Give violence a chance

The government shows no desire to put out the fires. In fact, it even appears that it wants to keep the flames burning.

in Gujarat

As Noorjehan Ghachi and her family took their afternoon nap, oblivious to the world around them, their house was set on fire and they were burned alive. Five of them died and six others sustained serious burns. This brutal massacre in Abasana village in Ahmedabad district is part of the relentless pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva experiment, the only state in which the fascist party rules with a majority.

The Ghachi family was killed on April 3rd, just a day before the Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee made a long overdue visit to the state. It took 36 days of violence, 750 deaths and almost 1.5 lakh refugees for the magnitude of the communal carnage to finally hit the PM. On the day before his visit, seven people, including the Ghachi family died in the continuing state-supported terror. But all Vajpayee did was make heart-rending speeches, expressing his shame and sympathy for the Muslim refugees, against whom his own Sangh Parivar has launched a witch-hunt. He has done to prevent further killings or to nab the perpetrators.

“I don’t know how I can face the rest of the world after the shameful events in Gujarat,” said the PM, while addressing refugees in the Shah Alam relief camp. “We don’t know how he has been able to face us after all this time either,” retorted a refugee from the sidelines. Mere words were not enough. There has been no reprieve in Gujarat’s communal carnage. The pogrom’s mastermind, chief minister Narendra Modi, escaped unscathed. Demands for his dismissal from several sections of society, including human rights organisations and opposition parties like the Left parties, were squelched. He was let off with a dressing down. “Officials should perform their duty and the political leadership should undertake its responsibility to protect citizens without any discrimination,” the PM chided. But, a day after Vajpayee’s drama, it was business as usual for Gujarat’s goons. The violence continued – eleven stabbings and two deaths were reported on April 5th.

Narendra Modi’s smug denial of the Gujarat massacres has upset the country’s most influential, including the National Human Rights Commission. Yet, he continues in power due to the support of top BJP and RSS leaders, who said that he had dealt well with the crisis. His cunning cover-up of the VHP’s terror in Gujarat would please them. Although Modi was summoned to Delhi by the PM, who was irked at his inaction in curbing the violence and at his blatant support of the militant Hindutva perpetrators, the CM remained unruffled. However, his hopes of a mid-term poll, to translate the saffron wave into votes, were dashed. Instead of trying to set right the damage within his state, the CM went on a PR campaign, projecting his stand to the media and business communities in Mumbai and Delhi.

If Modi were to be believed, peace was restored in Gujarat within 72 hours, barring a few ‘stray’ incidents, its business as usual in the most prosperous state, people in Gujarat observed Moharram and celebrated Holi peacefully and the systematic targeting of Muslims is just a figment of the media’s imagination. But his ridiculous denials haven’t fooled anyone. Almost all the refugees in the state’s 104 relief camps are Muslims, revealing the extent to which the community has been targeted. Everyday, more people are being killed, mobs are still on the rampage in Ahmedabad and Baroda. New attacks are being launched in villages and towns previously untouched by communal violence. Rumours spread everyday, keeping up the tension, fear and insecurity. During both festivals, curfew was enforced and heavy security was deployed in most places. People preferred to stay at home due to the tense atmosphere. In fact, many schools and colleges have had to postpone their exams since students have been too scared venture out.

The riots have resulted in economic losses estimated anywhere between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 crore, according to industry sources. Most Muslim businesses have been targeted during the riots right from small bakeries and hotels along the highway to large showrooms in Ahmedabad’s elite shopping centres. Different versions of a pamphlet calling for an economic boycott of Muslims have been distributed all over the state. One such pamphlet even lists the annual earnings of different Muslim businesses in Kalol. Besides shop owners, thousands of daily wage earners in Ahmedabad are on the brink of starvation. They haven’t earned anything for over a month. More than a month of violence has also made the Gujarat government temporarily broke. With virtually no tax revenue in the last month, the government is unable to clear its bills and had to borrow on overdraft from the Reserve Bank of India. Bills in major departments have not been paid, since the government is barely able to pay salaries.

Besides the fascist government in Gujarat, the police’s role in abetting the violence has also come to light. In Naroda Patia, Ahmedabad, where 91 were massacred, witnesses claim that the police offered no help and instead pointed out Muslim homes to the mob, which included VHP stalwarts Pravin Togadia and Jaideep Patel. Near Ambika Mill in Gomtipur, Ahmedabad, witnesses saw police sub-inspector Modi supply petrol from his jeep to a mob wearing saffron scarves armed with swords and trishuls. The police refused to lodge a complaint against the sub-inspector. In several places, police fired indiscriminately into Muslim bastis that were under attack. Innocent residents, young and old, have been rounded up during ‘combing operations’ in Muslim areas. “These combing operations are a typical instrument of police harassment, where police just enter houses and arrest people randomly,” says a senior police officer.

