‘A bright teen who smiled all day, mischievous yet understanding’

For seven years since she was shot dead in an "encounter" outside Ahmedabad and branded a Lashkar-e-Toiba activist, Ishrat Jahan Raza's family has kept its silence about many details. Now as the SIT appears no closer to establishing what really happened in its "final" report submitted on Friday, they speak to The Indian Express of a brilliant student who never completed college, of a caring 19-year-old who never got to be a young woman.

It's the last call Ishrat made home, to Mumbra, on June 11, 2004, three days before her death, that mother Shamima can never forget. She was calling from a public phone booth outside a Nashik bus stop. "Uncle (Javed Sheikh) hasn't come yet," Shamima says she told him. A few minutes later, Ishrat called up again to say, in what her mother remembers as a terrified voice, "Ammi, he has come but with some strange men." She hung up abruptly and the next the Raza family heard of her was when a local journalist brought them a newspaper cutting reporting the encounter in Gujarat.

Javed Sheikh alias Pranesh Pillai was Ishrat's companion who was killed along with her, and police say he too was an operative of the Lashkar. After the encounter, the militant group too claimed the two were its operatives, before retracting.

For the Razas, Javed, shady as he was, was a benefactor who had helped Ishrat earn money to help them tide over tough times. Making ends meet had not always been difficult for the Razas. Ishrat's father Mohammad Shamim Raza was the proprietor of a Mumbai-based construction company called Asian Constructions while mother Shamima worked for a long time at a medicine packaging company in Vashi.

Ishrat, a college student, would every day return home for lunch at 3 pm. "She would smile all day, mischievous but understanding. Only after she ate her first morsel would we have our lunch. My husband used to agree with everything she told him. He used to share all our problems with her, knowing she would take care of them," remembers Shamima.

Ishrat had achieved a first class in her Class XII, and joined Gurunanak Khalsa College at Kings Circle, Mumbai. There was no science college in Mumbra then, her family recalls, and she wanted to purse her favourite subject and become a lecturer. She had given up on becoming a doctor.

Ishrat and the sister younger to her, Mussarat, often competed over who would get more certificates and medals. "Aapi (Ishrat) always won. She had won several medals and certificates in theatre and sports too," recalls Mussarat, now 24.

Unlike their conservative relatives back home in Patna, Shamim and Shamima had never restricted their children, including girls, or been strict about following Islamic rituals.

"Father never insisted we wear a burqa or compulsorily offer namaaz five times a day. Although he always told us not to while away time, he wanted us all to go to college, make friends and live life on our own terms," remembers Mussarat.

In 2002, Shamim died and Shamima had to give up her job to raise her seven children. Ishrat was the second eldest. With the eldest, Zeenat, married, it came upon Ishrat to take care of the family, down to her youngest sibling who was only six then.

In the afternoons, after coming back from college, she would take tuition classes for children from Bombay Municipal Corporation School. In the evenings, she helped her mother cook dinner and later helped her sisters with homework.

It was in 2004, barely days before Ishrat was killed, that the Razas first met Javed. Because of the summer holidays, there was no money to be made from tuitions and a neighbour, Rashid, introduced them to him. Javed had reportedly seen Ishrat as a toddler playing in her father's lap when he worked in Shamim's construction company for a brief period.

Javed had struggled in Mumbai for a few years before migrating to Pune.

While he came from an upper class home in Alleppey, Kerala, he always wanted to move away from his strict father, a former BHEL employee.

Originally know as Pranesh Pillai, he converted to Islam in the mid-1990s. Ishrat's family says they don't know why.

"I agreed to send Ishrat with Javed because he knew about our family's condition: pending bills, no new school uniforms, just a handful of grocery items in my kitchen. Ishrat went to Pune only a couple of times in those two months and Javed even paid a decent amount to her," says Shamima.

Whenever Ishrat came back and handed over money, Shamima says crying, she told her: "Ammi, wait two more years. Once I finish my studies, I will work and all our problems will come to an end."

Contrary to the police claims of the relationship between Ishrat and Javed — the SIT has not made such a claim — Mussarat says her sister referred to him as "uncle" as he was 38 years old.

"Javed uncle used to do some suspicious work. We could confirm this three years after the encounter. We even tried to verify with his wife Sajida, but she said she had cut off contacts with Javed's family. My sister did not know anything about his work; she only handled his office accounts," says Mussarat.

Ishrat's family was reportedly told she would get a handsome amount for managing the accounts of Javed's perfume shop in Pune. Only later, Mussarat says, did they learn Javed often travelled to the Middle East and also claimed to have a travel agency. He insisted twice on taking Ishrat along but Shamima refused. The family admits they had their doubts about Javed and that they can only regret that now.

Living alone in Alleppey and surrounded by a few relatives who visit them once a month, Javed's parents too say they never were sure what he did. "Police did catch him several times in Mumbai but he was not a dreaded criminal. He was just like any young man struggling to find a job in Mumbai. He had his own dreams. We never stopped him," says father Gopinath Pillai.

After shifting to Pune, Javed told his parents he ran a small travel agency. However the only time he visited Pune, Gopinath admits, he couldn't find the office. Javed told him it was under construction. He recalls: "Javed was happy in Pune. He used to send money home. We were happy he had finally stabilised his career. He had appointed Ishrat in his office but we never knew who she was. We met neither Ishrat nor Sajida (Javed's wife) much for that matter."

Gopinath says he longs sometimes to play with Javed's children. But Sajida has cut off all ties with them.

At the Raza household, the children never venture out unaccompanied. Shamima won't let them. Ishrat's younger brother Anwar Iqbal has taken over the role of the bread earner, through the computer classes he conducts. At the dining table though, Ishrat retains her place. Her family always keeps room for her whenever they sit down for lunch.

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