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rutam vora | Updated on April 17, 2014 Published on March 21, 2014

Qutubuddin Ansari (the face of fear) and Ashok Parmar come together in Kannur, Kerala - sk mohan

Brothers in arms: Ashok Parmar at his makeshift establishment near Shahpur Darwaja in Ahmedabad rakesh gandhi

March 2002 cover of Outlook

The story behind the other face of the Gujarat riots

On the footpath of a busy road between Shahpur Darwaza and Delhi Darwaza in old Ahmedabad, cobbler Ashok Parmar sits with his makeshift establishment of a few boxes that contain boot-polish, buckles, pins, thread, big and small needles, worn-out shoe brushes and other equipment to mend footwear. For the last two decades, this footpath has served as his “permanent address” in the city. Despite the hustle and bustle of the old city, business has been slow for the 39-year-old Parmar. Earning a modest sum of ₹200 a day, Ashok Parmar’s life seems like that of any other cobbler in the city.

Yet, just three weeks ago, Parmar’s life was anything but ordinary. On March 3, he shared the stage with Qutubuddin Ansari at a seminar called ‘A decade of genocide’ in Kannur district, Kerala.

Twelve years ago, images of both men — representing two different sides of the Gujarat riots — had made history. Parmar, the face of the attacker. Ansari, the face of fear.

These two faces of the 2002 riots had come together for the first time in Kerala at the behest of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). On stage, Parmar offered Ansari a red rose and an apology. They shook hands and sang songs. “Today my brother Ashok has asked for forgiveness. It means a lot to me. Let this be the beginning of a new chapter in humanity,” Ansari had said then.

On February 28, 2002 — one day after the fire in Sabarmati Express at Godhra in which 59 people were burned to death — Parmar was captured in a photo taken on the streets of Dudheshwar in a riot-hit Ahmedabad, waving an iron rod, a saffron bandana on his head, screaming for blood as fires raged behind him. Overnight, he became the face of the attacker of the Gujarat riots. ‘Bajrang Dal activist’ screamed headlines as hatred and criticism poured in. A short jail-term followed. However, in the tide of events that took over Parmar’s life, the truth faded out.

“I was labelled as a Bajrang Dal member. I became the face of saffron terrorism. I am neither,” says Parmar, now back on the footpath in Ahmedabad. It was sheer coincidence, he claims, that made him one of the rioters on the street.

That day, Parmar came to work at around 10am. A bandh had been declared and it had affected the daily lives of thousands. “I lost my daily business,” he says. “There was a bandh and all restaurants were shut. I couldn’t get any food. This was affecting the poor like us the most. I was angry. It was a crisis situation.”

When a photojournalist approached him for his reaction to the Godhra incident (which had occurred the previous day), Parmar said he was angry. Angry that the incident had happened, angry at his own situation. “He (the photographer) asked me for a photo and I gave him a pose.”

Parmar says he picked up an iron rod lying on the roadside. He donned the saffron bandana that he got from a neighbour. “I believed saffron was the colour of Hinduism.” And posed. Soon after the “photo session”, Parmar left for his brother’s house in the chaali (chawl) nearby and remained indoors till nightfall. The next day he was on the front page of all the newspapers.

The photo landed Parmar behind bars for nearly a fortnight. The lower court, even after four date extensions, couldn’t find a single eye-witness to prove Parmar’s involvement in the rioting. He was given a clean chit. However, the State counsel challenged the lower court’s order in the High Court where the matter is still pending for a hearing.

“If you see, I am alone in the picture. I was not part of any mob. I wasn’t out for rioting. I never imagined the picture would cause so much trouble,” he explains. Parmar now has a debt of over ₹10,000 fighting court cases. “I didn’t get any support from my family or community in my village.”

It is interesting to note that despite the clean chit and Parmar’s insistence that he was not involved in the riots, he profusely apologised for his role at the Kannur seminar. “It (the riots) was a huge blunder. I have abandoned the politics of hatred and revenge,” Parmar had said. Strangely, even VHP and Bajrang Dal never opposed the association with him and the photo. “Why would they? They had got a brand ambassador for their Hindu Rashtra image,” says Parmar.

Strongly objecting to the undesirable associations the photo has given him, Parmar says it was the media portrayal that saddened him the most. “They painted me as a terrorist. Indian Mujahideen used my picture in an email. One Gujarati paper published my photo over a map of India. What do they want to establish by that,” he asks.

Ironically, it took activist Syed Rumi and journalist-activist Kaleem Siddiqui to bring them together in Kerala. “This meeting could’ve never happened in Gujarat as everything acquires a political colour,” says Rumi. But Parmar won’t be drawn into the politics. “I don’t have a voter ID but my name is in the rolls. At least, my vote has never been with Modi,” he says.

The 40-year-old Ansari, who was a tailor in Naroda Patiya which saw some of the worst violence in the post-Godhra riots, is now married with three children. As he released the Malayalam version of his autobiography I am Qutubuddin Ansari, Parmar smiled and clapped. He himself had nothing much to show for the last decade. Despite Modi’s rhetoric of development, Parmar says, nothing has changed for the poor. “My financial condition is so bad I can’t even get married,” he says.



Published on March 21, 2014
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