FARHEEN is a 2×2 inch studio portrait. Tucked away inside a booklet in her father’s shirt pocket, she only comes out on days when investigators or journalists knock on his door. There is more of her, in a metal trunk. Mostly otherwise, she is a memory.
On the afternoon of September 29, 2008, Farheen was the happiest. After weeks of trying, she had finally learnt to string together four words and make a sentence — her first in English. After three incorrect attempts at spelling ‘hi’ as ‘high’, she had proceeded to write a full sentence in her notebook. Neat, bold words, separated by irregular gaps, she wrote: “Have… a… good… day”. She didn’t live to see the day end. At 9.33 pm, she was dead.
Her 10-year-old body had taken the maximum impact of military grade RDX, ammonium and nitrate radicals packed into a golden LML Freedom motorbike parked right at the curve of Malegaon’s Bhikku Chowk. The bike and the conspiracy were later traced to Varachha, Surat, and to Pragyasingh Chandrapalsingh Thakur. Thakur is now Sadhvi Pragya, the saffron of her robes dominating the BJP’s Lok Sabha poll campaign in Bhopal, with the party pitting her against the Congress’s Digvijaya Singh.
Over a decade after the blasts, Farheen’s father Shaikh Liyaqat Mohiudeen, 60, clings on to memories of his little daughter, the youngest of his five children. Mohiudeen, a truck driver, says he always returned home from work to an excited Farheen. Once home, the two always had their ritual. “She would be thrilled to see me return… hear my stories from the road, and then take me out to the chowk to eat tikkis,” he recalls. Evenings were reserved for walking through Malegaon, sitting at the chowk’s tea stall, or picking bangles from the shops that Farheen thought made Malegaon shimmer at night.
Farheen’s mother Farida, 48, says she has often caught Mohiudeen pulling out Farheen’s photograph — taken in school after she won a scholarship — from his pocket and talking to her. At least he had found a way to deal with his grief, she says. She still hasn’t. “Ma hoon uski. Kitna pyaar karte the… aapko kaise samjhayen? Khelti chalti bachchi thi humaari…aur woh ekdum chidiya ki tarah gurr se ud gayi (I am her mother, how do I tell you how much we loved her? She was a playful child and suddenly, she flew away like a bird).”
On October 7, 2008, at the peak of the ATS investigation, when a team had called on Thakur’s address in Surat, it was a photograph of the dead Farheen and the final post-mortem report that sat on the desk of Hemant Karkare, who led the probe.
Officers who assisted the late ATS chief recall an upset Karkare — himself a father to two girls — having returned from the blast site, moved and shaken by the photograph. The forensic report detailed the nature of her splinter injuries, with nothing except her face intact.
“In every probe briefing, he started with specific case studies of victims. Farheen was always remembered. He spoke of how we can never face Pakistan in peace negotiations if such barbaric attacks are done on Muslims inside our own borders,” says a Maharashtra Police officer from the 2008 investigation team.
Around 9.30 pm on September 29, 2008, the Shaikhs had been getting ready to break their Ramzan fast — and the only item missing was Farheen’s favourite, the tikkis made by the corner store chacha. It was the penultimate night before Eid-ul-Fitr. She decided to run the errand.
That night was Shabe-Qadr — a period that is said to mark Prophet Mohammed receiving the first verses of the Quran – and mosques in Malegaon were reciting the Tarawih prayer. That meant that the crowd of worshippers from the three corners of Bhikku Chowk — the Qasab Bada Masjid in the north, the Noorani Masjid in the south, and Nayapura Ahle-Hadith Masjid in the east — were still inside when the IED exploded.
The planters had evidently not factored in the extended prayer schedule or the dates in the Ramzan calendar. They had timed the bomb for it to set off around 9.30 pm when, they thought, Bhikku Chowk and its tea stalls would be the most crowded.
Seven persons were killed and 101 injured. Locals confirm the casualties would have escalated had the blast taken place anytime later, after the crowd from Noorani Masjid, Malegaon’s biggest, had spilled out.
