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SAFFRON TERROR

Print edition : Mar 16, 2002 T+T-

Political direction and police support enable the death squads of the Hindu Right to run riot in Muslim neighbourhoods in Gujarat.

ASIF KHAN was not surprised when the police came knocking on his door in Ahmedabad's Narora neighbourhood on the morning of February 28. A bootlegger and a small-time thief, Khan has a dictionary-sized criminal record. Each time there is communal trouble in the air, as a precautionary measure he is arrested along with thousands of others registered at police stations as "bad characters". That morning, however, the police just wanted a walk. Khan took four officers through the neighbourhood, after which they politely said goodbye. "That," he now recalls, "really scared me. They were just there to see how well-prepared we were to defend ourselves. And they learned we weren't ready at all."

Images of charred bodies and burned homes have gone off television screens, and a more terrible truth is starting to reveal itself. No riots took place in Gujarat. What the State witnessed was a fascist pogrom, conducted by organised death squads of the Hindu Right with the entire State apparatus at their disposal. The pogrom was initiated with two objectives. The first was to ensure that the State's Muslim population remained confined to its ghettos, and the second to ensure that the authority of the Hindu Right remained stamped forever on Gujarat's political landscape. The scale of the violence was not the worst the country has seen, but its significance is unmistakable: if Hindu fascists ever wield unchecked power, Gujarat is what India might look like.

Not since the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi have senior political figures played such a visible role in directing violence. Nazir Khan Pathan, a school-teacher, had left his home behind the State Transport Workshop in Narora for a walk at 9 a.m. on February 28. "A mob had already gathered at the main chowk in front of Nataraj Hotel," he recalls. "They were all wearing saffron scarves and khaki shorts. Most of them were carrying swords. There were two police jeeps parked there, and two white Ambassador cars with red lights on top. I was about a 100 metres away. One of the persons standing there was Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia. A little later he left, and the mob started shouting abusive slogans. The attackers threw stones at us, and we responded in kind."

The police now stepped in to allow the VHP squads free access. Four Muslim men were killed in firing, forcing those defending the neighbourhood to retreat. The local Noorani mosque was set on fire, and a saffron flag hoisted on its dome.

Fatima Bi was one of hundreds who tried to hide in the State Transport staff colony. "The police pushed us out of there," she says, "saying it was our night to die. The people who lived in the colony were giving the mob tyres and petrol to burn people with. While Fatima Bi found a place to hide, others were less lucky. She watched as her pregnant friend Saliya Behn had her belly slit, and was then set on fire along with her children, three-year-old Muskan and six-month-old Subhan. Her badly injured son Khwaja Husain now sits in the Shah Alam refugee camp, unable to talk. Witnesses who can speak describe scenes of rape and torture. Many say they wish they were among the 110 believed killed.

Eyewitness accounts of politicians directing violence are commonplace. Feroza Begum was on the roof of her slum-dwelling in Arban Nagar when the mob massed across the road, which local residents call the border with the Hindu neighbourhood of Haridas Nagar. "I could see what was going on," Feroza Begum says, "because my home is right on the border. Ravinder Sharma, a Bajrang Dal leader, was leading the mob. Pradeep Sharma, a Congress(I) worker who had been involved in riots earlier, was also there. Stones were thrown and then a policeman who works at the local police post, Bhupatdan Gadvi, opened fire. A young man from Bihar, who worked at an embroidery factory, was injured, and fell on the road. I saw them set him on fire."

Gadvi and other police officers, Arban Nagar residents say, kept firing along with VHP-Bajrang Dal cadre who had weapons. Muslims seeking to defend the neighbourhood were slowly pushed back. As the mob pushed forward from Haridas Nagar, it again reached the main crossroads. This time, a street battle followed. One of those fighting was Sultan Khan. "They fired teargas at us," he recalls, "but that wasn't enough to push us back". Then, he says, Bharat Rana, a key aide of State Home Minister Gordhan Jhadaphia, arrived on the scene. Gadvi was instructed to step up the pressure. Firing followed, in which four of Khan's friends were killed. Shops and homes were set on fire right in front of the local police station. In nearby Ansar Nagar, again part of Jhadaphia's constituency, mobs drove in dozens of oxygen cylinders on trucks, and then used them as improvised explosive devices to blow up homes, shops and a seminary.

