Book excerpts

On macabre pogroms

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Abandoned and burnt houses at Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society, where former Member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri was among many others killed by a violent mob during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Zahira Shaikh, who turned hostile in the BEST Bakery case. Photo: Vivek Bendre

THE Bhiwandi conflagration of 1984 drew me—as a journalist first —into the world of communal riots. Bombay started to fall prey to communal mobilisation from 1984, when Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena supremo, had —for the first time—used Hindutva as an overt plank. His annual speeches on Vijayadashami Day had become strident, incendiary and indicting, carefully aping and sharpening what the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) were saying. His Shiv Sena was to proudly claim credit for tearing down the three domes of the Babri Mosque on 6 December 1992, eight years later.

From 1986, there was a countrywide mobilisation around the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, which had less to do with building a temple for Lord Ram and more to do with ostracising the Muslim community. Babar ki Aulad, a slogan popularised by Sadhvi Rithambara, came to epitomise the venom spouted from that year onwards against India’s Muslims (Rithambara, who had a long invisible spell, rushed to tie a rakhee on Modi for Raksha Bandhan after he won the Lok Sabha elections in 2014). The Ramjanmabhoomi campaign was a sustained and skilful demonising of a large section of the Indian population. It justified hatred and violence that thereafter was perpetrated against Muslims. In 1983, the VHP and leaders of eighty-five sects of Hinduism conducted an Ekatmata Yagna (integration rite), which projected a picture of Bharatmata (Mother India) and the kalash (brass vessels) of ‘holy water’ from different rivers. Religion was being made totally political. In October 1984, the VHP tried to make the mosque-temple question a national issue with its Sri Rama Janma Bhoomi Mukti Yajna Samiti. The Samiti was formed on 27 July 1984 with the sole aim of ‘liberating’ the disputed site. A 130-kilometre march was started on 8 October 1984 from Ayodhya to Lucknow, the State capital. The yatra (march) participants reached Lucknow on 14 October, organised a public meeting, and called on the Chief Minister “to fulfil the long outstanding demand of the Hindus”. The next day, a Sri Rama Janaki Ratha (Ram-Sita chariot) began to tour major UP towns so as to mobilise public opinion and to administer a Janmasthan Mukti Pledge to the public. Although the ratha reached Delhi on 31 October to join a Hindu Convention on 2 November, Indira Gandhi’s assassination forced the cancellation of the programme.

The Shah Bano verdict by the Supreme Court in 1985 led to a marked polarisation in Bombay—especially in the iconic Mohammedalli Road areas, near the Minara masjid where huge meetings were held. Dominated by Muslim male clergy, the meetings were large, attended by strident men (and a few women). The Supreme Court had granted a paltry Rs.125 in civil maintenance to an elderly deserted and divorced woman, Shah Bano. It had taken her years to get this result. “We will not allow any interference in our personal laws,” said the leadership of these demonstrations—standing for a Muslim community against people like Shah Bano. On the one side there was the seriously vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric epitomised in the notorious Bal Thackeray speech of October-November 1986 where he exhorted “Hindus to arm themselves”; on the other side was the blind and immature Muslim leadership that walked straight into the paradigm set by the Hindutvawaadis. Majority and minority communalism fuelled each other. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress played dangerously with this terrain. He succumbed to pressures to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, on the one hand, and on the other hand, took the decision to unlock the gates of the Babri Masjid and allowed priests to enter the mosque’s compound in February 1986. After attempts made to install an idol illegally soon after Independence, an administrative bar had, in a sense, closed the dispute since 1949. Secularism took a beating as these incidents began to define the situation.

Bombay was turning onto itself, defying the very spirit of inclusiveness and cosmopolitanism that has been its guiding principle. By 1984, I had shifted to The Indian Express—offered the job for my coverage of the Antulay trial—and by 1989 had joined Business India. I remained at Business India till both Javed and I quit our professions in mainstream journalism to start Communalism Combat. But even before this formal move, we had both become drawn, as journalists, to mobilise mediapersons against the systemic hate speech and hate writing emanating from Saamna and often—when it came to Bal Thackeray’s speeches —being reflected even in mainstream newspapers. In 1986 Thackeray said, “Hindus should arm themselves”, which Maharashtra Times, a much-respected Marathi daily, had splashed across banner headlines. We ran a campaign to register an FIR against Thackeray. Several hundred journalists had signed. We met the Chief Minister S.B. Chavan on this issue.

