by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 9, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1431)
“The mob then took him out on the road and killed him. Before that they removed his clothes and cut-off his hands and legs,” said Zakia Jafri before the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on October 23, 2010. She was describing the brutal killing of her husband, former Congress Party MP, Ehsan Jafri. She witnessed the gruesome murder from her hiding place and was left deeply traumatized by the loss of her husband and friends in one of the worst massacres perpetrated in India. Zakia Jafri’s personal experience provided only a short glimpse into the catastrophe that befell the Muslims of Gujarat that horrified the entire Muslim community in India as well as the world. The 2002 massacre in Gujarat gives an insight into how the constant feeding of religious and racial hatred turns even humans into vicious beasts that can commit unimaginable crimes against other human beings.
The Gujarat massacre was triggered by a rumour that a “Muslim mob” had attacked a group of Hindu activists at the Godhra train station on February 27, 2002. The alleged mob then set the Hindu activists’ train on fire, according to this story, that left 58 people dead. Immediately after the attack a propaganda campaign was launched to target Muslims. Without investigating the incident, some sections of the Indian media and politicians painted Muslims as the sole perpetrators of the attack. The rumours that Muslims burned a number of Hindu activists alive spread quickly in Gujarat. Such allegations led to horrible attacks against defenceless Muslims. Well-prepared and organized mobs systematically sought out Muslim men, women and children, setting many on fire after dousing them with kerosene and burning them to death.
Forensic investigations later revealed that the train was not set alight from the outside; rather the fire started within the coach where a kerosene lamp being used to warm food had exploded. This important piece of evidence alluded that the Godhra train station incident was in fact a provocation to engulf the region into mayhem fuelled by religious bigotry.
Nevertheless 16 of Gujarat’s 24 districts became engulfed in pre-planned Hindu mob attacks against Muslims between February 28 and March 2, 2002. Sporadic attacks against Muslims continued until mid-March. The attacks showed a similar pattern in all the districts, almost like a military drill; extremist Hindu mobs armed with swords, trishuls and agricultural instruments attacked masjids, and Muslim-owned businesses and houses; they burnt Muslims alive and raped Muslim women and children. They were so well prepared that thousands of armed Hindu nationalists were deployed at short notice in Muslim neighbourhoods. They had lists of Muslim businesses, offices, masjids and private residences. It later transpired that they had gathered this information from local municipalities and police stations. With the help of these lists, they located the Muslims and slaughtered them.
When the Hindu-instigated violence broke out, the Jafri family was living in the Chamanpura compound that is located in central Ahmadabad, a large city in Gujarat state. It was ostensibly a very safe area as it was located less than a kilometre from the local police station, and around 2 km from the Police Commissioner’s office. Proximity of the compound to the police station and the presence of former MP Ehsan Jafri attracted many Muslims to the area who thought the compound would be safe from racist and anti-Islamic attacks. However, the events that unfolded on February 28 proved them wrong. This happened despite the Ahmedabad Commissioner of Police personally visiting the Jafri residence around 10:30 am that day. During his visit, the Commissioner assured Ehsan Jafri that necessary measures would be taken to protect him and others that took refuge in the compound.
Additionally, many senior Congress members called the police and city officials in order to secure a safe passage for Jafri. But the requests fell on deaf ears. In the afternoon a 3,000-strong mob armed with machetes, sticks and gas cylinders stormed the compound, dragging Jafri and 37 others out. They first stripped them naked, then chopped off their limbs before setting them on fire to burn them alive. When the police arrived at the scene in the late evening, they found the mutilated bodies of the victims spread all over the compound, including Jafri’s neighbour Kasambhai’s wife and his pregnant daughter-in-law, who was stabbed in the abdomen with a sword and the foetus ripped out of the body.
Such atrocities were not confined to Chamanpura. Eyewitnesses and survivors gave harrowing accounts of gang rapes, mass slaughter, brutal mutilations and burning of bodies all over Gujarat state. Consequently, in a very short period more than 2,000 Muslims were killed, 150,000 displaced and over 800 women and girls were raped.
