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Stuck in time: Why Gulberg Society survivors are finding it impossible to sell their abandoned homes

Fourteen years since the Gujarat riots, no one wants to buy Gulberg bungalows at market rates. The state has made it worse by imposing a ‘Disturbed Areas’ law.

In the months before February 2002, Salim and Saira Sandhi were on the verge of selling their house, Bungalow No 6, in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society. They lived with Salim’s brothers in a joint family of 35 members and with everyone’s children grown up, they desperately needed a bigger place.

“We had almost finalised a deal, but Ehsan bhai convinced us not to sell this bungalow – he said we wouldn’t find such good property again,” said Saira Sandhi. Ehsan Jafri, their neighbour from Bungalow No 19, was a Member of Parliament from the Congress and asked the Sandhis to seek licenses to build additional floors on their bungalow.

Before that could happen, a mob of Muslims allegedly set fire to the Sabarmati Express near Godhra railway station, killing 59 people inside. The next morning, on February 28, 2002, Hindu mobs unleashed violence across Gujarat. In Gulberg Society, mobs went on a rampage burning houses, raping women and killing 69 people in the span of a few hours. Ehsan Jafri was among the many burnt alive, as was Salim and Saira Sandhi’s 24-year-old son. Salim also lost his brother and two sisters-in-law, and Saira narrowly escaped being gangraped.

Today, Bungalow No 6 stands empty and ghost-like, charred beyond recognition with nothing to distinguish it from the other burnt houses of Gulberg Society. Except for one old survivor who continues to live there, every other Gulberg family chose to abandon the homes where they lost their loved ones. Most of them have been living scattered across the city, paying for rented apartments even though they still own property in Gulberg.

This month, 14 years since the 2002, the Gulberg massacre case finally saw its first convictions. On Friday, a special court in Ahmedabad awarded life imprisonment to 11 men convicted of murdering Gulberg residents, and seven years of jail time to 12 other convicts. Earlier, on June 2, the court had acquitted 36 others accused in the case while dismissing the involvement of criminal conspiracy in the attacks.

For Gulberg survivors, the judgement has been disappointing and the sentences far too lenient. They say that they will appeal the judgement, but 14 years after the massacre, they are still completely uncertain about the fate of their abandoned homes. A nine-year-old plan to turn the Society into a memorial museum failed to materialise, and for the past three years, the state government has imposed a law to ensure that families like the Sandhis cannot sell their Gulberg properties to anyone.

A lost museum

In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, as Gulberg survivors left relief camps, they faced a dilemma. Should they sell off their charred homes, haunted by the horrors of the attack, and use the money to rebuild their lives? Or should they hold on to the houses that carried so many memories of happier times with the ones they lost? For many, financial desperation outweighed other concerns, but they found that selling property in a place marked by communal violence was no easy matter.

“No one was willing to pay the market rate, and they are still not willing to,” said Saira Sandhi, who now lives with her husband in a low-income Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad’s Shahibaug area.

In 2007, activist Teesta Setalvad offered Gulbarg’s former residents an option that, at the time, sounded like a win for all. Setalvad’s non-profit organisation, Sabrang Trust, had spearheaded the legal battle for justice in the Gujarat riots cases, and the Trust proposed to set up a memorial museum in Gulberg Society to mark the tragedies that befell Gujarat in 2002. To realise this dream of the museum, Sabrang Trust offered to buy Gulberg properties at market rates as soon as it could collect enough donations for the purchase. Home owners agreed not to sell their properties to anyone else during that period.

In 2012, however, the Trust gave up the idea of the museum and told home owners to go ahead and sell their properties to any other interested parties. “The reason was that land prices had increased tremendously and Teesta madam was not able to raise enough money at the same pace,” said Salim Sandhi. “Having the museum would have been an ideal tribute for our son and the others who died, but we understand that it is not possible anymore.”

Rifts in the Society

Not everyone, however, has been supportive of Setalvad after plans for the museum were cancelled. Since 2013, there has been a rift amongst Gulberg Society members, with one group accusing Setalvad, her husband Javed Anand and their two organisations – Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace – of misusing donations and failing to give residents the funds that were collected in their name for the purpose of building the museum.

This group is led by Feroz Khan Pathan, a cyber café owner who lost 10 members of his family in the massacre. They claim more than Rs 4 crores were collected for the museum. Pathan lived in Bungalow No 18 in Gulberg Society and is the key complainant in a police case against Setalvad.

