by Dr Bindu Desai
Insaf Ki Dagar Par (On the Path of Justice)
Recalling the pogrom in Gujarat, February 2012
February 27th marked the tenth anniversary of the horrific events that followed the terrible fire in a train compartment near Godhra. The fire resulted in the tragic death of 59 ‘kar sevaks’, more than 100 were injured. They were returning from Ayodhya as part of a campaign to build a temple dedicated to Ram on the site where previously a Masjid had existed. In the next few days and weeks Gujarat witnessed carnage where thousands of individuals, mainly Muslim, were murdered, raped, looted, displaced, their homes ransacked, livelihood destroyed.
A number of organizations planned a Memorial for February 27th in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Lucknow, Malegaon, Aligarh, Calicut, Delhi and Ayodhya-Faizabad. Teesta Setalvad asked me if I would attend the one at the Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad, where 68 people were murdered, their bodies allowed to smoulder for days. 28 are still listed as ‘missing’. I felt it a privilege to be part of such a memorial service. So come February 27th morning I left for Ahmedabad by the Shatabdi Express. Approaching the road on which Gulberg Society is located I could see the building from afar. I got down at a gate which was guarded by two policemen; they directed me to the main gate where some 30 policemen, a few with automatic weapons guns, stood by. A thought flashed through me: if only they had been there a decade ago and done their duty Gulberg Society would be peopled and full of life.
The society is L shaped. At the short arm of the L is a small bungalow. The long arm has a central path with many cottages on either side and two high rises of 3 stories. The central path was filled with people; many had come from villages affected by the pogrom. Their presence made the place appear less sinister. There were children whose energy was a refreshing balm to the somber reality of empty buildings, shattered windows and walls with burn marks.
Teesta was busy arranging events; I waved to her and embraced her. “Kem Che Deekra” I asked? She guided me to tables where I could leave my travel bag. I was keen to change into a sari, as I had worn a pair of slacks and a kurta for the train journey. I had a sari with me and had earlier inquired if I could change into it at the site. A Sayra Sandhi led me to the only room that afforded a bit of privacy. The police made way for us; one even carried my overnight case to the verandah. So helpful today when 10 years ago several of their colleagues had led the 20,000 strong mob into Gulberg and watched idly while acts of infamy were carried out, ah, police obey orders do they not? Sayra was dressed in a Gujrati style sari. As I introduced myself and told her I was a friend of Teesta’s, she said matter of factly:”Teestaben works very hard for us. My son died here”. Later I learnt that her brother-in-law, her sister-in-law, her niece were among those murdered.
The presence of loss was everywhere; neither the bright shining sun nor the exuberant bougainvillea could overcome this feeling. I sat in the shade and tried to absorb the reality of the place. No photograph captures the enduring sadness; the sheer inability to accept that in such a solid, pleasant airy place on a bustling road of a great city, scores of people could be burnt alive. My mind refused to accept that this could happen, and yet it did. Highly inflammable chemicals were used, the killing preplanned with precision. I looked up at shattered windows, empty doorways and overgrown grass.
There being numerous events recalling the carnage making for a long day, the organizers had provided everything one would need for the long day: Cold water jugs every 30 to 50 feet, bottles of water, endless cups of tea. The families of some survivors had cooked fresh snacks and sweets for those who had come to share their sorrow. Later in the evening 4 rounds of “dhoop” were carried through the grounds to ward off mosquitoes and insects. There were quite a lot of persons from the media, press and TV.
A statement was issued by Retired Mumbai High Court Judge Hosbet Suresh who had been one of 8 distinguished jurists, academics and activists forming the Concerned Citizen’s Tribunal that had investigated the Gujarat carnage in 2002. Teesta introduced me to the Justice. Clad in a Khadi kurta-pyjama one could not help being impressed by his down to earth-ness and transparent simplicity. He had spent 2 weeks in Gujarat for the Tribunal and felt that there could be no moving on till the wheels of Justice brought those responsible for these crimes to answer for their horrific deeds.
I was pleasantly surprised to meet Valjibhai Patel, a respected Dalit leader who I had met 2 decades ago. He told me that generally in a conflagration against Muslims he was able to save lives, here he said he was not able to, the police themselves had encouraged the mobs. He recounted the courage and bravery of a Dalit Someshwar Pandya who had managed to save 100 of 133 in Sardarpura and who was later beaten by BJP goons and lost an eye. Valjibhai was critical of the media which he characterized as irresponsible, at times publishing outright untruths. Taking action against the media is a tortuous process requiring a Police Inspector to agree that lies have been published, he explained. A Police Inspector, who agreed and moved the Government to take action, was transferred, the replacement said there was no case worth pursuing and the matter was dropped. Valjibhai looked fit and full of zest to continue his lifelong pursuit of justice and fairness for those marginalized and oppressed.
I met Trupti Shah and Rohit Prajapati, activists from Vadodara who had been involved in seeking justice for the many victims of this pogrom in their home city. Mallika Sarabhai came to affirm her solidarity with the victims. I went around the society and was shaken by what I saw. On a wall hung photographs of those killed, to name a few: Azar Dara Modi, whose family was at the site today, and who would have been 24 this year and upon whom the film Parzania is based; Ehsan Jafri, a former MP who was murdered most brutally whose widow, son and daughter were there; photos of Sayra’s family Mohammedhusen Salimbhai Sandhi, Jahangirbhai Noormohammed Sandhi. What tore at one’s heart was their faces, full of hope for what life might hold for them, hardest to bear with were those of children and babies….There were blanks for those missing or those whose family did not possess a photo of their loved one.
