By Dionne Bunsha
Penguin Books India 2006
27th February 2002:
A compartment of the Sabarmati Express from Varanasi to Ahmedabad is set on fire at 8.05 a.m. after a fight at the Godhra station platform between Hindu activists on the train and a Muslim tea vendor. Fifty nine people were killed. Several activists of the fundamentalist groups, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, were in the train on their way back from a ceremony at the disputed site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
28th February 2002:
During the VHP bandh the next day, mobs target Muslims in Ahmedabad, Baroda and villages in 20 of Gujarat’s 26 districts, but mainly in north and central Gujarat. More than 1,000 people were killed.
The violence continued in some places for three months. Refugees were stuck in relief camps for many months after.
Three years later:
Some refugees cannot return home.
The culprits remain unpunished.
Muslims and Christians in Gujarat still live in fear.
“The golden rule of conduct is mutual tolerance, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see truth in fragment and from different angles of vision.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
‘Jai Shree Ram!’.
– ‘Hello, can I please speak to Mr Jaideep Patel’
‘Jai Shree Ram!
‘Say Jai Shree Ram!’
– ‘Namaste, I am a journalist and I would like to speak to Mr Patel’
‘Jai Shree Ram! You have to say Jai Shree Ram or I will not talk to you any further. Which country are you from? Aren’t you living in Bharat?’
– ‘But I did say Namaste to you, sir…’
‘Jai Shree Ram!’ (hangs up the phone)
This telephone conversation was my first taste of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). On my first visit to Gujarat to cover the communal violence, I had called up their office hoping to speak to their leaders.
I didn’t want to go back. One trip to Gujarat to report on the communal violence in March 2002 was enough.
Hearing stories of inhumanity repeated in relief camp after relief camp. Making people relive their torture while telling me their stories. Sure, they were eager that I hear them and record their testimony. It had to be done. But it made me feel sick in the stomach. And it still hurts. I hoped it would disappear the first time I left Gujarat.
But Gujarat would not let me be. What I saw and heard was too shocking to forget. The story didn’t seem to end. It just kept unfolding with more grisly twists and turns. For the refugees, the nightmare was just beginning. There was no way out of the camps. New victims poured in as more violence followed. Then, the police actually attacked two relief camps, claiming they sheltered ‘terrorists’. Here were people with little to eat. Still trying to find work, rebuild their homes. The attitude of the police alone could have easily driven them to violence. But it didn’t. They just wanted to get on with their lives.
The government’s disregard made the refugee’s dilemma more tragic. And, at times, bizarre. Speaking to people from the administration or the middle classes made me wonder – were we talking about the same place?
Any mention of the massacres was brushed aside if they had never happened, conveniently oblivious to the plight of refugees. Gujarat had to get on with business. Nothing should be said to damage Gujarat’s name. The thousands who suffered didn’t matter. ‘They (Muslims) deserved it.’
Could people really think that? Did children deserve to be thrown into fires? Did women deserve to be gang raped and later burned to death? Did innocent men, indeed anyone, have to be cut in pieces? Even after hearing these stories often, I couldn’t fully come to grips with them. I wanted to understand the minds of people who could inflict such barbarism on others.
I sought out both the big and the small fish. Funnily enough, some of them are now familiar faces to me, friendly when we meet. And they are important characters in this book. (To be honest, it’s hard to always see them as murderers although I know they are.) In some strange way, these are people who have been programmed. They are whole-heartedly proud of what they did and can’t see it any other way. And the violence was all something that they had been trained and conditioned for. Prepped and psyched for it all these years at countless meetings, fed by local street gossip. The same doesn’t hold true for bigger leaders. Their motives were cynical in the extreme, and they made no bones about it.
I still remember a senior leader BJP telling me, with a glint in his eye, that yes, he had also gone out on the streets to lead the trouble in his constituency. But then, ‘bus, ek do din ke baad bahut ho gaya. Itna nahin karna chahiye. (Enough, after one or two days. It shouldn’t go too far)’ But it did. Chief minister Narendra Modi allowed it to move to a dangerous extreme. (Over a span of more than two years, I tried to get an interview with him, but he kept refusing to grant me one.)
My conversations with people like Babubhai Bajrangi, the main accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre, made me aware how confident the perpetrators were of getting away with murder, rape, kidnapping. Babubhai recounted with relish how he and his volunteers thrashed Muslim boys who married Hindu girls. Or happily described how he told the media waiting outside the riot commission: ‘Muslims are like diabetes and the Bajrang Dal is the medicine’. He proudly displayed press clippings as proof. Babubhai could get away with it because he knew he was pleasing the most powerful and had their support.
