India's Gujarat riots: 10 years on


Arko Datta photographed Qutubuddin Ansari praying for help in 2002. BBC Hindi's Rupa Jha was with them when they met 10 years later

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How does it feel, I ask World Press Photo award winning photographer Arko Datta, to meet the subject of his best-known picture for the first time?

Ten years ago, Arko's picture of a tailor named Qutubuddin Ansari became the face of religious riots which left nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead in Gujarat.

In the picture, Mr Ansari, then 28 years old, is standing on a narrow veranda. He is wearing a light checked shirt stained with dried blood. His faintly bloodshot eyes are glazed with fear. His hands are folded in an expression of obeisance, hiding a mouth agape. It's a disturbing study of fear and helplessness.

"An Indian Muslim stranded in the first floor of his house, along with a few other Muslims and surrounded by a Hindu mob begs to the Rapid Action Force (Indian paramilitary) personnel to rescue him at Sone-ki-Chal in Ahmedabad, March 01, 2002," said the caption of the picture put out by Reuters news agency, for whom Arko worked at the time.

The Gujarat riots were among the worst in India since Independence. The Hindu nationalist BJP state government, led by Narendra Modi, was accused of not doing enough to bring the violence under control.


Ten years later, Arko and I are standing under the same veranda of an awkward looking two-storey building in a crowded lane, running alongside a busy highway in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's main city.

Next door, literally risen from the ashes, are a motorcycle showroom and a sooty garage. A rebuilt madrassah, which was gutted during the riots, is packed with cheery students.

A new flyover loops over the highway, offering the only change in a drab landscape of squat homes and grubby shops.

The photographer and his subject have just met. There has been a limp shaking of hands and both have hugged each other hesitantly. Arko told him how glad he was to see him. Mr Ansari had smiled shyly.

Qutubuddin Ansari, Ahmedabad, 22 February 2011 Qutubuddin Ansari has returned to Ahmedabad after living in different parts of India

Now, Arko is telling us that the meeting is bringing back a lot of memories, some good, others bad.

The unchecked rioting had entered its second consecutive day when Arko and a bunch of fellow photographers found themselves outside the building where Mr Ansari was trapped on the morning of 1 March 2002.

Earlier they had hitched a ride with a van full of soldiers trying to bring the city under control.

When the van entered the highway before midday, Arko says, the sky was black with smoke from the fires and the road was strewn with bricks and stones. The military van moved with its headlights on.

"It was darkness at noon. There was frenzy all around. The city had gone mad."

Mobs armed with swords and stones from Hindu neighbourhoods across the highway were crossing over and attacking and setting fire to Muslim shops and homes on the other side. People watched this grisly show from their homes across the road.

The van sputtered on past the building where Mr Ansari stood when Arko looked back for a moment and saw his subject for the first time. He looked through the telephoto lens, and clicked, "three or four shots possibly, all in a fraction of a second".

'Defining image'

Then he turned around and asked the soldiers to stop the van.

"Looking through the fog of smoke, we spotted the group of people trapped on the balcony of a burning house. We told the soldiers that we were not moving until they rescued them," says Arko.

Qutubuddin Ansari and Arko Datta Qutubuddin Ansari and Arko Datta meet at the former's home

I pick up the rest of the story from Mr Ansari, who is listening carefully. A curious crowd collects around us.

"We were trapped on the first floor for over a day, and we couldn't go down because fire was raging below.

"And when I saw the military van pass by, I thought, 'This is our last chance'. I began shouting Sahib! Sahib! to the soldiers and folded my hands, and when I did that they looked back and returned," he says.

A few soldiers were immediately positioned outside the house, and later in the day, as the fires below ebbed, Mr Ansari and his friends came down a stairwell built outside the house.

Next morning, Arko's picture of Mr Ansari had made it to the front pages of newspapers around the world. They called it "the defining image of the Gujarat carnage".

Start Quote

My life is on the mend. I have a beautiful family, I have work, I have my own little home”

End Quote Qutubuddin Ansari

The problem was Mr Ansari didn't even know about it until a week later, when a foreign journalist hunted him down in a relief camp for riot victims, carrying a newspaper with the picture across an entire page.

"Then my life went into a tailspin. The picture followed me wherever I went. It haunted me, and drove me out of my job, and my state," he says.

He ran away to Malegaon in neighbouring Maharashtra to live with his sisters and had been working there for a fortnight when a co-worker walked into the shop with a newspaper carrying his picture. His boss didn't want any trouble and fired him immediately.

