Monday, March 12, 2012

A decade of shame

in Ahmedabad

The victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat are still to get justice but are determined to continue the fight.

SAIRABEN SANDHI and Rupa Mody sit quietly on the back benches at the Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in Ahmedabad watching the proceedings in the Zakia Jafri case. Both the women have witnessed immense tragedy. One saw her son killed, while the other has been searching for her missing son for the past 10 years. In the courtroom, there are others too who survived the gruesome massacre at Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad in 2002. All of them have gone through the trauma of seeing immediate family members hacked or burnt to death. The judge eventually postpones the hearing to another day and the survivors file out. They seem used to this routine. There is a level of tension and disappointment among them, but they are not entirely disheartened.

“We come for every hearing in this case. Until we are alive we are not going to give up. We are not going to leave him [Chief Minister Narendra Modi]. We know we will get justice even if it takes another 10 years,” says Rupa Mody.

The Zakia Jafri case has begun to symbolise the struggle for justice for all the riot victims and is reaching a crucial stage. It is the only case in which Modi is named as an accused and is, therefore, seen as critical in nailing the perpetrators of the pogrom. Coincidently, as the tenth anniversary of the Gujarat riots approaches, the case has taken a significant turn. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) has filed a “closure report” saying there is not enough evidence to prosecute Modi. Zakia Jafri's legal team has gone in appeal. Its main contention is that the riots were meticulously planned and those in seats of power deliberately turned a blind eye to the attacks on Muslims across the State.

In the past few years, Modi has tried hard to get rid of the taint of the riots and get what he calls a “clean chit”. However, each time the “clean chit” has been within grasp, the law has intervened to thwart him. With Assembly elections in Gujarat scheduled for later this year and national politics beckoning him as an aspirant for the prime ministership, Modi appears desperate to get the riots-responsible label off his back. Furthermore, he has worked the corporate sector to project himself as a forward-thinking leader who is interested in bringing prosperity and development to his State – and not as a saffron politician interested only in communal politics. Getting the Tatas to shift their Nano small car plant to Sanand from Singur in West Bengal was clearly a part of this agenda, say observers.

February 28, 2012, will mark a decade since the Gujarat riots, undoubtedly one of the worst chapters of communal violence in the country's history. Official estimates put the death toll, of both Hindus and Muslims, at a little over 1,000, while unofficially it has been pegged at more than 2,000. At least 600 children were orphaned and more than 400 were reported missing.

Ten years later, the wounds are still to heal. The investigation into the riot cases are plodding along with no closure in sight. The only case to reach a conclusion is Sardarpura, where a mob burnt alive 33 Muslims trapped in a house. Thirty-one people were imprisoned for life in this case. There are eight other cases that are pending trial.

For many victims the memories of the violence are still fresh in their minds. “Only justice will help heal. But nothing they do can bring back my son,” says Rupa Mody.

If the nightmares of the 2002 violence were not bad enough, the minority communities have had to cope with severe marginalisation. Thousands of families have been hounded out of the State, and they have moved with just the clothes on their back to areas such as Mumbra in Maharashtra. On issues relating to the minority community, the dominant view is that over the past decade Gujarat has become more polarised than ever before. Access to education, employment, housing and other fundamental needs is becoming increasingly difficult. What is worse is that there are few rays of optimism – there is only a sense of helplessness.

Zakia Jafri, a big hope

Zakia Jafri saw her husband, Ehsan Jafri, a former Member of Parliament, being hacked to death. Ehsan Jafri thought that his house in Gulberg Society offered the best protection to other residents of the locality from the rampaging mobs. Unfortunately, in spite of several phone calls to the police and senior politicians, help never arrived and Jafri had to handle the mob single-handedly. Eventually, he stepped out of his house in an attempt to placate the mob. They killed him and then burnt his body in front of his family and neighbours.

Zakia Jafri remembers vividly every moment of those two horrific days. As many as 69 people died in Gulberg Society and 28 went missing, one of them was Azhar, Rupa Mody's 13-year-old son. To date they remain missing.

Zakia Jafri, along with several activists and members of the Citizens of Justice and Peace (CJP), a non-governmental organisation, has maintained that the Gujarat riots were a pogrom and that there is enough evidence to prove this. Leading a protracted legal fight for justice for the past eight years, the feisty 70-year-old says she will not back down until the perpetrators and killers of her husband and thousands of other Muslims are punished.

“Now, at this stage, we won't let them close the case so easily. We will keep it going for however long it takes to get justice,” says Zakia Jafri, who lives with her son in Surat. “You cannot say that in 10 years nothing has happened. Modi's name is linked to terrible communal riots. His name is badnaamed (sullied) all over the world. Everyone knows his true colours since this case has got so much attention. The fact that he has blood on his hands… he cannot wipe that off so easily,” she said to Frontline.

Zakia Jafri's case reached a critical juncture in February, when the SIT decided to file a “closure report” citing lack of prosecutable evidence against Modi. Zakia Jafri's legal recourse is to appeal for the report. On February 15, she was told the report would be given within a month. This could mean the end of her case but she does have the provision to appeal in the higher courts and eventually in the Supreme Court.

In 2006, Zakia Jafri petitioned the court alleging that Modi and 61 others, including politicians, policemen and bureaucrats, had colluded to ensure that the victims of the mob attacks during the riots did not receive help. Zakia Jafri, along with other witnesses, testified in court that Ehsan Jafri repeatedly called Modi when they were under attack. But no help came. She accused Modi of abdicating his duty as the constitutionally elected head of the State government to protect the right to life of all its citizens regardless of their caste, community and gender and becoming the architect of a criminal conspiracy.

In 2007, the Gujarat High Court rejected her petition for a first information report (FIR) to be filed. Zakia Jafri and the CJP then filed a special leave petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court, which appointed Prashant Bhushan amicus curiae. In 2009, the court appointed a Special Investigation Team led by R.K. Raghavan, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to probe the Zakia Jafri case.

In 2010, Zakia Jafri and thousands of others saw some manner of justice when the SIT summoned Modi for questioning. This was the first time in the country's history that a Chief Minister was questioned in a criminal complaint that dealt with communal violence. But two years later the SIT in its report cited lack of substantial evidence to prosecute him.

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