India elections: The two men who represented both sides of Gujarat's violence 12 years ago reach out to each other and the still polarised Muslim and Hindu communities

A battle between Muslims and Hindus in 2002 was captured in the images of Qutubuddin Ansari and Ashok Parma – and is at the heart of India’s current election campaign


They are the two men whose images came to define some of India’s deadliest communal violence.

One of the photographs - which capture different incidents during more than a week of violence - is of Qutubuddin Ansari, a Muslim man whose home had been torched by a Hindu mob and who was pleading with the police to save him. His face is filled with terror.

The other is of Ashok Parmar, a Hindu, whose head was wrapped in a saffron scarf and who wielded an iron bar against a backdrop of flames and mayhem. His face was twisted with anger.

Twelve years after these images were taken, the controversy surrounding the violence that tore through Gujarat and left up to 2,000 people dead, the majority of them Muslims, is at the very heart of the election campaign currently playing out in India.

Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chief minister of Gujarat, has denied claims that he failed to stop the violence. His supporters point out he has been cleared by several judicial inquiries.

The ruling Congress party, meanwhile, claims Mr Modi threatens to destroy the secular nature of India and that Muslims will not be safe if he is elected.

The tortured face of Mr Ansari at his home surrounded by a Hindu mob in 2002 (Reuters) The tortured face of Mr Ansari at his home surrounded by a Hindu mob in 2002 (Reuters) Yet, away from the heat and noise of the election campaign, the two men in the photographs have been reaching out to each other in a way that is little short of staggering. Last month, Mr Ansari, 40, and Mr Parmar, 39, shared a platform at an event in Kerala where the latter apologised for the horrors inflicted on the Muslim community.

Since returning to Ahmedabad, they have met again, slowly becoming aware they share much in common and realising that both are struggling to shake off the limiting, defining impact of the images. What makes their undertaking even more unlikely is that there has been scant healing of the trauma between Gujarat's Muslims and Hindus and that the communities remain largely polarised.

"I shook his hand and said 'I am happy to meet you'," Mr Parmar recalled this week, sitting at his roadside cobbler's stand. "I said I regretted what happened in 2002. I am very sorry." Mr Ansari, a father-of-three who works as a garment stitcher, said of the meeting: "He said he had seen my photograph in the paper and that it should not have happened. It was a public apology. I think my photograph was instrumental in changing the attitude of Ashok."

The image of Mr Parmar was taken on the morning of February 28, 2002, as Hindu mobs roamed Ahmedabad. It was taken in the city’s Shahpur area by Sebastian D'Souza, then working for the AFP news agency.

Mr D'Souza had flown from Mumbai, travelled to the town of Godhra and photographed the remains of a burned-out train and its dozens of dead Hindu passengers - the aftermath of an alleged attack by Muslims - and returned to Ahmedabad. He took the image of Mr Parmar from a distance, using a 300mm lens.

"All hell broke loose. They had all gone mad," Mr D'Souza said from Mumbai. "There was a mob right in front of me. The police said they had orders to ignore it.2

Mr Parmar was accused of being a member of the Bajrang Dal, a right-wing Hindu organisation, and charged with arson. Reports suggest the police made little effort to press the case and no witnesses agreed to testify.

Yet Mr Parmar denies this. He said he was not a member of any organisation and had only picked up the iron bar for self-defence. He claims he personally destroyed nothing yet admits he was angry about the deaths of the Hindus on the train and was aware of demands by Hindu groups for a public strike. "I was just showing my anger."

Ashok Parmar now works at a stall in Shahpur Ashok Parmar now works at a stall in Shahpur
The image of Mr Ansari, his checked shirt ripped, was taken the following day, close to where he lives in the Sone-ki-Chal area. He was standing on the terrace of his then home, hands pressed together as he pleaded with a passing police unit. His building had been set alight and a Hindu mob had gathered. The photograph was the work of Arko Datta, 45, then with Reuters, who was one of several journalists accompanying the Rapid Action Force of the police. He saw Mr Ansari, leapt from the police vehicle and clicked the photograph. He said just two frames captured the candid fear on Mr Ansari face.

"If was very difficult. In a war zone you know there are two sides. Here there was a mob, it was all mixed up," said Mr Datta, who now runs a photography school in Mumbai.

As it was, Mr Datta and the other journalists probably saved the lives of Mr Ansari, his daughter, Rukiya, then aged five, and his wife, Tahera, who was pregnant with the second of their three children. The police were ready to leave but the journalists insisted they stay and rescue the trapped people.

After the violence subdued, Mr Ansari left Ahmedabad for several years, trying to escape the unwanted celebrity and trauma created by the photograph. Two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the violence, Mr Ansari and Mr Datta met and he was able to thank the photographer.

"I thought we would be dead in ten minutes," said Mr Ansari, wiping his eyes as he flicked through a photo album of his blackened, destroyed neighbourhood and remembered friends who were killed. "Arko Datta was like a gift from God."

The meeting between Mr Ansari and Mr Parmar took place at the launch of a Malayalam language edition of a book about Mr Ansari, written by journalists Kaleem Siddiqui and Saheed Roomy. Mr Ansari was not warned  in advance Mr Parmar would be there.

Qutubuddin Ansari works sewing clothes in Sone-ki- Chal Qutubuddin Ansari works sewing clothes in Sone-ki- Chal
Mr Ansari said he was concerned people were trying to use him and his story and had rejected approaches from various politicians, allegedly Mr Modi among them.

Mr Parmar, meanwhile, said he was angry the state authorities had done nothing to help him and had declined to register to vote. He said he would not be participating when the 26 constituencies in Gujarat go to the polls on April 30.

Gujarat is no stranger to communal violence. Most recently it has seen clashes in 1980, 1985, 1990, 1992, 2002. While there has been no violence since 2002, just this week, the leader of an extremist Hindu group delivered a hate speech in the state, urging Hindus to force Muslims from their homes. Mr Modi issued a statement condemning the comments.

The impact of the violence over the years has been to create a community that is both geographically and politically divided. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims live in ghettos. Mr Modi has always refused to apologise for what happened to the Muslim community.

"The process of separation started in the 1980s. But after 2002 it was reinforced," said Achyut Yagnik, a political scientist.

Mr Ansari said he holds Mr Modi responsible for what happened, reasoning that if the chief minister can take credit for positive things in Gujarat such as development, he should also be held accountable for the bad.

In a sign of the continuing anxiety he feels in Gujarat and his concern that anything he does could be misconstrued, Mr Ansari declined to have his photograph taken with Mr Parmar in Ahmedabad.

Yet he said it was good for both of them, the two men who came to represent the twin faces of Gujarat's pain, if they continued to quietly meet. "If me and Ashok are friends, then it is good for India."

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