Right-wing communal poisoning has been working for decades; political environment is getting darker everyday

The arrests of human rights defender Teesta Setalvad, and whistle-blower cop of Gujarat cadre RB Sreekumar came as a shock as they have been focusing on facts based on the ground realities

Teesta Setalvad with Zakia Jafri
Teesta Setalvad with Zakia Jafri
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Humra Quraishi

What to say…what to write…what to comment on, when the political climate is turning darker by the day. Stifling and suffocating and hitting! In fact, the recent developments are disturbing, to say the least. The arrests of human rights defender Teesta Setalvad, and the whistle-blower cop of the Gujarat cadre RB Sreekumar, and the already languishing-in-jail cop Sanjiv Bhatt, came as a shock as they have been focusing on facts based on the ground realities. They risked their lives and careers in trying to expose the nexuses at work responsible for the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the aftermath that exists to this day. Hundreds perished and were killed in that pogrom. And those left alive were deeply scarred for life!

Zakia Jafri is one of those survivors who saw death and destruction right there, in Ahmedabad, at her home at the Gulberg Society. Mind you, she belongs to no ordinary family. The fact can't be overlooked that her husband, Ahsan Jafri, was a former Trade Union leader turned Congressman before he was brutally killed in Ahmedabad, in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom

I interviewed Zakia Jafri on two occasions and I have also heard her speak at a public platform, in the capital city, New Delhi on May 7, 2013. She is an eyewitness, with that laced with facts: How the Right-Wing mobs torched their Ahmedabad home at the Gulberg Society. She had also focused on the role of the police force and the deaths and disasters that took place in front of her eyes. To quote her, “…on February 28, 2002, our neighbours started pouring into our home, asking whether my husband was at home …they felt and looked relaxed and re-assured that he was there. But 9 am, it became apparent that tension was building up in our area. First shops and then vehicles were burnt and looted. Then a boy was attacked and injured and later he took shelter in our home but he too was killed by the rioters who attacked and burnt and destroyed our home… My husband Ahsan Jafri was also killed by those rioters. He fought valiantly till the very end. Like Hazrat Imam Hussain and his companions were martyred during the battle of Karbala, innocent children and women and men were killed in that Gujarat pogrom in 2002.”

On the role of the police force, as the communal violence cum killings had peaked in 2002, Zakia said, “As the Police Commissioner did not visit our Gulberg Society even as the situation was getting uncontrolled, so my husband went out on the road and met him in full public view and requested him for additional deployment of forces but no police help came. And killings started and continued …69 people known to us were killed there on that same day yet no police help came to stop the carnage, those killings went on.”

Zakia had detailed, “Police was not to be seen in our Gulberg Society or in the surrounding area till about late evening. By then our Gulberg Society was completely burnt down and looted. Many residents were burnt alive. I cannot forget those scenes of those rioters stripping off and tearing off clothes of women and brutalizing them. I saw those charred bodies…Late evening the police came when the genocide was near complete. Then they pulled out the few survivors. This was done by only two police inspectors, Mr Pathan and Mr Qureshi....There was total destruction all around. What was left of the Gulberg Society! Nothing! There were just dead bodies …most were burnt beyond recognition. Even at that stage the role of particular Deputy SP level police officers was terrible. We had lodged a complaint in the Court against one Dy SP Tandon and another Dy SP for destroying evidence.”


It is a known fact that if the State wants it can curb any communal carnage, rioting and violence within a couple of hours. Why was the responsibility for prolonged violence not fixed on erring police officers and the administrators and the politicians?

Perhaps, there could have been many more survivors if the State had not shut the relief camps for the 2002 pogrom survivors, on the ground that the refugee camps are ‘child production centers!’…Perhaps, lives and livelihoods could have been saved in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom if the horrific carnage and violence had not spread out and left uncontrolled, hitting forms and psyches.

I recall months after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. I had visited the New Delhi situated Institute of Social Sciences and was introduced to the then mayor of Ahmedabad, Aneesa Mirza. And as I enquired about the conditions in her home state, she shut her eyes as though in deep anguish and pleaded that I don't bring up the topic as she falls ill and then it takes weeks for her to recover. “Please don’t mention those killings! I saw live human beings were burnt alive... though I’d witnessed several riots, nothing was so gruesome as those human killings in Gujarat in 2002.”

A few years later when I tried to get in touch with her, I was told she had passed away.

Another reality that hits is this – who is responsible for the communal poisoning in the State, for the spread of hatred for the ‘other’?

On my first and till date the only visit to Ahmedabad, to attend a day long meet where several activist-writers were invited to speak, what I heard from the taxi driver, ought to be shared.

