There is one memory that Tauseef Hussain, now in his twenties, still cherishes of his grandfather Ehsan Jafri. When he visited Jafri in Ahmedabad from the United States with his mother, Jafri's daughter, during summer vacations, he would have to sit in Jafri’s library in the stifling summer heat. His grandfather – lawyer, poet and politician – would stubbornly not allow anyone to turn on the ceiling fans, and had taped over the switches. Jafri worried that the nesting baby sparrows who flew through their apartment would hit the fans and die.

Today, 14 years have passed since Jafri, former Congress member of Parliament, was gruesomely murdered by a mob. Killed along with him were around 70 other women, children and men who had taken shelter with a man whom they believed to be influential enough to save their lives from an armed mob filled with hate. He was their only hope. But he was dragged away by the horde, his body was burned. His family could not even locate his remains. A mass grave contains what was left of many like him from Gulberg Society, whose families could not find even the charred bodies of their loved ones.

It has taken 14 years and an epic, spirited battle led by Jafri’s elderly widow, Zakia Jafri, for the court to pronounce its judgment on who are guilty for the second largest slaughter during the carnage that tore through the state of Gujarat in 2002. Zakia Jafri remains convinced that her husband died because of a conspiracy that went right to the top of the state administration, beginning with Chief Minister Narendra Modi, including senior ministers, police officers and leaders of organisations closely associated with the ruling party.

The court, in its judgment running into more than 1,300 pages, disagreed. It did indict 11 people for the murder, but they are just foot soldiers. Judge PB Desai was convinced that there was no conspiracy behind the slaughter, and that the police and administration did all they could do control it. He affirmed that a mob of more than 10,000 people did gather around the tenement building the morning after 58 people were burned alive in a train in neighbouring Godhra. But he concluded that what provoked the crowd to kill Jafri and other residents of the building society was Jafri himself, who fired into the crowd with his licensed rifle.

Jafri’s library, his house, indeed all the tenements in this middle-class housing cooperative in Ahmedabad are still in ruins, standing forlorn, empty, savaged as they were 14 years earlier. The peeling walls even today are still black with soot, the floors still piled with rubble and burnt remains of people’s belongings. No one lives there, none of the houses have been rebuilt or restored. The grounds are overgrown with weeds, and stray dogs sleep in the verandas. Within the walls of the six houses and 18 flats in Gulberg Society today are only memories and ghosts. And the secrets of what indeed transpired there on that fateful day, February 28, 2002.

February 28, 2002

The story that the survivors narrated over prolonged hearings in the special court in Ahmedabad was consistent. Foreboding had set in among the residents of Gulberg Society once news of the burning of the train compartment in Godhra on February 27, 2002 filtered in, and the television screens and newspapers were full of angry speeches by leaders of the ruling party and its associate in the Sangh Parivar, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The residents of Gulberg Society were mostly Muslim, with an odd Parsi home, and they were surrounded by predominantly Hindu settlements. Recurring episodes of communal violence in Ahmedabad in recent decades had altered the city’s demography steadily. The city came to be uncompromisingly divided into Hindu and Muslim areas, and Gulberg was one of the few remaining “Muslim” settlements in the “Hindu” section of the city. Jafri’s daughter Nasreen told me that people had often advised her father to move to the safety of a Muslim majority ghetto of the city, but he had refused each time with his characteristic stubbornness. Everything that he believed in would be lost if he felt he could live safely only among Muslims. And because a man of his influence and standing lived in their midst, the other residents of Gulberg were confident that they would be safe during storms of communal adversity.

It was this confidence that calmed them a little as they observed with dread, the tension mounting palpably in the city during the hours after the burning of Hindus on the train at Godhra. Jafri reassured them that he had applied in writing for police protection to the nearest police station, and had been assured that the police would protect them. However, their disquiet grew when the VHP called for a massive state-wide bandh the next morning to protest the deaths on the train, which Modi and the VHP were convinced was a deliberate and pre-planned act of Islamist terror. On the morning after the train burning, activists of the VHP started forcefully closing down shops, and raising chilling, aggressive anti-Muslim slogans. The crowd began to multiply rapidly, and they beat two Muslim men who ran a cycle shop, and set fire to some auto-rickshaws. Some senior police officers drove to the site, including – according to some witnesses – the Commissioner of Police PC Pande. After they left, the crowd swelled menacingly like a monsoon flood after a cloudburst. By 1.30 pm, it had expanded into 10,000 people, maybe more, raising angry, threatening slogans against Muslims. Many of them were armed. They attacked the homes and shops of Muslims who lived outside the boundaries of the Society, and their residents too ran for safety to the colony, expecting that Jafri would be able to protect them.

