Twelve years on, why justice for Gujarat matters

By Savi Hensman
March 7, 2014

Saeed and Sakil Dawood were friendly, sports-loving Yorkshiremen on holiday in India, returning from a trip to the Taj Mahal. 73-year-old Ehsan Jafri, a former trade unionist and MP, lived in Ahmedabad. When horrific violence engulfed Gujarat in 2002, they were among those brutally murdered.

An estimated 1,500-2,000 Muslims were killed, hundreds of women were raped and in some cases mutilated and 200,000 people fled their homes.

Sakil and Saeed’s teenage nephew Imran was with them that terrible day when they were surrounded by a hate-filled mob and pleaded in vain for mercy. He was injured but survived. On 26 February 2014, he sat in a committee room in the Houses of Parliament, at a meeting hosted by John McDonnell and backed by other MPs. With him was another uncle, Yusuf.

The family’s grief has not gone away. “Sometimes you sleep, you dream, and they’re there, and then you wake up,” Yusuf Dawood explained. The meeting, organised by the Awaaz Network and The Monitoring Group, focused on the role of Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, then and now.

He is the prime ministerial candidate for the extreme-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s forthcoming general election. From early childhood, Modi attended training camps run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Organisation). He became an organiser for this paramilitary organisation, founded in the 1920s and inspired by the rising fascist movements in Italy and Germany. Then he took charge of Gujarat. The RSS and BJP are part of the ‘Hindutva’ movement, which uses the guise of religion in a drive for political power.

He is a skilled orator with a well-organised publicity machine who has tapped into public dismay at the current government’s weaknesses. There is a real possibility that he will take power later this year. This would put religious minorities and moderate Hindus in grave danger, jeopardise democracy and potentially further destabilise South Asia.

For Yusuf Dawood, there is a “real sense of disbelief” at what took place, especially since his family have a deep ongoing affection for India and in particular Gujarat. To him, this aspect of his identity was linked with a sense of right and wrong, and he still struggles to make sense of what happened, including the cover-up afterwards. In terms of morality, the “compass seems to have been shifted.”

For Nishrin Jafri Hussain, Ehsan Jafri’s daughter, making sense of the terrible events of 2002 is hard too. She lives in the USA, but on 3 March 2014 she spoke at the London School of Economics at a seminar organised by its Gender Institute, in collaboration with the Freedom Without Fear Platform and South Asia Solidarity Group.

She described her father’s commitment to communal harmony, and what happened on the last day of his life, when Muslims in the neighbourhood crowded into the Gulbarg Housing Society where he lived, hoping they would be safe there. As a mob gathered outside, he made one phone call after another begging for help, finally contacting Modi himself. But no help came and they were massacred, though a few survived, including her mother.

Afterwards Nishrin visited villages and met survivors, including those with whom she had grown up. They included “young girls who had survived the massacre” but had to live with the aftermath of being raped and seeing their parents murdered. Some “couldn’t say a word.”

She shared pictures of some of those who had died with the audience, a reminder that behind the statistics are human tragedies. “They were like me, like you,” she said. “What did they do?” She also struggled with the question “Where were our neighbours? Why didn’t they come to help?”

Other speakers provided some of the answers. The Hindutva movement fosters an aggressive form of masculinity in which men can act in the most brutal ways. It also fuels fear of the ‘other’, instilling in its followers’ minds the illusion that minorities (even if weak and vulnerable in reality) pose a threat to ‘Indian culture’, for instance that men in these communities are out to seduce Hindu women. This can override a sense of shared humanity.

Meanwhile others, in India and here, assist Modi not out of conviction or even in the heat of the moment but due to self-interest. He is widely regarded as business-friendly, though in reality Gujarat lags behind the Indian average on some indices of development. Some of the western politicians who have joined in efforts to improve his image abroad, thus bolstering his chances of electoral success in India, may hope to win votes in their own constituencies or boost trade links, however deadly the wider consequences.

Nishrin’s mother, Zakia Jafri, is fighting a long legal battle to get criminal charges brought against Modi. A legal expert appointed by the Supreme Court believes there is enough evidence to charge him, a police investigative team disagrees. The case is likely to go on for years. “I still have hope,” said Nishrin. “There has to be a way to stop this,” to make sure that no girls and women have to suffer this way in future.

The Dawoods are pursuing a civil case against Narendra Modi. “We have no hatred in our hearts of anybody,” but the situation is “like an open wound”, Yusuf explained. “You can’t just brush things under the carpet if you’re going to progress.”

The Jafri and Dawood families and many others must live with the consequences of the violence of 2002. Their pain will never entirely go away. However, if enough people take seriously the importance of justice and human rights for all, in India and beyond, the future risk of violence of this kind can be much reduced.


© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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