If VHP-BJP leaders led mobs from the front along with the police, they also took control of the institutional apparatus. Health Minister Ashok Bhat sat in the Police Control Room in Ahmedabad through the first two days of violence. Given his portfolio, it was an odd place to be - but not given his past. Bhat, along with Union Minister of State for Defence Harin Pathak, faces charges of having incited a mob that murdered a police constable in the course of communal violence on April 25, 1985. According to several eyewitnesses, another State Minister, Harin Pandya, moved through the Paldi area, speaking to leaders of mobs that were burning Muslim homes and shops. Jhadaphia, who ought to have been in the control room after the violence broke out on February 28, was busy telling reporters that he "did not expect Hindus to retaliate".

Political guidance and support were available to help the Hindu Right's death squads select their targets. A car showroom was set on fire because a Muslim based abroad had an interest in the concern, a fact known to no one in the establishment. So too was an upmarket garment store. Establishments with no obvious signs of their ownership, such as Hotel Tasty or Hans Inn, were burned down. The leaders of the VHP-Bajrang Dal squads clearly had access to official records of ownership, which must have been compiled and distributed several months earlier. In several areas, Muslim-owned shops nestled among rows of Hindu-owned establishments were targeted with precision. Many of these attacks took place within yards of police posts. Invariably, police personnel stood by, rarely bothering even to register first information reports.

Such studious inaction went all the way to the top of the Ahmedabad Police. The city, like other communally sensitive areas, has a well-established preventive drill to contain potential riots. "The Director-General of Police, the Additional Director-General in charge of intelligence, the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary, the Chief Secretary and the Home Minister or the Chief Minister meet to discuss what must be done to deal with the situation," says Ahmedabad's former Commissioner of Police M.M. Mehta, who years ago won the National Citizen's Award for his handling of riots in Vadodara. "Each police station carries out preventive arrests, curfew is imposed and the Deputy Commissioners of Police meet their Commissioner regularly to review developments."

Contrast this with what actually happened. Although reports of attacks on Muslims came in within hours of news breaking of the killings in Godhra, no meeting was held. Ahmedabad's 30 police stations and posts carried out just two arrests on the night of February 27, both of Muslims on charge of shouting inflammatory statements. The State Armed Police was deployed in small groups of four or five through the city, but was given no orders to fire on mobs. The result was predictable. "During the 1985 riots," recalls Zakia Naseem Jaffrey, the widow of former Member of Parliament Iqbal Ehsan Jaffrey who was murdered, "there were only a few Central Reserve Police Force personnel to protect us, but they opened fire and saved our lives." This time, while Ahmedabad Police Commissioner P.C. Pande visited the Jaffrey home, he left no instructions with the local police to use effective fire and did not respond to subsequent distress calls. Shockingly, Pande sought to blame Jaffrey for provoking his own death by firing into the mob. How the Police Commissioner came by this piece of information is unclear, but Zakia Jaffrey denies the charge, saying she heard no shots at all that afternoon.

Jaffrey was not the only prominent Muslim to be targeted. High Court Judge M.H. Kadri had to be evacuated after his house was attacked, while the home of Justice Akbar Divecha was burned down. Top police officials, including Inspector General of Police Ai Saiyed and Deputy Commissioner of Police Samiullah Ansari, were also targeted. Pande made no secret of his feelings about these events, asserting that his force's communal bias was legitimate since it was "a part of society". While Pande has subsequently claimed that his force was "overwhelmed by the mobs", the fact is that just two Gujarat Police personnel were killed in their course. Only one was injured by a Hindu mob. Chaos prevailed in the control room, which was run not by an officer but by a clerk, Jagdish Makhwana, who was promoted to the post of Special Police Officer. "We should have a Deputy Commissioner of Police here," he told Frontline, "but the officers are very busy with other duties."

Interestingly, the factors responsible for the collapse of the Ahmedabad Police seem to be at least three months old. The Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of Zone-II, Raj Kumar, was shifted out. No one was brought in to take charge of the highly sensitive areas of Shahpura and Delhi Darwaza. Another key post, that of the DCP in charge of crime, was also left vacant after the incumbent, Gyanendra Singh Malik, left for an overseas assignment. None of the DCPs in the six zones that remained staffed hailed from outside the State, and just two were directly recruited Indian Police Service officers. While there is nothing illegal about these postings, such a line-up is unlikely to have come about by chance.