Transcripts of alleged phone conversations between Thakur and ‘planter’ Ramji Kalsangra — produced in court in October 2018 — seem to indicate she had expected the casualty figure to be higher: “You had calculated many would die when you went there!” she chides Kalsangra, according to the transcripts.
That night, back at the Shaikh home, the tikkis never came. The first to hit the Shaikhs was a huge squall of dust. Their roof, a mere 50 metres from the blast site, couldn’t take the impact. The silence that followed the blast was even louder. Then the noises started. It had been 15 minutes since the explosion and Farheen hadn’t returned. Mohiudeen recalls he didn’t have the courage to look for her: “Ek ajeeb si ghabrahat chalu ho gayi… (A strange fear began stirring inside me).”
He hoped Farheen was hiding around the tea stall and assured his wife she must be safe. Next, they heard police firing and the wails following a stampede. Farida had to wait till late night, before someone told her a girl’s body lay covered at Faran Hospital. She says she still recalls the first time she heard the words: “Asmani rang ka kapda pehni hui? Woh bachchi toh nikal chuki hai (The girl in the sky blue dress? She is dead)”.
“Till date, the sound of the explosion booms in my ears. I can hear it when I want,” she says.
That night, just before she had rushed out, Farheen had draped a new purchase — her first dupatta, gifted by her father — and stopped to admire herself in the mirror. Farheen’s elder sister Farzana recalls how Farheen would always yank the dupatta off her mother and sisters and run with the breeze across the streets.
The whole evening, Farheen had bragged how her “gulabi rang ka dupatta” would make her look the most radiant on the night of Eid, recalls Farzana. Farheen was buried on October 1, the day of Eid-ul-Fitr.
At the hospital, Farida was not allowed to see anything beyond Farheen’s face. “They told me I would not be able to see anything else… I returned home,” she says.
At Faran Hospital in Malegaon, Dr Saeed Farani, who deposed before the NIA court on December 6, 2018, doesn’t recall Farheen. “I would have if she had been brought alive… Our focus that night was to attend to those who had hope.”
In the 2006 blasts in Malegaon, his 25-bed hospital had seen 173 patients; in 2008, 100 patients. Around 56 of the injured had serious splinter injuries.
“The bodies of 2006 and 2008 had similar injuries — huge, irregular metal pieces entering the body. Those were high-velocity wounds, like gun shots, but all over the body… the kind that tear the person, puncture the organs and basically leave nothing…”
Mohiudeen, who brought Farheen’s body home, recalls how it had then seemed like a cruel joke that she had to be brought back dead from hospital. “Farheen wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “She always said I wouldn’t need to drive my truck once she became a doctor. When she was not helping her mother or tending to goats, Farheen was always studying. Of my five children, she was the brightest.”
Farida talks about Farheen’s love for the stethoscope, how the “ziddi” girl would follow the neighbourhood “doctorni” around and write “prescriptions”. “We always thought she would achieve something, become famous. Jitni badi nahin thi utni badi baaten kar leti thi (She was small, but had big dreams),” she says.
The family says Farheen’s death brought Mohiudeen illnesses that never left him — a bypass in 2014 and a recurring tuberculosis have left his body broken. Yet, he goes to Bada Qabristan every Friday to recite fatihah (prayer) at the grave of his daughter, after offering namaz at Hamidiya Masjid inside the Bada Qabristan.
“We still have faith in the Indian judiciary… it’s our only hope,” he says. Then, without naming Thakur, he adds, “She will not win. I am 100 per cent sure. She cursed Karkare. Sitting in Malegaon, 500 km from her, I have cursed her. So have families of the other victims. I am a truck driver whose daughter she robbed. The curse of an oppressed is always stronger than that of a saint. In any religion.”
Every year, the family distributes biryani to the poor on September 29, and Mohiudeen spends several evenings buying tikkis to the many Farheens who play outside his doorstep. Bhikku Chowk is now called ‘Hemant Karkare Chowk’ and the clock at the shop outside which Farheen died is stuck at 9.33.