Half justice

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Police keep vigil at Gulberg Society on June 2, 2016. Photo: Vijay Soneji

The burnt interior of a house in the housing colony. Photo: AP

Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the attack on Gulberg Society on February 28, 2002. Photo: PTI

Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri. Photo: PTI

BJP leader Bipin Patel. He has been acquitted in the Gulberg Society case. Photo: PTI

After the verdict, some of those convicted being taken away in a police vehicle on June 2. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Twenty-four people have been convicted in the high-profile Gulberg Society massacre case, but the survivors feel it is not complete justice as the main accused have been let off the hook.

FOURTEEN years after a rampaging mob attacked Gulberg Society, a Muslim neighbourhood in Chamanpura in Ahmedabad, and massacred 69 people, including Ehsan Jafri, a former Member of Parliament, a special sessions court in Ahmedabad on June 2 convicted 24 of the 66 accused—11 for murder and 13 for lesser offences such as rioting, unlawful assembly and arson. The quantum of punishment will be decided in the second week of June.

Bharatiya Janata Party corporator Bipin Patel is among the 36 who have been acquitted. While the judgment has brought some closure to a protracted legal battle for justice, the survivors of the gruesome attack find the verdict far from satisfactory.

The latest verdict brings the number of convictions in the Gujarat communal riots cases to 173.

Gulberg Society registered the second highest death toll during the Gujarat pogrom, which began on the morning of February 28, 2002, and spread across the State, claiming more than 1,000 lives. Of the nine cases relating to the riots investigated by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT), the Gulberg Society case became the most high profile primarily because of the concentrated attack on a small, enclosed residential colony and the hacking and burning of Jafri in front of his family members and neighbours.

Judge P.B. Desai rejected charges of criminal conspiracy against the 66 accused, saying that there was no evidence to suggest that there was any. The entire case was based on the fact that the pogrom pointed to a significantly wider conspiracy and that the violence in Gulberg Society was part of a predetermined attack.

Among those acquitted, two names stood out: Bipin Patel, who is alleged to be a key conspirator, and retired police inspector K.G. Erda, who, posted at the Meghaninagar police station under whose jurisdiction Gulberg Society falls, failed to curtail the violence. The victims are upset that the perpetrators of the violence have been let off the hook. Zakia Jafri, widow of Ehsan Jafri, told media persons: “This is definitely not justice and not the end. We prayed thinking the verdict would be in our favour. But when I watched on television that 36 of them have been acquitted and 24 convicted, my heart broke. We are all unhappy with this judgment. There might have been something wanting in the police investigations.”

Teesta Setalvad, a lawyer and activist with the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), which led the case for the victims of the massacre, told Frontline: “That the judgment said there is no conspiracy is absurd. All records show that from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gulberg was under attack. We have documentary evidence to prove this and yet it was ruled out. We will appeal within three months, which is the statutory time.”

The advocate S.M. Vora, who represented some of the survivors of the attack, said the acquittal of the 36 accused would be challenged in the High Court. He maintained that the attack on Gulberg Society was a result of criminal conspiracy. Teesta Setalvad said the CJP had presented ample evidence to prove that it was a predetermined attack. “How is that in the Naroda Patiya case, which is just two kilometres away, the judgment said it was a wider conspiracy?” She pointed out that the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner’s office was one and a half kilometres away from Gulberg Society as the crow flies. There are phone records to give evidence of distress calls; for 10 hours people kept calling and not a single police officer took action. Ehsan Jafri, who had offered residents of Gulberg Society protection in his house, made several calls to the police and Narendra Modi’s (who was then Chief Minister of Gujarat) office for help, but in vain.

Teesta Setalvad said Erda was perhaps the fall guy. The CJP has evidence to show that the police officer M.K. Tandon proceeded to Gulberg Society twice on February 28 but turned back. In spite of several calls made to P.C. Pande, another police officer, he did not come. He headed for Revdi Bazaar instead. Teesta Setalvad said: “The CJP has filed an application against these police officers, which the judge will have to deal with. We are still asking what were they [police] doing from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.? Jafri saheb was killed at 2:45 p.m. Even then no one showed up.”

Holes in SIT’s investigation

It must also be placed on record that the SIT was misguiding the public by saying that it argued conspiracy; it did not, Teesta Setalvad said. In its arguments, the CJP pointed out several holes in the SIT’s investigation.In a statement issued to the media, the CJP said:

“Key police officers were exchanging the messages on their mobile as well as wireless sets in the government vehicles at the time of the offence, however, no such message book printouts of the mobile phones have been recovered by SIT, pointing to a gross lacuna in the investigation. All these details are available in the form of literature or as per the procedure recorded in the message books for wireless messages and for that there is no question of investigation. However, with that regard, the log books can be produced from the concerned police station as well as from the log book of the police vehicles used during that period.

