the mobs who attacked them. However, in the course of later investigations, Ashok Mochi’s name entered police records.

A local, Mohammad Hussain Ramzanbhai Sheikh, in his statement to the Madhepur police seven months later said that Ashok Mochi was part of a riotous mob of men, armed with daggers and sticks, who attacked and looted several Muslim homes on the morning of 28 February 2002. Since the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for a Bandh, most Muslim residents were in their homes.

They watched with alarm as the mob, which included in its ranks Ashok Mochi, gathered at ShahpurChowk (where Mochi is seen in the photograph), where they are said to have burned a couple of auto-rickshaws. Sheikh said he saw the men enter the homes of his brother and other relatives and loot suitcases, gas cylinders, television sets and other things of value before they sprinkled the houses with petrol and set these on fire. Acid bulbs were hurled on taller buildings. They followed this up with threats to kill the residents, who left for relief camps by evening. They lived in these camps for several months.

Despite Sheikh’s statement, Ashok Mochi was neither arrested nor questioned by the police at the time. His was one of 2,000 cases related to the rioting, arson, rape and murder registered after the Gujarat riots that were closed by the police citing insufficient evidence against the perpetrators to take the matter to court.

However, I challenged with Indira Jaising the closure of these cases – which were half the cases filed in the first year of the carnage – the Supreme Court, as intervener in a case filed by the National Human Rights Commission. We charged, with several examples, that the police deliberately undertook shoddy investigation to protect perpetrators of communal crimes from criminal action. The Supreme Court accepted this petition, and in a historic judgement, ordered the reopening, supervised reinvestigation and retrial of all the 2,000 cases.

Various human rights groups took charge of some of these cases. The one in which Ashok Mochi was an accused was among the several hundred cases that Aman Biradari took responsibility of.

Ashok Mochi, accused of looting and burning Muslim homes and shops in the area, was charged under sections 435 and 436 of the Indian Penal Code (crimes of arson and causing destruction by fire), and arrested. He spent 14 days in jail, after which he was released on bail submitted by his elder brother. The case dragged on for several years, and Ashok Mochi attended every hearing with more than 20 other accused men.

Justice worker Kishore Bhai attended as many of these hearings as he could, to sustain the morale of the complainants. But the cases were adjourned month after month, and the complainants were wearied as they struggled to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

Altaf Shiekh, our young lawyer, recalls that on the day the court wished to record the statements of the Muslim complainant Sheikh, the local small trader whose house was looted and burned down, he was unable to attend court. Vexed by his absence, the court closed the case for lack of evidence, and acquitted Ashok Mochi and all the others who were accused in the case. In this way, he joined the thousands who were charged with crimes in the communal carnage of 2002 but ultimately walked free.

Ashok Mochi Credit: Ungal Baz/via YouTube

The man outside the photograph

Years later, I asked Kishore Bhai if Ashok Mochi would be willing to meet me. He was. I walked with Kishore Bhai to where he plied his trade as a street cobbler on the corner of a sidewalk near Lal Darwaza. He was around 40 now, but looked older. I would not have recognised him from his photograph. His hair was grey and cropped short, his face lined. He did not wear the beard he had in his iconic photograph of over a decade earlier. He said business was anyway slow that day; he would close his pavement shop, and we could sit in a hotel and talk.

He had inherited his father’s cobbler trade. It was not what he wanted to do. He would have liked to do something purportedly better. But ultimately, he could not break out of what his caste prescribed for him, as did the poverty of his family. They lived in a small one-room tenement in this working class area.

On one side of the road lived Muslims, and on the other mostly low-caste Hindus. They were mostly day labourers, construction workers, house painters, mattress makers, trades such as these. From his work as a street cobbler, his father earned little. Ashok liked to study and hoped he would be able to make something of his life. But his father died when he was in Class 6, and his mother a year later. He was left in the care of his elder brother.

His brother married, and quickly had four children. They fed him, but he often quarrelled with his sister-in-law about food and clothes. After he passed his Class 10 examination, he decided he would fend for himself. He tried his hand at many professions. He told me: Maine Hindustan ke woh sare chhote kaam kiye jo chhotain saan kar sakta hai – I did every small job that a small man in India can do. He worked as a sweeper, a security guard, a house painter, and many other trades, but in none could he establish himself. In many, he said, caste was a barrier: people teach their trades like house painting only to people of their own caste.

