SALIM SHAIKH has been driving luxury buses for the last 12 years, and taken pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra eight times till last week. But after the ninth trip, the 34-year-old is not sure whether he will ever go back again. For, Shaikh was at the wheel on Monday night, when terrorists pumped bullets into the bus, killing seven pilgrims and injuring 19 others.
On Tuesday, he was hailed as a hero across the country for stepping on the accelerator as the bullets struck, stopping only after reaching an Army outpost in Anantnag, about 2 km from the site of the attack. The J&K government has announced a cash reward of Rs 3 lakh for Shaikh while Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani plans to recommend his name to the Centre for a bravery award.
“But I will think twice before going to Amarnath again. I am afraid, and I don’t think my wife and children will allow me to go there again,” said Shaikh, who hails from Jalgaon in Maharashtra and moved to Valsad at a young age.
On Tuesday evening, Shaikh reached home in an open jeep, amid a throng of family and neighbours, and was received by his wife Sajeeda, their two sons and a daughter. As soon as he stepped down, a weeping Sajeeda hugged him and kissed him on his forehead.
“I am so happy he is back. He had not planned to undertake this trip because our eldest son was supposed to undergo an ear surgery. However, we were a bit stretched financially, so he decided to drive the bus that left for the yatra on July 2. I am really proud that he saved so many people’s lives,” she said.
Recalling Monday’s attack, Shaikh said, “The pilgrims had completed the yatra and we had planned to go to Vaishno Devi. We were near Katra and our bus was part of a convoy. But then, a tyre got punctured and we stopped to fix it even as the convoy went ahead.”
It was “pitch dark” by the time they resumed the journey, said Shaikh. “Suddenly, we heard gunshots from behind. Suspecting that it was a terror attack, I drove fast. But the bullets started coming again, this time from the driver’s side, hitting the bonnet and other parts of the bus. The passengers were crying and shouting, but I drove the bus fast for about 2-2.5 km, till we reached a military camp,” he said.
One of those hit by a bullet was Harsh Desai, son of Jawahar Desai who runs Om Travels, which owns the bus, said Shaikh. “He was sitting next to me and got hit. I narrated the incident to Army personnel and all the passengers were evacuated from the bus and rushed to a hospital. The Army officers praised me for driving fast in such a critical situation,” said Shaikh.
“Today, my brother became India’s hero. But he has always been our family’s hero. I have never approached my parents whenever I have faced problems. It was always him. When he finally came home, the children and some elders called him ‘Valsad ka Bahubhali’,” said Tanuja Feroz Mirza, Shaikh’s sister and the youngest of four siblings.
“The terrorists had targeted him first. Had he not ducked, God knows what would have happened,” said Shaikh’s father, Gafur Yasin Sheikh, who was in Malegaon to attend a funeral and could not meet his son as he left for the yatra. “Still, I spoke to him over the phone and asked him to take care,” said the 70-year-old.
As for Shaikh, he held his little son close and said, “It is because of the prayers of my children and wife that I am alive.”