Curious about what makes people like Babubhai, I visited a VHP camp, where they train their fighters in rifle shooting, karate, lathi practice. The recruits also attend a daily lecture where ‘knowledge’ is imparted, ‘knowledge’ which mainly spews hate against the minorities and glorifies Hindutva. I have tried to place the violence in the larger context of social and political processes that have contributed to the closed climate that exists today. Communal education, ghettoisation, the saffron takeover of the administration and the absence of any other organised political force have all led to the dominance of saffron groups that keep the fear of ‘the other’ brewing on both sides. And provides a climate that is ripe for any small incident to spark an outbreak of violence. Long after the killings were over, not only the victims, but Gujarat’s people and its social fabric remains scarred – by intolerance.
There are less obvious victims of the riots too. Top police officers who happened to be Muslim. They were forced to watch helplessly while the city burned. Their high-ranking positions meant little in that period. They were not even posted on official duty. As thousands called begging to be saved, they couldn’t do much to help. Their own safety was fragile, the buildings they lived in were attacked. It drove them crazy. To de-stress, one officer practised golf at the Police Stadium. (It also disturbed him that he was playing golf while the city was burning) Months after the violence abated, a senior police officer was still scared to venture out for his morning walk. Two years later, they are more reluctant to discuss their marginalisation now than they were when it was happening.
As time passed, I saw outspoken people lose their nerve. With the BJP re-capturing the state assembly less than a year after the violence, the dissenters ran out of steam. Too many people were lapping up the BJP’s version of events, however twisted. That’s when I realised the need to document what I had seen. To share with others the encounters I had with different kinds of people – on either side of the fence, some even sitting on the fence.
Prominent businessmen publicly lionised him. One of them, a Parsi (who are normally quite clannish), told me that top industrialists like Jamshed Godrej and Anu Aga (also Parsis) were a bunch of idiots – because they publicly criticised Modi. ‘Nothing happened. Leave Gujarat alone,’ was the refrain. As one newspaper editor joked, ‘In a year, the BJP may succeed in convincing people that the riots didn’t happen. It was a mere fabrication of the ‘pseudo-secular’ English press.’ He was not far off the mark. That was indeed the BJP’s line.
After the election, Gujarat virtually disappeared from the news pages. There was no violence. But that didn’t mean things were normal. Some refugees hadn’t left relief camps, especially those in rural areas. Even Salim Sindhi, the sarpanch of Kidiad village, was living in a tent at the Modasa relief camp in Sabarkantha until April 2004. None of the Muslims in his village could return home. They sold all their agricultural land there. Here was an entire community camping miles away from home, with no idea of how to find work and survive. Landowners reduced to casual labourers, roaming the streets everyday in search of work. In cities and towns too, an economic boycott was enforced. Shops were warned not to hire Muslims. Many employers were scared to take back their Muslim staff.
Witnesses weren’t only fighting battles against the accused, but also against the police and prosecutors who did their best to botch up cases or close them down. They were also wrestling against their own fears. Around half the cases were closed as ‘true but undetected’. Literally, there were thousands of people waiting outside police stations everyday just to say – ‘Listen! This is what happened to us! This is how my mother was killed! My wife gang raped! My son burned!’ But the police were deaf, and also heartless.
Refugees were fighting not only to rebuild their lives, but to get justice. It would have been easier to give up and move on. What a brave front they put up! It isn’t easy, fighting with everything possible ranged against you. Being the butt of lewd remarks in court while you narrate how your daughter was raped. Few would have the stamina or the courage to go through even one of those court hearings. But many did. Their stories had to be told. I wanted to take the story of Gujarat beyond the violence. To give the numbers faces and names. I also wanted people to see ‘the other side’. To understand Babubhai and his fellow activists in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Who were the ‘mobs’ in saffron bands and khaki pants? Why were they there?
Children are always the most eloquent. I remember Noorunissa Ghachi, a small girl at the Godhra civil hospital, standing beside her father, Razak, who was slashed with sword wounds. As her father narrated the story of the attack in Pandharvada, the seven-year-old daughter girl kept looking up at me with big eyes. She waited for her father to pause for a second so that she could pipe in, ‘You know, they grabbed small children from their homes and threw them into the fire.’ She was anxious to tell me this. To let me know that she could have been one of those in the fire. Many months later, I met a young 13-year-old Bajrang Dal recruit at a procession in Rajkot. I asked him why he joined the Bajrang Dal. His answer was straight: ‘Miyaon ko marna (to kill Muslims)’. I couldn’t ask another question. This book is for both those children, and countless others like them.