Bombay and India appeared to be at a frightening cusp—would it collapse into hatred? In our own small way we tried our best to stem the tide, mobilise public opinion, raise a dissenting voice through meetings, the writing and distribution of pamphlets, and the creation of campaigns. Bal Thackeray cast a pall over Bombay in those days. In The Sunday Observer, Javed wrote a strong piece, espousing an unusual viewpoint. In it, Javed argued against the stridency of the Muslim leadership under the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), urging that the issue should be left to the Constitutional authorities and not to those determined to break the law. Making the question of the Babri Masjid an identity-driven conflict, he argued, would inevitably impact adversely on society. It was a strong argument, even if it seemed idealistic at that time. Javed was, surely, proved to be correct as events unfolded in the decades ahead.

In 1989, a friend and colleague Sajid Rashid—a bold and courageous journalist for the Urdu and Hindi press—decided to run for Assembly from the Kurla seat on the Janata Party ticket. He indomitably stood for secularism and always defied his community’s archaic and self-serving leadership. Sajjid lived in the belly of the Muslim ghetto. During the campaign, a young Muslim boy went to eat paan days before the election. He was killed. It was a nasty, pre-emptive move to generate terror and prevent Muslims from coming out to vote. Sabrang—our informal platform at that time —decided to act. Founder members included Javed and myself, of course, but also CITU leader and communist Vivek Monteiro and journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni (before he crossed over to the other side). We held a public meeting outside Kurla station, where over nine thousand people gathered. Ahilyatai Rangnekar (CPI-M), Ramdas Athawale, leaders of the Dalit Panthers and film star Amol Palekar addressed the gathering. Pamphlets and posters were distributed as we re-claimed the streets. We were being drawn more and more into interventions that were not only journalistic.

The 1992-93 violence that rocked Bombay altered the direction of our lives. A decade-long experience of covering, researching and understanding communal violence prepared me to understand what was to come between 6 December 1992 and late January 1993. I was out in the field from that first afternoon —Sunday 6 December. I visited Dharavi, where the first “victory” procession —a cycle rally of two to three hundred Shiv Sena activists—was allowed by Inspector Gharghe. In Pydhonie, the local Shiv Sena and others organised a “temple bell ringing ceremony” to celebrate the demolition.

The RSS and the Shiv Sena worked cleverly together. The streets were theirs. A few of us correspondents, confounded by the sheer extent of the violence and the organisation behind it, scoured the streets to record testimonies, shared insights with each other and tried our level best to get the police and authorities to act. At the time I developed a thesis—Who Cast the First Stone—that made the case that the assailants would conduct brute bouts of violence and then craft a shrill narrative that made the aggressor the victim and the victim the aggressor. It was clear that after the demolition in Ayodhya, the first acts that violated the law were “celebrations” organised by the RSS and the Shiv Sena in Dharavi and Pydhonie. Yet, the BJP-Shiv Sena successfully flipped the story. Dharamsingh Choradia of the BJP said that “mad, enraged Muslims attacked buses and public property”, adding that the violence came from areas that housed Bangladeshi migrants. Certainly, enraged and upset Muslims did protest in disbelief and anger on 7 December, but nothing can take away the fact of the senseless and brazen provocations on 6 December both in Ayodhya and in Bombay. Worse, the police fired to kill on 7 December—eighty per cent of those who died were Muslims. This alienated and angered the Muslims of Bombay even more. The Bombay police showed an ugly face in this period, something that additional commissioner V.N. Deshmukh testified to before the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission. Deshmukh’s testimony should be widely read.

‘Let Hindus give vent’

I reached Gujarat in early March 2002. I began to scour the relief camps and districts, then, returned back to Ahmedabad, exhausted. Late into the night, I would pen the alerts for the statutory bodies, the Supreme Court, the President of India, NHRC and other human rights forums. The overwhelming sense when I described things back home to Mumbai was—“If Bombay ten years ago was bad, then Gujarat is one thousand times worse.” In the first six months, I was physically attacked five times. Twice the drivers of hired vehicles abandoned me in villages, fearful of the consequences of the journeys for them. Within days of the coverage, a resolve shaped into a dogged commitment based on these dual experiences: of having lived through Bombay 1992-1993 and now Gujarat 2002: mere documentation and advocacy and campaigning on the targeted mass crimes that exposed bitter fault-lines of bias and prejudice in our institutions of democracy and governance, would not be enough. It was time to test the criminal justice system, from several angles; can justice ever be done when mass violence happens? Can our courts restore the faith in the system? People’s confidence and trust in their neighbourhoods, and even their friends, had been snatched away.

