Gulbarg Society Massacre: Lest we forget

While much of the mainstream Indian media was preoccupied with the death of film actress Sridevi, the 16th anniversary of Gulbarg Society Massacre passed by quietly. A newsroom adage is: Names make news. The Sridevi story had everything which news media looks for, but the cold-blooded murder of 69 innocent people is also not a less noteworthy incident by any means to be relegated to the morgue.

The Gulbarg Society, a pre-dominantly Muslim colony in Ahmedabad, was the site of one of the worst massacres during the Gujarat riots. On February 28, 2002, Hindu mobs unleashed violence across Gujarat in retaliation to the killing of 59 people inside the Sabarmati Express near Godhra railway station after a mob of Muslims allegedly set it on fire. In Gulbarg Society, mobs killed 69 people in the span of a few hours. Former Congress parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri was among those killed. His wife Zakia Jafri has become the face of the fight for justice in the case.

By the modern news standards, shelf-life of stories is very short. In the era of Internet and 24×7 channels, the news can get stale quite quickly. In this respect, sixteen years is indeed a long time for an incident to retain the attention of media. However, journalism is also meant to serve as a tool to remind people about the injustices of the past.

Despite her old age, Zakia Jafri has shown unflinching resolve. Milli Gazette quoted her saying, “I’m going to carry on this fight for justice ….not just for myself but for all those killed on that day. My husband Ehsan Jafri fought valiantly till he too was killed. Till the end he did not give up. Like Hazrat Imam Husain (RA) and his companions were martyred during the battle of Karbala, innocent children and women and men were killed here.”

Sixteen years is also a long time in politics. This can more clearly be seen in the phenomenal rise of BJP. Most political pundits would have given BJP little chance to salvage the lost moral ground after Gujarat riots. Despite being in the eye of the storm whipped by the Gujarat pogrom, BJP only grew from strength to strength. After securing victory in the state elections following the riots in Gujarat, the party romped to power at Centre with an unprecedented mandate in 2014 and the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has since become the Prime Minister of India. For the families of the victims of Gulbarg massacre, however, the clock of life is stuck at February 28, 2002.

The families of the 69 people, who were killed in cold blood, are waiting for justice. They have seen 24 people being convicted while 36 others were acquitted for “lack of evidence”. In one of its debates, NDTV Hindi asked whether only 24 people could have managed to kill 69 people and is the policing system of India so weak that participants in brutal mass-murderers can’t be brought to book? No need to say, the answers remain elusive.

‘Final Solution’, a 2004 documentary film directed by Rakesh Sharma, is one of the most definitive accounts of Gujarat riots. Speaking about his experience during the making of the film, Sharma says: “I’ve filmed inside the Gulberg society on multiple occasions – twice in 2002, once in 2007, and thrice in 2012. Each time, it is an eerie experience, standing inside the Jafri home, imagining Feb 28, 2002, with people packed inside seeking shelter. Mr Jafri desperately ringing up everyone he could. The mobs launching their multiple attacks…and that moment of decision when Mr Jafri decided to hand himself over to the mob, hoping all others would be spared…”

Every year on February 28, the survivors of the massacre assemble at Gulbarg Society to mourn the death of their dear ones. Their attempts to construct a memorial at the site of the massacre have been thwarted.

The book ‘Partition and the Practice of Memory’ has a chapter dedicated to the Gulbarg massacre. In the chapter titled “The Gulbarg Memorial and the Problem of Memory”, Heba Ahmed writes, “The physical space of Gulbarg Society has been permanently scarred by violence. Since this is the only site of violence that has not been reclaimed by resettlement and human habitation, the abandoned and damaged houses of Gulbarg Society still bear traces of how the pogrom of 2002 was a disruption of the ordinary…The memories contained within the Gulbarg Society are a testament against the state’s efforts to impose a majoritarian amnesia upon the anti-Muslim killings that occurred in Gujarat.”

Heba adds: “Just as the memories of Partition have never received state recognition or memorialisation, massacres of minorities that have taken place in the last few decades also get effaced from public memory. This happens as a result of state control of who is allowed to remember and mourn victimhood.”

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