In 2002, a wave of religious violence swept across the Indian state of Gujarat.
It wasn’t the first communal violence India has ever faced – very far from that – but it was one of the worst single episodes, simply because it was planned and directed by the state government in all particulars.
Back in 2002, Gujarat was known as the “Hindutva* laboratory”, where the nation’s largest Hindunazi political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried out its ideas on turning society into a de facto Hindu theocracy where nobody else would have any rights whatsoever.
*The word, literally meaning “Hinduness”, connotes Hindu radicalism.
In the capital, the ironically named Gandhinagar, sat Narendrabhai Modi, whom I have written about elsewhere; his government had recently not done well in local elections, and he needed some way of hardening support for his party. One sure way of hardening support, of course, is to get the people behind you in a religious crusade. This is something which rulers have known since the start of recorded history.
The Hindunazis had already been trying their damndest to marginalise the Christian and Muslim minorities in Gujarat. However, merely making it almost impossible to convert away from Hinduism to those religions wasn’t enough; something much more drastic was necessary.
A massive dose of communal bloodletting was an obvious answer. All one had to do was to wait for an opportunity.
It came on the 27th of February 2002, when some carriages of a train returning from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state in North India caught fire in a railway station in Godhra in Gujarat. This Ayodhya was the mythological hometown of the mythical Hindu god-king Ram, and in 1991 had been the site of a Hindunazi aggression in which an ancient Muslim mosque had been demolished on the excuse that it had been built on the site of Ram’s alleged birth. For more information on that, I’ve written about it here.
Ever since that date, Hindunazis had organised pilgrimages to the makeshift temple they’d set up on the site of the destroyed mosque. The train that was returning from Ayodhya had been loaded with people returning from that “pilgrimage”, and had a substantial complement of Hindunazi stormtroopers as well. According to reports, when the train stopped at Godhra, these stormtroopers had an altercation with Muslim tea sellers on the platform. They may or may not have attempted to abduct a Muslim girl as well, according to whom you believe, but there seems to have been a genuine quarrel.
Soon after leaving the station, the train was stopped, and Muslim mobs from the nearby slums allegedly attacked the carriage in which the Hindunazis were travelling. The carriage was burned, resulting in the deaths of 58 or 59 of the passengers, most of whom were women and children.
[Later, a judicial commission proved conclusively that the carriages could not have been set on fire from outside, so that the Hindunazi fable of Muslims flinging petrol from buckets could not have happened. The Hindunazis then modified their tale to claim the Muslim mobs slashed the connectors between carriages with “swords”, entered the carriage, splashed petrol on the floor and then set it on fire. The commission, studying all the evidence, concluded that the fire was probably accidental. (In fact accidental fires on Indian trains are quite common and kill people virtually every year.) A citizen’s tribunal reached the same conclusion.]
Whether the fire was accidental or not, the Modi government in the state declared that this was an act of terrorism, and paraded the bodies of the dead to raise communal tensions. Another Hindunazi outfit allied to the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), called a general strike, and though these strike calls are both illegal and invariably incite violence, the BJP did nothing at all to either stop it or take any measures to ensure security. By the end of the day, Hindunazi mobs were going around the state, often openly led by BJP politicians, systematically destroying Muslim properties, killing, looting and raping.
The violence was not just systematic, it was very carefully organised. The Hindunazi stormtroopers had very precise knowledge of just which businesses were owned by Muslims (which were often camouflaged by Hindu-sounding names), where they lived, and so on – knowledge which could only have been supplied by the state government. They were trained and organised, too, in demolition and arson, and armed with swords, explosives, and cylinders of cooking gas with which to carry out their campaign of murder and demolition. According to police officers and politicians from the BJP who later came out in the open, Modi declared that the people should be “allowed to vent their natural anger” and sent ministers to sit in the police control room to make sure the cops did nothing to quell the violence. Actually, the police on the ground not only did nothing, they routinely joined in the looting, destruction, murder and rape, so Modi’s precautions were likely superfluous anyway.
The violence reached surreal dimensions. Ordinary Hindus, not involved in the pogrom, pitched in the looting as well, rushing to snatch goods from vandalised Muslim shops, often on live TV. Entire localities populated by Muslims were cleared out, everyone either murdered or driven into refugee camps. A former member of parliament, Ehsaan Jaafri, begged for help when his locality was attacked. Not only did help not arrive, Jafri was stripped, beheaded, and his corpse thrown into a fire; several members of his family, including two young boys, were burned alive. The stormtroopers displayed an almost perverse tendency to assault women, raping them and then murdering them. If they were pregnant, the foetus was often ripped out of their bodies, impaled on spears, and burned separately. Children were massacred in identical sadistic fashion. Sometimes they were forced to drink petrol and then set on fire, so that they burned from the inside. Even girls as young as eleven were gang raped and murdered by the Hindunazi mobs.
