By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Saturday, August 24, 2002
Fifty-eight Hindus died in an arson attack on a train at Godhra in Gujarat on Feb. 27. In retaliatory attacks that dragged on for months, rampaging Hindu mobs burned alive hundreds of helpless Muslims across the length and breadth of Gujarat, making a mockery of India’s secular credentials. This well-orchestrated violence against Muslims had the complete backing of the state administration led by the fascist Bharatiya Janata Party. Chief Minister Narendra Modi defended the carnage and refused to resign his post, spurring the world media to dub him "India’s Slobodan Milosevic."
Six months later, the deaths are only statistics; however, as we know very well, every number stands for one human life. Maybe a child with a whole life of discovery ahead of him, a mother with responsibilities or, as in this case, a father and distinguished public figure with a life of national service behind him.
Ahsan Jafri, a former member of Parliament and a prominent member of the Gujarat Congress party, was killed while sheltering scores of people in his house in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society. Although several phone calls for help were made to the police, they did not arrive until six hours later. By that time, the proud Indian Muslim and dozens of others were all dead, butchered first and their bodies burned. It was one of secular India’s darkest days.
Ahsan Jafri’s daughter, Nishrin Hussain, lives in the United States and was constantly in touch with her father. We contacted her recently for her thoughts and comments.
Nishrin had spoken to her father a day before the Godhra incident. "Since my two brothers — Tanveer and Zuber — and I live outside Ahmedabad and my parents were living alone at our house at Gulberg Society, we were in touch with them every day — partly to find out how they were doing and partly to keep them company. My younger brother, Zuber, is also in the US and one of us called our parents every two or three days. In fact, I spoke to my father on Monday, Feb. 25 which was just before the Godhra incident." Zuber had called their father early in the morning of Feb. 28. "Father told him not to worry," recalls Nishrin, "as he had called the police commissioner who had promised to provide protection." As events proved, it was the hollowest of promises.
Early in the morning of Feb. 28, Zuber called Nishrin and told her of their father’s murder. "My brother went on the Internet when he could not get through to our father by phone. He found the news of the attacks on the Gulberg Society and our father’s death in The Times of India’s Internet edition." Nishrin has not visited India since the tragedy. "My husband Najid and my brother went to perform the last rites. I plan to visit Ahmedabad soon."
It is axiomatic of course that fathers have special bonds with their daughters. And so Nishrin believes she was her father’s favorite. "For several years after I married and left home — when I was no longer there — he used to call my name to fetch his glasses, or getting the newspaper, or bringing a glass of water. Even when my elder brother had a daughter and we named her Aniqa, many a time my father would call her by my name."
Nishrin recalls her father with no sense of bitterness toward the events or the community responsible for his death. She makes it her personal choice, informed and guided by her father’s beliefs, to look positively at the future of India and to work for an eventual end to the agenda of division and hatred between people of different faiths and creeds. She has a gritty determination and sense of equity in addressing herself, together with like-minded people, to bringing some sort of social justice to the disadvantaged in Gujarat. "My father always thought that I would take his lead and follow in his footsteps... It is hard for me to believe that he is no more, that he has been taken away so suddenly and with such cruelty and brutality. Because he was burned and we did not find his body, there is no closure for me on his death."
Nishrin, who in her own words is old enough to understand the politics of hate, says "During the past few months, I have swung wildly between the extremes of faith and hopelessness, brotherhood and utter disbelief in humanity, our ancient values and wisdom and open dance of immorality and violence in Gujarat. Over this time, I even challenged my roots and religion. But thanks to the power of my father’s teachings and the support of my family, I have now regained my balance, overcome my grief, even if only partially. Partially, because I am still not fully in control of my emotions while thinking about the sword that ripped him, the fire that burned him and the people who killed him."
Nishrin remembers something else as well. "Our house was burned down once before," she says. "It was during the communal riots of 1969. We barely made it to safety and it was thanks to police protection. Despite expressions of fear for his safety by friends and family, my father returned to the same house and rebuilt it."
Ahsan Jafri was convinced that he could not abandon Gujarat. "He was sure that he could not fight the monster of communalism effectively and teach people to live in harmony and acceptance by keeping himself away from the area. He was a very proud Muslim," says Nishrin, who is currently a controller in a rapidly expanding printing company in the United States.
Nishrin remembered the natural kindness of her father, even in small things that others might overlook in the turmoil of daily life. "The sparrows in his office are no more — their nests burned. I remember how he used to encourage and assist the sparrows to make their nests there, lay eggs, rear their chicks and teach them to fly. Even when we went out and locked the entire house, he would keep one office window open so that the sparrows could get in and out freely all the time. Several times a day, he would happily clean the mess sparrows made while building their nests. When the sparrows had little chicks, he would put a tape on the fan switch never allowing anyone to turn it on even by mistake. He would work in the heat rather than risk injuring the chicks with the fan."
The destruction of Babri Masjid by Hindutva forces in 1992 was a devastating blow to him and to the entire Muslim community. "Even after this, he still believed we could build a bridge of communal understanding and put the troubled past of Hindu-Muslim relationships behind us. He was a very proud Muslim who always believed that Islam is a religion of equality, compassion, kindness and humanity. He also believed that Indian Muslims must rise, educate themselves and find opportunities instead of crowing about the past glory or complaining and cribbing about their present state and treatment."
Ahsan Jafri was a good poet too. "I can still hear him humming his ghazals. They were the expressions of his devotion to his family, faith, country and humanity. He was an optimist and that is something many find unique in his poetry. Majrooh Sultanpuri, the noted Urdu poet, has articulated those feelings very well in his foreword for ‘Qandeel,’ the title of the collection of ghazals and poems my father published. "My father," says Nishrin, "not only attended mushairas, he organized them in the pursuit of keeping Urdu alive. The following couplet from his collection is my favorite:
Kaam mushkil sahi aasaan banaana hoga
Husn-o-tadbeer se imkaan banaana hoga
Yun to bhagwaan bana daale hazaaron ham ne
Ab har ek shakhs ko insaan banaana hoga."
To date, the government has offered no apology or even approached Nishrin. "Perhaps they are a little ashamed to say a few comforting words after inflicting the wounds," she says. "Blaming my father for instigating the riots by allegedly firing shots in the mob, which many eyewitnesses confirmed he never did, goes to discount any feeling of remorse from the government."
In the long term, Nishrin, who had her schooling and higher education in Ahmedabad, sees India’s future in all its diversity rather than in the divisive politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. "Indian values and wisdom will prevail in Gujarat as well as in the entire country. The BJP government may use terrorism and communal polarization and even reap some benefits in the short term. But in the long term, we have faith in our Indian values and our system of democracy. The divisive agenda will be defeated because it has no support from Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or other faiths. We will continue the fight to educate people and restore security, social justice and confidence."