Wednesday, April 24, 2024

When I visited Gulbarg Society

“How do you feel when your family members fall ill or catch some disease?” asks Rafiq Mansuri, a survivor of the Gulbarg Society massacre, part of the 2002 Gujarat Muslim genocide.

“How do you feel when your family members fall ill or catch some disease? 19 members of my family were brutally killed, my mother, my wife, my son, my brothers, my sister-in-law, my aunty, my nieces, and my nephews all of them had been slaughtered that day, if they had died in an earthquake or accident, I would not have felt bad, I would have patiently endured the loss, but they were killed in front of my eyes, I couldn’t even identify their bodies,” says Rafiq Mansuri, a survivor of Gulbarg Society massacre, part of 2002 Gujarat Muslim genocide.

Independent India has witnessed recurring anti-Muslim riots, with most of them being on a less serious scale. However, the Muslim genocide of 2002 in Gujarat is an exception, not solely due to the high death toll but also because of the unprecedented brutality inflicted on Muslim women and children—subjected to hacking and mutilation of their corpses. The women were raped in public, and teenage Muslim girls were sexually abused and then burnt alive.

I often converse with people who have endured hardships in their lives. They share stories of their struggles with me, and I patiently listen to their issues. However, Rafiq Mansuri’s narration of the series of events that took place on 28 February 2002, is one interview I will never forget.

Visiting Gulbarg society is a memory that I can’t erase from my mind, it is situated in the Chamanpura area of Ahmedabad,  4-5 km away from the Police commissioner’s office. There were 19 houses in Gulbarg society and one apartment, all of them belonged to affluent Muslims, and one of the flats was inhabited by a Persian family. The society was inhabited by around 100 people. Out of which 69 were killed on 28 February 2002. 

When I entered house number three, I was already heartbroken but it was the sheer confidence and unwavering spirit of Rafiq Mansuri that encouraged me to carry on.

One by one, I entered every house. The main gates of all the houses were broken and burnt, so it was easy to enter. It was not a pleasant sight. There were stones scattered on the floor. The only signs of life in their houses were the shrubs, grass, and bougainvillea trees. One by one, I went to every house. The attackers had followed the same pattern while vandalising the houses. The windows and main doors were severely broken, gas bottles were thrown from the windows to suffocate the residents, and the intensity of the chemicals used had ruined the walls. There were large stones all over the ground, and kitchens were their first target. Water tanks were destroyed so that the residents couldn’t use water to control the fire.

Finally, I entered house number 19. In Gulbarg Society, Ehsan Jafri’s home was known as “Ghar number 19”. I wondered what had motivated him to create a Muslim colony in a Hindu-dominated area. He was an ex-MP with instrumental intelligence. Wasn’t he aware of the communal history of Gujarat, where with each passing time, the intensity of riots was getting worse? He was a hardcore Gandhian and, just like Gandhiji, an incorrigible optimist, just as Gandhi ignored all the red flags of his assassination, Jafri Sahab ignored all the communal events taking place in Gujarat from the establishment of Gulbarg Society to 2002. The recurring riots of Ahmedabad could not shatter his belief in communal harmony. The man had nothing but immense compassion in his heart. He couldn’t imagine the devilish torture that awaited him in house number 19. Before he would leave for the heavenly abode, he witnessed a dance of death and unimaginable brutality. On the fateful afternoon of February 28, his house was turned into hell, but this time there were no angels to guard it and around 69 Muslims were killed in an inconceivably torturous way. He was the first victim of the Gulbarg Society Massacre, his surrendering to the Hindutva mob was the final nail in the coffin. The ferocious brutality that was inflicted upon him broke the spirit of all the people who were taking refuge in his house, one of them was his wife Zakia Jafri.

“Finally, I entered house number 19. In Gulbarg Society, Ehsan Jafri’s home was known as “Ghar number 19″. I wondered what had motivated him to create a Muslim colony in a Hindu-dominated area.” Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Zakia Jafri somehow managed to climb the terrace, the other survivors had barricaded the stairs so that the rioters couldn’t reach the terrace. Later, when the police arrived around 5 PM, those survivors were rescued and sent to the hospital. While Rafiq Mansuri was narrating the entire incident to me, I was stunned, shocked, and devastated. It took me hardly 10 minutes to reach Gulbarg Society from the Shahibaug Police Commissioner’s office. Why did no help arrive that day? Why were the desperate calls from Ehsan Jafri left unanswered? What would have happened if the police and administration had not shown complicity?

The things I saw in the house were terrible enough to haunt visitors. I touched all the walls, thinking that those walls must have been yearning for human touch. Those walls had seen unbearable trauma. The walls that once cherished joyous events of birthdays, marriages, and baby showers were now in a dilapidated condition, mourning the brutal end of their residents. The walls could do nothing when their residents were butchered in an outrageously evil way. Ehsan Jafri Sahab had a fondness for Urdu Shayari, and he had penned down many poems himself. The walls of his house must have heard romantic conversations between him and his beloved wife Zakia, and Nusrat Sahab’s qawalis. But from their current appearance, they seemed humiliated by the screams of their residents—screams for life, piercing cries for help.