The housing society was bound by tall walls and its gates were locked, as its residents and others who had run into it for refuge cowered in fear within. The furious crowds surrounded the colony, and threw burning rags, stones and acid bombs at the houses in the colony. There were chemicals in the rags that led to the rapid spreading of fire. People in the society ran to Jafri’s home for protection. Many were injured. They crowded his library and living room, others went to the first floor where Zakia Jafri also was hiding.

The housing society was bounded by a thick cement wall topped with broken glass. To breach this, both at the rear and front walls, men lined up gas cylinders and exploded these, and as the wall fell, the throng then surged into the apartment complex. Many of them were armed with daggers, swords, iron pipes, acid bombs as well as petrol and kerosene cans. Some had fire-arms. They began to damage and burn the vehicles parked on the ground. Burning rags with incendiary chemicals fell inside the Jafri home, and as the house started burning, panicky women and men ran outside where the crowd fell upon them. They attacked all the people they could find – men, women and children – and hacked them to pieces, setting their bodies on fire. Men in the crowd also reportedly caught some women and girls, stripped them naked and raped them, and then killed them and set their bodies on fire.

From morning and through all of this, many witnesses testify that Jafri desperately kept calling senior police officers and political leaders, including – reportedly – even Modi, but to no avail. Some claim that Jafri said that Modi had answered his call with abuse. Through the afternoon, as the slaughter continued, the small contingent of around 20 police personnel was not further augmented, and these police men did little to intervene and control the rampaging and murderous crowds. It was only around 4.30 pm in the evening that a larger armed police contingent arrived, dispersed the mob with tear gas and firing, and rescued the surviving persons.

Before this, Jafri decided that as a last bid to save those who had taken shelter in his home, he would go out and personally plead with the crowd to spare those who had gathered in his house for protection. Many appealed to him not to go out as the crowd would not spare him. Reportedly, he still went out, hands folded, begging the crowd to have mercy, offering that they should kill him if they must but in return they should spare the others. There are some reports that he offered the crowd money in return for safety. But all of this was to no avail. Men in the crowd pounced on him. The crowd dragged him away. All that his son could find of his father later was one sandal. By the time the police rescue team arrived, his home and its surroundings was littered with corpses, several badly burnt. The bodies of many of the dead women were naked.

Caught on camera

None of the witnesses could describe exactly what the mob did with Ehsan Jafri except that even his body or remains could not be located later among the burnt and dismembered corpses that the police recovered in the aftermath from the ravaged colony. But a chilling idea of what could have happened to him emerged from a very different source. A brave young journalist Ashish Khetan some five years after the carnage posed as a writer sympathetic to the Hindutva cause, and secretly recorded explosive conversations with many Hindutva leaders and activists. Among them were the secretly recorded testimonies of three VHP activists Mangelal Jain, Prahaladji and Madanlal Raval, who described graphically the events connected with the Gulberg killings.

They said that VHP and Bajrang Dal activists gathered in that area in large numbers early that day to enforce the bandh called by the VHP. Many activists carried tridents in their belts, and others also had sticks and carted in their cars. Some also carried fire-arms. They began by setting on fire a shop owned by a Muslim, and then they surrounded Gulberg Society, in which Muslim families lived, and where poor Muslims from adjoining slums had also taken shelter within the compound.

Tall walls, they said – 20 feet tall and "nearly two feet thick" – surrounded the housing society, and the gates were locked. Men brought gas cylinders, lined these along the boundary wall at the front and the rear, and set these on fire, resulting in loud explosions, breaching the wall from the front and the rear. Others scaled the walls with ropes. These men also confirmed to Khetan that Jafri made frantic calls to police officers and political leaders. But when nothing worked, Jafri in desperation opened fire on the mob and injured a few people. When even this was ineffectual in controlling the crush of men who had entered the complex grounds and were attacking and raping people and throwing burning rags into the houses, Jafri offered the mob money, pleading for them to spare him and the other residents of Gulberg. At this, according to the men who spoke to Khetan, the mob demanded him to come out of the house with the money. He stepped out, dropped the money on the ground and tried to rush back. But the mob pounced on him.

