'It is imperative that we come face-to-face with the demon within us'

By Deepa A

Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad plans to set up a Museum of Resistance in Ahmedabad's Gulbarg Society, the site of a massacre during the Gujarat riots of 2002. In this interview, she explains why such a memorial is necessary

Museum of Resistance in Ahmedabad's Gulbarg Society
Teesta Setalvad (seventh from right, back row) with survivors of the Gulbarg Society massacre outside the late former MP Ehsan Jafri's house in the society

In the identical one-room tenements in Gujarat's relief colonies, it's a photograph on the wall that often completes the family portrait: a son killed in the riots of 2002, a daughter thrown into a human bonfire, a father hacked to death. The photographs never betray the horrific stories behind their deaths; behind a picture frame, the dead are often wearing their best clothes.

These photographs are the legacy of the communal violence that Gujarat saw seven years ago, in which over 1,100 people - a majority of them Muslims - were killed.

In the years since the riots, the survivors have been urged to move on, both by well-wishers and politicians whose complicity in the violence has been established in various enquires. But human rights activist Teesta Setalvad sees no reason to forget the past in attempting to meet the future. Her organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace, plans to build a memorial at Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad, where 71 people, including the former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, were killed on February 28, 2002. (The state government puts the number of deaths in the gruesome massacre at 38.)

India has seen several communal riots - the country's birth itself is rooted in a bloody Partition - but there are no memorials to its victims. The Citizens for Justice and Peace says its memorial will be for all those who lost their lives in communal violence, be they Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs or Muslims. But perhaps because this is the first such memorial planned in India, several doubts and questions have already been voiced. Will the memorial crystallise the existing faultlines between communities? Will it perpetrate feelings of victimhood? Teesta Setalvad, no stranger to controversy, responds to these questions and more in the interview.

Last year, you announced that the Citizens for Justice and Peace would be setting up a Museum of Resistance at Gulbarg Society. Why did you feel such a museum was necessary?

It is necessary for all of India and not just for Gujarat. This is not just about what happened in 2002, but also about sectarian violence across the board, the hate speech and hate writing that precedes it, the silent complicity of the majority and the narratives that eventually disappear. We hope to be able to set up this museum but only after the trial in the Gulbarg case is over. [Currently, the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team is investigating the massacre; a related case is also pending in the apex court.]

The memorial will document narratives from victim-survivors of the violence and also their tales of resistance. It is meant to be an acknowledgement of their loss and grief, to help with the healing of those who lost near and dear ones. We hope the memorial will have a role in ensuring historical mistakes are not repeated.

Can a memorial replace a peace intervention between two communities? Wouldn't that be more important than building a memorial?

There can be no 'either/or' when certain sections of a society are deeply conflict-ridden and hate-filled, as is the case with parts of Gujarati society. Every initiative is important. The curious question is why certain initiatives that focus on justice and reparation more than others are sought to be bad-mouthed by some spokespersons of the state government and a small section of the media.

How do you respond to critics who say such a memorial will divide communities further?

When we look at the history of independent India, we see a society that has been, since its birth in Partition, torn apart by premeditated violence, filled with hate speech propaganda and the demonisation of communities. It is imperative that we come face-to-face with this demon within us that rears its ugly head each time a monster overtakes our reason. Imagine if this argument [of a memorial creating divisions] were to be applied by the world to the Nazis responsible for the Holocaust. We would have had no Nuremberg Trials, no apology from the Germans. Lasting peace between communities in India needs to be based on the bedrock of honesty and integrity. This involves facing up to the violence that has already occurred, which each one of us allowed to occur by being silent before, during and after the violence.

The people who criticise the idea of a memorial are the same people who exhort Muslims to move on. These are people who have not been directly affected by the violence of 2002. To them we have said that it is difficult to forgive and forget when there is no remorse on the other side. In any case, this is a deeply personal choice that every victim-survivor has to make. We cannot speak for everyone and there cannot be a monochromatic response to genocide.

Is there any model that you hope to follow for the memorial, such as those in other countries like the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?