Next year, he left for Calcutta, but returned after a few months when he heard that his mother had a heart problem.

Over the next few years, Mr Ansari lost half-a-dozen jobs as people recognised him and journalists hounded him relentlessly. Political parties used the picture to woo Muslim votes. A group blamed for dozens of bomb attacks across India used the picture in an e-mail claiming to have carried out an attack. Muslim organisations freely put out adverts using the picture.

The picture brought a few happier moments. The owner of a clothes shop in Calcutta recognised him and gave him a discount on a T-shirt. An officer pulled him out of a queue for picking up papers to vaccinate his mother for her trip to Saudi Arabia for Haj, arranged for her inoculation quickly, and remained in touch with him. A resident of Poona wrote to him, giving him all his contacts and asking him to get in touch with him if he ever needed any help.

Newspapers carrying Qutubuddin Ansari's pictures Mr Ansari became the "face" of the riots

"I feel very bad, very sorry to hear that my pictures caused so much problems for you. I apologise," Arko tells Mr Ansari, as we settle down in his home in a slum, not far away from the house with the veranda.

Mr Ansari is sitting opposite him, and his eyes drop to the floor for a moment.

"Nobody is to blame, brother," he tells Arko. "You did your job. I was doing mine, trying to save my life. Your picture showed the world what was happening here. What happened to me eventually was kismet, destiny."

"And as things stand, my life is on the mend. I have a beautiful family, I have work, I have my own little home."

A few years ago, Mr Ansari bought a two-room tenement with a small tailoring shop for 315,000 rupees ($6,400; £4,000) from his paltry savings and loans from friends and family. It is a modest home with a raised bed, a television, a few utensils, a shiny red refrigerator and a washing machine tucked away behind a curtain. Upstairs, he and his co-workers stitch more 100 shirts a week, and he earns up to 7,000 rupees ($142; £90) a month.

Moving on

His family has grown to include an eight-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. The eldest daughter is now 14 and wants to become a teacher.

Arko has also moved on - he quit Reuters after nearly a decade of rich work, including covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and began a photography school in the city of Mumbai.

Now Arko tells Mr Ansari of a personal tragedy that marked his coverage of the riots.

He says he was sent to cover the riots even as his mother was in the last stages of cancer. His wife had called him every day during the time he was taking pictures of the mayhem, imploring him to return to be by his mother's bedside.

Ansari's children Eight-year-old Zishan and four-year-old daughter Zakia were born after the riots

"By the time I returned, she had slipped into a coma. I never got to speak to her. Three or four days later, she died. I have no siblings, and my father died when I was one. And I couldn't even exchange a last few words with my mum," he says.

Silence descends on the room.

Then Mr Ansari speaks.

"I can understand your pain. Allah sent you to save us, brother. You did a greater good," he says.

One event, two lives, both bookended by personal tragedies.

"It feels strange. I have mixed feelings," Arko says, as we take leave.

"On one hand, Qutubuddin was empowered by my picture. On the other, he lost his privacy and a bit of his life."

"I just hope he remembers me as a friend. We met as strangers as I think we parted as friends."

"I now want to remember him as a smiling, happy man. Not the frightened man on the balcony."

Soutik Biswas, Delhi correspondent Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    As an Indian, this picture is etched in mind and will remain there for the rest of my life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Does anyone remember what incited the riots in the first place? Does anyone also remember the numerous riots that took place in Mumbai in which the majority Hindu's were massacred in Bhindi Bazaar and other muslim majority areas? I distinctly remember the 1984 riots among the others. Where were the photojournalist then?

