The persistence of Zakia Jafri in her fight for the truth after her husband was murdered is in the interests of all Indians.


Savitri Hensman


A magistrates court in Gujarat has postponed a decision on whether a dossier on the horrific murder of a former MP and 68 others should be disclosed to his widow and others. Despite mounting evidence, a special investigation team had urged that no charges be brought against the state authorities, including chief minister Narendra Modi, for their alleged role in the killings, and that the report be kept secret. The team was ordered to submit all papers to the court by 15 March. This landmark case is not only about justice for the victims but also about whether the Indian constitution and rule of law apply in Gujarat.


On 28 February 2002, ex-Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, and scores of other Muslims seeking shelter in his home, were brutally murdered. Repeated phone calls had been made pleading for help as the mob gathered outside Gulbarg Housing Society in Ahmedabad, but none came. Many others, too, in Gujarat were killed or injured at around that time, when state government leaders failed to stop anti-Muslim violence to rage unchecked while police stood by.


With the support of human rights activist group Citizens for Justice and Peace, his elderly widow Zakia Jafri began a lengthy legal battle to bring some of the most powerful figures in Gujarat to justice. Modi, a shrewd and ruthless politician of the far-right Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), had won popular support by portraying himself as a champion of Hinduism – though there are numerous Hindus who deplore his attitude to minorities and suppression of dissent. Despite widespread condemnation of his role in 2002, he has managed to remain in office in Gujarat.


India’s supreme court had to intervene to force those in charge of the state justice system to look into the Jafri case. But evidence has emerged, including records of the increasingly frantic phone calls and the testimony of whistleblowers. Modi has consistently denied his role in the massacre and has condemned the violence. But reports indicate that the amicus curiae – a senior lawyer appointed to advise on the legal aspects – has urged that he be prosecuted on several charges.


There are some people in India who cling to the false notion that only Islamist terror is a threat and remain in denial that Hindutva terror threatens the peace and stability of the nation, as well as the safety of its citizens. Internationally, too, this form of extremism is often downplayed, though occasionally it becomes the focus of attention after a bout of violence or the praise of a figure like Norwegian killer Anders Breivik. Yet now, even in states such as Gujarat, cracks in the facade of respectability are becoming more apparent.


On 15 February, the day that a magistrate ruled on the Gulbarg Society massacre report, the Gujarat high court issued a contempt notice to the Modi government for its failure to compensate those whose shops burned down in the riots. A week before, the high court had ordered the Gujarat authorities to pay for the restoration of hundreds of religious structures that were destroyed, describing the 2002 riots as the result of “negligence of the state”. The fact that “anarchy continued unabated for days” suggested “lack of appropriate action or adequate action, if not inaction, on the part of the state in handling the situation”.


On 17 February, Modi’s problems got worse. Retired judge H Suresh revealed that evidence supplied to the special investigation team included an audio recording he and colleagues made of former Gujarat home minister, Naren Pandya. This described a meeting on the night of 27 February, when Modi allegedly ordered the police not to intervene if violence took place. Pandya himself was subsequently murdered, but his statement remains on record.


After the 2002 riots, the National Human Rights Commission, a statutory watchdog, had sent a team to Gujarat to investigate. It reported “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”.


As the commission also pointed out, “critical and cruel as the communal dimension was to the tragedy of Gujarat, what was at stake, additionally, was respect for the rights of all Indians – irrespective of community – that are guaranteed by the constitution”. The persistence of Zakia Jafri has helped to highlight the importance of this principle.

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