“I take my voter slip but I don’t cast my vote. I did not vote in 2004 or 2009. I have lost all faith in the system,” says Ashok Mochi.
We are sitting on a footpath in Ahmedabad’s Dilli Darwaja area where Mochi repairs shoes. He has painted the wall he sits against and hung a clock on it. A tattered cloth stretched over a pole creates a makeshift roof, giving shade. This is the only corner in the world Mochi lays any claim to. He does not own it, nor does he pay any rent for it. But it is his inheritance nonetheless. His father, who passed away when Mochi was all of 10, used to repair shoes from this very place. Other than the monsoons, Mochi can be found in this corner every day.
“VIP convoys pass by here regularly. Other street vendors are removed when they come, but no one bothers me because my corner is hardly noticeable. Advani, Modi, President Abdul Kalam sab aake chale gaye mere saamne se. Main kaam karta raha.”
Mochi turned 39 on April 13, “one day before Babasaheb’s birthday,” he says emphatically. He lives nearby, in Shahpur, in a single room for a monthly rent of Rs 1,000. “Mostly Dalits live there,” he says. “Dalits, who are poorer than everyone else.”
Mochi speaks loudly, assertively no matter what he is saying. He is a proud man who orders several rounds of tea and packets of mineral water for us but refuses to entertain my offer to pay for them. Customers stop by, flinging a chappal or a sandal on the ground before him. Mochi picks it up without a pause in our conversation, fixes it, hands it back and takes his Rs 5 fee for the job without so much as looking up. A customer interjects while Mochi is telling me his story, to ask him to hurry up with his boots. Mochi gives him a piece of his mind, as he does to a passer-by who asks for directions. He hates being interrupted.
“I am the most educated man in my area. I passed my SSC (Class 10) exams. My older brother’s children who are from a new generation also haven’t studied beyond Class 7,” he says. “I have always been very fond of reading but I can’t read VIP books like novels so I subscribe to one paper and borrow two from the neighbouring shop. I read three Gujarati newspapers daily,” he tells me. Not difficult to believe given how well he knows his current affairs.
“This is a reserved seat,” says Mochi. “The BJP candidate is the sitting MP, Kirit Solanki.” He does not care to remember the name of the Congress candidate as he is not going to vote for him in any case. “The Congress is very weak in Gujarat. The BJP is not too strong either, but they take advantage of the Congress’s weakness. They have no leader who can match up to Modi,” he explains.
Mochi won’t vote for the BJP either. “I am a poor man. But I am not a weak man. I don’t get swept up by waves,” he says. “Solanki hasn’t shown his face here in the last five years but he will win because people here don’t vote on local or caste issues. They vote on national issues. This is why regional parties don’t do well. After the 2002 riots, all votes here are cast on religious lines and Hindus are a majority, so the BJP will win.”
Not because of development? “Please talk about development with those who claim to have seen it. People more educated than me are driving rickshaws because they cannot get jobs. And people who are 10th pass like me have become government clerks. Nothing happens without paying bribes or getting a politician’s recommendation. All I have seen in the name of development in this area is the riverfront being made like Chowpatty (Mumbai) and two over-bridges. It has nothing to do with poor people like me.”
Mochi is single. He did not get married because he would not want his wife or children to suffer the poverty he grew up in. In his twenties he was in love with a girl in his neighbourhood but she was from a slightly higher caste – an OBC, so her family did not approve of the match. She was married off elsewhere and he gave up on the idea of marriage altogether. “I cannot even afford a wedding let alone a marriage,” he exclaims.
Mochi makes Rs 4,000 in a month, on an average. He would have liked to start a shop of his own selling readymade footwear, but he does not believe that will ever happen. He will never be able to afford it. He will stay where he is. “I am no ordinary face. I am a face that is world famous but has any political party ever come to ask after me? No. Then what will they do for ordinary poor people?” he asks.
His face became “world famous” in 2002 when a picture of his was carried in a daily newspaper – wearing a saffron band around his forehead, an iron rod in one hand, arms outstretched, fists clenched, mouth open, letting out a war cry. The picture became symbolic of the violence that followed the burning of a train carrying kar sevaks in Godhra, of the thousands of rioters who rampaged across Gujarat killing, looting, and raping Muslims and breaking their dwellings, mosques and shops.
