Yesterday, a special trial court in Ahmedabad announced a verdict in the 2002 Gulburg Society massacre case, in which 69 Muslim residents of the society were killed by a mob of Hindu attackers. The court convicted 24 people: 11 were convicted of murder, the rest of arson and rioting charges, among others. However, the court acquitted 36 others, including the BJP leader Vipin Patel and the former police inspector KG Erda. At the time of the incident, Erda was posted at the Meghaninagar police station, where the Gulburg Society is located. It also dropped the conspiracy charges against the accused, stating that there was not enough evidence. The judge termed this a “partial” victory for the defence.
In ‘The Emperor Uncrowned,’ his 2012 story on the rise of Narendra Modi, Vinod Jose had reported on the massacre. Among the slain was Ehsan Jafri, a prominent Congress leader and former member of parliament. Jose spoke with Jafri’s wife, Zakia, and other survivors. In this excerpt from the story, he recounts how, as the mob surrounded Gulburg Society, Jafri called several Gujarat state officials, asking for help. One of the people he reportedly called was the then chief minister of the state, Narendra Modi.
One day in early February 2002, a 12-year-old girl named Anika, the daughter of a senior engineer at Larsen and Toubro in Surat, got word she would be giving a dance performance at her school’s annual day on 1 March. It was to be her first dance in costume, and Anika insisted that her grandparents, who lived in Ahmedabad, should come to Surat to see her on stage. Her grandfather assured Anika he would certainly be there to see her perform.
Two days before Anika’s performance, on 27 February, 58 people—many of them women and children—were killed on a train passing through Godhra, 160 kilometres east of Ahmedabad. The train was carrying members of the VHP and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, who were returning from Ayodhya after celebrating the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and initial reports suggested that a mob of Muslims in Godhra had executed a pre-planned attack on the coach.
As word began to spread from Godhra—and pictures and video from the scene hit the airwaves—fury mounted, led by the activists of the VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS, baying for revenge. By the evening, the VHP called for a statewide bandh the next day, which was endorsed by the ruling BJP.
That same night, Ehsan Jafri, a 72-year-old former MP for Ahmedabad, called his granddaughter Anika in Surat with some disappointing news. Ensconced in his home in Gulburg Society, a mostly Muslim upper-middle class neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, Jafri, a veteran Congress politician, already sensed it would be risky to attempt a journey to Surat the next day. On the phone, he told Anika he wouldn’t be able to come. “But it’s just a shutdown, and he should make it,” she protested to her mother.
At around noon on 28 February, Anika called her grandfather again. “Have you not started?” she asked him. “Beta, the situation is not good here,” Jafri answered. “There are mobs everywhere.” He told her he needed to put the phone down, since he had a lot of calls to make.
A huge mob had already gathered around Gulburg Society, armed with petrol bombs, cycle chains and swords, shouting slogans like “Take revenge and slaughter the Muslims.” Many of Jafri’s neighbours, as well as Muslims from neighbouring slums, had come to his house seeking safety, expecting that his status as a former member of Parliament would afford them protection. “He must have made over a hundred phone calls for help,” Jafri’s wife, Zakia, told me. He called the Gujarat director-general of police, the Ahmedabad police commissioner, the state chief secretary and dozens of others, pleading for their intercession. A witness who survived the carnage later told a court that Jafri even called Narendra Modi: “When I asked him what Modi said, [Jafri] said there was no question of help, instead he got abuses.” Word of Jafri’s frantic calls for help even reached Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani in Delhi: a BJP insider close to Modi, who was with Advani on 28 February, told me that the BJP leader had even called Modi’s office himself to ask about Jafri.
By 2.30 pm, the mobs had broken through the gates of the housing society, and a flood of men converged on Jafri’s home. Women were raped and then burned alive; men were made to shout “Jai Shri Ram,” and then cut to pieces; children were not spared. According to records later submitted in court, Jafri was stripped and paraded naked before the attackers cut off his fingers and legs and dragged his body into a burning pyre. The official police report indicates that 59 people were murdered in Gulburg Society, though independent inquiries put the number at 69 or 70. Jafri’s wife, Zakia, and a few others who had locked themselves in an upstairs room survived.
To this day, Modi maintains that he had no knowledge of the events at Gulburg Society until he was briefed by police officers later that evening. But Sanjiv Bhatt, who was then the state deputy commissioner (Intelligence), says that Modi is lying. (Modi and his administration have vigorously contested Bhatt’s account, as well as the testimony given by several other police and government officials.) Bhatt insists that Modi, who also served as home minister, was in regular contact with the senior police and intelligence leadership throughout the day, and well-informed of events on the ground. Bhatt told me that he spoke with Modi over the phone several times before 2 pm, and reported that a mob had circled Gulburg, and that he met Modi at his office in the afternoon to report that the situation demanded immediate intervention.
“His response was very strange,” Bhatt told me. “He listened and then said, ‘Sanjiv, try to find out if in the past Jafri has been in the habit of opening fire.’”
“Outside the chief minister’s office, in the corridor, I bumped into the former chief minister Amarsinh Choudhary and former home minister Naresh Rawal,” Bhatt continued, referring to two Congress leaders. “Naresh Rawal was my minister earlier, so we talked. They told me Gulburg Ehsanbhai has been giving frantic calls, and they came to meet Modi. I said I had briefed the CM, but you also go and tell him,” Bhatt told me.
“I then got a call on my cellphone from my informer on the site at Gulburg,” Bhatt continued, “telling me that Jafri had opened fire. I was surprised. And when I reached my office, a short report was lying on the table saying Jafri opened fire in self-defence. That was when I realised that this man [Modi] knows things even before I came to know of things.”
Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. He has previously worked as a producer from South Asia for public radio stations in the US and Europe. Jose has an MA in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School, where he was a Bollinger Presidential Fellow. He also has graduate degrees in Communication and English, and a PhD in Sociology.