Zakia Jaafri and the Jersey widows
HER circumstances are many times more adverse. Perhaps that is why in her fight for justice Zakia Jaafri outshines the four heroic American women of 9/11 who became known as the Jersey widows.
Their husbands perished when fanatics, driven by religious vendetta, attacked New York and Washington with hijacked commercial planes 10 years ago.
The women became the conscience-keepers of their stunned nation and rallied support for a commission of inquiry to investigate the attacks as well as official lapses that permitted the outrage to happen. When people with dubious credentials infiltrated the commission, the women got them evicted.
Zakia, now in her 80s, had helplessly watched her husband being beheaded and thrown into a bonfire of corpses by a mob of equally twisted religious fanatics. She too has been trying to arouse the conscience of her countrymen to the threat democracy faces at the hands of homegrown fascists.
She believes Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had knowingly handed over the streets to Hindu mobs to carry out unspeakable mass killings of Muslims. Ehsaan Jaafri’s body was still warm when the flames engulfed his remains. That was in Gujarat on Feb 28, 2002 barely five months after 9/11.
Who was this man the mob had killed? Jaafri was not a communal mullah fanning mayhem from the pulpit. From all accounts he was an avowedly secular patriot, a trade union leader who joined the Congress and won a seat in the Lok Sabha in 1977.
That may have been his undoing. He was an eyesore for the Hindu right and their corporate patrons. They had burnt down his
house in 1969.
Jaafri’s little-known flair for Urdu poetry easily establishes his credentials. His book of verse called Qandeel ( A Lamp) was published in 1994 and endorsed by the celebrated progressive poet Majrooh Sultanpuri. If anything he could be accused of encouraging maudlin nationalism. But that could not be a reason to lynch him. Sample this tearjerker:
“Geeton se teri zulfon ko Meera ne sanwara
Gautam ne sada di tujhe Naanak ne pukara
Khusro ne kai rangon se daaman ko nikhara
Har dil mein muhabbat ki ukhuwat ki lagan hai
Ye mera watan mera watan mera watan hai.”
(‘Meera adorned your locks with her songs/ Gautam called out to you, as did Naanak/ Khusro filled colours in your frills/ Every heart beats here for love and tolerance/ This is my homeland, this is it’).
Jaafri’s murder and that of 2,000 men, women and children, which went on steadily for days could have been avoided. But the Indian state was not interested. That’s a major difference between the circumstances of the women from Jersey and Zakia Jaafri’s lot.
The Indian parliament was busy balancing its account books on the morning the pogroms began. The annual budget was to be televised and so not a single deputy (including those from the fabled left) rose to express any outrage at the turn of events in Gujarat.
Everyone had enough lead-time to react but chose not to. The killings were preceded by the death of dozens of Hindu activists in a train coach the previous day. The Gujarat government instantly accused a Muslim mob of complicity. The signal was given and the killings began.
No news channel was willing to turn the gaze from their sacred TRP-linked duty of broadcasting the budget speech. By the time they found time to look at the mayhem in Gujarat it was too late.
The difference between Zakia Jaafri’s situation and that of the heroes of Jersey is palpable in other ways.
As part of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee the women from Jersey helped form, they pressured the American government for months to have national security adviser Condoleezza Rice appear before the commission. When she refused to testify under oath, they walked out in silent protest. The White House, in an about-face, gave in and Rice testified. The widows got credit for the resignation of Henry Kissinger as head of the commission.
“We were shocked. Kissinger had huge conflicts of interest — major dealings with the Saudis…. The day before he resigned, we had a meeting with him in his office in Manhattan,” one of the women recalled. Their research was impeccable. Kissinger was asked pointedly if he had any Saudi clients.
“He mumbled something. And then he asked if someone would pour him some coffee,” his tormentor said. “Do you happen to have any clients by the name of Bin Laden?” He was asked. “He almost fell off the couch.” No one was invincible before the state, not even the powerful Kissinger. Zakia’s trauma on the other hand was compounded by the state’s complicity in her tragedy.
Key conspirators from the Hindutva stable have given interviews to this effect in sting operations carried out by Tehelka.
Police records show senior officers were involved in fanning communal violence not in stopping it. The state has so far ignored the evidence.
Zakia Jaafri’s fight to get justice received a body blow this week after the Supreme Court hearing her petition to include Modi as a suspect threw back the case to the lower court in Gujarat.
Zakia was disappointed but said the fight would go on. This, unfortunately, suits the evolving political situation. The grey area created by the court’s order is being claimed by the Hindu right as a clean chit to Modi, a prime ministerial hopeful.
The Congress plans to exploit the inherent vagueness in the court ruling in the Uttar Pradesh elections due early next year.
Anyone winning the state would be better placed to form the next government when general elections are held in 2014, or if a mid-term poll is forced earlier.
The American state, which after September 2001 should have become sensitive to the gory incarnations religious fanaticism assumes, selfishly shunned Gujarat. This was a defining difference in the fight the women from Jersey were fighting and Zakia Jaafri’s lonely furrow. There were reasons for America’s aloofness.
The declaration of the war on terror by the Bush administration implicitly profiled Muslims generally as villainous even if publicly Washington pledged and maintained this was not true.
Thus when the state of Gujarat all but declared open season on innocent men, women and children of a particular community there was no purpose seen by the US embassy in Delhi to take notice.
In contrast to its recent concern for democracy in Libya, Iraq and Syria, It remained a silent spectator to the massacres in Gujarat. Not a whimper from the State Department for an inordinately long time. It’s a miracle Zakia Jaafri hasn’t lost her will to fight on.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.