For Zakia Jafri, this is the last straw. The Supreme Court’s consent to hear her plea challenging the clean chit given by the Special Investigation Team to Narendra Modi and others in the 2002 Gulbarga Society riot case has filled her with hope. In October 2017, the Gujarat High Court had rejected her plea to probe the then Chief Minister Modi’s involvement in the larger conspiracy of the riots.
For a nation that has a track record of communal and mob violence of horrific dimensions in the last two centuries, with hardly any convictions, the June 2016 judgement of the Special Court in Ahmedabad for the murder of 24 persons in the Gulbarga Society massacre was rare. The Court had pronounced 36 others as innocent.
The massacre of 69 Muslims, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, in this society was one of the most gruesome incidents of the Gujarat riots of 2002. At 9 a.m. on the 28 February 2002, a mob shouting slogans gathered outside the Muslim enclave situated in the Hindu-dominated Chamanpura area of Ahmadabad. The terrified residents took refuge in the home of the former Congress MP. It was claimed that Jafri unsuccessfully made repeated attempts to contact the police, the chief minister and people at Delhi. By noon, the mob had turned violent, breached the boundary wall and attacked the residents, setting fire to the houses. The small contingent of police force remained mute spectators.
Most of the houses were torched, and 35 victims, including Jafri, were burnt alive, while 31 others went missing after the incident, later presumed to have been burnt in the carnage, bringing the total deaths to sixty nine.
The 72-year-old Jafri was no ordinary man. He was a political stalwart of Gujarat, having been a Congress MP and one of the party’s top leaders. The Society, which had been formed on Jafri’s initiative, comprised of 29 bungalows and 10 apartment buildings, housing mostly Muslim upper-middle-class business families.
Today, blackened walls of the Gulbarga society reflect the permanent divide, the wounded psyche, and the erosion that exists between the two communities. Almost all the houses are damaged or burnt, and were abandoned by the survivors. None of the families returned, even though they do congregate each year on the anniversary of the event for a memorial prayer.
“Wahan par koi nahin raheta. Kya karoge whan ja kar?” I was told by many of the Amdavadis. Nevertheless, I made my way to the deserted place with my camera. “No outsider is allowed inside the society compound or allowed to encroach on its premises. Don’t litter here. Whoever commits such offence will face action— By Order,” stated a public warning near the entry gate to the Society.
Gulbarga was no fly-by-night slum but a regular residential colony. In its prime, it was a teeming place, with prosperity and wealth. There were cars in front of each house, children played in the small swings put up. The small mosque inside the Society was the focal point of all celebrations. Today, the houses stand empty and ghost-like; charred beyond recognition. The deathly emptiness echoes the vitality it must have had over a decade ago. Even the few dogs that were around, slunked off meekly. There is an aura of melancholy and sadness around, which will take years to dispel.
The riot survivors live in desolate ghettos and resettlement colonies that remind of neglect and denial. I met Zakia Jafri, Ehsan Jafri’s wife, she was a bitter woman. She chided that 400 people had entered Gulbarga and only 11 were found guilty of murder. The sheer demographics of scale did not fit the judgment. Tanvir Jafri, Ehsan Jafri’s son, also commented that it was odd that 11 individuals could have enacted the murder of 69 people.
Fourteen years since they were burnt down, no one wants to buy Gulbarga’s bungalows. The society sits on prime land; any builder worth his salt would pay a king’s ransom for the plot. If the society is rebuilt, more than 500 dwellings can come up. The authorities have imposed the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, both in Naroda Patiya and the Gulbarga Society. Under this Act, home owners can sell their property only to other members of their own community – not to anyone from other communities.
The imposition of this law has spelled doom for Gulbarga Society, which was the lone Muslim-dominated housing colony in the predominantly Hindu neighborhood. The abandoned houses are completely stuck, because no Muslim will buy a home in a Hindu area, and Hindus cannot buy from Muslims.
Every other Gulbarga family chose to abandon the homes where they lost their loved ones. Most of them have been living scattered across the city, some in ghettos and other paying for rented apartments even though they still own their property in the Society.
The plan to turn the Society into a memorial museum failed to materialise. It will be best if the government acquires the property, pays market rate compensation to the owners and builds a hospital or a college there.
Apology and forgiveness has always been a part of the Indian system. In the long battle for legal justice, forgotten were the individual pain, trauma and permanent scar on the minds of the victims. The Gulbarga Society judgment has neither succeeded in bringing legal justice nor got peace for the victims and society at large.