Almost a decade ago, Zakia Jafri’s husband was brutally murdered, alongside many neighbours he was trying to protect. Her lengthy struggle for justice is an inspiring example of what ordinary people can achieve when faced with human rights abuses by the powerful.
Ehsan Jafri had been a trade unionist, poet and Congress Party MP. By 28 February 2002, he was in his seventies. He was at home, in Gulbarg housing society accommodation not far from the centre of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The chief minister of that state was – and is – Narendra Modi, of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is part of a movement that, in its quest for power, has stoked up hostility to those who are not Hindus.
When anti-Muslim pogroms broke out, terrified neighbours flocked to their home, thinking they would be safe at the residence of an ex-MP. An armed mob gathered outside. Phone calls were repeatedly made to senior police and politicians, begging for help, but none came.
After several hours the rioters overwhelmed those inside, hacking and burning Ehsan Jafri to death and killing many others. Zakia sheltered upstairs and was one of the survivors. Numerous other Muslims too in Ahmedabad and elsewhere in Gujarat were massacred or forced to flee their homes, ending up in makeshift refugee camps.
Many in India and internationally were horrified. The National Human Rights Commission, a statutory watchdog, sent a team to Gujarat to investigate and found that those in charge had failed to stop the violence – in some cases blocking officials who were trying to do their duty – and were refusing to pursue justice against the perpetrators. The team was told that the police commissioner and chief minister, among others, had been informed of the desperate plight of Ehsan Jafri and his neighbours as they waited in vain for help.
There was “a comprehensive failure on the part of the State Government to control the persistent violation of the rights to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the people of the State,” the National Human Rights Commission declared. It is “of fundamental importance… to bring the violators of human rights to book”.
But this would not be easy. The extreme-right Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) was heavily implicated in the violence. Yet the Gujarat authorities appointed Chetan Shah, an activist in this movement who had been defence lawyer for some of the rioters, as public prosecutor.
To try to ensure at least some chance of justice, the Supreme Court got involved, including appointing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) to monitor and assist the Gujarat high court. But progress was tortuous, perhaps unsurprisingly given the influence wielded by some of those complicit in the massacre.
In 2006, Zakia Jafri attempted to lodge a First Information Report with the police against Narendra Modi and over sixty others, including many of the top officials in Gujarat, for criminal conspiracy to commit mass murder, destruction of evidence, intimidation and subversion of the criminal justice system. She was unsuccessful.
Undeterred, with backing from Citizens for Justice and Peace, a human rights campaign group, she took the case to the Gujarat High Court in 2007. They too turned her down. But in 2008, India’s Supreme Court intervened. A Special Investigation Team was appointed, though there were concerns about members’ suitability and some were dropped. Its report in early 2011 revealed grave failings on the part of Gujarat’s chief minister and his associates during the riots, but shied away from taking the matter further.
In September 2011, the Supreme Court heard Zakia Jafri’s plea for its judges to take over the case. They did not agree, but ordered the courts in Gujarat to hear the evidence from the Special Investigation Team and also take on board the findings of amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran, one of India’s top lawyers. Apparently he advises that the allegations against Modi are substantial enough to be probed in court.
Meanwhile a key witness, whistleblowing police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, was arrested. He was willing to testify to having been at a meeting where Modi instructed top police to allow “the Hindus” to vent their anger against Muslims and not intervene. He may also have important evidence about the case of Haren Pandya, a former home minister in Gujarat who was murdered in 2003 after testifying in front of judges about Modi’s role.
Bhatt’s arrest led to a storm of protest. His wife expressed fears for his life and the Gujarat authorities were ordered by India’s home secretary to make sure he was safe. He was released on bail, but still faces charges. Giving evidence against the most powerful in that state is a risky business.
When the case is finally heard, whatever the outcome, the cracks in the façade cultivated by Gujarat’s political elite will deepen. Despite claims of prosperity, severe poverty is widespread, worsened by corruption. Exposure in open court of the shameful behaviour of chief minister Modi and his associates will further expose what lies beneath the veneer.
In addition, not only there but also across the rest of India, awareness is growing of the threat posed to society by Hindutva, as well as Islamist, extremism, where religion is misused to cloak ruthless power-seeking.
“My dear Abba, I love you,” wrote Nishri Hussein, Zakia and Ehsan Jafri’s daughter, in an article addressed to her father after his death. “You have touched many hearts... Most of our Hindu friends express regret and shame over what a few misguided radicals, who they believe were Hindus, did to you and to the hundreds of other innocent people in the Gulberg Society and Gujarat.”
But “we tell them, as you would have, that it is not they who must feel guilty... The hate mongers with a divisive agenda will be defeated and the people in India will come together, regardless of their religion or race, regardless of their colour or caste, regardless of their political orientation or ideology, to realise your dream and the dream of millions of others like you - that of a united, progressive, prosperous, secular and proud India.”
Zakia Jafri’s determined quest for justice is a step towards that goal. And it is an encouragement to challenge abuses of power, wherever they occur and however overwhelming the odds may seem.
© Savi Hensman is an established Christian commentator on religion and politics. Working in the equalities and social care sector in Britain, her background is in Sri Lanka. She is an Ekklesia associate.