June 12, 2021
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Interview

'Ahsan Jafri Was Not A Muslim Fanatic'

On the brutal killing of his father-in-law, impressions from a visit to Gujarat in March, and his vision for the future.

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'Ahsan Jafri Was Not A Muslim Fanatic'
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The ongoing communal carnage in Gujarat has not left the Indian diaspora untouched. Many a Muslim NRI has lost relatives and friends back in India. Mr Najid Hussain, a marine scientist based in the United States, is the son-in-law of former Member of Parliament Mr Ahsan Jafri. Mr Jafri was killed by a riotous mob along with many of his family members and neighbors. In this interview with Ayub Khan, Mr Husain talks about the brutal killing of his father-in-law, his impressions from a visit to India in March, and his vision for the future.

How is your family, both in Gujarat and in US, coping with this tragedy?
Any untimely death in a family is troubling. But when the untimely death is also vicious, violent and very brutal, it becomes very hard to bear that, or accept it as a part of destiny. Ahsan Jafri's daughter (my wife) still has difficulty accepting that such a tragedy has occurred and that her father is brutally killed and burnt alive. Conditions of others in the family are not very much different. Many of our external wounds have healed, but the internal wounds remain fresh. They may never heal.

Mr. Ahsan Jaffrey was popular among people belonging to all faiths, then why do you think he was targeted?
Ahsan Jafri had worked all his life to bring Hindu and Muslim communities together. Beside the happiness of his family the only other objective of his life was "Janaseva"-- not that Hindu-seva, or Muslim-seva, or Christian-seva. Just Jana-seva. In his services to the people, he was blind to race and religion. He never hurt anyone. It is unfortunate that those who targeted him and led the mob to kill him, ignored or did not understand his message of national unity, integrity and communal harmony.

There have been a lot of reports regarding his last moments. Some claim that he fired at the mob while others claim that he didn't. Can you please describe in detail what really happened on that fateful day?
My father-in-law was a kind and a compassionate human being who revered life. He never hurt anyone in his life. Although firing in self-defence is not a crime, we know well that he did not fire any shots. Trying to put the blame on him shows the weakness and culpability of those who failed to save his life and the lives of thousands of others.

Following the incident, I was in Ahmedabad. There were 20 houses in Gulberg Society and more than 100 residents. A few of these succeeded in escaping alive. I met several of these, including my mother-in-law, who told me about what actually had happened there on that fateful day.

February 28 was Gujarat Bandh day. As communal riots are not uncommon in Ahmedabad, following Godhra incident, there was concern about riots in the region. Around 9 AM the mob started gathering around the Society. That was soon followed up by shouting racial slurs, looting of shops and stoning houses. My father-in-law called the police commissioner, P.C. Pande. Pande came to meet him at the Society and left after assuring my father-in-law that it was all under control and that the police was on its way to protect Gulberg Society.

Soon the mob started burning shops and properties. But it did not get entry into the Society because the Society was surrounded by the compound wall and the residents had closed the gates. The atrocities increased outside. My father-in-law called the police again. No response this time. Between the morning until noon, when the mob had torn down the compound wall, entered the Society and chopped off the telephone lines, Ahsan Jafri had made dozens of calls to many of his friends in high public offices, including the Gujarat Congress President Amarsingh Chaudhary and Sonia Gandhi, pleading with them to help him, and those in his house at that time. There were nearly 150 people, mostly women and children, who had gathered in his house seeking protection from the violent mob. Still no help arrived.

The elements of the mob, many of whom were well known people from the area, had swords, knives, trishuls and fire bombs. They raped girls, chopped off their body parts and burnt them. Most of the houses in the Society were on fire. The air conditioner of our house was pulled out and through the widow the mob threw in fire bombs and gas cylinders. The bedroom was on fire. 

The house was full of people. There was no place for them to move anywhere. At that time, my father-in-law came out of the house and pleaded with his folded hands, "you may take me, but please spare the people inside the house". One of the mob elements immediately slashed at him with the sword and the rest of them dragged him outside on the road where they burnt him. They also did not spare anyone inside the house. The house was burnt with the people inside it. The police did not come until evening, when everything was over and the mob had left.