By way of contrast, officers less open to political pressure did succeed in containing the violence, notably in Surat, Kutch and even Godhra. Pande's only substantial comment on police failure came on March 9, when he proclaimed that the force was crippled because it had only 270 sub-inspectors instead of a sanctioned strength of 500. If this claim of shortages of junior officers is true, this would be yet another achievement of BJP rule. According to the National Crime Records Bureau's authoritative report, Crime in India, Ahmedabad in 1998 had 713 officers of the rank of Assistant Sub-Inspector and above, against a sanctioned strength of 529. The force had 6,462 officers below this rank, against a sanctioned strength of 5,822.

Official figures on violence underline the fact that the State apparatus served as an instrument of Hindu fascism. Frontline obtained details of the pattern of killings both in Ahmedabad and in Gujarat as a whole, showing systematic police bias. In Ahmedabad, 249 bodies had been recovered until the midnight of March 5. Of these, six could not be identified, while 30 were of Hindus. Of the Hindus killed, 13 were shot by the police, while several others died in attacks on Muslim-owned establishments. Six bodies of Hindu workers were, for example, recovered from Hans Inn and Tasty Hotel. Although there were almost no attacks by Muslim mobs on Hindu-dominated areas, 24 Muslims were killed in police firing. State-wide, the pattern was repeated. Forty-six Muslims were killed in police firing, as against 51 Hindus. This despite the fact that 32 Muslims were reported killed in rioting by this point, as against 90 Hindus. The police were not, as Pande claims, overrun: they were choosing their targets carefully.

Statistics on deaths are based only on bodies actually recovered, and therefore give a far-from-complete picture of the scale of the slaughter. No one knows just how many bodies were completely incinerated, or remain trapped in debris. Ehsan Jaffrey's body, for example, was not found. Private estimates range upwards of 1,500 dead, and it will take months before a full picture emerges. Incredibly, the Gujarat government has not even set up offices at refugee camps to compile a list of missing persons. Nor, despite repeated promises by Pande, have policemen been sent to these camps to register FIRs. Where FIRs have been registered, riot victims often complain that they leave out names of local politicians and police officials who led the mob attacks. Only five arrests have been made in connection with the Narora killings, and none of those picked up are key members of the mob named by eyewitnesses. All this seems to be part of a deliberate effort to obliterate evidence.

Meanwhile, the physical obliteration of the Muslim heritage of Ahmedabad is proceeding apace. Some 40 mosques and shrines were brought down during the riots, and the debris has been meticulously moved away by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. That such removal of debris constitutes a criminal offence, in that it amounts to tampering with evidence, seems to bother no one. The shrine of the Urdu poet Wali Gujarati, located just a few minutes walk from the Police Commissioner's Office, was destroyed and replaced with a makeshift Hindu temple. The temple was removed a few days later, but the Corporation has now covered the area with a strip of fresh tarmac. The project of ethnic cleansing initiated in earlier riots has also reached near-closure. The sole Muslim home in Gagori Chawl, adjoining a police station, has been broken down and temples now adorn the ruins. Some Hindus, possibly those who are thought to be obtuse enough to have missed the message sent out by the burning of the showrooms, have received leaflets ordering them not to have any dealings with Muslims.

In less than 12 months, Gujarat's Hindu Right will face Assembly elections. Discredited by its record on the economic front, and its less-than-creditable handling of the 2001 Kutch earthquake, few people had given the Bharatiya Janata Party a serious chance to retain power. Now, after February 28, the Hindu Right is again on a roll. It has learned the lessons of the 1998 Lok Sabha elections when a string of attacks on Christians and Muslims in south Gujarat helped the BJP wrest key seats, including Godhra, from the Congress (I).

Tragically, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has become something of a hero for many Hindus because he presided over this pogrom. That the sentiment cuts across party lines is evident from the fact that the Municipal Corporation is run by a Congress(I) Mayor, Himmat Singh Patel. At a March 7 meeting with Muslim leaders, he flatly refused to allow the reconstruction of a 300-year old mosque near Anjali Cinema, which was destroyed by a VHP-led mob. And until the morning of March 8, hours before Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi visited the city, the Corporation did not even provide the relief camps with food assistance, clean water or medical facilities.

Even if the Justice K.G. Shah Commission of Inquiry provides a basis for giving the riot victims some justice, it will do nothing to address the larger issue. For decades, riot after riot has pushed the city's Muslims into deprived ghettos. After February 28, they have become Bantustans. Terrorising Muslims is no longer a vote-driven political enterprise. It has become state policy.