The most glaring cases were of two Muslim judges whose calls for help were ignored by the police. They had to abandon their homes. Justice Kadri, a sitting court of the Gujarat high court, was not given police protection, despite several calls for help. He had to leave his official residence and seek refuge in a colleague’s home. Justice Divecha, a retired high court judge, also had to run away from his home. He returned to find it ransacked. Moreover, despite the heavy security outside the Ahmedabad high court, trucks were burned outside the gate on 28th February and many judges fled the premises.

A large section of the police force has complied with the orders of their political bosses. The few who ignored political interference and efficiently discharged their duties, preventing an escalation of violence, were punished with sudden transfers. In the middle of the crisis, 27 transfers of police officers was announced, four of which are extremely controversial. They involved officers who prevented flare-ups and took stern action against the culprits. Rahul Sharma, former district superintendent of police (DSP) Bhavnagar was transferred within 20 days to a less active post as deputy commissioner of police, Ahmedabad control room. Sharma nipped violence in the bud while in Bhavnagar by taking action against the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists. This irked local BJP MLA Sunil Oza, who complained when his supporters were arrested. Sharma’s prompt action saved the 400 people who were about to be attacked by a VHP mob.

Another officer, Vivek Srivastava, also played a positive role in preventing mob violence in his former posting as DSP Kutch. The district remained peaceful throughout the storm that swept 15 other districts in Gujarat. Despite phone calls from the home minister Gordhan Zadaphia, he arrested the district Home Guards commandment Akshya Thakkar, who is also a local VHP leader, for stirring trouble in the district. Srivastav has now been transferred to a non-police posting in the Ahmedabad prohibition department. A week after his transfer, a communal incident was reported for the first time in Anjar town in Kutch on April 2nd. Shops were burned following the defacement of an idol, a strategy aimed at creating trouble. Incidentally, the RSS has been trying to strengthen its base in Kutch ever since the earthquake struck there. Another officer, Pravin Gondia, who dared to accept a first information report (FIR) naming local MLA Mayaben Kodnani and VHP general secretary Jaideep Patel in the Naroda Patiya massacre, was also shunted to an inconsequential posting in Civil Defence. The posting of two others, Himanshu Bhatt and M.D. Antani, were also unwarranted. The transfers have shaken the highest levels of the police force, prompting even Gujarat’s director general of police to write a letter to the CM against the transfers, which were announced without his approval.

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The alarming heights to which the authority of senior police officers has been undermined is a grave concern in police circles today. “I received a call from a minister, asking me not to shoot at Hindus,” admits a police officer. While political interference has been a job hazard for most police officers, they now feel that it has reached dangerous limits in Gujarat. During the first few days of rioting, two ministers, Ashok Bhatt and I.K. Jadeja, were sitting in police control rooms in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar respectively, monitoring the situation as their activists massacred hundreds. Many victims also report that local BJP leaders were stationed at police stations, influencing their operations.

At a meeting of senior police officials with the CM and other ministers, top police officials pathetically pleaded with the CM to allow them to take action against the VHP and Bajrang Dal in order to curb the unending violence. “There has been political interference throughout the history of the police force. But this time, its more dangerous since the fascist ideology behind it is one of hatred and one which attempts to subvert all democratic institutions,” says a police officer. He also points out that RSS and VHP cadres are also cornering positions in the Home Guards and Gram Rakshak Dal. Moreover, the few Muslim police officers have been systematically sidelined. In the last seven years, none of the eight Muslim IPS officers in Gujarat have been given an executive posting, which has jurisdictional authorities and deals with crime and law and order.

While the government would like to portray the recent spate of violence as communal clashes, they are not. Muslims are still the target, although in some cases, they have defended themselves. The political motives behind the attacks have been exposed in several instances. Many Congress strongholds in Kheda, Anand, Mehsana and Vadodara, which had earlier remained unaffected, are now burning. Moreover, rumours and pamphlets, such as those circulated before the Holi festival instigating Hindus to ‘take Ram’s name and attack and kill Muslims’, keep stoking the fear and hatred. VHP tactics of sending bangles to villages which have so far remained peaceful has also ignited violence in many places. “Bangles were also sent to our sarpanch some time back. But our village remained peaceful until April 1st,” said Razzak Vora from Boryavi village in Anand district.

Although there is little doubt that the entire pogrom was well planned, no police investigations are looking into the VHP’s conspiracy of terror. The only conspiracy on which all attention is focused is the Sabarmati Express burning. “The fact that they gathered so many people to attack at the same time points to the level of planning by the VHP. They used gas cylinders, swords and petrol bombs at several places, which also shows they were pre-meditated attacks. The VHP launched a massive membership drive last year, ensuring a ready mob. They had lists of Muslims homes and shops. Obviously, they were waiting for something to happen. They seized on the opportunity when the Sabarmati Express tragedy occurred,” said a senior police officer.

As new tragedies like the Ghachi massacre keep unfolding in Gujarat, it seems the Prime Minister can do little to keep the violence or his Parivar under check.

Frontline, April 13 – 26, 2002 <a href=”
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