“Five or six people held him, then someone struck him with a sword… chopped off his hand, then his legs… then everything else… after cutting him to pieces, they put him on the wood they’d piled and set it on fire… burnt him alive…”.

After murdering Jafri, the mob fell upon the terrified people hiding in his home, or trying to flee from it in panic, and slaughtered them and set them on fire, the activists said on hidden camera. Through all of this, the activists told Khetan, the police not only gave them a free hand, but also exhorted the rioters to kill Muslims. They claimed that the police inspector in-charge of Meghaninagar police station, KG Erda, told the rioters that they had three to four hours to carry out killings. The police would do nothing to restrain them during these hours. It was only around 4.30 in the evening that additional police forces came in and they finally dispersed the mob and rescued the survivors.

'Due burial'

However, after listening to all the statements of the witnesses and the accused and the arguments mustered by the lawyers of the men accused of the carnage and the survivors, Judge PB Desai who presided over the special court arrived at a very different conclusion about what happened that tumultuous day at Gulberg Society. He rejected out of hand the charge that there was a pre-planned conspiracy, supported by senior state leaders and officials and the police, to slaughter people in Gulberg Society as collective revenge for the burning alive of Hindus a day earlier in the train compartment in Godhra.

Instead, he concluded that the gathering of 10,000 to 15,000 persons, many of them armed, was the result of a collection of individual decisions with no collective planning. He also said that the police did their duty that day and were in no way partners in a conspiracy of mass killings, rape and arson. He also is convinced that this crowd had no intention of conducting the massacre, and it was only the provocation of firing on the mob by Jafri that led to an understandable collective rage in the mob, and it was this that plunged them into the gruesome slaughter.

The reason he offered for rejecting the conspiracy theory is that until 1.30 pm, the crowd did gather, and did attack some Muslims and burn down their shops and vehicles, and did throw stones and burning rags into the houses of the Society, but that nobody was actually killed from 9 am when they began to gather, until 1.30 pm when the slaughter began. Desai was convinced by the argument of the defence lawyer that if the crowd was intent on committing the massacre, and was assured that the police would not prevent them, they would have pulled down the walls and broken into the grounds of the Society and perpetrated the killings in the morning itself.

Desai’s reasons for rejecting the claim that the police officers deliberately delayed by several hours the bringing in of reinforcements and intervening to disperse the crowds and rescue the besieged residents of Gulberg Society are given in one brief paragraph, remarkable for its terseness in a judgment that runs into over 1300 pages:

“In my opinion much attempts have been made to rake up this issue time and again…and such proceeding have been found to be without merit by all Courts at all levels…therefore it would be unsafe (my italics) and unfair to have even further discussion on this aspect. The controversy in my opinion has been laid to rest and is required to be given its due burial”.

Desai's reasons for disregarding the evidence in the conversations secretly recorded by Tehelka reporter Ashish Khetan are similarly brief. These conversations with accused persons for the VHP and Bajrang Dal certainly support the theory that there was indeed a plan to collect, incite and arm the mob to undertake the slaughter. He admitted that superior courts have ruled that whereas a person cannot be convicted exclusively based on evidence collected in such “sting operations”, their evidence is certainly admissible as corroborative evidence. But once again he chose to disregard this evidence, not because there was proof that these video recordings were in any way doctored or false, but because the Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court of India chose to ignore this evidence. Because the investigators did not pursue this in greater depth, he concluded that the “recordings cannot be relied upon as trustworthy or substantial evidence and establish any conspiracy herein”.

Desai instead asked why

“all of a sudden, things got ugly after 1.30 pm, as if some tap was turned on which resulted in a flood of water and the carnage was perpetrated”?

He felt that from the evidence presented to his court it is conclusively established that a crowd which was largely confined to stone throwing and damaging properties of Muslims “suddenly turned into an ugly mob which indulged in the massacre” only because they were gravely provoked by the resort by Jafri to “private firing” from his licensed weapon into the crowd. The firing is said to have resulted in one death and 15 injuries. Desai regretted what he described as selective amnesia of most survivor witnesses about Jafri’s shooting. He relied instead entirely on the evidence by police personnel who were present at the spot and were unanimous that it was only because of Jafri’s gunfire that the crowd “went out of control”.