Landing at Ahmedabad on August 6, 2006, I began conversing with the taxi driver who was driving me to the venue. It was a long drive. Perhaps, it seemed longer as the driver started unleashing his pent-up feelings against Muslims. Of course, little realising that I was a Muslim, as the placard he’d carried at the airport carried a misspelt version of my name - ‘Ms Sureishi.’

Conversation continued, with the cab driver detailing that though he was a Rajput from Rajasthan but had shifted to Ahmedabad and felt at ease living amidst Gujaratis. When I asked him whether he was in Ahmedabad during the 2002 pogrom, he just took off! “These Muslims the worst possible creatures! Desh drohis, atankvadis …ghar mein bomb banate hain ya bache paida karte hain” (Muslims traitors, terrorists, make bombs at home or produce children). I couldn’t believe what I hearing from this young driver. And when I tried countering with subtle intrusions along the strain that surely not all Muslims could be like that, he didn’t want to hear a word of that. He continued, unleashing the worst possible anti-Muslim comments, “There’s also a ‘mini-Pakistan’ in the Ahmedabad city- a locality where Muslims live. It’s a big, big danger area! Madam, don’t ever go there.”

Why?

“These Muslim people very dangerous. Never trust them, they can do anything. We keep away from them! I want to kill them!”

Suddenly he’d slowed, as a two-wheeler scooter passed by, with a middle-aged couple on it, “See there …those two-danger people! Both Muslims!”

How did he come to that quick conclusion?

“Enemy can be spotted even from a distance!” Together with that added that their (Muslims’) pyjamas and shalwars are tailored differently! “Their looks are different, even their pyjamas and shalwars cut differently. Not like ours! We Hindus very different. Not like them. Our clothes different…never confuse the two!”

That morning, that twenty-minute drive to the venue, was more than an eye-opener! Never before in my life, never during any of my travels to any other city or sector, I had encountered that level of fierce outrage against the largest minority community of the country.


Though I had heard activists and academics, who’d been visiting Gujarat, talk of the prejudices seeped in so deep that even killings of hundreds of Muslims in 2002 pogrom was justified, but when I heard that cab driver talk aloud his intense hatred for the Muslims, it was unnerving! I kept wondering how Muslims were surviving, in the midst of that surcharged atmosphere.

In fact, several Gujarati Dalit activists later told me that since Muslims cannot speak out openly in Gujarat (for fear of State unleashed aftermath) so the Dalits started speaking out on their behalf. “The reality is such that a Muslim can’t speak out against the government. But as a Dalit I can speak out. How? There are more than seven lakh Dalits living in Ahmedabad and we are very close knit and strong, so if this governmental machinery does something to me there’d be fierce reaction from the Dalits of this city.”

And when I asked the then leading lawyer of Ahmedabad, Mukul Sinha, if he could be as vocal if his name was Mohammad Saleem or Shaikh or any other Muslim name, he was forthright - “No …Impossible! if I was a Muslim man living in today’s Gujarat it wouldn’t have been possible for me to speak out against the State. I would have been booked or framed or done away with in an encounter! Today only a Hindu can speak out…though upper caste Hindus rarely do so, only Dalits are out there in support of the Muslims.”

Sinha had also detailed that on the legal front, figures were enough to rattle: “Of the 240 cases of POTA registered by the State, 239 were against Muslims. Nearly half the cases registered after the carnage had already been closed, by an active subversion of FIRs, investigation and trial.”

A Jesuit priest, Father Cedric Prakash, told me, “I have witnessed several riots in the country and abroad ---the 1968 Mumbai riots, the 1969 riots in Gujarat, the 1973-74 riots in Northern Ireland, but I’ve never seen anything like this - the Gujarat pogrom of 2002.” He’d also detailed, “In Gujarat communal poisoning been on, along the lines that ‘these Muslims ought to be settled!’”

It would be naïve to expect that the communal virus took off and spread out all too suddenly. Communal poisoning has been allowed if not encouraged to flourish, along a set Right Wing agenda. Around the autumn of 2005 as I was interacting with a French academic whose area of research was ‘new regional parties with focus on the Samajwadi Party’, I’d asked him whether he has been following the activities of the regional political parties and he told me that he had been visiting India on earlier occasions too. He told me that years back he had even travelled to Gujarat’s Anand township and had found the atmosphere to be communally charged. “Even then the anti-Muslims feeling was there, even amongst the moderates or the so called open-minded fellows…I have had some painful conversations. When I’d tried to say something not along those lines, they would retort - ‘you a foreigner what would you know!’ They’d tried focusing on what happened 500 years back …there were such huge misconceptions about Muslims in today’s generation that the situation is far from okay. I was shocked to hear such strong misconceptions about a particular community. When I tried to reason out with them, they’d said disturbing things like that these Muslims have been here for hundreds of years and yet not integrated so they ought to be taught a lesson!”

If foreigners could sense the grim reality, why couldn’t we! Where were our administrative and policing heads!

Views are personal

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