Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Can Zakia Jafri take on India's powerful Narendra Modi and win?

Following Ahsan Jafri's death at the hands of a mob, his widow's fight for justice is now a fight for all India's hate crime victims

Ahmedabad crowds cheer Narendra Modi
Crowds cheer Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, in Ahmedabad, where mob violence killed 69 in February 2002. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/EPA
When the mob swarmed around his housing colony in Ahmedabad on 28 February 2002, the former Indian MP Ahsan Jafri made more than 100 phone calls, desperately pleading for help, over his neighbours' fearful cries and the mob's chants for blood. Eyewitnesses allege that Jafri called the local police station, imploring them to protect his neighbourhood from the threat that was closing in on them. The accusation is that the police stood on the sidelines and watched.

Neighbours crammed into Jafri's home seeking refuge. Little did they know he was the main target. In the late afternoon, when Jafri ventured out, begging the attackers to stop, they burned him alive. About 69 people were killed in the attack on the housing colony. Women were gang raped. Not even young children were spared. The Gulbarg Society massacre was part of a wave of violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

For almost 10 years, Jafri's wife, Zakia, has been fighting for justice. The frail, ailing 72-year-old has taken on one of India's most powerful politicians, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of India's most prosperous state, Gujarat. Modi aspires to be the Hindu rightwing BJP's candidate for prime minister in next year's elections. He is the darling of Indian industry, commended by Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, the country's richest billionaires, and Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood's biggest star. But critics allege that Modi stood by during a spate of violence that left more than 1,000 people dead. In Gujarat, the perception is that bringing a case against the influential is almost impossible.

Yet, India is shining. It is considered the world's largest democracy, a rising economic force. Its ugly record on communal violence is swept under the rug. Hate crimes are not normally associated with India. But thousands like Zakia have suffered, and their voices remain unheard, and the powerful leaders who allegedly abetted the crimes remain unscathed. Modi has consistently denied the accusations of his role in Gujarat's pogrom and has condemned the violence.

Years of struggle through a labyrinth of police stations and courts to file a case of alleged criminal conspiracy in the Gujarat violence against Modi and 61 other state officials has left Zakia back where she started.

On 12 September this year, the supreme court verdict sent Zakia's case back to Gujarat's district court. Before passing the verdict, the supreme court had appointed a special investigation team to look into the charges against Modi and the 61 others. After the team submitted its report, the court asked an amicus curiae (a legal expert appointed to assist the court) to make an independent assessment of it. Last month, the amicus curiae's report was leaked to the Indian media. The report allegedly states that there is enough evidence to file charges against the chief minister and several state officials. This gives Zakia and Citizens for Justice and Peace, a human rights group that is co-petitioner in Zakia's case, a glimmer of hope. But will the district court act on it?

Recently, the Gujarat police arrested Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior police officer who testified against Modi, giving evidence of Modi's role in the riots of 2002. Recently, he said he had attended a meeting of senior police officers a day before the Gulbarg attacks began. He attested that the chief minister told them to let the mobs vent their anger. The Gujarat police arrested Bhatt on charges that he forced a junior officer to make a false testimony against Modi. Though out on bail, he still fears he may be killed.

Communal violence is often used as a political tool in India. The BJP, the largest opposition party in India, whose Hindutva ideologues drew inspiration from fascist beliefs , according to scholars such as Christophe Jaffrelot and Marzia Casolari. The BJP and its many fraternal organisations together form the Sangh Parivar (pdf) (Family of Associations), a brotherhood that keeps Hindutva alive and kicking in India today. Gandhi's assassin, Nathuram Godse, was allegedly an activist for the Sangh Parivar. Besides the Gujarat pogrom, the Sangh has allegedly had a hand in several communal massacres, including the demolition of the historic Babri Masjid and the violence that followed across India in 1992-93.

Some of the ruling Congress party leaders were allegedly complicit in the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of the former prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Though hundreds of cases are pending in court, none of the politicians who were in power when the deaths occurred have been held to account. Should the frail yet crusading Zakia hope for anything different? Will India ever own up to its violent record on hate crimes? For Jafri and other victims, there's no one left to call, no more doors left to knock on.

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