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February 27, Ahmedabad: The remains of the day

Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports from Ahmedabad on the week-long commemoration of the Gujarat genocide, and the violence that will not go away

communal riots Gulberg Society Gujarat
A poster at Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad. Photo courtesy Firstpost.com

Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad, scene of  violence,  bloodshed and carnage in 2002, was an  appropriate venue to remind us  in 2012, 10 years after the communal violence, of how human beings can descend  to unbelievably chilling acts of evil anywhere, anytime.  How else  can one comprehend the logic of  a mob attacking innocent unarmed people, hacking  them to pieces, killing children in retaliation for another evil act -- the burning alive of innocent people (in the Sabarmati Express coach) by a totally different  set of men?  

On February 27,  2012, Teesta Setalvad,  social activist,  announced  the opening of the Gulbarg Society Exhibition to commemorate  and  honour  the memory of  the 59 Hindu victims of  the charred Sabarmati coach at Godhra, the over 2,000 Muslim victims, and  the people  who hid and saved  the lives of Muslims fleeing from mobs.

It’s a busy, noisy neighbourhood. But as you enter the once vibrant housing colony, a pall of gloom descends on everyone. It’s an abandoned, derelict place. Dirty, dry, dusty.  If it wasn’t  for  the crowds now assembled  here, the macabre sight of  the blackened,  burnt out shells of  mainly  Muslim homes  would  send a  shiver down your spine. If you'd read accounts of the carnage you would know  that there was blood everywhere. Torn, brutalised body parts and limbs ripped asunder. It doesn't  take much imagination, the images  push themselves to the  surface of your consciousness,  unbidden. Muslim women sit in front of their former homes praying, weeping, keening. A woman sobs quietly. “They killed her three children  and  husband. She is  alone now,” someone  whispers to me.

What is  going  through their minds now, I  wonder. Death and the loss of loved ones renders us inconsolable ordinarily. How can one  begin to  comprehend  the feelings,  the  emotions these people  are going  through ? How can they forget? How  can  they forgive?

Binaifer, a Parsi  girl, drives to the memorial with us. Her family lived in the Gulbarg colony too. Her 13-year-old  brother Azhar  went missing sometime  when  the mob arrived.  He'd  have been 23 years old now.  Her  mother Rupa Mody has been on  a 10-year frantic search for  the boy. The agony of not knowing if your child is alive or  dead is intolerable,  the anguish,  unimaginable.

The  memorial, Insaf Ki Dagar Par (on the path of justice) is a  week-long programme by 30 organisations to highlight  the grim reality of the 2002 carnage.  A few hundred victims' families  are present, along with activists, eminent judges, lawyers, police personnel, writers, poets, playwrights, filmmakers  and NGOs from  all over the country. This is secular India, gathered here in solidarity with the victims. The demand is for  justice.  Nothing more, nothing less. Without it there can be  no closure. 

There are loudspeakers, TV cameras, journalists galore. The survivors  share  their stories  yet  again. Maybe the  repetition provides catharsis, a way to cope with grief. 

Photographs  of  the Sabarmati Express Hindu victims and the Muslim  dead are displayed on the  derelict walls. Each picture is a sword piercing our collective  conscience. I see a child as young as four, babies, vulnerable old people, very young girls  and  boys.  An enormous  banner proclaims, ‘There is  no outrage. The screams died long ago. The pain is scratched into the surfaces of these walls. Fire burns, but does not always cleanse.’

The ambience is eerie. There is sombre music from  different quarters. Luminaries float around. Mallika Sarabhai, obviously a star. Filmmakers Rakesh Sharma. Rahul Dholakia of Parzania fame (whose film was based on Azhar, the missing boy). Anand Patwardhan's film were to be screened.

An impressively bearded  bishop, complete with cap and scarlet sash, arrives to show solidarity and  sympathy. It’s unusual for a Catholic bishop to be publicly condemnatory. But Bishop Thomas Macwan did not mince  words: “Those responsible must be brought to book.  It is  shameful that in Gandhi's Gujarat,   always a  peaceful, harmonious place, this violence occurred. It’s a jolt to the image of  our state. Justice will be served only if those  who lost their property  and  homes can have  this restored to  them. Otherwise we will never have peace  and  harmony in Gujarat  again.”

Former DGP Shree Kumar, a  gutsy cop,  hit  the headlines for  daring to openly implicate CM Narendra Modi. “The Gujarat police force is demoralised, ashamed of the image they now suffer because of Modi. I was an intelligence man. Police officers bring me  information.   Modi can be convicted under sections 166, 186 and 187. Dereliction of  duty, preventing legally empowered people  from doing  their duty. Serious questions must  be asked. Why were minutes of important meetings not kept? How can monitoring happen without minutes?  I have submitted nine affidavits exposing  the government's complicity in perpetrating  this genocide. I am a practicing Hindu. I believe in my duty, in the rule of law. ”

Muslim maulvis sit in a huddle. Religious leaders seem abundantly evident. A Sufi music evening will follow the victims' declarations. A poet's gathering, a kavi sammelan a few days later. There are theatre personalities.  Films and music  and poetry for a  week. Interspersed with seminars, conferences, speakers. It should  be  a  festival really, but  with  the charred buildings in  the  background, the underlying ambience is sad, an atmosphere  of  mourning,  the  grim reality of 2002. The deep sadness of the genocide permeates the  air,  even 10 years later.

Another banner proclaims ‘Trauma refuses to go away. My child sleeps with me, waking up again and again screaming. The violence never goes away.’

Somehow, that sad stark statement sums up the remains of this day, February 22, 2012, 10 years  after.

Infochange News & Features, March 2012