Twenty Long Years, Bearing Witness: Gujarat 2002-2022 Recalling the unspeakable horrors of the carnage and the quiet dignity of the survivors

28, Feb 2022 | Teesta Setalvad

My feet, clad in sandals, crunched over a few thousand shattered glass bottles with rubber stopper tops flung and burned around the compound of Gulberg society, I walked in alone that Monday, March 4, 2002. The embers of targeted arson, kerosene-soaked rubber tyres still emanated a strange odour in the air. An eerie silence reigned. The bodily remains and ashes of what would turn out to be the family members of Kasimbhai Mansuri or the young Mohammad Sandhi who wanted to become a lawyer, or any of the victims from the well-knit families that formed this housing colony, were still scattered around.

Gulberg society, in the Meghaninagar area of Ahmedabad, draws an iconic resonance when we refer to the Gujarat genocidal carnage of 2002. Ahsan Jafrisaab’sremains too were gathered from the burning embers in front of his home only on the fourth day. A much-loved man of the people, this man to whom all of Gulberg society turned in the belief that he would save them, as he had done during targeted attacks in the past, realised only at about 2.45 P.M. that day, after making dozens of desperate calls to policemen and influential people, that no help would be coming this time. That he was a special target. That is when he surrendered to die a brutal death by the lusty bloodthirsty mob.

CJP has been fighting for justice alongside the survivors of the Gujarat 2002 carnage for 20 years. The legal battle has moved back and forth between the trial courts and the Supreme Court. We have taken up, in all, as many 68 cases from the Magistrate Court upwards to the Supreme Court, and ensured 172 convictions at the first stage, with 124 being to life imprisonment. Though some of these have been overturned in appeal, CJP’s unique legal journey has pioneered criminal justice reform whether it is the right of Survivors/Victims to participate in criminal trials or Witness Protection. CJP is committed to continuing its quest for exemplary justice, so that the healing process can begin. To support us, please Donate Now.

A white chemical powder was present in glass bottles in their hundreds, gas cylinders ferreted by trucks and tempos that I was given by desperate survivors and witnesses at Gulberg, Naroda, Watva,Sardarpura and in the Panchmahals. These were the special weapons of mass destruction deployed by the mobs that were planned and prepared for the assault in over 300 locations in 153 of Gujarat’s 182 assembly constituencies across the state.

Qandeel (Lamp) is a book authored by Ahsan Jafri, associated with the progressive writers’ movement, published in 1984, a collection of poems.

Geeton se terizulfon ko meera ne sanwara, Gautam ne sada di tujhe Nanak ne pukara, Khusro ne kai rangon se daaman ko nikhara, Har dilmeinmuhabbat ki ukhuwat ki lagan hai, Ye merawatanmerawatanmerawatanhai.”

(Translation: Meera adorned your locks with her songs/ Gautam called you out, as did Nanak/ Khusro filled colours in your frills/ Every heart beats here for love and tolerance/ This is my homeland, this is it.)

The daylight lynching of Jafrisaab, three kilometres away from the police commissioner’s office, about 3 P.M. on February 28, 2002, has been not just negated by the regime from the start. He has been personally vilified and de-legitimised by men at the very top. The regime’s de-validation anddemonisationof Ahsan Jafri is a chilling metaphor for the literal, physical and metamorphical abandonment of the Gujarati Muslim.

In fact, 2002 was the final blow, Gujarat’s Muslims had it coming as the five cover stories I authored for Communalism Combat (1998-2002) are testimony to. Today this metaphor, post 2014, extends to nearly all of India.

The mass arson of 58 persons in the S-6 Sabarmati Express at Godhra in the early hours of February 27, 2002 provided the ready trigger. Elected officials and ruling party functionaries swarmed to Godhra and little effort was made to contain the spiral of retaliatory violence. Falsified reports of rapes and attacks on ‘Hindu’women splashed in banner headlines across the frontpage of Gujarat’s most read newspaper ably assisted the orchestrated statewide attack. Evidence gathered by us painstakingly from State Intelligence Bureau (SIB) records, eleven years later in the Zakia Jafri case, revealed how communal mobilisation in the form of ‘funeral processions laced with hate propaganda’ had not only been unleashed across several districts, but that SIB officers had been unsuccessfully warning their superiors to contain the spread of violence.

Over a hundred persons had run inside Ahsan saab’s house in a desperate bid to remain safe. The attack that had been sporadically launched in the Meghanbinagar areas from the early of February 28 intensified soon after the visit of a top political official who assured protection at safety minutes past 10 A.M. The distance between the police commissioner’s office at Shahibaug and Meghaninagar is barely 3 kilometres, and from there to Naroda Patiya another four kilometres. Together, both were the scenes of the worst of the genocidal killings in Gujarat 2002: 69 persons at Gulberg society and close to 124 at Naroda.

