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Price of being the face of the riots

Ahmedabad, March 4: Qutubuddin Ansari has nowhere to hide, even a year after the Godhra train attack and the subsequent riots.

His was the face of the riots; still is. But Ansari wishes it never was.

When the rioters gathered below where he stood, ready to char him, he had begged for mercy.

The next day, Ansari’s soot-blackened face with tear-filled eyes was splashed on the front pages of newspapers and magazines around the world.

A year later, non-government organisations, the press and members of his own community continue to hound him, urging him to tell the world how he had “felt” on March 1 last year.

Ansari will never forget those horrifying moments for no one is ready to help him forget. “They call me the face of the riots,” he says, as the drone from his sewing machine subsides. “But all I have got after someone clicked my famous photograph is persecution and pain. I feel used.”

Ansari, 30, points to a pile of paper clippings, his face staring out from each. “Bas yehi mila, akhbaron me tasvir (This is all I got, my photographs in newspapers).”

He remembers how the Rapid Action Force intervened in time to scatter the mob and help him live to tell the tale.

Ansari, a tailor, now lives and works from a house in Rehmat Nagar, Gomtipur, after fleeing his old Khanpur shop.

His face became so recognisable that he failed to get respite even after he fled to Malegaon in Maharashtra to escape journalists and social workers.

“The moment my employer in Malegaon came to know I was the man whose photos had appeared all over, he kicked me out of the tailoring job. He thought I was trouble. My face had become my biggest enemy.”

Some cinema halls in Mumbai, like many others in Ahmedabad, used his face to send out messages of brotherhood and peace.

He still cannot get over the way in which his tragedy was “used by everybody for their own ulterior motives”.

“I thought my fame would help mitigate my poverty,” Ansari says.

“I went to so many places as I was paraded by various groups to talk about my experiences. People, even from foreign countries, came with translators and went back with stories, but I was left with nothing. Life is as tough as it was.”

An NGO that took him to Pune to talk about the riots did give him Rs 4,000 for all the trouble.

Ansari, however, is no longer bothered about these hitches in his life. His worry now is his future, his hope for the day when the riots and his face will finally stop haunting him.

Bahut ho gaya, ab to Khuda bhi aisa nahi hone dega (Enough. Even God will not allow such a thing to happen again).’’

Ansari now prays for peace more than ever before. He says he hopes Gujarat will never suffer such tumultuous pain.

He is, of course, still bitter about the way some Muslims think he is using his “fame” to earn a bit extra while Hindus look on him with suspicion. “I have been little more than a circus animal.”

Ansari is now back at work, though business has dipped. Earlier, he could go to the “city area” and earn more. His new small tailoring unit adjacent to his house on the outskirts of Ahmedabad isn’t much help.

He earns Rs 3,200, most of which pays off debts he piled up to feed for three months his family of a wife, mother Bismillahbanu and children Rukkaiya, 4, and months-old Zeshan.

He even sold his sewing machine, bought for Rs 12,000, at Rs 8,000 to clear the debts.

For Ansari, work is no longer easy to find. Employers with generous purses are difficult to come across as most feel his face spells trouble.

“I get hounded everywhere,” Ansari says, “by different people in different ways”.

Ansari will survive for the Gujarat riots were not the first his family faced. They were the victims of a riot in 1970, when they lost their ancestral house in Rakhial.

Ansari is now rebuilding life all over again from a one-bedroom-one-kitchen shack.

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