Baldly, Desai agreed with the defence lawyer and all the police witnesses, that the person centrally responsible for the massacre of Jafri and nearly 70 people who took shelter with him was – Jafri himself. If he had not provoked them by shooting into them, the crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people would have dispersed after some acts of arson and looting.

Desai’s conclusion that it was Jafri’s action that provoked the mob into attacking him and others in Gulberg Society, was supported by both the SIT and Modi. In the closure report concluding that there was no prosecutable evidence against Modi for Gulberg and other massacres in Gujarat, the SIT declared:

“In this connection, it is to be stated that Shri Narendra Modi has clearly stated in his Zee TV interview that it was late Ahesan Jafri, ex-MP, who first fired at violent mob and the provoked mob stormed the society and set it on fire. In this interview, he has clearly referred to Jafri’s firing as ‘action’ and the massacre that followed as ‘reaction’. It may be clarified here that in case late Ahesan Jafri, ex-MP, fired at the mob, this could be an immediate provocation to the mob, which had assembled there to take revenge of Godhra incident from the Muslims.”

Communal narrative

Desai’s conclusions about what happened in Gulberg Society on 28 February, 2002, resulting in the second largest toll among the innumerable episodes of killing, rape and arson that unfolded on that day and for weeks thereafter, largely conform to a popular and, I believe, highly charged communal narrative about what causes mass communal violence in the country.

According to this version, it may be true that Muslims suffer most in many of these episodes that are often described as communal riots. But it is Muslims themselves who provoke Hindus into these acts of bloodshed and arson – by their own resort to unprovoked violence and perfidy, against Hindu temples, women and cows, and as in both Godhra and Gulberg Society, against Hindu people.

In the case of the Gulberg massacre, the learned judge of the special court was prepared to accept that a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people spontaneously gathered outside the housing complex of predominantly Muslim residents. No one planned or assisted to arm them with weapons, daggers, swords, acid bombs, fire-arms, cans of petrol and kerosene and large numbers of cooking gas cylinders. Although they gathered in such large numbers, and raised menacing slogans calling for the killing of Muslims, they had no intention to actually kill Muslims, and only intended to set a few properties owned by them on fire and return to their homes peacefully.

On that day – and in the weeks that followed – the slaughter and rape of hundreds of Muslim children, women and men was unfolding across Ahmedabad and indeed in 17 districts of Gujarat. But this crowd that gathered in Gulberg was different. They had no intention to kill or rape. It was only Ehsan Jafri’s shooting at them that led them, again spontaneously, to muster and deploy a range of weapons, gas cylinders, petrol, kerosene and other inflammable materials, against the housing society and its residents, with arson, slaughter and rape.

Desai does not pay any attention to statements by every survivor witness that Jafri did call, repeatedly and desperately, numerous senior police officers and other persons in authority, including allegedly Chief Minister Modi, to send in police forces to disperse the crowd and rescue those against who the mob had laid a powerful siege. Senior journalist Kuldeep Nayyar in an article affirmed that Jafri even telephoned him in Delhi, begging him to contact someone in authority to send in the police or the army to rescue them.

"When Jafri was surrounded by the Hindu mob, he rang me up, seeking my help to rescue him from the frenzied crowd that surrounded him. I rang up the Home Ministry in Delhi and told them about the telephone call. They said they were in touch with the state government and were “watching” the situation. As I put down the telephone, it rang again and Jafri was at the other end, beseeching me to do something because the mob was threatening to lynch him. His cry for help still resounds in my ears".

The judge ignored evidence that this man in his 70s did all that was possible within his power to protect those who believed that his influence would shield them from the rage of the mob, including begging them to take his life instead, and going out to plead and negotiate with the crowd. When he realised that no one in authority would come in for their protection, he did pick up his licensed fire-arm and shot at the crowd, as a final vain bid to protect the people for whose safety he felt personally responsible.