“The SIT failed to investigate the phone call entries made by former Member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri, slaughtered in cold blood by the mob. Witnesses have stated that he made dozens of frantic calls before surrendering himself when he realised that he was a pre-meditated target. SIT told the sessions court that Shri Jafri’s phone calls records have been destroyed!! Ehsan Jafri had called several police officers, political leaders from his landline number 2129266 asking for help.”

The SIT’s defence lawyer, Abhay Bhradwaj, told the media outside the special court that the whole case of the prosecution spun around the theory of predetermined conspiracy. But that foundation collapsed as the incident was an outcome of individual acts. There was common cause but no common intention, he said.

A victim’s story

When the riots broke out a day after the burning of some coaches of the Sabarmati Express near Godhra railway station on February 27, in which 59 people were killed, Gulberg Society, a residential enclave, was targeted by a strong mob of rioters.

The attack is best narrated in the words of Rupa Mody, whose 13-year-old son, Azhar, has been missing since the day of attack. Rupa Mody, whose family was one of the two non-Muslim families living in the enclave, told Frontline that when they heard about the train burning in Godhra, she did not pay much attention. It was when her husband called from his office to say that there were reports of violence that she realised they had to be careful.

“I got the children home. Then we began to see our neighbours come out looking concerned. Ours was a small enclosed colony of houses, and from my flat I could see people gathering on nearby terraces. That is when I saw one man holding a gupti [axe] pointing towards us—then I became concerned.”

“We started gathering in Jafri saheb’s house. He was an MP and we were sure he would organise help. Suddenly there were hundreds of men scaling the walls and entering the society compound. They had hundreds of little vials of chemicals, resembling nail polish bottles, which they threw into our house. As soon as they hit a surface, they would explode into flames. The mob had cleverly cut the water supply from the overhead tanks, so we had no way of putting out the fire.

“They began gheraoing Jafri saheb’s house and demanding that he come out. We were 30-40 of us hiding, and we tried to hide the gas cylinders so that the chemicals would not hit them. They were using the cylinders to blast walls. Meanwhile, outside, our neighbours were being butchered by the mob. We could hear women shrieking. Later I was told many of them were raped.”

Rupa Mody said by evening almost every room was on fire. “There was a ladder leading to the terrace at the back of the house. We started climbing towards that escape. I could hear Jafri saheb say, ‘Let me die if it saves you.’ Those were the last words we heard from him. He was killed by the mob. At that point, I had both my children with me. In the commotion, I fell and let go of my son’s hand. We never found his body and I haven’t stopped searching.”

Reacting to the verdict, she said too many people had been let off. Bipin Patel, she said, was seen in the mob and “yet he has been set free”. Rupa Mody attends every hearing in connection with the Gulberg Society case and the Zakia Jafri case, which names Narendra Modi among those responsible for the massacre. She believes there will be justice in the end.

Located in a suburb of Ahmedabad, Gulberg Society is a tiny colony of half a dozen houses and 18 apartments. To understand how gruesome the attack on the colony was, one only has to walk through the premises. An eerie silence envelops the colony where no one lives save a single family. Only shells of the burnt houses remain. The walls are covered with soot. There are no windows on any of the apartments and houses, and those that remain are shattered. The floors are covered with dust and burnt remnants of household items.

The local people refer to the compound as bhoot bungla (ghost house). At some point, with property prices escalating in the neighbourhood, there was a move to redevelop the society. Realtors kept out of the place, they say, following rumours of it being haunted.

A move initiated by Teesta Setalvad to build a museum of resistance in Gulberg turned controversial and fell through. Rupa Mody said no one wanted to move back to the enclave.

The Gulberg Society case

In June 2002, the Ahmedabad Detection of Crime Branch filed six charge sheets in the Gulberg Society case. In 2003, the Supreme Court stayed the trial of riot cases following the collapse of the Nanavati Commission and other Human Rights Commission investigations. In 2008, the SIT was set up under former Central Bureau of Investigation Director R.K. Raghavan. The Gulberg case was among the nine Gujarat riots cases reinvestigated by the SIT.

The Gulberg Society case trial began in September 2009 and ended in January 2011. From 2011 to 2014, the case saw two judges retire. Each time a judge took over, the arguments were heard afresh, thereby prolonging the judgment. The arguments in the case eventually concluded in September 2015. The apex court directed the special sessions court to pronounce the judgment by May 31, 2016.

Of the nine cases, the Naroda Gam case is pending. Eleven people were killed in the industrial area in the city.

In the Naroda Patiya case, a former BJP Minister and Modi’s one-time right hand Maya Kodnani has been convicted along with Bajrang Dal leader Babubhai Patel alias Babu Bajrangi, who is serving life imprisonment. Ninety-seven Muslims were killed in Naroda Patiya.