We hope to create our own memorial, learn from others and yet create something that is our own. We do not want to fossilise memories, but we want to create centres for psychological and physical rehabilitation that will have victim-survivors at its epicentre. Not only will it have counselling centres but also programmes modelled on the life experiences of young survivors to ensure meaningful rehabilitation of riot victims.

The victim-survivors should be making the choices about what the memorial should be like and showing the way for us to proceed. There have been several incidents of communal violence and pogroms in India but the voices we hear are not of the survivors but of those who speak on their behalf. In this memorial, it will be their vision we will see and their voices that we hear.

In a YouTube video about the memorial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcomQuyEHtM&feature=related) you have asked for feedback and contributions from people. What is the response that you have received?

There have been suggestions about design and appreciation for the fact that the memorial will not be about just one incident of communal violence. People have also praised us for locating the memorial in Gujarat, given the history of sectarian violence in the state.

What has been the response of those who lived at Gulbarg and victim-survivors from other parts of Gujarat to the memorial?

The concept and vision for the memorial was borne out of their painful wait for justice for so many years... things have moved very slowly for them and the memorial was originally an idea to keep their struggle alive. This memorial is the collective vision of all the survivors of Gulbarg Society, none of whom have returned to live in their charred houses.

In recent months, there has been a lot of activity surrounding the riot cases, with the re-investigations being carried out by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) and the arrests they have made. What is your opinion of the work they have done so far?

The very process of getting a Special Investigation Team set up was a demanding one. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was the main intervenor [in the case before the Supreme Court] but it was the Citizens for Justice and Peace that submitted the documents about the subversion of the justice process at the local level. We documented how the accused were being allowed to go scot-free; how FIRs were being clubbed together; and how public prosecutors who were members of right-wing parties were being appointed. We also submitted affidavits from victim-survivors.

The SIT was appointed on March 26, 2008, almost a year ago. It has now submitted its interim report but we, the co-petitioners in the case, have not been allowed to peruse a copy. There is immense hope in the process of re-investigation itself but there is a sense of scepticism as well as the SIT is helped by Gujarat police officers.

What do you make of chief minister Narendra Modi's recent reshuffle of police officers, seemingly to protect some policemen accused in the riot cases? Is it likely to have an impact on SIT's investigations?

Modi's appointment of a Muslim director-general of police is a smart move for his image. But the real issue at the moment is how far the Indian justice system will go against powerful people even given the overwhelming evidence against them. There is an attempt to influence the SIT but as it's headed by two officers from outside Gujarat, we hope that it will withstand these pressures and reaffirm the victim-survivors' faith in Constitutional governance.

Has the arrest of a few police officers and political leaders brought hope to the victim-survivors?

Yes, some hope has been resurrected now that a sitting minister and a few police officers have been implicated.

Do you foresee the SIT being able to take action against high-ranking police officers and politicians?

Two years ago, as the case lay languishing in the court, even getting as far as Maya Kodnani [minister of state for women, child development and higher education, accused of leading a mob in Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gram in 2002] and Jaideep Patel [Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader who is also an accused in the Naroda massacre] would have seemed impossible. All the evidence points towards ministers and former ministers, including Gordhan Zadaphiya, Ashok Bhatt, I K Jadeja and Chief Minister Modi himself. If a truly independent investigation were to be conducted, there is no way the process would not implicate the highest political leaders in Gujarat. We live in hope.

What is the condition of those internally displaced by the riots?

We struggled to get the displaced electoral voting cards and this was achieved by 2007. Now we are working on all of them getting Below Poverty Line and Antyodaya cards.

Does the Muslim community at large face any discrimination in Gujarati society?

There is continued fear among Muslims; barriers have been drawn and these cannot be crossed. I think that at its worst in 2002, 59% of Gujaratis supported Modi and 41% did not. In 2007, too, the figure was similar. Among those who support Modi, there is not just a hardening of stance but also a conscious and collective effort to brush away the harsh realities of 2002. Our hope lies with those Hindus who are finding the courage to speak up against the fascism of Modi's regime.

(Deepa A is a journalist based in New Delhi. She writes on issues related to communal violence)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009