This is what I told Javed in the nightly calls I made. Since I was away alone till odd hours, there was incessant worry at home. I remember saying that now we need to move the courts and see if justice can be done, to test the system and ask whether there can be recompense. We knew that this task could not have been undertaken by us alone and that we would need a strong body of citizens committed to the rule of law to take on that task. That was how Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) was born. In early April, in Nandan Muluste’s home, Pankaj Shankar showed us the uncut version of In the Name of Faith. It was a raw film that depicted all that needed to be said about the gross cruelty that was deliberately allowed free reign. Those of us in the room—Alyque Padamsee, Cyrus Guzder, Kadrisaab, Nandan Maluste, Shireesh Patel, Anil Dharker, Ghulam Peshimam, and Javed Anand —watched the film. Taizoon Khorakhiwala and his wife Edith have also been fellow travellers in our intense journey. Tears flowed freely at that screening. They turned to disbelief and anger at the extent of abdication of constitutional governance. We then resolved to action. It is no coincidence that those who were present that day were also among those who had been at the forefront of the citizen’s mobilisations after the Babri demolition and Bombay pogrom in 1992-93. The understanding and connections between the two bouts of violence, both of which reflected state complicity at different levels, were there.

If our courts, politicians, bureaucrats and policemen, had punished the perpetrators of 1984, then the violence of 1992 would not have so easily happened. If the survivors of the Bombay killings of 1992-1993 had earned real reparations and justice, none in the political class, bureaucracy and police, would have so easily beaten the 2002 drum. It is this all-pervasive culture of impunity that has allowed the perpetrators of mass violence, right from Partition to the present, to go scot-free. Within India’s administration and police force, too—barring a few, stray and rare exceptions—the steel frame resists accountability and transparency. It closes in like an armour of protection, freezing out and targeting even those who pursue the path of justice.

Film-maker Pankaj Shankar was to resurface in the narrative later (2004-05), when Zahira Shaikh turned hostile for a second time in Mumbai in 2004. Among the footage he had shot in those early days in 2002 were scenes of the BEST bakery carnage the day after the incident (2 March). There was footage with Zahira recording in detail, what was her initial reaction to the carnage—what the law considers a first information report (FIR) about the crime. When Zahira tried, after November 2004, to deny that she had ever done this, the footage told its own tale. Shankar not only allowed himself to be grilled by a crude defence led by Shiv Sena’s former member of parliament —Adhik Shirodkar—but refused to crack under the venomous onslaught. The judgment of the trial court has a significant section on the validity of this video testimony. It indicts the Shiv Sena counsel—Shirodkar—who spent a significant amount of the court’s time during the pre-trial phase abusing my family name and me. For people like Shirodkar, it was the name ‘Setalvad’ that had pulled Thackeray to court in 1993. It had again proved to be a thorn in the flesh of the post-2002 crude and violent Hindutva project.

Our nightly alerts went out to the President of India, the Chief Justice of India, the Prime Minister, the National Human Rights Commission and to other statutory bodies. They also went to thousands of citizens and journalists all over India. These alerts were invaluable first person testimonies on the extent and dimensions of the violence. The issues raised in the alerts helped dictate the legal actions that were to follow. Some of the themes that emerged out of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 were as follows:

The post-mortem of the victims of the tragic Godhra mass arson took place in the open at the rail yard in the presence of the health minister Ashok Bhatt and thereafter, the chief minister Narendra Modi. The evidence for this became sharper as various investigations unfolded.

The bodies of the victims arrived in Ahmedabad in a motor cavalcade. They were handed over to the Gujarat secretary of the VHP—not an organisation known for its sobriety. This decision to hand them to the VHP was taken at the highest level of the state political leadership. Even P.C. Pande, then Commissioner of Police of Ahmedabad, was known to have recorded his strong displeasure at this decision. It led to large mobs of angry RSS men and women joining in the daylight funeral procession on 28 February 2002. The government allowed this procession. It was an immediate provocation.

