The communal 'cleansing' process extends to Gujarat's villages, and the tribal districts erupt in anti-Muslim violence for the first time.DIONNE BUNSHA in Pandharvada and elsewhere
"CLEANSE the village of cow-eaters. Remove all Muslims. Chase them and kill them," the loudspeaker blared out this grim message in Pandharvada village in Panchmahal, where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was holding a public meeting. Personnel of the local police and a district official, who were present there, sat on the sidelines, drinking tea or talking, and soaking in the atmosphere. Pandharvada's Muslims stayed away, fearing the worst. Three weeks later, VHP supporters carried out their threat. Around 21 people were killed when the Muslim bastis in the village were burned. The survivors fled. The VHP had achieved its end.
Akhtar Husain Sayyed, who survived the Pandharvada attack, narrates this chilling tale in Godhra, 85 km from his village, where he has taken shelter in a relative's house. Two members of his family are missing. His mother and sister escaped being burned alive by a mob led by a local Bharatiya Janata Party activist.
The elderly Nathubhai Sheikh saw his two sons being hacked to death. When a mob attacked Muslims in Pandharvada, he ran into the fields where he saw his two sons being attacked with swords. His third son is missing. "I hid in the wilderness for a few days, until the military found me and took me to the Lunawada relief camp. From there, one of my relatives from Godhra brought me to his house," he said.
In the violence that followed the burning of a compartment of the Sabarmati Express, rural Gujarat witnessed heinous attacks on Muslims. It is for the first time that communal violence has spread to tribal districts such as Panchmahal and Sabarkantha. In the 1990 and 1992 communal riots, other areas in rural Gujarat were affected but not these districts. This time, however, since the attacks are apparently part of the Sangh Parivar's diabolic design, the 'cleansing' process has been extended to villages. Most cases of violence were well-orchestrated attacks. They did not involve a clash between two communities. Muslims were systematically hunted and attacked.
"We get the feeling that these attacks were planned. Mobs seem to have been systematically gathered from other villages, instigated and let loose," says Raju Bhargav, Panchmahal district's Superintendent of Police. "Some of the people we arrested at the scene of the crime belonged to villages that are even 15 to 20 km away. It is the first time that villages are experiencing such communal fury," he added. The worst-affected districts have been Panchmahal (where Godhra is located) and its neighbouring districts - Dahod, Sabarkantha, Banas Kantha and Mehsana.
In Pandharvada, nine-year-old Noorunissa was slashed on her back with a sword. Two fingers of Razak, her father, were chopped off and his head was injured. "We hid in the jungle for two days. The police came on the third day. By then I was unconscious," says Razak, who is being treated at Godhra's general hospital. Muslims have been chased and killed and their houses and shops burned down. Entire bastis have been evacuated after the attacks. The numbers of missing persons and displaced families are yet to be determined.
Children and women were not spared. In Anjanva village in Panchmahal district 11 people died after they were thrown into a well. Four of them were children. Maksooda and Hanif Rahim lost their children, aged two and three years, in the attack. The children were thrown into the well along with Maksooda by the members of the mob that attacked the village's Muslim basti. "People came from other villages and started burning our houses. We all ran, but some of us were caught and thrown into the well," says Maksooda, who was the only one rescued from the well by the police. The rest were already dead. She suffered head injuries and is being treated at the Godhra General Hospital. Hanif and Maksooda have nowhere to go once she is discharged from the hospital.
In some villages, local Sangh Parivar activists even warned Muslims of impending doom. "On the night before the VHP bandh, the sarpanch and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief of the village came to my house and told me that we (Muslims) should leave by morning or there would be trouble," says Himmat Khan, a resident of Sundarpura village in Mehsana district. However, the community decided to stay on. "There was a bandh. We were scared there would be trouble outside. When the mob came in the evening and burned our houses, we all ran to our Muslim friends in Sardarpura village nearby. They were also attacked within a few hours," he says.
Sardarpura witnessed one of the most gory crimes in Gujarat's recent history when 29 people, many of them women and children hiding from a mob, were locked inside a house and burned alive by Patel (a landowning caste) leaders. Shameem Husain, a 20-year-old, lost her mother, two brothers and a sister in the fire. "I managed to get out of the burning house and hid in a bathroom," says Shameem. Shameem was a farm worker under the Patel landlords. She and her handicapped father have now taken refuge in Savala village, 30 km away.
While the former sarpanch along with several others have been arrested in Sardarpura, many other Sangh Parivar activists roam scot-free. "We have to be careful while making arrests. If we start arresting many ruling party activists, we will be under pressure," admits a police officer. Yet, there are no excuses for the police's failure to protect lives and property. "For the past two months, I was threatened by the Bajrang Dal. They wanted me to leave the village," says a Bori (a trading caste) Muslim trader from Dekva village in Panchmahal district. He continues, "I was given police protection. After the Godhra incident, our shop was burned. The police inspector was there while it happened but did nothing. If the police had acted, a lot of lives and property would have been saved."
Economic interests also underlie the communal agenda. "It's very simple - our land is very valuable. It is fertile and has borewell irrigation. The Patels want to get hold of it," says Munsaf Pathan, a farmer and a landowner who survived the Sardarpura attack. Muslim-owned shops, occupying prime space, near bus stops or railway stations, have been targeted. Hindu-owned shops adjacent to them remain untouched. The likelihood of Muslims returning to set up shop is slim. "In the tribal areas of Panchmahal and Sabarkantha, there has been a history of class conflict between Bori Muslim traders and tribal people. This has been exploited by the Hindutva brigade, who have given it a communal colour," says activist Rohit Prajapati. In many places tribal people have been instigated to loot. "The Bhil tribal people in this area are extremely poor. The district has suffered drought conditions for the past two years. In some cases, they used this chance purely to loot," says Raju Bhargav.
Yet, the overriding motive was to work up communal frenzy. Over the last decade, organisations such as the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have managed to make inroads into rural Gujarat. "Though its traditional support comes from the trading community, the Sangh Parivar has managed to saffronise even OBCs (Other Backward Classes), Dalits and the tribal people since they follow more Hindu customs compared to Dalits or Adivasis in other States," says human rights lawyer Girish Patel. The VHP first started mobilising support in Gujarat when it launched the rath yatra campaign in 1990. Its recent Trishul campaign, to convert people to Hinduism, also succeeded in inciting communal fervour. The BJP's rise to power in the State in 1995 and the use of moneypower in deprived areas have also fostered its growth.
The recent attacks were a culmination of a strategy. It seems to have paid off. Many Muslim bastis are deserted now. People are shattered both emotionally and economically. Muslims have been left with nothing but the clothes on their back. The mission seems to have been accomplished to a large extent, but the Sangh Parivar still refuses to put away the trishuls and the loudspeakers and forget about cow slaughter.