It is a Catch-22 situation for survivors of the Gulbarg Society riots in 2002. Despite having their own houses, they are being forced to live in tiny rented houses in Ahmedabad, as they can neither sell their destroyed houses in Gulbarg Society nor move back into them.
According to the survivors, the Sabrang Trust, activist Teesta Setalvad’s NGO, had promised them that the trust would buy their houses to convert them into a museum.
In a letter written by Setalvad on 14 January 2008, in the capacity of the trustee of the Sabrang Trust, to the chairman of the Gulbarg Society, she had proposed a “historic initiative” to build a “museum of resistance at this painful but historic site so that the victims of communal violence and their lives and experience find a permanent voice, and the movement against communal violence, a space”. The said letter has been accessed by The Sunday Guardian.
In that letter, Setalvad had “proposed” the construction of the museum “after members of the Society accept our proposal to sell the site to Sabrang Trust. Needless to say, we request that the Society independently appoints a surveyor to evaluate the property and thereafter a financial process is put across to us”, she wrote.
However, four years later, the Sabrang Trust rescinded on its promise to build a museum after money from several donors to convert the Society into a museum was collected, and the riot survivors of Gulbarg Society told in 2012 that they can dispose of their property.
According to Intiyaz Khan, one of the survivors who has a four-room house in Gulbarg Society, the survivors of the Society were taken for a ride by Setalvad. “Initially, there were many buyers who would come to us to buy our houses in the Society, but Setalvad prevailed upon us not to sell to them and convinced us that we should let her build a museum there. She had at that time promised us that she will purchase the destroyed houses from us. However, now she is saying that she doesn’t have enough funds to build a museum, which as per information of the RTI that we had filed, is not the truth as she has received crores of rupees in donation. Now, we can neither move into our homes as we do not have money to repair them, nor are we able to sell them as no one wants to buy because the houses have become ‘disputed property’ due to Setalvad’s agenda of turning it into a museum,” Khan alleged.
Khan, who works as an electrician and earns Rs 5,000 per month, used to live in House no. 18 in the Society, but is now living with his wife and two teenage sons in a one-room house for which he pays Rs 1,500.
“In 2006, we were approached by builders who were ready to pay us Rs 25 lakh-Rs 40 lakh for our houses, but we trusted Setalvad’s words that she will buy our houses and convert them into a museum. Now, after getting the donation money that was given to her for turning our houses into museum, she has forgotten everything,” said Saeed Khan, another survivor of the Society.
Shama, Khan’s 32-year-old wife, alleged that when they confronted Setalvad in 2012 asking her to give at least a part of the donation money, she refused.
“In 2012, she invited a huge media contingent to cover the event of Gulbarg Society turning into a museum”, in which noted singer Shubha Mudgal, too, performed. During that programme, Setalvad harped on how, due to her efforts, the Society was now a museum. When the programme was over, we asked her for the money she had promised us now that the Society had been converted into a museum, as she tried to portray to those who had donated the money. She told us that there was no money and called us ‘gazar-muli’ and dared us to do whatever we wanted,” she said.
Feroz Khan Pathan, another survivor of the riots who lost his house, said the fact that they trusted Setalvad proved to be their undoing. “I lost my mother in the riots and now I am forced to live in a one-room rented house despite having a four-room house in Gulbarg Society. After our house was destroyed in 2002, we had thought of disposing it of and moving to a different locality, but now I cannot do anything as no one wants to buy that house,” he said.