He finally took on his father’s caste profession, repairing and polishing shoes from a street-corner shop on a pavement. He inherited many of his father’s customers. For a while, he would give most of his earnings to his brother. But when tensions in the family grew, he left home and began to sleep on the streets, at the same spot where he plied his shoe repair trade. Next to him on the pavement sat Nazir Bhai, who ran an auto-rickshaw repair shop, and on the other side a higher-caste Hindu who traded in old clothes.

Ashok took care of their materials as well at night. It worked well for all. He would eat at roadside eateries. There was a working men’s dormitory close by, where he went in the mornings to bathe and use the toilet.

And then the storm of 2002 broke out. He had seen many riots in his life. He was 10 years old when in 1985, Gujarat’s capital, Ahmedabad was torn by communal violence for several months, taking nearly 300 lives. Smaller riots occurred every two or three years. But none were like this. Ashok said that people were reminded of the violence surrounding the Partition of India, when thousands were forced to live for months on end in relief camps.

Ashok recalled that the streets around which he worked and slept were tense in the morning of February 28, 2002, when news of the horrific Godhra incident hit the headlines. The newspapers were full of horrible pictures of the burnt bodies that made the blood boil. He did not watch television, but these too carried graphic images of the corpses. The Hindus were incensed and furious with the Muslims, he said, and he too was angry. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for a bandh. Muslims hid in their homes, as Hindu men gathered with weapons and petrol on the streets. He also worried that the riots would swallow up his earnings for weeks, even months.

Ashok had grown a beard at the time. (He said it was because of a failed love story. He had wanted to marry the upper-caste daughter of a neighbour, but her family found out, and married her off in a hurry as a teenager to a man of her caste. “I therefore began to grow my beard,” he told me. “Like Devdas, you know. Except that I did not drink!”)

Not many Hindu men sported beards, and he was afraid that mobs would mistake him for a Muslim and attack him. He searched hard for a barber to shave his beard, but every establishment was closed. He therefore tied a saffron scarf on his forehead to mark him as a Hindu. He joined other young men at the ShahpurChowk, where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had installed months earlier a board announcing that Gujarat was a Hindu Rashtra.

It is here Ashok said a journalist walked up to him. He asked him what he felt about the burning of Hindus in Godhra. Ashok replied that the Muslims had committed a vile crime, and he was angry. He claims then that the journalist asked if he would pose for a photograph. He agreed, picked up an iron rod and stood before his camera for the picture which was to become history.

Behind the lens

The perspective of D’Souza, the photographer, is quite different.

He told Indrajit Hazra of the Hindustan Times: “Mobs were burning cars and I saw people stabbing people. The driver I was travelling with had fled. In the distance, I saw this man leading a group get up on raised spot. I took a few long-shot pictures with 300 mm lens.” Hazra asked if he know the man’s name, or whether he spotted him with his camera and posed. It certainly looked as though he was staring directly at the camera. But D’Souza denies this: “No, I was too far away. He was just shouting when I left.”

Ashok claimed to me that he did not lead any mob, nor participate in any arson, looting or attacks. Late afternoon, the mobs started to thin. Some were just tired and thirsty. By evening and through the night, the Muslims fled in police buses to the safety of relief camps, even as their homes burned. Ashok knew that he would not be able to buy food at eateries, and the streets would be unsafe to sleep at night. So he went to his brother’s home to sleep for a few weeks. He is not on speaking terms with his bhabhi, but at a time like this, she did not turn him away.

The next morning, Ashok recalls, the mobs only grew. People said: Narendra Modi ne kuch dinon ka chhoot de diya hai Musalmanon ko marne, katne, lootne ke liye (Modi has given freedom for a few days to kill, attack, loot Muslims). Riots went on for more than a week in his area. Ashok stayed for three months with his brother before returning to his work on the city pavements again.

During this time, he said, he mostly stayed at home. His picture was published in many newspapers, and people believed that he was a major leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or Bajrang Dal. He was worried about his own safety after his new-found fame. He therefore decided that he would not stay on the streets for a while. He found a place to sleep at a corner of the working men’s dormitory.