However, the judge agreed with the defence lawyers, the police witnesses, and indeed the SIT investigation, that Jafri’s final resort to firing was not a legitimate action – indeed one of rare courage and humanity as he tried single-handedly to defend the women, children and men who had sought his protection – but an indefensible act of the gravest provocation. It is as though even when they were being attacked and surrounded, with acid bombs and burning rags flung at them, the victims should have done nothing except plead, and the crowd would not have attacked them. I am reminded of the advice of some religious leaders after the gang-rape of the young paramedic in Delhi on December 16, 2012. They said that if the victim had not offered resistance to her rapists, her life would have been spared.

Incidentally, in 2010, another courageous journalist Rana Ayyub again went undercover, pretending to be a film-maker from the United States who wanted to film the successes of Gujarat’s development, and she too secretly recorded conversations with many police officers. Among these, only one officer justified the carnage and the killing of Ehsan Jafri. That was PC Pande, who was Commissioner of Police at that time (and recently after his release on bail was appointed the Director General of the Gujarat Police).

Pande told Ayyub that

"there were riots in 85, 87, 89, 92 and most of the time the Hindus got a beating. So this time in 2002, it had to happen. It was the retaliation of the Hindus…Why should anyone mind it?"

He also claimed that Ehsan Jafri, former MP, decided:

"to take on 10,000 people from the rooftop of his society. Picks up his gun and fires at the crowd. You say police ne kuch nahi kiya (did nothing), now we didn’t tell you to open fire, you could have kept quiet".

Desai also concluded that the charge of grave police complicity in the massacre had appropriately been given a "due burial", because of which he did not need even to consider the merits or the evidence regarding this charge.

Gulberg Society is located in Chamanpura in central Ahmedabad, one kilometre from the police station and two kilometres from the office of the Commissioner of Police. This housing complex with mostly Muslim residents was located in a predominantly Hindu section of a city in which residence was sharply divided on communal lines. It is elementary to even basic policing that at a time of such communal sensitivity, adequate police forces should have been deployed in advance to protect the Society. It is also not disputed that senior police officials including joint commissioner of Ahmedabad police, MK Tandon – and also, disputably, Police Commissioner PC Pande – visited the location at around 11.30 am that morning, witnessed the gathering violent crowd, but although they were accompanied by a "striking force" of armed police persons, chose not to deploy them at the spot.

It is also not disputed that the time that elapsed between when the crowd began to gather at 9 am and the deployment of sufficient forces to disperse the mob and rescue the survivors at 4.30 pm, was a full seven and a half hours. If sufficient police forces were deployed in the morning, and timely curfew declared and imposed at that time, the crowd could not even have gathered in the numbers that it did. If the police force and action that was undertaken at 4.30 pm had taken place three or four hours earlier, the lives of most of the 70 people could have been saved, and the rapes prevented. Instead, only around 24 police persons were deployed right until 4.30 pm, and they did little to prevent the crowds from their marauding. And it is their statement that Judge Desai chose to rely upon while concluding that Jafri was responsible for inciting the mob into enraged slaughter.

As a district officer, I have handled major communal massacres in 1984 and 1989, as well as studied many communal massacres of recent decades. I have no doubt that if the police administration is committed to controlling even the largest of communal conflagrations, it is entirely possible for them to accomplish this in a matter of a few hours. Their failure to do so reflects either criminal incompetence, or as is much more likely, their compliance with political directives from senior levels to allow the communal bloodletting to continue. Desai did what many judges, in courts and judicial commissions, have done before him: uncritically accepted the version of the police, and turned his face away from the criminal culpability of the police deploying the device of deliberate inaction.

Fight for justice

Ehasan Jafri’s family was devastated by the court’s judgment. "This is not only a complete insult to the life, work and memory of my father Ehsan Jafri who worked and lived among his people," Tanveer Jafri said in anguish, "but it makes a mockery of the sacrifice he gave of his life to save the life of others. What were the 24 police officers present doing for four hours – watching the show?" The judgement not only appeared to have ignored the violent build up but also seemed to have made some of the evidence stand on its head, he said.

"We will soldier on till we get justice," he added.

The last 14 years, his mother, Jafri’s widow, the ageing Zakia Jafri, has been preoccupied with little else except this battle for justice. She has attended every court hearing, refusing even to visit her daughter abroad, or to rest and move on, as so many counsel her to. After Desai read out his judgment, she was disconsolate. "My husband was a good and kind man," she said. "I will never give up my fight for justice, for him and thousands like him."