Zakia Jafri and the unfinished fight of Gulbarg survivors

Despite setbacks, survivors of 2002 massacre are still hopeful of getting justice

India Religious Riots Long legal battle: Teesta Setalvad (left) and Zakia Jafri | AP

THERE IS AN eerie silence in Gulbarg Society, part of the otherwise bustling neighbourhood of Chamanpura in eastern Ahmedabad. Kasam Mansuri and his daughter-in-law are the only permanent residents of the gated housing society that was once full of activity. The buildings, now decrepit with their burnt walls and broken doors and windows, and the uneven pathways overgrown with vegetation, tell a tale of something ghastly that happened two decades ago. The stillness is so uneasy and normal that even dogs that frequent the premises are scared to see visitors.

Zakia’s legal options include filing a review petition in the Supreme Court. She can also request the Court to strike off the paragraphs that led to Setalvad and Sreekumar’s arrest.

Tragedy had struck Gulbarg on February 28, 2002—the day after 59 persons on board the Sabarmati Express, mostly karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, were burnt alive at Godhra. The incident sparked communal riots across Gujarat, but Gulbarg residents thought they would remain unharmed as they had been during similar flare-ups earlier.

That was not to be. Gulbarg Society was attacked, and 69 Muslims, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, were killed.

The relatives of the victims have since moved to other Muslim neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad, but they have not moved on from the dark memories of the massacre. On June 24, their long struggle for justice suffered yet another blow when the Supreme Court rejected a special leave petition filed by Jafri’s widow, Zakia.

The petition had challenged a closure report, filed by the special investigation team that probed riots-related cases, that gave a clean chit to several individuals accused of conspiring to cause the riots, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister at the time. The three-judge Supreme Court bench rejected Zakia’s petition, and upheld the SIT’s view that there was no evidence of any conspiracy behind the riots.

A bigger shock to Gulbarg was the subsequent arrests of Teesta Setalvad and R.B. Sreekumar. Setalvad heads the NGO Citizens of Justice and Peace (CJP), and was Zakia’s co-petitioner in the case; Sreekumar was director general of police in Gujarat. Both of them are accused of fabricating evidence. Setalvad had earlier been accused of usurping funds meant for helping riot victims and setting up a museum in Gulbarg Society.

The first information report against them draws heavily from the 452-page Supreme Court verdict, which said Setalvad, Sreekumar and some “disgruntled officials” in Gujarat tried to “create sensation by making revelations which were false to their own knowledge”, and that they had been “fully exposed by the SIT after a thorough investigation” . The court said Setalvad and others had kept “the pot boiling” by making “wild and preposterous allegations”, and that “all those involved in such abuse of process need to be in the dock”.

Zakia’s son Tanvir said she was disappointed with the judgment. “My mother is pained to hear about the arrest of Teesta ji and Sreekumar, and her first priority is to get them out of custody,” Tanvir, who is in Mecca for the hajj, told THE WEEK.

Unending anguish: Gulbarg resident Kasam Mansuri with a photograph of his family | Janak Patel Unending anguish: Gulbarg resident Kasam Mansuri with a photograph of his family | Janak Patel

Zakia last spoke to THE WEEK several years ago, when she still had faith in the Supreme Court. Oddly, the verdict has come as a closure of sorts—the focus is now on getting Setalvad and Sreekumar out of jail. Sanjiv Bhatt, former IPS officer who faces similar charges, is already behind bars.

Zakia’s legal options include filing a review petition in the Supreme Court. Said Mihir Desai, one of Setalvad’s counsels: “There are openings available, but I will not discuss them. I will not look at [the verdict] as a closure. Being a petitioner, Zakia Jafri has to decide if she wants to take things forward. It may not be the end of the road legally, but it can be if she does not want to go further.”

One option is to request the Supreme Court to strike off the paragraphs that led to Setalvad and Sreekumar’s arrest. Desai said the kind of remarks made by the court in the verdict had no precedent. According to Desai, the Supreme Court’s observation that Setalvad and others had “kept the pot boiling” could have been more apt in the Ayodhya temple case. “Sajjan Kumar (the Congress leader who was convicted for his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots) was arrested 35 years after the riots. A crime that leads to so many deaths is not covered by the statute of limitations,” he said.

Those involved in the case are waiting for Tanvir’s return to make a decision. “I will ask my mother what she wants to do,” said Tanvir, who spends Sundays looking into the legalities of cases that the family is involved in. He said one way of getting solace was to let history be the judge, since all documents related to the case are public.

“After the riots, there were many NGOs doing good work,” he said. “It was during that time that the CJP, headed by Setalvad, approached the victims and promised them help in fighting the case.”

According to Tanvir, allegations that Setalvad had tutored his mother were totally baseless. “She had seen newspaper reports of no actions being taken. It was at that point that she decided to file a case,” he said.

Firoz Mohammed Pathan, 48, still vividly remembers the fateful day in 2002. “Jafri saab came and said that the police would be sent. But no one came,” he said. According to Pathan, a unit of the State Reserve Police deployed near Gulbarg was removed a fortnight before the riots broke out.

As Jafri was a former MP, most residents thought it would be safe to take shelter in his home. But even Jafri was not spared.

Pathan said his mother was beaten to death just before entering the gate of Jafri’s bungalow; a small pouch containing her ornaments was snatched. Pathan, then 28, was hiding with his friends on the terrace of a nearby building. He could do little to save others. Residents of Gulbarg Society tried to hurl back stones pelted by the mob, but that it did not help. That day, Pathan lost five family members, including his mother and brothers.

“If there used to be anything, we used to go to the Supreme Court. Now where would we go? If nobody is responsible, then who has done this (the killings)?” asked Pathan.

Kasam Mansuri, who along with is daughter-in-law are Gulbarg’s only permanent residents now, is still hopeful of getting justice. “There can be a delay, but ultimately truth will prevail,” he said, as he struggled to overcome emotions while showing photographs of 19 family members who died during the attack. Mansuri survived because he had been away when the mob descended on Gulbarg; one of his relatives was preparing to undergo surgery and Mansuri had gone to the hospital to donate blood.

Why does he still live here? “Where will I go? My family lived here,” said Mansuri. “Had it not been for people like Teesta and Father Prakash (Fr Cedric Prakash, human rights activist), we would not have got adequate compensation. And now, Teesta is behind bars.”

Mansuri is in the business of making swings. He has Hindus as employees, and allows people in the neighbourhood to park their vehicles and store things on the Gulbarg premises for a small fee. “I have to maintain relations with all,” he said.

Amid the deserted buildings at Gulbarg stands a well maintained mosque, where prayers are offered five times in a day. Mansuri said he was now praying for the quick release of Setalvad and Sreekumar. Tanvir said he had the same wish in mind while doing tawaf in Mecca.

Whether their prayers would be answered, remains to be seen.