Friday, June 17,2016
NEW DELHI: Over 14 years ago, on February 28 to be exact, around 9 a.m, when the households in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society were setting into the days activities a mob of slogan shouting men appeared at the gates. This was a day after the violence targeting Muslims in Gujarat had begun but at the same time no one in Gulberg had seriously believed that the violence would enter their homes, and even more viciously if that was possible.
Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister. Amit Shah the Home Minister. The mob at the gate struck terror and the panicking residents rushed to Congress leader Ehsan Jafri asking him to raise the politicians for immediate help. Jafri called everyone he possibly could, from the Congress leadership in the state to Delhi, and in desperation dialled the number of the Chief Minister Modi as his family has again reminded us. No one knows what was the response from the leaders, all that one knows was that the slogan shouting, the threats continued for almost three hours with not a single policeman in sight. The mob increased in numbers, and then around noon moved in to kill.
Jafri died a horrifically brutal death, being hacked and burnt before his family. At least 69 persons met with the same terrible fate, with some being hacked, and others being burnt alive. The society was gutted, the survivors abandoning what was left of what were once their homes for good. It lies a sad testimony to not just the brutal violence but the inability of democratic India to bring the killers to book. Justice, while trickling in now after over a decade, has been an agonisingly slow process for Zakia Jafri, the ageing widow of the Congress leader, and her children who still cannot hold back their tears when they speak of the day that was.
A specially designated court has finally awarded life imprisonment—not the death penalty that is of often so freely handed out by the judiciary—to 11 persons convicted for murder in the massacre 12 have been given seven years imprisonment only, and one a ten year term. Of the 66 accused, six had died during the long years of trial, 26 were convicted by the courts and rest acquitted. In tears Zakia Jafri said at the time that she would continue her fight for justice. Activist Teesta Setalvad disappointed over this “weak and diluted” verdict said that they would appeal against it. As she said, “We are not for revenge verdict but reformative justice.”
Through the long and painful court battle the Indian state as represented first by the Congress, and now by the BJP have not helped justice. In fact the effort has been to actively thwart it, with the Congress when in power refusing to come out to support their own leaders family with legal help and security. Zakia Jafri like the others, found refuge in the Citizens for Peace and Justice who have stayed with them through the long years, fighting the case, holding their hands, and drying their tears.
The Congress leadership remained invisible. And on the one occasion that Congress president Sonia Gandhi visited Ahmedabad she did not visit the grieving widow and family of Congress leader Ehsan Jafri. Why? Is the question that several persons present at the dak bungalow where the party president had stayed, asked to themselves, and raised when they met this writer at the time.
Why? Those like Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad fighting for justice in the Gulberg society and the massacres that had taken placed under the BJP government and then CM Narendra Modi’s watch in Gujarat, and Mukul Sinha who fought seeking justice for the fake encounter victims did not get any support through these years from the Congress party that was in power at the centre. No legal help, no solidarity at least in public. A few private conversations of ‘we are with you’ meant little in this trajectory of a tense, and at times traumatic legal battle.
The Congress party had struggled out of 1984 at the time when right wing mobs led by its leaders had been let loose to roam the Delhi streets, looking for Sikhs just as in Gujarat they went in search of Muslims. In both cases significantly, those leading were armed with the local locality maps with the residences of the targeted community marked clearly for all to see. In posh South Delhi colonies the mobs went to exact addresses, attacked the residents and gutted the houses. In the more lower middle class localities like Trilokpuri the Sikhs could not escape and were killed, with the bodies being burnt in bonfires around the area.
The ‘milli bhagat’ as many of the opposition leaders have often spoken to, the quiet cooperation between the BJP and the Congress on this issue, was visible after Gujarat. The answer to the ‘why’ was that the Congress did not want the BJP raking up 1984 beyond acceptable limits, and agreed to go slow on the issue. Now that some of the kid gloves are off, largely at the instance of PM Modi, the Congress is taking long delayed positions on at least the encounter issue. On the Gulberg massacre it still has little to contribute.
The BJP ignored the cases against Amit Shah, that are still in court, and brought him in as the BJP President, now a well respected figure in the party and very close to PM Modi. The Congress has never really been able to reconcile itself to keeping its 1984 ‘accused’ like Jagdish Tytler and Kamal Nath (others like HKL Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar are dead) indoors and away from politics. And now again again in what amounts to travesty of justice as perceived by the people, and also reflects extremely bad politics, sought to impose Kamal Nath on Punjab by making him the election in charge of the state. The strong response from all over has made the party back off, but this clearly demonstrates that the top brass of the party have little to no idea of the trauma of 1984.
Just as PM Modi and the BJP seem to have little idea of the trauma of 2002 for a large section of the population in the country, not just in Gujarat. This is reflected in the quiet determination with which the cases are being fought, the refusal to accept diluted justice, the insistence to go ahead despite the dangers and the threats, and the constant pressure on those seeking justice. The difference between the Congress and the BJP is that the former was defensive about 1984, while the latter is brazen and threatening in its posture on this issue now. BJP affiliated trolls—at least they insist they are supporters and the BJP top brass has not denied it, instead ‘follows’ them on the social media—repeatedly justify the violence in Gujarat in posts and tweets, insisting that the same will be repeated if people do not watch out.
(Photograph released by PTI earlier of Zakia Jafri re-visiting her gutted home in Gulberg Society)