After a riot, homes can be rebuilt but what about trust in humanity? Another Gujarat story.
The entire block of houses still stands in ruins — abandoned, ravaged, charred. Nothing has changed since these homes were assaulted by mobs blinded by hate. It is as though time has stood still these 10 years. I tiptoe though the rubble of rooms in which 69 people were slaughtered, among them Ehsan Jafri, a former Parliamentarian, lawyer and poet.
By my side is Ehsan Jafri's daughter Nishrin, composed and gentle. ‘This was my father's library', she says, pointing to a blackened wall. “He loved books, and they were piled high to the roof.” The winter before he was killed, she had spent a few weeks with her father, on vacation from her home in the United States where she was married. She helped him then organise his treasured books.
Nishrin's son Tauseef Hussain, now 23 years old, also on a pilgrimage to the house where his grandfather was hacked to death a decade earlier, writes about the same library: “Inside the abandoned house, as I stood silent with shut eyes, for a moment I felt I was sweating another hot summer in my grandfather's beloved library. I could hear the same chirping of the sparrows. Despite the heat, his ceiling fans would remain always off; switches taped over, to make sure those birds could safely weave through our house carefree.”
Not really safe
On February 28, 2002, in that same library, and the adjacent office room, nearly a hundred men, women, and children huddled together, terrified. As surging crowds of young men screaming for their blood surrounded their housing society, they ran for safety to the house of the former MP, hoping he would save them. But his frantic calls to senior police officers, and allegedly the Chief Minister himself, were futile. Mobs threw fireballs into the house, and soon the rooms were thick with smoke. Jafri himself was dragged out, and his limbs hacked before he was burned to death, murdered with nearly 70 others who he had tried vainly to save.
Nishrin takes me up the flight of stairs of their bungalow, open to the sky. Jafri had sent the women and children to the room upstairs, even as the mobs threw Molotov cocktails and the foulest abuse. But Nishrin does not speak of these; instead she recalls how every Deepavali, the entire staircase used to be lit with earthen lamps.
Among those cowering in this room was the domestic help of the Jafri household, Leelabai. Zakia Jafri, Nishrin's mother, took her into the verandah outside with folded hands before the murderous mobs. “She is a Hindu,” she pleaded. “Why should she die?” The crowd let her flee to freedom. The building was by then set aflame from all sides; it was the strength of the construction which finally saved those who were hiding in the first storey.
This was not the first riot which their family had lived through. Nishrin and her brother Tanvir recall the first time their home was razed, not far from this house, in the riots of 1969. “The storm came for a day, then passed, as it did again in 1985 and 1992,” Tanvir remembers. “Not like this time, when the hate does not end.” The whole family had moved in 1969 to a government relief camp. It was a Hindu friend who invited them back to live in his apartment.
In the years before 2002, as the climate of amity in the city rapidly declined, many friends advised Jafri to shift into the safety of Muslim ghettoes. But he would not even consider the option. Everything he believed in would be extinguished if he moved out of this neighbourhood only because in it lived a majority of Hindus.
These 10 years after his murder, Jafri's widow Zakia fought a brave epic battle for justice in the highest courts. Her grandson recounts: “As I spoke with my grandmother, I realised time had treated her as harshly as it did the home she lost. Beneath every deliberately hopeful conversation, the ravaged foundation shone through the cracks... She did not want to speak of what we lost as a family, only of those who had so little in this world to begin with, and now are the ones rendered truly destitute.”
He takes her lesson to heart: “I was aware of my family's pain but had never fully realised that our loss in Gujarat's communal riots was only a minor footnote in a vast library of rewritten lives... Even one decade after... so many families still learn daily what it is to be beghar...The word ‘beghar' encapsulates the chill of loss and emotional vacuum, pairing homelessness with hopelessness. Though a home can be built, or rebuilt, to become beghar is to have a loss of identity and crisis of belonging which compromises the very basis of one's being.”
It is these beghar men and women living ‘rewritten lives', who gather 10 years later in the ruins of the Gulbarg Society, to share memory and loss, to grieve together, in a memorial organised by indomitable fighter Teesta Setalwad. Men and women sob as they stand before a wall on which hang blurred pictures of those killed. Among the sombre crowds that gather that day are Rupa Modi, also a resident of Gulbarg, weeping wordlessly as she embraces Rahul Dholakia, whose film “Parzania” told the story of her wait for her son who never returned home; Bilkees Bano who braved the legal battle against those who raped and killed; the gentle professor Bandukwala, still mourning the looting of his home in the University, yet seeking paths of forgiveness. And many others like them.
As twilight falls, Shubha Mudgal sits aloft a neighbouring terrace, and sings of loss and yearning, of blood-drenched gardens, of fighting those who use religion for politics, of the imperative for a new religion which teaches us to be human. And of the need to walk together, even with bloodied feet and wounded hearts.