The anger we see in the picture, Mochi says, was more about the disruption of his daily life and work rather than hatred for a community. At the time he thought it was one of the “regular riots” that erupt over small issues in the city. He did not realise it was a “high-level danga,” he claims. He tied a saffron band only so the other rioters didn’t mistake him for a Muslim because of his beard.
Mochi claims the photographer asked him about his views on the Godhra incident and said he wanted to take a picture, so he posed for him. He wasn’t a part of any mob, nor did he riot. A case was lodged against him only because of the picture, he claims. He spent Rs 10,000 over two years on a lawyer and court fees before he was finally acquitted. But the prosecution has appealed against the acquittal so now he has to fight the case in the High Court.
There are many discrepancies in his account of what happened on that day. In an earlier interview he had confessed to acts of assault and arson to “avenge my Hindu brothers’ lives”, a statement he denies having made. The account given to me by Sebastian D’Souza, the photographer who took the now iconic image, is also at odds with Mochi’s.
“There was this big mob. They were in a frenzy. I saw some policemen there and asked them why they were not doing anything to stop them. The police told me, “Hum ko order hai, dekhne ka bhi nahin (We have been asked to look the other way). The mob was burning vehicles. After that the whole mob moved in the direction of a mosque they burnt. People were telling me as they passed by, “Come with us.” But I didn’t want to do that. I went on shooting from far. I could do so because I had a 300mm lens. I would really not ask anyone to pose for me, or even talk to anyone, in such a situation. I saw Mochi climb up on a signboard and spread his hands. It seemed as if he was saying, “I am the king.” He looked threatening. I don’t remember seeing whether he actually burnt something or beat someone up. I saw him, I shot him in the middle of taking many other pictures. That’s it,” says D’Souza.
There is no way for me to know what Mochi did or did not do on that day either, but he desperately wants his version of events to be true. In his version there is no hatred or suspicion between communities, the Muslims in his area regard him as one of their own and all is well. An idea contradicted by his own evaluation of the political climate in the city. “Religion is toxic, it has intoxicated people here. They are told that the minorities are being appeased and this upsets them. After 2002, when Modi was criticised, he told the people of Gujarat that the attacks on him are attacks on them, on Gujarat ki asmita. He is a political mind. He knows how to manipulate Gujaratis. But I am on to him because I am also a Gujarati. I know how he thinks. Not that I have ever met him. But I have heard him talk. He had come to give a speech in my area. The stage was put up exactly where my picture was taken in 2002. Until 2007, he used to talk of Hindutva, of Sohrabuddin (Sheikh’s) encounter, of Pakistan. From 2012, he only talks of development. Because he knows that to win India, Hindutva is not enough. Political mind,” he says pointing a finger to his forehead for emphasis.
Mochi thinks Modi is Gujarat’s “majboori” not “marzi”. That if the Gujarati people had a real option they would choose neither the Congress nor the BJP. “One new option had come up with Arvind Kejriwal and the public supported him in Delhi. But he proved to an irresponsible leader. Usko jawaabdaari ka bhaan hona chahiye naa. Why did he resign? Why didn’t he stay and fight? Isliye thappad khaa raha hai ab.”
Mochi’s disillusionment with political parties went a step further in March this year. He was invited to attend the launch of Qutubuddin Ansari’s biography in Kerala. Ansari became the face of the terrorised Muslim in 2002 in another iconic photograph published at the time, in which he was seen crying, pleading for his life with folded hands. Mochi accepted the invitation and travelled out of Gujarat for the first time ever. Only, when he got there, he found that the event was organised by the CPI (M). Over the next five days he was taken to several such events where leaders of the party criticised the BJP and the Congress. Mochi would be on stage but he could not understand much of what was being said in Malayalam. He was reduced to a symbol yet again.
Even so, he is grateful for the experience. “Muslims from there thought I was a shaitaan (a monster) earlier. Once they found out I was an ordinary person they gave me a lot of respect. My image became okay again,” he tells me.
There is nothing more Mochi wants from his life. There is nothing else he is looking forward to. “Except voting,” he says, to my surprise.“This year I will vote after a decade because of NOTA (None of the Above – a new option in electronic voting machines (EVMs) that allows voters to reject all candidates),” he explains. “It is a very important tool. I know that in Gujarat not many people will use it because here people vote for parties, not MP candidates. But I will use it. In the years to come, if more and more people use NOTA, political parties will be forced to stop repeating the same bad candidates over and over again,” he explains. “Only then will we have a real choice in India.”