Ishrat Jahan case: Her unseen presence

After a tiring day of facing the cameras and braving the microphones thrust at her, Musarrat Jahan has just sat down with her books. Pursuing her arts honours through correspondence, Musarrat, 26, is majoring in psychology. She stumbles on a difficult word in her text and instinctively calls out to her sister, “Api! Is word ka matlab kya hai?” Before she completes her sentence, she realises that she will never hear her Api’s voice again.
“It has been nine years,” says Musarrat, as tears well up in her eyes. “But it feels like yesterday that she was here. Her smile will never fade away from our memories.” Musarrat looks down at her feet and fights back her tears. She throws occasional glances at the only bedroom in their rented apartment in Mumbra, Mumbai, where her mother Shameema Kausar is taking rest. Both Musarrat and Shameema have just returned from Delhi that morning after attending a press conference asking for justice for Ishrat Jahan.
On the double bed on which Musarrat and her brother Anwar Iqbal are sitting lies the youngest of the seven Raza siblings, Amanullah. His left palm is bandaged in white gauze. Amaan, as his siblings call him, stares blankly at me when I ask him what happened to his hand. “It hit the fan,” Anwar says. The eldest among them, Zeenat, is at her husband’s house in Malad, he adds. The younger ones, Nuzhat and Nusrat, are in Pune with their Mamu (mother’s brother). “It has been long that we have been together as a family,” says Musarrat. “It has not been the same after Api’s death. Everything has changed.”
When Mohammed Shamim Raza, their father, died of a bad case of high diabetes in 2002, Anwar, the oldest among the boys, was just 13. Ishrat, the brightest among the seven children, was their only hope after his death. She struggled to feed her family of eight by taking tuitions and doing embroidery after her classes at Guru Nanak Khalsa College in Matunga, Mumbai. “She didn’t even have the time to eat,” recalls Musarrat. “She used to come from college and immediately sit down to teach her tuition students. If we didn’t feed her with our hands, she would skip lunch.” Ishrat gave English, Maths and Science lessons for 20 students from the nearby Municipal School, apart from giving classes for students of other private schools and her own siblings. “She used to even help her friends who were older than her with their studies,” says Musarrat.24_ishrat_257457e
The girl was a genius, agrees Asadullah Khan, the owner and principal of Unique Coaching Classes in Mumbra. Ishrat had joined Khan’s classes when she was 15. “She had done really well in her Class 10 exams, but her family’s financial situation was keeping her joining her junior college,” says Khan. “Ishrat had already got admission in the junior college in Mumbra in the science stream. I realised that this girl was intelligent and smart. I did not want her to abandon her studies because she didn’t have the money. So I appointed her here to teach students of Class 8.”
Ishrat, like her mother Shameema, was very short. “I got a platform made on which she used to stand while taking classes so that the children could see her,” recalls Khan. “I have never seen that girl without a smile on her face. Even if I asked her to be strict with her students, she wouldn’t. It was not in her nature.” Once, he says, on a hartal day, he had offered Ishrat a lift to her house on his bike, after classes. “That child was even scared to get on the bike with me,” says Khan.
Then how did this girl, “who was scared of even cockroaches and lizards”, travel with Javed Sheikh alone, not once but thrice? “People ask us why we let her go with Javed Sheikh,” says Musarrat. “Would they ask us the same question if it was my brother?” April and May are the toughest months in the year for Ishrat’s family. The schools shut down for summer holidays and her income runs dry as her students stop coming for classes. “There were so many nights when we had nothing to eat,” says Musarrat. One such day, hardly 45 days before the incident, Ishrat’s friend’s brother, Rashid, had introduced them to Javed, says Anwar. “Rashid introduced us to him saying that he had worked as an electrician with our father ten years ago,” says his sister. “We have never met him. Ammi met him once and he allowed Ishrat Api to work with him because he told her that he knew our father well.”
Javed Sheikh had told the Raza household that he was setting up a “perfume and soap” business in Mumbai and he needed Ishrat to help him manage his accounts. He had agreed to pay Ishrat Rs 3,500 as salary, Rs 2,500 of which he paid initially as it was time for her to pay her application fees. “Api had applied for her second year on June 10,” says Musarrat. “In fact, it is not right that Ammi did ot know that she was headed to Nashik. She informed Ammi that she was going with Javed to Nashik and was even planning to tell him that she cannot work for him any longer as her classes were starting on June 14.” Her students were coming back for classes and she was going to be back to her busy routine. She would have no time to work with Javed, she had told them.
The two times Ishrat had accompanied Javed earlier, says Anwar, lasted four and three days respectively. “How can a 19-year-old get to know a person inside out in just seven days?” he asks. “She went to Lucknow first and he made her stay at his friend’s house. She had told us that they were all good people.” Both Musarrat and Anwar cannot recall where exactly Javed had taken her the second time. “Pune?” Anwar asks his sister. “Hmmm… I am not sure. I think it is Pune,” says Musarrat. “Api was very close to me. If there was any problem, I am sure that she would have confided in me. Api had told me that, ‘Koi tension nahi hai.’ She had said Javed used to treat her like his own daughter.”
As reports of Javed’s alleged criminal connections are pouring in, Musarrat says that she is still not clear of his background. “People who accuse us of letting Api go with Javed without enquiring about his background are those who have not known what hunger is,” says Musarrat. “When a person does not know whether there will be any food to eat the next day, he or she will not enquire whether the person who is offering to help them has a clean background.” Her voice breaks. “Look at us. Why would we live in such poverty? We could do a lot of jobs. We could indulge in wrong things if we wanted to. But we are not that kind of people,” she says. “My parents have taught us all to never compromise on our izzat.”
Ishrat had dreamt of becoming a doctor, but as she knew her family would never be able to afford it, she had decided to take up teaching. “She was sure that once we were all educated, good times would come our way,” says Anwar. “Who knew that she would never come back after that day,” adds Musarrat. The family now survives on the Rs 13,000 that Anwar makes from his job at a call centre. A job that he earned after much effort. “I used to be rejected at interviews when they found out that I was ‘Ishrat’s brother’,” he says. “What mistake have we committed?” asks Musarrat, who like her sister had once done, has taken the responsibility of the entire family upon herself now. “We all want to go to regular college, but Ammi is so scared now that she doesn’t let us get out of her sight.”
Not just Shameema, even Anwar is cautious when it comes to his sisters. When the photographer requests Musarrat to stand next to the entrance of her house for a picture, Anwar refuses. It takes a lot of time to convince him that we mean no harm. Musarrat gestures to him with her hand that she will be okay and he agrees.
Even after nine long years, the Raza family is not satisfied. They will fight till the end, till complete justice is delivered, says Musarrat. “We trust our nation’s judiciary,” she says. “We do not have the slightest doubt that my sister has done anything wrong. We know she is innocent. Then why should we not fight for justice?” As we pack our bags to go, Musarrat tells us to join the Facebook page for ‘Justice for Ishrat Jahan’. “We are sure we will win this battle,” she says, “because the truth is on our side.” She smiles. The first time during our whole conversation. “It might take some time, we know,” she says. “But the truth will come out one day or the other. That my sister was not a terrorist. That Ishrat Jahan was innocent.”

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