Still a few months short of 18, Devika Rotawan is a bit of a news junkie, especially when it comes to terrorism, terrorists and surgical strikes. “Pathankot, Uri, now the LoC, I follow everything on TV closely,” she says. Shot in the leg at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus on the night of 26/11, she was the youngest witness in the Mumbai terror attacks trial in a local court where she identified Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist who was captured alive.
A frail girl, after multiple surgeries on her leg, willing to talk to the cameras about the capital punishment that was handed out to Kasab, Devika was in every newspaper and on every news channel during those days.
Eight years later, Devika still kicks out in her sleep, quite like what much younger children do, says her father Natwarlal Rotawan, 53.
Only, when she wakes up, she remembers kicking “because I wanted to kill the terrorists”.
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That publicity blitz cut both ways, the family has found. The general surprise over the fact that the then 10-year-old girl, whose mother had died a couple of years earlier, wasn’t getting a formal education led her to join school in 2010 — she’s still trying to complete her Class 10 through private classes. And the experience of 26/11, the meetings with top police officers and the dozens of felicitation ceremonies and awards gave her a clear ambition: To join the Indian Police Service.
But then, as Natwarlal says, “Award se pet nahi bharta (Awards don’t fill your stomach).” Less dramatically, he adds, “Who will marry her? Will anybody marry her?”
From relatives to acquaintances, landlords to tuition teachers, almost everyone the Rotawans have come in touch with are convinced that witnesses in the 26/11 trial face a clear and present danger of revenge. “We used to receive death threats on the phone until a few years back from people threatening to attack us for deposing in court,” says Natwarlal. When Devika’s 20-year-old brother Jayesh went missing for a day last year and couldn’t remember where he’d been before returning home on a train from Bhusaval, the family was certain he had been hypnotised.
The Rotawans also have a grouse that amid the court proceedings, interviews and the execution of Kasab, the promise of a secure home for Devika was forgotten. The details of how they were led to believe that a flat in Mumbai was promised to them are fuzzy, but their application is now with the Mumbai suburban collector’s office, Natwarlal says.
“Finding a place to live has been difficult. People somehow think there will be bomb explosions or terror attacks wherever we go,” says Devika. “Some people think we did it for publicity, some have called me ‘Kasab ki beti’. They taunt me everywhere I go.”
Just before the attack, the Rotawans had vacated a rented property in Bandra and were on their way to visit relatives in Pune. The remainder of 2008 was spent in a government hospital where Devika was admitted for over a month. At the start of 2009, the family spent a month in their Rajasthan hometown of Sumerpur. They returned to Mumbai in time for the trial, but with no fixed address, sometimes living at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus for weeks.
Eventually, in mid-2009, they rented space in a Bandra slum, but have moved frequently since. “People think we must have got lakhs of rupees in compensation or aid, so they suddenly hike the rent and if we can’t pay, we have to leave,” says Devika.
Family relations, strained by Natwarlal and Devika’s decision to turn witnesses, fractured when relatives began to avoid them. Natwarlal’s brother, an imitation jewellery trader, lives in the far suburbs but visits rarely.
Natwarlal’s own dryfruits business has crawled to a stop. They now live on savings and assistance from close family members.
Devika has learnt to cook, she helps her father in the kitchen. She tries to focus on studying but admits it’s an uphill task. “I never went to school until I was 11 years old, so I struggle with concepts. I wish there was a tutor who understood that shortcoming and coached me accordingly,” she says.
Devika believes the Maharashtra government will come good on its promise of a flat. For good measure, she joined Twitter in February and posted a series of tweets, tagging the Prime Minister’s Office and his personal Twitter handle: “I’m in problem,” she wrote, adding that her father’s financial condition was poor, that she dreams of being an IPS officer.
She hopes there will be a response.