I remember one incident reported by a Hindu peace activist, Teesta Setalvad, who later visited the makeshift Muslim refugee camps. She found Muslim children casually talking of “rape”, and, surprised, asked if they knew what this word “rape” meant. One kid piped up in these words: “Maĩ batāoon, didi, balātkār ka matlab hai jab aurat ko nangha bana dete hai aue uské bad jalā dete haĩ.” (“I’ll tell you, Elder Sister, rape means when they strip a woman naked and then burn her.”) These were kids, you understand, ordinary children.
The looting was accompanied by a systematic demolition of Muslim tombs and mosques; up to 230 of them were known to have been destroyed. In one instance, not only was a mausoleum demolished, but the local council paved over the site the very next day, displaying an alacrity unheard of in India and quite impossible without direct orders from the government.
Nobody knows how many people were actually killed. The “official figure” is about 150000 Muslims displaced and approximately 720 to 1000 killed; most credible estimates cite the dead as about twice that. According to figures, some 200 to 250 Hindus were also killed. How many of them were murdered by Muslims in retaliation is debatable. It’s known that many Hindus went to great personal risk to save their Muslim neighbours and friends, and that a lot of them were afraid of being mistaken for Muslims, so it’s very likely that at least a substantial number of them were killed deliberately or in error by the Hindunazi mobs.
It was only on the evening of the first of March, three days after the pogrom started, that the state government finally allowed the deployment of Central government forces, including the army, to impose a semblance of order. The Central government of the time was also under the BJP, and there are credible reports that the prime minister, the relatively liberal Atal Behari Vajpayee, had wanted to use constitutional provisions to dismiss Modi’s government and impose direct rule, but was dissuaded by his colleagues. The violence continued for many days afterwards, by fits and starts, and it was up to a month before it finally ebbed. What it left was a devastated society, where ordinary middle class Muslims found themselves – even if not personally bereaved – destitute and forced into Muslim ghettoes, where they were then accused of isolating themselves in ghettoes.
Modi’s response to the backlash and revulsion that broke out across the nation, from Hindus as well as others, was absolutely typical of the man. He called it an intolerable assault on Gujarati pride, rejected all criticism, and parlayed this into an “us versus them” mentality which brought him rich electoral rewards. He was helped by the spineless response of the alleged “secular” Congress party, which to this day has never made the slightest move to bring him to book, either at the state or at the centre.
And today, it is this Modi who is all set to become the Prime Minister of the country after the current multi-phase elections are over.
Great, isn’t it?
At this point, the reader is probably recalling the title of this article, and asking, what on earth is hopeful about any of this? Has Bill lost his mind?
No. Bill has not lost his mind.
There were two photos, of many, which defined the Gujarat pogrom in popular consciousness. The first was of a Muslim tailor, Qutubuddin Ansari, his face streaked with tears and dust as he desperately begged for his life.
The second was of a Hindunazi stormtrooper, fist clenched and an iron rod upraised in the other hand, as he shouted slogans at the camera. He belonged to the Hindunazi outfit Bajrang Dal, and his name was Ashok Mochi.
That was in 2002.
Now let’s take a time jump to March, 2014. The place is Kerala, in South India. Two men take the stage at a function, united in reconciliation, and pledge to fight Hindunazism and Modi together. One of these men is Qutubuddin Ansari. The other is Ashok Mochi.
|Mochi (left) and Ansari|
And this is what gives me a faint, flickering, glimmer of hope. I don’t know if Mochi personally killed or injured anyone. I don’t know his personal journey over the years. But I do know that instead of retreating into the safe confines of Hindunazi radicalism, he went forth and begged forgiveness from his victims, and turned against the culture of hate which had used him and those like him as a weapon.
Nobody is irredeemable. If they have the faintest, slightest trace of humanity left in them, they can still turn around from the brink of the abyss.
If that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.
Note: A lot of Hindunazi supporters to this day attempt to deny all the facts of the Gujarat pogrom, even though Modi himself has now distanced himself from his former fellow-conspirators, and has had several of them prosecuted and jailed in an effort to reinvent himself as an innocent.