Sixteen years down, our careful computation of numbers of those attacked and killed is just short of 2,000 a figure that I had first estimated when I addressed a press conference at Vithalbhai House, the SAHMAT office in Delhi on Sunday, March 3, 2002, after receiving over 250 calls between February 27 and March 2 from across the state. To date, the state refuses to acknowledge either the scale or spread of the violence.

From March 2 until March 4, 2002, a mass grave for burial was dug and widened in the large make shift kabrastan (graveyard) near Dariakhan Ghummatin Ahmedabad,where the part charred remains of children, old, women and young were lovingly dignified in kaffans, rose water and rites performed by young men who could barely keep their angry cries within. Among those slaughtered were at least three pregnant women, one of whosefoetuses was partially hanging out. Those who bravely dignified these brutal deaths through ritual had to stick the foetus back in before burial; in other cases when the foetus was completely removed, they still buried it with the mother. Rites demanded that the pieces of the remains of the dead had to be washed, cleansed in preparation for burial. As some women performed these heartbreaking tasks on the remains of female victims, some bodies had heads missing, some had hands missing, some were like coal, you would touch them and they would crumble. Some women’s bodies had been split down the middle. One woman who had washed seventeen bodies on the first day, March 2, found only one was completely intact. When 15 more bodies were brought to her on March 3, unable to do any more, she just threw water over them.

Dead bodies did not resemble human beings, babies did not look like dead babies, nor women dead women. They had been reduced—whenever they had not been burned to ashes –to a grotesque and pathetic sight that were and are a haunting reminder of the depth of hatred and intense dehumanisation that the politics of inherent superiority and exclusiveness generates.

Ghodasar in Kheda, Sardarpura in Mehsana, Odh (Ode) in Anand, Pandharwada, Randhikpur, MorvaHadap, Kalol, Dairol all in Panchmahals, Kidiad, Sesan in Banaskantha, Kabadi Market, Gulberg Society, Naroda, Gomtipur, Watva in Ahmedabad, Hanuman Tekri, Sama areas in Vadodara, Chhotaudaipur, Vadodara district; mapping the incidents, dignifying the act of genocidal annihilation with a name, a description and photograph became a personal obsession. It began in March 2002 and has not stopped since. Painstakingly collecting the photographs lovingly preserved, faded passport size, brightly coloured images of lives snapped shut. Like the macabre metaphor of the snap dragon flower, botanically the antirrhinum, human faces and beings decimated not by clumsy children but by orchestrated venom leaving behind not the visual metaphor of dragon skull flower but sometimes not even that, not even the skull.

In none of the incidents that I personally documented within days of occurrence as witness, nowhere did eye survivors or eyewitnesses put the crowds who unleashed a special brand of terror at less than 2,000 strong. “Beta shahar ke bahar akeli niklogee, maathe par tilak, bhagwa dupatta na bhoolna,” an elderly man worriedly cautioned me as I headed out. His advice was sound, the highways were patrolled uncontrolled by mobs stopping and attacking hotelieries and vehicles. I was abandoned without transport several times as the drivers of hired vehicles fled from the danger.

Physically, there were five attacks on me in the past 20 years (the first one witnessed by Justice Verma, chairperson of the NHRC, just outside Godhra). But these pale into non-significance when one has witnessed the scars of physical harm, personal loss and delayed, betrayed justice that is a daily reality for at least 22,000 survivors. Most often in far-flung villages and districts which I was among the first journalists to visit, the numbers of the mob, survivors narrated, were closer to 15-20,000, armed with deadly agricultural implements. Key players even carried guns and rifles, select few carried mobile phones to enable a military like coordination in attacks. Rape and other bestial forms of gendered violence was used as an instrument for the subjugation and humiliation of a community. Young girls were not spared. Barring a few cases, women who were gang-raped were thereafter mutilated and burned. The report of the Women’s Parliamentary Committee (cross party, Aug 2002) put the number of “attacks on women” in Gujarat at 185, attacks on “children” at 57” (33 in Ahmedabad city) and women and children dead at 225. Survivors have narrated over 253 cases of brute gendered violence on women and children to various bodies including the Concerned Citizens Tribunal, Crimes Against Humanity, Gujarat 2002. A visible technique, very evident in Gujarat in 2002, further indicative of the organised nature of the Mob, was the perpetrators being trained to destroy evidence.