After several months passed, the Muslim neighbours began to return dispiritedly from relief camps. Muslim relief agencies gave them money to rebuild their homes. The help was little, but at least they could have a roof over their heads. Slowly, they also began to rebuild their livelihoods. Nazir Bhai returned to set up his street-based auto repair shop next to Ashok’s cobbler shop.

Ashok returned to sleeping on the streets. He never married. “If I did marry, what would I give my children?” he asked. “My father was able to give me neither food nor education. Why should I do the same with my children? I am better living alone.”

He claims the statements made by some neighbours against him were false. The attackers were all strangers from other parts of the city, he maintains, and the Muslims, angry at their loss, just listed the names of local Hindu men. Years passed before he was arrested and spent 14 days in jail. Initially, he refused to give his brother’s address to the authorities. He said his only home was the streets. But they said that he could get bail only if someone with a home address was willing to vouch for him. Reluctantly then, he gave them his brother’s details. His brother bailed him out.

The case again went on for many years and many hearings – he had lost count. But with the passage of time, he said, the hatred the Muslims felt for them ebbed. They knew in their hearts that they were innocent, therefore they did not in the end testify against them.

I spoke to a mellow Ashok Mochi. Riots, he said, are created by political parties that spread falsehoods and hatred against Muslims. “Five percent Muslims are bad,” like those who set fire to the train in Godhra, he said, adding that it is, however, wrong to punish 95% Muslims for the crimes of 5%.

Modi was chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, but it made no difference to the ordinary person, who continues to struggle for roti, kapdaaurmakaan (food, clothes and shelter), he told me. “I slept on the footpath in 2001. I still am sleeping on the footpath today”.

The other symbol

Qutubuddin Ansari Credit: Arko Dutta/Reuters

In 2014, I read news reports that Ashok Mochi had been invited by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to an unusual programme to mark the 12th anniversary of the Gujarat carnage. There was another face that had come to symbolise those dark days for the world – that of the victim.

It was a Reuters photograph by Arko Dutta of Qutubuddin Ansari, a tailor in Ahmedabad, his hands folded, his eyes clouded with tears, desperately begging security forces to rescue him as he is stranded on March 1, 2002, on the first floor of his home in the shanty Sone-ki-Chal, surrounded by mobs threatening to kill him.

The CPI (M) decided to bring the two men together, sharing the same room and the same stage for a programme in Kannur. Zahid Qureshi and Swapna Pillai, reporting the event for the Mumbai Mirror, wrote that Ansari accepted a rose on stage from Ashok Mochi. He reportedly said, “Even though we are both Gujaratis, we could not have met in Gujarat like this. This is a new experience for me.”

Jai Maharashtra News/via YouTube

He went on to disclose that Ashok Mochi was not the first Hindu to apologise to him for the riots. “A retired army officer named Anand Shroff, a resident of Pune, had apologised to me on behalf of the Hindu community some years back,” he said. “Today, my brother Ashok Mochihas asked for forgiveness. It means a lot to me. Let this be the beginning of a new chapter in humanity.”

When Ashok Mochi’s turn came to speak, he said that the riots were a mistake, “a huge blunder. I do not know what to say, I have never addressed so many people in my life. But I cannot leave without talking about insaaniyat (humanity) – that is what I have learnt over these years.”

He then had the same impulse as Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal gets when he sees large crowds – to sing a Hindi film song. The song he chose was Hai Preet Jahan Ke Reet Sada from Manoj Kumar’s film Purab aur Pashchim. Ansari joined in. “They sang off key,” wrote P Sudhakaran in the Times of India on March 5, 2014. “The audience didn’t get a word of what they sang. But they moved hearts. The applause was deafening.”

Ashok told me when we met that he and Qutubuddin Ansari still meet once every few months. Ansari once even invited him to his home. Ashok has no home to host him.

I do not know for sure whether Ashok was indeed an innocent bystander or whether he led or joined the mobs that looted and burned the homes of his Muslim neighbours in those hate-charged days in Ahmedabad in 2002. I think he did. But at least he has expressed public remorse for those crimes. I think he is sincere in this remorse. It is sobering to remember that most of those who led and organised the massacre of 2002 have never said once they are sorry.