Hats off to Zakia Jafri’s courage

We pretended that Modi becoming PM absolved him of his responsibility as chief minister of Gujarat under whose watch the horrible 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom took place. But an octogenarian widow hasn’t

Zakia Jafri
Zakia Jafri

Ranjona Banerji

The indomitable and brave Zakia Jafri is in the Supreme Court again, looking for justice and for accountability. Both are extremely rare and slippery when it comes to riots and India. And Jafri’s case is in effect against the current Prime Minister of India, dating to when Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat.

The 2002 Gujarat pogrom against Muslims was different from all the others because they were the first “televised” riots if you will, and the first where international media coverage and condemnation were both severe. It is owing to these riots that Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, was banned from visiting the USA because of human rights transgressions under his watch.

There was hope for justice from these riots, but soon all that evaporated as it has with all other riots in India. The mob, and especially a mob armed and assisted by political power and police encouragement, vanishes easily into your neighbour, your local vendor, just about anyone on the street you may interact with every day. Blood lust and hate satisfied, it’s back to life as usual for the rioter.

Gulbarg housing society, Ahmedabad
Gulbarg housing society, Ahmedabad

Visiting the camps in Ahmedabad in March 2002, so many of the victims who had fled their homes to find a safe space were shocked, stunned, destroyed that their neighbours had turned on them. These were people with whom they had shared their lives. The numbers of dead bodies pouring into the nearby graveyard became uncountable. The official figures can never match what really happened.

The organiser of the camp would not comment on why the police commissioner did not even answer one call for help, why PC Pandey did not even leave his office to see what was happening. Police control rooms were managed by politicians, either ministers or members of the state BJP.

Praveen Togadia of the VHP continued with his incitement against Muslims. The army was held back. Modi was silent. George Fernandes, as defence minister, came and offered excuses. The late Arun Jaitley visited our newspaper office to arrogantly get us to stop blaming the state government.

Many of us have seminal moments in our lives. Moments which destroy or make us. The Gujarat 2002 riots were not the first I had witnessed or lived through. But it destroyed me. To this date, I can neither fully discuss what I saw and how it affected me personally. Who am I but a witness from the outside?

And here is Zakia Jafri. Who watched the mobs hack and burn her husband Ehsan Jafri alive, as they broke into Gulbarg Society on February 28, 2002. Watched her family, friends, neighbours, home, being destroyed by a Hindutva mob. Ehsan Jafri, a Congress politician, had made call after call for help. But to no avail. At least 70 people were massacred that day. And Zakia Jafri fights on for justice.

As political winds have changed, evidence has appeared and disappeared. Investigators have changed tack and altered the course of justice to such an extent that justice itself has disintegrated. The preferred course in India is to find some retired judges and set up commissions which will also weave and warp over time. Decades later, a forgotten result is filed away.

Lies become reality. Someone invents a “clean chit” from the Supreme Court which in fact as a Special Investigation Team (SIT) saying no “culpable evidence against Modi and his administration”. And yet. We saw the police standing by as violence spread. We know that the mobs had sales tax lists in their hands, to identify Muslim ownership. We know the numbers of dead were fudged.

We also stood by with cynical shrugs as the convicted were acquitted and immediately given government posts. We pretended that Modi becoming prime minister absolved him of his lack of responsibility as chief minister.

But Zakia Jafri hasn’t. Even as she has been written off, defeated, pushed back, she’s got up again.

If there is any hope for India’s future outside our current vicious Hindutva morass, is if we can borrow a bit of that courage for ourselves.

(Ranjona Banerjee is an independent commentator. Views are personal)

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