    The media coverage needs to be unbiased and fair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    We all know in name in name of God More People Have Been,Murdered,Raped,Butchered,Burned and millions of people have been killed from Jewish,Hindu ,Muslim,American Indian,Christian and many more on racial,religions ,color,shape basis..World would be never be free from until all God are Killed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The problem with India is- it tries to "justify" by putting labels on crimes- sometimes in the name of caste or religion or gender & so on. So long we see crimes against a person, by another as an act of caste hatred or religious fundamentalism, we can NEVER solve the problem, by targeting the symptoms. It must not matter who did the crime & against whom while punishing the criminal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    One has to understand the perspective of Indian society dilemma. Majority Hindu and minority Muslims has lived side by side for years but without harmony. They both have been target of each others wrath evident in many riots since its independence. Violence in the name of religion can be triggered with a spark in India. Only tolerance for each other can keep the peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Indian policymakers must understand that secularism is not the constitutional right to do whatever people like as per their whims or "tradition" or interpretation of religion in public. Secularism in a democracy means following uniform, common laws by each & every person, irrespective of their religion. Religion is a personal matter & MUST remain personal, within its the walls of one's home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    India always promoted "tolerance", not "acceptance". The religious groups who live side by side for long, hardly know each other.They just tolerate but hardly accept each other's religion.Ignorance about religion, even one's own religion & maintaining safe distance with a false impression to promote peace increased d distrust.It also denied reform process to succeed in different religious groups.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    As usual, everyone remembers the riots while conveniently forgetting the root cause - a train coach full of Hindus being burnt alive by a Muslim mob. Not saying the riots were justified, but what were these guys thinking? Did they not realize that innocent Muslims would be targeted in the aftermath?
    Of course, to hear the media spin it, it was entirely started by the HIndus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am surprized thatthe gist of the comments above are that Muslims are to be blamed for the roits, yet looking at Pakistan, which seems to have religious intolerance, no such things have ever happened to such a grand scale to any minority, India such change its staus to not so secular after all state for non-Hindus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I cried the day I saw that photo in Times of India with pain and agony in my heart and I cried today with relief. I remember that it was reported in the news paper, that this man was burnt alive just after clicking of this photograph. I will remember this picture for the rest of my life. Thanks BBC !

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @ DrAB78 (#9). It will be better if we keep Pakistan out of this discussion. here is no comparison in minority rights between Pakistan & India. The % of minority population in these countries pre-1947 & now is a clear indication, besides reports from neutral organizations like UN. Godhra & Babri is routine in Pakistan &, most painfully, without any opposition from anyone- even court & opposition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    It is a shame that humans can turn into animals in mob situations.
    I clearly remembers the riots of 1984 when thousands of Sikhs were butchered, raped, and burned alive by Hindu mobs in India. What is amazing that this country that wants to project an image of secularism and fairness, did not prosecute a single person for Delhi riots in the face of overwhelming eyewitness account and evidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @ DrAB78 (#9). I think you better watch this excellent interview of Javed Akhtar's Interview in Pakistan's Dawn News:
    One part I liked the most- "NOT a single Muslim country, including Pakistan, offer Muslims the freedom they enjoy in India!" Indian Muslims or probably world Muslims must encourage and groom people like Javed Akhtar to change the tide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    @Mel; Justice Banerjee panel setup by government declared that the incident occurred due to "out of cooking being carried within the carriage". Hindus in India have a long list of communal violence against minorities. Sacking of Babri mosque, violence against Naxalites and others in eastern parts, bombing of Samjhauta express, 100s of 1000s killed in Kashmir. Media coverage is clearly biased.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @ Mel; No one knows or even remembers the "massacre" of Bhindi bazaar because it was a minor gang war. Please stop throwing around words carelessly, as you clearly don't know what the facts are. A massacre is when more than 2500 Sikhs are killed and 50,000 displaced. Or when 10k+ Naxals r killed. A massacre is when 100s of 1000s of Muslims are killed in Kashmir and more than a million displaced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @Gurudev; Religion is not the problem. Problem is corruption & greed that leads to looking the other way when something wrong happens. The 2 biggest single loss of human life occurred in WW1 (40 million+) & WW2 (73 million+). Both conflicts had nothing to do with religion. It is religion that gives humanity a degree of morality & conscience. Religious leaders are humans & thus prone to corruption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    That modi is still at the helm in Gujarat speaks volumes about democracy in that state. The party in power there protests the killing of cows but kills humans with impunity! The more religious people are, the less morals they seem to have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    If there was reason for a man like Arko Datta Being born, it has been fulfilled a hundred times over by that single defining, life saving act. A Big THANK YOU to Soutik Biswas for such a poignant article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @Jay; I completely agree with u. Acceptance must be promoted over tolerance. The fruits of this philosophy can be seen no where better than in Canada. Here we have a melting pot of different cultures & religions & all live peacefully side by side. There will always be minor incidents, but overall Canadians have done very well. This cultural doctrine must be backed by adherence to rule of law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    burning alive of 56 Hindus by Muslims in cold blood started all this so this should be remembered as Godhra massacre.

    BBC should publish news/photos/articles about the jallianwala massacre of peaceful and unarmed men women and children on its anniversary. only then it will be fare journalistically.


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