Memorialising the loss has been an act dignifying the memory of those dearly lost and most importantly, in dis-allowing any forgetting of the grotesque sequence behind the acts of killing. A band of survivors, all of us, 2007, February-March, traveling from the site of the burnt S-6 Sabarmati coach at Godhra where it all began with 58 persons burnt alive to the site of the Pandharwada and the mass graves dumped unceremoniously by a drunken municipal employee, to Malai Bhagol and Pirai Bhagol in Odh, or Shaikh Mohalla in Sardarpura, back to Naroda Patiya where not just the Noorani Masjid but the kua (well) where bodies were dumped after grotesque killings and then to the ghostly sanctum of Gulberg society, we have memorialised them all. We cried tears, lit candles and mourned the loss of life, trust and shared living. The decision to battle it out in the courts creates a complete isolation and lonesomeness with community and friend shaking their heads in frustration at the persistence and risk these actions entail.

When “constitutional political processes” defy the processes of substantive justice, and individuals and parties who have presided over mass killings soar to the top of the power pyramid, the republic’s commitment to constitutional governance stands hollowed out.

Every criteria laid down in the 1948 Genocide Convention, that India ratified in 1959 but has refused to legislate on, was met in Gujarat in the dark months of 2002, and what followed thereafter: acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such;killing and or causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately intending to cause physical destruction in whole or in part (Article 3). Article 4 leaves no man or woman immune from punishment be they constitutionally elected persons or private individuals.

Though we Indians are notorious for an absence of institutional and public memory, some figures from Gujarat 2002, bear re-telling. Apart from the 2,000 Muslims brutally killed and mutilated there was targeted and selective economic destruction: 18,924 seriously damaged, 4,954 homes completely destroyed. As many as 10, 429 shops burned, and 1,278 ransacked. 2,623 larrigallas lost to arson. A total of 4,000 crores of Muslim homes, properties and businesses done to dust. Religious and cultural shrines were a special target: 285 dargahs, 240 masjids, 36 madrassahs, 21 temples and 3 churches damaged/destroyed (totalling 649). Of these, 412 were repaired by the community themselves, 167 still damaged. A court challenge to get the state to restore these evinced a favourable order from the Gujarat high court which was thereafter diluted in the Supreme Court.

Close to 20 years later, in December 2021, when the brazen call for a genocidal killing of Indian Muslims has been met by a crude silence of India’s ruling political leadership, it would be wise to trace the lineage of this bloody public legacy to the Gujarat of 2002 if not further beyond.

Experiencing such violence first hand as I did in 2002, seeing the dead and dying, experiencing the scale of brutalisation consumes you obsessively and somehow something irrevocably changes inside you, there is no normal any more. Nightmares have become an extension of life and sleeplessness with pain, anxiety, worry and fear, are an everyday normal.

Can the Kafkaesque detached architecture of our courts ever cope with the grotesque reality of the Orchestrated Mob gleefully being directed to commit acts that constitute a genocide?

Our efforts within the courts from trial courts to the Supreme court, 68 cases in all have been a roller-coaster effort, bringing us in the crossline of fire of a system unused to any sustained and rigorous battle against impunity. Police officers who have been brave whistleblowers have paid a heavy price. In total the efforts of our organization, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) ensured 172 convictions, 124 to life imprisonment at the first stage. Some of these were overturned in appeal, with even the Supreme Court readily granting bail to those convicted of deadly crimes, including a former minister. Twelve years after the first convictions in the Godhra mass arson case, those accused have still to get bail pointing once again to an inherently discriminatory sense of justice. The way our system views cause and effect, mob terror and mob terror.

Some sense of closure came to me and our team with the filing of the Protest Petition in the Zakia Jafri case on April 15, 2013. The nights we burnt the midnight oil between October 5 and December 9, 2021, extracting, direct evidence from over 50,000 pages of records to present to the Supreme Court buttressing our case of complicit conspiracy in the violence that broke out within hours of the Godhra train burning on February 27, 2002 was exhausting and yet a cathartic vindication.

Today, as Feb 27, 2022 looms and a twenty-year calendar of struggle laced with pain struggle, humiliation and despair, sometimes peppered with hope, one sole question haunts, “Will substantive justice ever be done?”

The answer lies scattered among the constitutional remains… of the Indian republic.

*A shorter version of this piece was first published in National Herald. It may be read here.


Prelude to the Carnage

Revisiting Godhra: Voices of survivors

On Memory and Surviving

Zakia Jafri and CJP: Still seeking justice for Gujarat 2002 victims and survivors

Gulberg Society: The massacre and its memory

Scars of Sardarpura


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