The building where Ehsan Jafri lived was visited by many to pay homage to the scores who perished in it. They had come seeking shelter and thinking his previous high office, as he was a former Member of Parliament, might offer protection. Nearby a toran fluttered with rectangular strips of paper on which people had written what they wished for, most wished for justice.
Close relatives addressed those present, among them Dara and Rupa Modi. It was difficult to hold back tears as individuals recounted how neighbours had turned against them. The afternoon sun gradually sank below the horizon. Suresh Mehta, former BJP Chief Minister came , saying it was his duty to come. A decade ago emotions had been allowed to rule, what had happened was wrong , he went on. I was honoured to meet R B Sreekumar, former Director General of Police(DGP) and at the time of the massacres Additional(Addl) DGP Intelligence Branch(IB). He has testified in detail, over 1000 pages he told me, of how the Modi government colluded in and encouraged the long reign of terror unleashed upon the Muslims of Gujarat. To meet Sreekumar was to meet a genuine hero. A man of dignity, forthright and taking his duties seriously, he invited the ire of the Chief Minister (CM) of Gujarat Narendra Modi. Sreekumar was transferred from Addl DGP IB to Police Reform, where as our police are so conscientious there was not much for him to do! Deprived of his pension on retirement he took the Gujarat Government to court and won his pension and his promotion to DGP. Sreekumar, very simply said his loyalty was to the Government of India and to the office of the Chief Minister, not to the person who happened to be CM. He felt those IAS and IPS officers who surround Modi nowadays are so afraid of him that they indulge in ‘anticipatory sycophancy’! How glad one is that Sreekumar is as upright as he is, how much better India would be if there were countless officials like him. His wife Rajlakshmi who sat next to him was unassuming and when I asked how she managed when they had no pension for 2 years, she smiled and said ‘I have to support Sreekumar; Teesta helped us with getting good lawyers to fight our case’.
Dusk saw the arrangements being made for Shubha Mudgal’s concert. I thought I should have a small snack as I expected to be at Gulberg till late at night and went to see where they were being distributed. I could not find the table and decided I would do without it. After a few minutes I saw a gentleman approach the empty chair near me with a plate of snacks in his hand. I asked him where he had got it. He replied “I’ll get you a plate if you hold this magazine for me.” I did so, he returned and sat on the chair beside me. I leaned over to introduce myself and shake his hand. “I am Bindu Desai” I said, “I am Tanvir Jafri” he replied, I gripped his hand strongly, lowered my eyes and winced. He nodded implying that he understood I was trying to convey how deeply I regretted what had been done to his family. We were silent for a few minutes. He now lives with his mother Zakia in Surat. “I cannot live in Ahmedabad now” he said in a soft voice. His sister Nishrin who lives in the USA came by and remarked how good it was for her mother to have so many survivors come and sit by her and talk to her. One marvels at how this family can maintain their equanimity after the gruesome way in which their father Ehsan Jafri was killed.
Shiv Vishwanathan, who had written the latest issue of Communalism Combat: 2002-2012: The Gujarat Genocide TEN YEARS LATER, was as he has been in his writings witty, scholarly and deeply committed to getting Justice for the victims. Shiv and his students provided the audio-visual back up for the meet. The stage for Shubha Mudgal was ready on the terrace of the L end of Gulberg Society. Candles were lit by young and old and their flickering light reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi’s words:
“In the midst of darkness light persists,
In the midst of untruth truth persists
I n the midst of death life persists,”
Tridip Suhrud introduced Shubha Mudgal and her words before the concert set the tone for what followed. Shubha first acknowledged her accompanying musicians Aneesh Pradhan on the tabla, Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium. She began by apologizing for coming so late to the struggle for Justice and said that what she would sing today was not an entertainment but a tribute and a recall of what religion and a citizen’s sense of security should be. Her voice rang through the air, the crescent moon and an occasional star shining down, witness to our crimes, perhaps wondering how a decade later such an exquisite voice could fill the air of so sad a place. She sang of Mazhab as love, of, an individual perplexed at being singled out by fate, of the gnawing pain and grief of losing loved ones…..
I have been to Hiroshima and Auschwitz. Both conveyed their own particular horror and unsettling and painful as they were, Gulberg society was wrenching. Though the US has never meaningfully apologized for its barbaric acts, Germany has admitted its crimes and provided reparation. Official Gujarat has shown no remorse, the larger society has reelected the instigator twice and admires him. But a decade later the struggle goes on. It is awesome to behold the determination of 540 witnesses, a lot of them women, who have been given armed protection ordered by the Supreme Court of India, not to give up, to pursue the matter diligently and persistently till those guilty are punished for their crimes. The overwhelming force that drives them is to ensure that other sisters, widows and mothers do not have to endure what they have had to.
Over 3000 thousand people had come to Gulberg Society to pay their respects to the dead and missing and to offer such comfort as they might to those whose grief is bottomless.
May Justice be done and soon.