This is how irony manifests in real life. Gulbarg is a Persian word that means a garden of flowers. A nondescript residential colony of tenements and flats in middle-class locality of Naroda in east Ahmedabad was named Gulbarg Society, perhaps with this connotation in mind. Eleven years ago, this residential colony became the international icon of the 2002 genocide. Amid walls where families had blossomed for years, 69 people were burnt alive and killed, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri.
Eleven years later, Gulbarg’s tale of agony continues. Amid overgrown foliage and natural degeneration, Gulbarg’s ashen walls are perhaps the last scene of crime which bear testimony of the horrors these families witnessed on February 28, 2002 watching and listening to the dying cries of their kin. Many other such sites of attack were demolished and rebuilt – Naroda Patiya’s narrow alley for instance – but courtesy international infamy for a decade, the ruins of Gulbarg were in a way ‘preserved’ for a Museum of Holocaust – a memorial to the victims of communal violence and a reminder of the carnage.
The plan of a memorial was conceived by activist Teesta Setalvad of NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace, which has been providing legal guidance to victims in their judicial fight. In 2005-06 when the idea was first floated, residents were offered a little less than the market price by CJP and they were content with giving their homes for the cause, with memories of the attack fresh in their minds.
But today, when India observes the 11th anniversary of Godhra and post-Godhra violence this week, residents of Gulbarg have resolved that they do not want the memorial, but instead want to sell their houses and “move on with life”.
In November 2012, the society passed a resolution to allow sale of the houses. Not a single family has lived there in last 11 years. Earlier this week, the residents wrote to Ahmedabad city police commissioner not to allow any NGO (read CJP) to assemble at Gulbarg Society to observe the anniversary of the attack.
The irony emerges again. The attack on Gulbarg was in a way the hallmark of the 2002 communal violence as it was Jafri’s wife, 74-year-old Zakia, who, with the aid of Setalvad, filed a petition in Supreme Court, naming chief minister Narendra Modi as one of the accused in the violence. It was on the basis of this petition that SC ordered a fresh inquiry by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into all the riot-related cases. It was on the basis of SIT reports that six riot cases have concluded in court and 116 people have got life imprisonment in different rioting cases across the state — highest ever conviction for communal riots in India. It is because of Zakia’s persistence for justice for the attack on Gulbarg Society that even in January 2013, in a diplomatic lunch, Modi had to patiently explain to ambassadors of 27 European countries about his role in the 2002 riots.
Yet in Gulbarg, things have come a full circle. The realty price of the area has shot up, and Setalvad’s NGO is unable to match the going rate to buy out the houses. Spread over 5000 sq m, the society has 19 owners of 19 bungalows and 14 shops. According to a rough estimate, the entire society would be worth Rs12.35 crore at the current market rate, with each member pocketing between Rs 60-70 lakh.
Not a single resident has returned to live in the society in all these years. Some residents still living in rented accommodation want to sell the house and finally settle down somewhere away from the depressing memories. Setalvad and another activist, Father Cedric Prakash, on the other hand sympathise with the residents. “We hear there is pressure on some residents to sell their houses as to erase the last tell-tale sign of the massacre,” Fr Prakash says.
The usually eloquent Setalvad concedes the memorial plan is in cold storage. “We are busy handling various riot cases in court,” she retorts.
But members of the society whom DNA contacted maintained it is only the rising realty rates. Yunus Patel, a former resident of Gulbarg Society, says that CJP had expressed inability to pay the market price for the property. “We want a memorial, but the spurt in realty prices meant CJP could not pay us the market rate. We approached Teestaben and were even willing to sell it for a rate that was less than the market rate but even that was not affordable,” says Patel, who has now settled in Gandhinagar and works in a private engineering firm.
Salim Sandhi, chairman of Gulbarg Society, said the resolution allowing members to sell the houses to whomsoever they want irrespective of the buyer’s religion was passed after several members expressed their wish to sell the property. “All those who had a government job could manage their finances and even buy a house. But the rest are still living in rented accommodations. They say that paying rent for so long has taken a toll on their finances. They want to sell the property so as to buy a house of their own,” said Sandhi. His wife, Saira, says 75% members are in favour of selling their property. “But we don’t want the world to forget the massacre and want a memorial too. Perhaps, we can look at building it atop the shops,” she offers.
Tanveer, son of Ehsan Jafri, now lives in Surat and works with a private firm. He says when the memorial was proposed, the members were to be a part of its management and it was envisioned they would remain associated with this incident all their life. “Time passed, and things changed. The decision to sell the society is a collective one, but I am not sure what motivated some members to go to the commissioner’s office seeking help to keep NGOs out to mourn the victims of violence. It is because of police that all those people died; the commissioner’s office is two kilometres from Gulbarg. Had the cops arrived in time, no one would have died. It is an ironic pity that they should seek help from the same office today to keep out people who want to mourn the victims,” Jafri said.
Aother resident, Rupa Mody who lost her adolescent son Azhar in the violence, is also tight-lipped. “I go there only 2-3 times in a year. Everyone wanted a museum, but if it is not working out, too bad. The society will sell together and we will do what everyone does,” Mody says noncommittally. Her tears couldn’t stop when the movie ‘Parzania’ was filmed on her son, but today she would rather not be the stumbling block for a secure future of other members.
As for the memorial, Tanveer assures it has been amicably resolved. “A small museum and skill development centre for marginalised women may come up on the area of around 500 sq m where eight flats stand right now,” he adds. When Ehsan Jafri built Gulbarg Society in 60s, it was perhaps a bed of roses, but not since.