Shantaben Lalchand works behind a makeshift table in an alcove in a narrow lane in Ahmedabad’s Chamanpura, ironing clothes. Although she is a dhobi by caste, this isn’t what she always did. Her husband worked in a mill until it shut down in 1992. “I did nothing then. He used to earn money and I sat at home like a queen and ate,” she says smiling. It is the only time I will see her smile in the time I spend with her.
Shantaben is “around 52 or 55”, she tells me as we walk through a maze of lanes to her home – a single, small room where she sleeps, cooks and bathes. Her neighbourhood is called 'Vakil Ki Chali'. A glossy piece of paper with the Geeta Saar printed on it hangs from one wall. The other has a calendar print of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, the only sign of prosperity in her strikingly humble household. On a good day she makes Rs 50 or Rs 70. “Today I haven’t been able to make anything. Sorry, haan,” she says apologizing for not being able to offer me more than water.
Things weren’t always so bad. Once upon a time, Shantaben lived in this poor but serene locality with her husband and three sons. The first blow came when her husband lost his job and could not find employment again. To keep the family going, Shantaben started ironing clothes.
Her oldest son Kailash was a school dropout. He took to working with bootleggers, selling alcohol illegally in the prohibition state. Whatever money he made, he spent on himself. Shantaben kept pleading with him to give up his “do numbari” job. Sometime in the year 2000 he finally did give it up and started driving an auto rickshaw on rent. He still spent everything he earned on himself, but Shantaben was relieved. Members of the gang he worked with would come by and ask him to return to “the trade” but Kailash was determined not to look back.
The second blow came in 2002. It was February 28 – a day after a train ferrying kar sevaks was burnt in Godhra. There was a call for bandh by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). People expected trouble. Kailash, who was 22 at the time, “spent the whole day sleeping in”, claims Shantaben. Mobs had gathered in Chamanpura early that morning, but it was only in the evening that she found out about the carnage that had taken place in Gulbarg Society, the Muslim neighbourhood in the area.
On March 6, two members of the gang her son used to work with came over to the house and asked him to come along with them to the police station. “Just to give some information,” they told Shantaben as they led him away. “We will bring him back.” But they did not. “He is in the lock-up. But he will be released soon,” they said nonchalantly later that day.
By the time Shantaben got to the police station, it was evening. “Packets of country liquor were lying around. The cops had forcibly made my son drink a lot of alcohol. He was drunk. They kept telling him they will give him a house in Gulbarg Society if he gives a statement saying he was involved in the massacre that took place there. He believed them because he was drunk. God knows what he said. I could see they were writing it all down,” she tells me.
She does not want to name the men who took her son away. “I stay alone. I have to sleep out in the open. I am afraid,” she says. The same two members of the gang also took another boy from the locality and handed him over to the cops, she says. “He was a Rajput boy, higher caste than ours.”
She later heard that VHP workers from the area had also handed over some local boys to the police. “The police needed to show some arrests were being made so the workers offered to bring them scapegoats in exchange for their own freedom,” she says. “This is what I heard,” she repeats. “I don’t understand,” her voice trails off as she stares at me expectantly, bewildered. I tell her I don’t understand either. She seems disappointed, but also a little comforted.
I see no point in questioning her narrative. That is not to say it isn’t questionable. Kailash Lalchand Dhobi is one of the 64 people accused in the gruesome murder of 69 people at Gulbarg Society. This includes VHP leaders Atul Vaidhya and Bharat Teli. Key eye witnesses have testified against Dhobi and he has been charged on several counts, including murder, aiding and abetting murder, and rioting. The investigation of the case has been mired in controversies, as has the trial, which is yet to be concluded. However, only 9 of the 64 accused are still in jail.
In the first couple of years after her son was arrested, Shantaben put up a brave fight while her husband sank irretrievably into depression. She sold the only thing they owned, a family home in their village and filed many applications to get Kailash out on parole. She had to pay every time she filed an application. “It was like a lottery. Sometimes they let him off for a day or two. Sometimes they refused.” She would frequently change lawyers thinking her luck might change with them. But it did not.
Her husband’s health deteriorated. “He became like a madman. He stopped talking. Then one day he died.”
Shantaben applied for parole once more so that Kailash could light his father’s pyre. Her application was refused. She had sold her ancestral home for Rs 1.5 lakh. That money was soon spent. She could no longer afford lawyers for her son’s case.
Her other two sons married and moved to Nadiad, where they work as dhobis. They earn enough to get by, but not enough to send money for her or spend on their brother’s case. She has stopped visiting Kailash. “I cannot do it anymore. I cannot see with my eyes very well. My head spins,” she says. “Last I saw him was when they brought him down to the civil hospital for a check-up. He was sick. He called and asked me to come see him at the hospital. Then they took him back.” That was over a year ago.
It is getting stuffy in the room. The sun is beating down. She bends over and switches on a rickety table fan placed on the floor. A pamphlet with Narendra Modi’s picture on it flies in the sudden gust of breeze. She tells me he had come to their local temple “eight odd years ago”. “I asked him to help my son. That is all I could say because people don’t let you talk to him,” she tells me. “He said, “Yes, we will do something. Don’t worry.” But nothing happened.”
Shantaben also spoke with BJP leader and Gujarat Minister of State for Law and Justice, Pradeep Singh Jadeja. He also promised to get her son out of jail soon, “many years ago”. She does not remember how many years ago. “People from Hindu Parishad come and give me rice and wheat once a year but they haven’t helped me with the case all these years. Last year they said they have hired a lawyer who will also fight for my son. God knows if they are telling me the truth or not,” she says.
The pamphlet is still flying around. I ask her what it says because I cannot read Gujarati. “Asking for vote,” is her short explanation. Does she know Modi is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate? “Yes. He will win. Everyone says he will win,” she tells me. Will she vote for him? “I have always voted for the BJP. BJP workers come on election day and take us to the polling booth in rickshaws. On that day they need us,” she says. Does she want the BJP to win? “I hear that if they make a government at the centre all those in jail will be let off,” she says hesitantly. Is that why she will vote for the BJP? “No, no,” she says vehemently, “I don’t count on them. Why would I? What have they ever done for me? I only count on Him”, she says, pointing skywards. Why vote then? “I vote because it is my duty to vote.”