How many people of your household were killed during that attack?
The entire society was our family. We lost more than 80% of that family. But as for the immediate family, my father-in-law was the only casualty. Owing to her arthritic knees, Jafri sahib had sent my mother-in-law upstairs when the ground floor started getting crowded with people from the society. That alone saved her and a few others who were with her upstairs and who have seen most of what happened there that day.

What happened to the little Parsi boy who had taken refuge in Mr.Jafrey's house along with his mother and couldn't be found afterwards?
Those who were upstairs in our house and got rescued did not know anything about Azar, the Parsi boy. But two others who succeeded in fleeing the Gulberg Society after our house was set afire told me that while he was going upstairs holding the hand of his mother he fell off in the fire and got burnt. Dozens of severely burnt and non-recognizable bodies, including those of children, were recovered from the water tank as well. These must have been the ones who had jumped into the tank after being set fire to..

Do you believe that there is a direct hand of BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal behind this communal holocaust?
From what I have personally seen at the Gulberg Society and the rest of Ahmedabad and heard from thousands of victims staying in various relief camps there, it is very hard to reach a conclusion otherwise. Many at the relief camps who came from Meghani Nagar have told me that they had seen Praveen Togadia directing the mob to Gulberg Society. I also do not see how any one can ignore police connivance in the violence. 

I intend to bring a lawsuit against P.C. Pande who failed to do his duty of protecting the lives and properties of Gulberg Society residents. I spoke to a couple of other police commissioners in Ahmedabad who accepted that they did not do anything to control the mob, or protect people and their properties. They said that they had the orders from "above" to lay low. But they also said that publicly they could not say this.

The death toll reports vary from 800 to over 2000. Which one in your opinion is the right figure?
I have no doubt that the actual death toll is much more than 2000. Even after 10 days of the start of the violence, I have personally seen dozens of mutilated, decayed and burnt bodies in open fields and wells in and around Ahmedabad. I have also spoken to literally hundreds of those 97,000 riot affected victims who are living in relief camps. Each one of them had a horror story to tell. 

Each one of them had known or seen someone raped, mutilated, or burnt alive. I have been told that in villages hundreds of families have been completely exterminated leaving no trace behind. There was one family in Gulberg Society which had a total of 28 members-- parents, their children and their children's children as young as 6 months old, all living under a single roof. Three have survived, one in critical condition. Some estimates of the total killed in this pogrom are much higher. I have little to doubt that.

You have just returned from Gujarat. What is the current situation? Was there any semblance of normalcy when you were there?
I was in Gujarat until March 26. I was born and brought up in India. In my 30 years of living there and 13 years outside, I had never known any fear for my life. Freedom and security were taken for granted. But the three weeks I stayed in Gujarat following February 28, not a single day went by when I did not think this could be my last day. On the day when I had to leave Ahmedabad to go to Surat, I had to ask for Police protection to go to the railway station. Many of the areas were under curfew. From the news reports and from talking to our relatives in Gujarat we learn that the situation is still not very much different. Mobs are still active. Several regions are still under curfew. Fear and insecurity are still ruling the region.

What are the urgent needs of the refugees?
I think it would be wrong to call these victims "refugees". They are not outsiders who have come to India seeking refuge. They are not even people from outside their state. They have been looted, tortured and rendered homeless within the state with the help of those very people who were charged with their safety and protection. They are not refugees. They are the victims of a state sponsored pogrom.

I have seen women, children, babies and very elderly people living under subhuman conditions at the camps. While I was there, that was also the time the state had not taken any responsibility even for their relief work. Only humane societies and individuals were doing their best to provide these victims the much needed relief. The food, the medicine, the sanitation were in short supply. Enormous resources will be required for just the relief work. 

Rehabilitation is yet another story. Allow me to make a plea to your readers at this time. I urge the readers of these columns to come forward and help. Please be generous in donating money and your time to provide relief and rehabilitation to these innocent people. We are working through the Indo-American Association of Delaware, a charitable foundation registered in Delaware to co-ordinate relief work in Gujarat. Please send your contributions to IAAD, 38 Orchid Drive, Bear, DE 19701. Your contributions are tax exempt under the current IRS laws.