“Many of us could have sold our properties in 2007 itself – there was a builder who had given an offer for the whole Society,” said Pathan. “We trusted madam for so many years and didn’t sell our homes, but when the museum was cancelled, we got nothing.”

By today’s market rates, says Pathan, each Gulberg bungalow owner has property worth at least Rs 50 lakhs-Rs 70 lakhs. That kind of money – even if split between brothers – would go a long way in helping Pathan’s family get financially stable, since the family got just Rs 1.25 lakh as official compensation from the government.

Since 2002, Pathan, his wife and two daughters have been living near Juhapura, a large Muslim ghetto in old Ahmedabad, and Pathan finds it difficult to manage household expenses after paying rent and his children’s school fees. “Paying rent feels like an added burden when our own legitimate money is stuck in property that we couldn’t sell for years,” he said.

Setalvad declined to comment on the issue of museum and the sale of the Gulberg properties. However, in previous interviews she has stated that Sabrang Trust managed to collect only Rs 4.5 lakh for the museum from donors, and that no money had been collected from home owners. The amount had been later redirected towards legal fees in various riots cases with due permission from the donors.

Disturbed Area?

Irrespective of the dispute over the museum, all Gulberg Society members were free to sell their properties from 2012 onwards, but that freedom didn’t last long. Barely a year later, the state government extended a law from 1986 – the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act – to several new areas in Ahmedabad, including Naroda Patiya and the neighbourhood in Gulberg Society falls. Under this Act, home owners can sell their property only to other members of their own community – not to anyone from other communities.

The imposition of this law has spelled doom for Gulberg Society, which was the lone Muslim-dominated housing colony in the predominantly Hindu neighbourhood of Asarwa. “Now the Gulberg properties are completely stuck, because no Muslim will buy a home in a Hindu area, and Hindus cannot buy from Muslims,” said Rupa Mody, a housewife and the sole Parsi resident of Gulberg, whose 14-year-old son went missing during the massacre and is now presumed dead. Thanks to financial help from Parsi community organisations, Mody, her husband and their daughter, now 25, were able to buy a flat at the other end of Ahmedabad, far away from Gulberg.

Mody has decided not to sell her Gulberg flat because it would amount to taking compensation for the loss of her son. “I would much rather just give that house away for a museum or anything else,” she said. “But the Disturbed Areas Act has ruined chances of any other members selling their property there. And what sense does the law make in an area that has seen no communal tensions in the past 14 years?”

The Sandhis agree. “How can you call the area disturbed when Muslims simply don’t live there anymore and its completely a Hindu area?” said Saira Sandhi.

In 2014, Feroz Pathan and other Gulberg members filed an appeal to the state government to lift the “disturbed area” tag from Gulberg, but in the past two years, there has been no change in the government’s position.

According RJ Jadeja, the deputy collector of East Ahmedabad, the law merely places restrictions on sale of property – it does not completely prohibit selling property to members of other communities. “The Act just makes it necessary for private property owners to take our permission before selling their homes to anyone,” said Jadeja.

Dead ends

To sell property, however, Gulberg members need to first find takers for either their individual homes or the Society as a whole. Neither has worked out so far.

“We expect people to pay us at least Rs 50 lakh for a bunglow, as per the current market rates, but the few Hindu clients who showed interest don’t want to pay more than Rs 15 lakhs- Rs 18 lakhs,” said Salim Sandhi. “How can we give our homes away that cheap?”

Shopowners in the immediate vicinity of Gulberg Society, however, believe that the survivors are expecting too much. “Once a certain place acquires a negative name, it is understandable that no one would want to buy property there,” said Babubhai Modi, a jewellery shop owner whose store faces the main road but still falls under Gulberg Society. “The rates offered are bound to be very low.”

Modi doesn’t know much about the Disturbed Areas Act but believes it would be best for the Society if the state government itself bought the property to build a hospital or a college.

The Sandhis, meanwhile, have no such expectations from a government that they claim has been harassing them over the years. “The Disturbed Areas Act needs to go, and whatever eventually happens to our Gulberg houses, it needs to include some kind of memorial,” said Saira Sandhi. “So many of our loved ones lived there and died there, we cannot let the next generations forget it.”

Published on Scroll.in

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