The state machinery did not act to arrest or detain communal criminals once Godhra had happened. There were no preventive measures taken by the government. The deliberate delay in the declaration of curfew and the use of the Army says a great deal about the interests of the government. The government, on the other hand, openly declared support for the Gujarat Bandh called on 28 February and the Bharat Bandh called on 1 March by the VHP. A strong umbilical cord binds the BJP, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS —with the latter being the core of the Parivar.

The violence was widespread and systemic. It lasted (in its intense form) right until May 2002 when the then Prime Minister Vajpayee sent K.P.S. Gill to take charge. Things did not really settle down till August 2002, when the Chief Election Commissioner visited the state.

The violence followed a staged pattern —similar in far-flung districts of the state. Large armed militias of ten to fifteen thousand men, many on motorbikes—following carefully directed commands —terrorised certain neighbourhoods. They used gas cylinders, white chemical powder and weapons.

Daylight attacks lasted for hours and included acts of gendered violence unprecedented for their barbarity. This was evident in Randhikpur, Sanjeli, Eral and Fatehpur in Panchmahal/Dahod in north Gujarat, in Vadodara and Ahmedabad (Naroda Patiya and Gulberg). It was clear that subjugating a community through these attacks on girls and women was part of the pre-planned strategy. It could not have been conducted without large bands of men trained to hate Muslims and objectify their women. This is what happened in the training camps, which the tribunal had documented.

Hate-filled reports in mainstream newspapers like the Sandesh and also in pamphlets were recovered from all parts of the state. Some of these had been openly authored by the RSS-VHP; others were anonymous. These were open exhortations to break the law, socially boycott and even physically attack Muslims. Senior police officers, as we found during the Zakia Jafri case, urged for the prosecution of the writers of these pamphlets. Predictably the chief executive of the state, also Gujarat’s chief minister and home minister, namely Narendra Modi, ignored these recommendations, despite the fact that his state intelligence chief (R.B. Sreekumar) and also another senior police officer, then SP of Bhavnagar, Rahul Sharma, had recommended—in writing—that both the newspaper Sandesh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) should be prosecuted for inciting violence against the minorities.

State complicity came into play in the subversion of the criminal justice system. FIRs were doctored. The new FIRs diluted the crimes by clubbing criminal complaints of victims together in one magnum FIR, where the names of the accused with powerful connections disappeared. FIRs were not filed in the name of the victim complainants, who had proffered them, but in the name of police officers. Deliberately not investigating the complicity of the police officers was commonplace. The state appointed public prosecutors who owed their allegiance to the RSS and not to the Indian Constitution.

The state showed utter callousness and absence of remorse in the way it treated the victims, who were huddled and traumatised in relief camps. They were refugees in their own land. Modi went to Becaharaji during his election campaign of 2002 and said —with venom—“relief camps are baby making factories”. This kind of rhetoric debased the conscience of Gujarat. Star Television aired the tape with the obnoxious speech in September 2002, but thereafter the media has chosen, through selective amnesia, to allow public memory to easily forget. The government de-barred foreign aid to Gujarat for the camps. This was even documented by the Editor’s Guild of India.

High on the success of its project, two decisions of the state government under Modi are very significant. One was to announce discriminatory amounts in compensation for the Godhra and post-Godhra victims. The second was to announce a one-man Inquiry Commission headed by retired judge K.G. Shah, who had questionable credentials. The national public outcry, from different quarters and also by Justice J.S. Verma, former chief justice who headed the NHRC, compelled a retraction. Justice G.T. Nanavati was added as senior judge on the commission and amounts in reparation were equalised.

Policemen who stood firm to defend the law were carefully and systematically targeted. As time wore on, and powerful perpetrators grew in political strength, those who had stood their ground began to prefer silence and invisibility. Those who subverted the law—and there were too many of them—have been rewarded.

Gujarat 2002 was about impunity of the most unique and unimaginable kind. The task before us then was to legally and through advocacy puncture this abiding acceptance of the culture of impunity. This culture was visible in earlier bouts of targeted pogroms as well, but in this case it was at a macabre and magnified scale.