I wanted to present this photograph long time back but always kept postponing because I was feeling a strong dilemma. The photograph is that of Qutubuddin Ansari and it was taken by Arko Datta of Reuters during the Godhra riots in 2002. Communal violence had erupted in several cities of Gujarat in Feb 2002 when, in Godhra, a train was forcibly stopped by a (reportedly Muslim) mob and set afire. Consequently, 59 Hindu people burned alive inside the train. As a backlash, Hindu community attacked Muslim prominent areas and wide spread violence ensued.
This iconic photograph was taken in Bapu Nagar colony of Ahmadabad where Ansari used to live with his family. He worked as a tailor. During riots a large mob of rioters gathered outside his residence and they wanted to kill him and his family. Ansari did not see any escape and he pleaded to the mob not to harm his family. This was the moment captured by Arko Datta and the photograph became face of the Godhra tragedy in which 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed. 223 more people were reported missing. 523 places of worship were damaged: 298 dargahs, 205 mosques, 17 temples, and 3 churches. Muslim-owned businesses suffered the bulk of the damage. 61,000 Muslims and 10,000 Hindus fled their homes. Preventive arrests of 17,947 Hindus and 3,616 Muslims were made. In total 27,901 Hindus and 7,651 Muslims were arrested. Nearly 10,000 rounds of bullets were fired by the police, killing 93 Muslims and 77 Hindus [figure source: Wikipedia article on 2002 Gujarat Riots].
It is said that the mob dispersed as the security forces arrived and Ansari and his family were saved. But as the photograph got published it brought a lot of unwanted attention to Ansari. People began to recognize him as “the person who cried and pleaded”. Ansari’s children were mocked by their schoolmates on the same lines. Soon, it became difficult for Ansari to live in Ahmadabad as everyone recognized and stared at him. In one of the interviews he requested public to leave him and his family alone. After this interview, the West Bengal government offered him a house in Kolkata. Ansari accepted the offer and moved to Kolkata. He again opened a tailor’s shop there.
Godhra riots had big impact on Indian politics. The then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, came under fire for these riots. In the history, some photographs became so highly associated with an event they went on to become the face of the overall issue. A father burying his child during Bhopal Gas Tragedy is another such photograph.
Well, this is the story of the photograph. Now a few words about my dilemma. I felt that I should not take part in publicizing this photograph (though it is already highly publicized). The more this photograph gets published the more difficult life becomes for Qutubuddin Ansari as more people recognize him. But I decided to present this photograph in this series with a request to all the readers that we really should leave the man alone and let him live a peaceful life. “Staring” is something that we Indians should try to unlearn. I hope that this piece will make readers act more responsible understanding the plight of a man who has seen horrors of communal violence. Thank you.
Ironically, the train that was set ablaze and caused these communal riots was named Sabarmati Express! Ashram of the most important preacher of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, is located in Sabarmati.