After the violence subsided, independent investigations carried out by various NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Citizens for Justice and Peace, Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and some Indian human rights organizations revealed that the attacks were pre-meditated and planned by senior political figures of Gujarat state including Chief Minister Narenda Modi, long before the Godhra incident. It was also discovered that police and senior members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were intimately involved in the planning and execution of the massacre.
The strongest evidence linking Narenda Modi to the massacres was the transfer of Godhra victims to Ahmadabad on February 27, 2002, just before the massacre started. It was documented by the Nanavati-Shah Commission of Inquiry that Modi ordered all 58 bodies of the Godhra victims to be transferred to Ahmadabad. This was a very provocative act since only 26 of the victims were from the city.
Additionally, Jaspal Singh, former Cabinet Minister of Gujarat state and Commissioner of Police, wrote a letter to the SIT and urged them to investigate the meeting chaired by Chief Minister Modi on the day of the Godhra incident. The meeting was crucial as it was alleged that Modi gave specific orders in this meeting that led to the Gujarat massacre.
The reports also documented police failure in protecting the Muslims and in fact were involved, both tacitly and actively in the massacre of Gujarat’s Muslims. This allegation was also presented in the HRW report: “In almost all of the incidents documented by Human Rights Watch the police were directly implicated in the attacks. At best they were passive observers, and at worse they acted in concert with murderous mobs and participated directly in the burning and looting of Muslim shops and homes, killing, and mutilation of Muslims. In many cases, under the guise of offering assistance the police led the victims into the hands of their killers. Many of the attacks on Muslim homes and places of business also took place in close proximity to police posts.” (Narula: 2002, p.5).
Despite such compelling evidence, attempts to bring the perpetrators of flagrant violations of human rights to justice have made little progress. The trials that were launched in local courts turned into charades aimed at covering up the facts. These led to outrage among the public as well as human right groups. As a result, the Supreme Court of India had to intervene and launched its own investigation on the eight major trials related to the Gujarat massacre. The investigation examined the role of suspects in the massacre, allegations of police involvement and state complicity in mass murder. The Court also appointed the Special Investigation Team to investigate the events.
However, the Indian judicial system again failed to provide justice to the victims and their families. Hence, campaigners and human rights groups have accused the Special Investigation Team of serious failure and misconduct. They filed a petition and submitted it to the Supreme Court of India almost two years ago. The petition expressed serious concerns about the trial proceedings and SIT’s handling of the investigation. It also harshly criticized the SIT for failing to investigate, interrogate and produce critical evidence such as print-outs of mobile phone logs of police officers and message books in police stations and the city control room. They also accused the SIT of not interrogating key witnesses such as police officers, civil servants, ministers and influential politicians to deliberately avoid bringing key perpetrators, especially Narendra Modi, to justice.
The Supreme Court of India finally yielded to the pressure exerted by victim groups and on February 10, 2010, ordered the SIT to re-investigate the Gujarat massacre cases and respond to the allegations against SIT’s conduct of the investigation. Thereupon, the SIT reconsidered widow Zakia Jafri’s allegations against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, that as chief minister of the state, he was responsible for fundamental human rights, right to life, and the property of all citizens.
On March 15, 2010 a defiant Modi appeared before the SIT and was questioned in connection with the Gujarat massacre. However, victim groups believe that this was not a genuine attempt to deliver justice. Rather, it was an attempt to alleviate the pressure of the international community and persuade it that Modi was not responsible for the killing of more than 2,000 civilians. The investigations into the Gujarat massacre continue in spite of the colossal political pressure to sweep the issue under the rug.
At present there is fragile peace in Gujarat and the atmosphere of fear and religious hatred is palpable. Violent extremist Hindu groups supported by nationalist political parties have a strong following in the region. Having succeeded in evading justice for the brutal Gujarat murders, there is ample opportunity for nationalist groups to plan and execute similar atrocities against Muslims elsewhere. This places the Indian judicial system at a crucial juncture where it will have to decide whether to bring justice and reinstate peace in the region or pave the way for more horrors by breeding hatred and violence.