I closely observed all the corners of Ehsan Jafri’s home, and then we took the stairs to the terrace. The stairs were in a fragile condition. The weather was cloudy, and I didn’t understand why Rafiq Mansuri was wearing black specs. I asked him the reason, and he said, “With the 19 family members, I lost one eye as well.” He had lost an eye during the genocide. When we went upstairs, we talked at length about the carnage. From the terrace, I could see Asarwa Railway station. A mob of thousands came from that direction.

It was only after closely observing the terrace that I realized such a heinous attack could not have been unplanned. They were attacked from all sides; there was no escape. 

Rafiq Mansuri narrated the entire incident to me. It all started at 7:30 AM when a large Hindu mob gathered around the Gulbarg Society. “I woke up at 7 and was playing with my 5-month-old son who was on my lap. He was very beautiful, and I loved playing with him. Little did I know that it was the last time I would hold him in my hands. I had no idea that death awaited him, and after a few hours, he would turn to ashes. He was burnt alive along with other members of my family. If he was alive, he would have grown into a handsome lad. My father was not present in society when the carnage took place; he had gone to the civil hospital to see a relative. My brother and I took refuge on the terrace of Jafri Sahab’s home. The gas explosions were so loud that I couldn’t find any of my family members. I immediately rushed towards the terrace when a mob entered Jafri Sahab’s house. There were around 20 people on the terrace. Jafri Sahab was the first person to be killed in the carnage. After making around 200 desperate calls for help, he called the then Chief Minister of Gujarat (Narendra Modi) with his last hope. The callous response from the other end crushed all hope, and he surrendered himself to the mob, pleading with them to spare the lives of other residents. The mob was in a frenzy; they had all the details of the residents of our society. They knew our names and were looking for all of us. Having witnessed the brutal killing of Jafri Sahab terrified us to the core. We realized that today was our last day. We all recited Kalma E Shahada and surrendered ourselves to Allah’s will. I was shattered when I learned that my entire family, except my brother and father, was butchered in the carnage. I cannot describe the way they were killed. When I recall that fateful day, it gives me sleepless nights. Even after 22 years, I still can’t sleep at night. The screams and desperate wailing for help keep rewinding in my mind.”

Visiting Gulbarg society is a memory that I can’t erase from my mind, it is situated in the Chamanpura area of Ahmedabad,  4-5 km away from the Police commissioner’s office. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Then, he started showing me pictures of his family members who were killed in the massacre. He showed me pictures of all the members, constantly zooming in on his son Faizal’s face. “This is the only picture I have.”

After a few minutes, as rainy clouds started appearing over Gulbarg Society, I was besieged by clouds of grief and despair. What a terrible assault on human dignity it was! Around one hundred human beings were subjected to the worst kind of humiliation and torturous killings in broad daylight, while the security establishment shamelessly watched the macabre series of murders, and the state machinery enabled the brutal genocide. When I went back downstairs and had a last glance at Jafri’s home, the only pleasant sight was the pink bougainvillea flowers that had engulfed the entrance of his dilapidated house. Twenty-one years ago, 69 flowers were crushed to death in the same place. As the rain was heavy, Rafiq Mansuri insisted that I take refuge in his home and offered me lunch. When I thanked him, he replied, “I am just a medium; the food has been provided to you by Almighty Allah. He alone is worthy of all praise.” His unwavering faith in Allah astonished me.

I asked him, “Why don’t you find another place? Why are you still living here despite knowing that not a single family lives here except yours, and blatant Islamophobia is going on in the entire country?” He replied, “I lost 19 members in the carnage. They were burnt alive, and around 5 kilograms of gold was looted. Our vehicles were burnt, and I have buried the dismembered bodies of my loved ones with these hands, yet I did not get justice. What could be worse? What was the fault of my family? None of them deserved that kind of end. They are martyred in the eyes of Allah, and killed because of their faith and Muslim identity. There is a court above all courts, the court of Allah, and I know those perpetrators won’t be spared there.”

When I asked him why he didn’t consider moving to another country, where he wouldn’t have to live with the trauma and could get a good night’s sleep, instead of answering my question, he asked me to follow him. He took me to the main gate of his house, which was painted with the tricolor of the Indian flag. Rafiq Mansuri was betrayed not just on 28 February 2002, but on every occasion when the killers of the Gulbarg massacre were acquitted, But surprisingly, his patriotism is still unfazed. And then he said, “I will never leave this country. No threat can terrify me. I will not leave Gulbarg Society either. My master is Allah, and I fear none but Him.”

I entered the society with deep sorrow and hopelessness, but the unshakeable faith of the Mansuri family in God propelled me. I couldn’t believe that such sheer faithfulness towards the Creator and the country was coming from a person who had horrendously lost 19 family members.

Marhaba Hilali is a freelance journalist and a Master in Development Communication student at A.J.K Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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