Hindus, too, suffered. The 59 who were burned to death in the Sabarmati Express. In the riots that followed, some of those who lived within Muslim colonies had to flee when their homes were burned. A few Hindu bastis were attacked in Muslim-dominated areas of Ahmedabad and Baroda. Their trauma, too, matters. However, those killed were overwhelmingly Muslims (713 of 975 according to government statistics). They were the targets of the pogrom. It was common in Gujarat to accuse the English-language press of being ‘pro-Muslim’. The truth is, you didn’t have to go looking for Muslim victims, the relief camps overflowed with them.
Gujarat’s violence wasn’t a spontaneous Hindu Vs. Muslim conflict. It was politically engineered violence with a communal excuse. A planned, deliberate attempt to wipe out many Muslims. The targeting of Muslims had shades of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany. The marginalisation of this minority in Gujarat continues till today. I have tried to describe the daily forms of bias that Muslims encounter – ghettoisation, school segregation, job discrimination. Going beyond the stories of the victims, I have tried to understand how saffron politics affects people’s lives. Looking back in time, I’ve tried to analyse what makes Gujarat the BJP’s ‘Hindutva Laboratory’, a prototype for the Hindu right-wing party. What happened to Gandhi’s Gujarat where intolerance has reached such an extreme that VHP activists even attacked his Sabarmati Ashram?
After the pogrom, Muslim refugees faced a hostile administration and social boycotts. Many are still barred from their own villages. Beyond the violence, I have tried to highlight the systematic discrimination against a community on a daily basis. With every riot, they are pushed further into ghettos. Despite having their families hacked, their homes burned, their wives gang-raped, they are the ones branded as ‘terrorists’. Such labels are used to justify the killings.
‘What about Godhra? Didn’t the Muslims burn the train?’ First, there is no clear evidence to show that the burning of the Sabarmati Express was a pre-meditated terrorist act. In fact, it might have been the result of a fight on the railway platform that escalated into gruesome violence. There is no clear-cut conclusion either way. It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth about Godhra, because of the political implications. But even if it was a terrorist attack, does it justify the killing of 1,000 other people, who had nothing to do with the crime? Because of the actions of a handful of criminals, can we punish all who follow the same religion? By that logic, do the actions of the Gujarat rioters damn all those of the Hindu faith? Hardly. In fact, the most Hindus had nothing to do with it and many rescued their neighbours and friends.
People always expect that as a reporter covering such violence, I would have some interesting story to tell about how I saw someone killed, was attacked by a mob, had my camera snatched from me. ‘So tell us what happened in Gujarat.’ I just dodge the question. For one, I don’t think violence makes great conversation. Besides, I have no such ‘I was in deadly danger’ stories. The only time I was anywhere close to being mobbed is – believe it or not – at a relief camp in Godhra.
As soon as we entered, hundreds descended on us. Everyone wanted their story recorded. I was whisked away into a room. People were brought in individually to speak to us. Those outside banged on the windows, desperate for their turn. When there’s no hope, you cling on to anything. I tried to temper their expectations. People have more faith in journalists than we deserve. These are times when you feel like a skunk journalist. Nothing you can do for so many, except interview a handful. And then what?
Yet, people always go out of their way to help. I remember driving down a dark road towards Halol, calling the relief camp organiser Mehboob bhai to ask him how to get to his house. There were trees on both sides. But nothing else for miles around. Mehboob bhai tells me, ‘Bump pe milenge. (We’ll meet at the bump).’ What? ‘At the speed bump (meaning Speed Breaker) on the Halol Road. It’s a famous landmark.’ He didn’t want me to get lost trying to find his house. But how did he ever expect me to find him in the darkness at the appropriate ‘speed bump?’ Finally, I found my way through the lanes of the town and reached his home.
Writing this book has been somewhat like finding that elusive speed bump. I never really planned it. My editor, N.Ram (always incredibly encouraging and supportive) suggested the idea. I’ve been going down a road that has pulled me along. I only hope it gets somewhere. You be the judge. And watch out for those bumps. Beware: it may churn your stomach too.