Thousands of Muslim students have boycotted the board exams in Gujarat. Being an academic yourself do you think that this was the right decision for them?
As an educator, my objective is not just to teach my subjects, but also to prepare them for a successful life, build their values, confidence and the character in an atmosphere of safety and security. It is also important for me to ensure that none of my students are disadvantaged to succeed in their lives for no fault of their own.

In today's Gujarat, it is not difficult to see that thousands of students have suffered unimaginable atrocities. Thousands of lives are shattered and destroyed beyond repair. There are many genuine cases where the fear factor is weighing very heavy on the minds of those students in order to appear for the exams. The partisanship of the police has greatly damaged its reputation as a secular and a protective force. 

The advice to the victims from several political and communal circles that "if they don't press any charges against the culprits, they can be allowed to return to their homes without further fear for their lives", gives little confidence for a safe environment where children can appear for the exams. So although I have never advised any students to boycott any exams, under the present circumstances in Gujarat, I can understand if some students are boycotting the board exams. They have already lost so much, they stand to lose much more by appearing for an exam with low morale, low preparation, poor confidence, a disturbed and disoriented mind, and a very high fear factor. 

This exam is vital for their career choice, options, and the future itself. It is not their fault that they have ended up in this state of mind, or a mess. I think these students deserve our understanding and help. They need to be given another chance to take their exams at a time when they have reasonably overcome their trauma and can prepare and take their exams under a safe and secure environment.

Any other message that you would like to give to the Muslim and Indian community at large?
As a 6 year old boy, I used to insist on taking up a window seat during our train travels. On one such occasion, as the train started, someone from the front compartment spit. The spit came on my hands. I got very angry and without a moment's delay, I spat right back. The idea was to punish the guy who had spat on me. But as the train was moving my spit went on someone behind me who happened to be an older person that came looking for me.

It is not right for our leaders of today to behave like a six year old. You can not fix the historical wrongs of the Muslims by punishing the innocent Indians of today just because they are Muslims. Godhra was wrong. It should never have occurred. The right way to avenge that is to catch the culprits of that incident and punish them to the fullest possible extent allowed by the law.

Ahsan Jafri was not a Muslim fanatic or a fundamentalist. He was a strong nationalist who worked all his life teaching the principles of unity, communal harmony, religious tolerance and national pride. His vision for India was very much similar to that of Mahatma Gandhi. He lived for our unity, and now he died for our unity. Let us all recognize the importance of communal unity. Polarization will lead us all down the path of self annihilation. 

In today's global markets, safety and security through secularism are essential for success of an economy and a country. Gujarat has already lost several billions in terms of businesses and properties. And yet this loss may just be the beginning. Many businesses will suffer further losses in reduced productivity, pulled out investments, lowered evaluations and lost opportunities.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the US, the entire media, community leaders and the heads of public offices, including the President of the United States, urged everyone not to jump to conclusions, not to target anybody from the middle-east or because of their looks. President Bush himself went to several mosques, Gurudwara and temples to show that all Muslims, Sikhs, or Hindus are not terrorists. 

Not targeting an entire society, or a community for revenge but providing an assurance of security to the people at large including the innocent people belonging to those communities where the terrorists came from are the signs of an intelligent society. Preaching indiscriminate revenge, fomenting hatred against an entire community and targeting innocent people including women and children, do not show maturity, or intelligence. I humbly urge Vajpayeeji to take a principled stand which he has always done rather than succumb to the communal pressures or agenda within his own party.

In the name of my father-in-law, Ahsan Jafri, I also urge the Muslim leadership in India to stop spreading anti Hindu sentiments amongst the Muslims and start teaching brotherhood, respect tolerance of other faiths and pride in nationalism. We all know what our ancestors have historically done to the Hindus. Let us make the bridge. Let us not put the religion to confront with our country's interests, or our countrymen. Let us reach across. Thank you and God bless India.


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