CHARIOTS OF FEAR

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Jagannath rath yatra passes without incident, but for Gujarat's Muslims it is life on the edge, for the fifth month running.

A FESTIVE procession in a ghost town. Welcome to Ahmedabad's 125th Jagannath Rath Yatra. While some people in the city celebrated, others abandoned their homes, ran for their lives and hid themselves in mortal fear.

The relief camps in the city were swamped with a sudden exodus of people. After staying in a relief camp for four months, Sayeeda Rafiq Maniyar and her family had returned just 15 days earlier to their looted home in Saraspur, Ahmedabad. Their attempts to settle back into their old life were rudely disrupted by the rath yatra. Fear of further violence made them drop everything and run back to a relief camp in Haj House, Kalupur. "The basti is empty once again. Everyone has left. No one dares to stay there for the rath yatra." Sayeeda's chawl is close to the route of the yatra.

The Jagannath rath yatra winds its way through Ahmedabad on July 12.-

Anxiety over the yatra reached fever pitch as the day - June 12 - drew near. On the eve of the festival, many of the city's Muslims, especially those living in the Walled City, deserted their homes. In their search for safety, they scrambled into relief camps, relatives' homes or neighbouring bastis which were away from the road and had a large Muslim population.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi pulled out all the stops, to try and use the occasion to prove that law and order had returned to Gujarat. But the atmosphere of fear surrounding the rath yatra was reflective of the mood throughout the State. Despite official attempts to show that the situation was normal, scratching the surface revealed the terror that lay beneath. While the powerful people are upbeat, the marginalised Muslims in the relief camps and the streets hang about the darkest corners. Although large-scale violence that started in March has since abated, they still live in fear, moving between the remains of their homes, relief camps and relatives' houses. Some people who returned to their homes had to retrace their steps to the camps. For many Muslims, it is a desperate search for a place to belong. The rath yatra heightened the insecurity and upset the balance for those who were just about managing to pick up the pieces of their lives and start all over again.

The rath yatra is a 3-km-long procession that winds through the narrow lanes of the Walled City. Many of the participants routinely indulge in wild, chauvinistic rituals, running through the streets of the Muslim-dominated areas, brandishing swords, sticks and trishuls, sometimes shouting provocative communal slogans. In 1985 and 1992, communal clashes erupted during the yatra. This time, Muslims were not taking any chances.

Muslim refugees at the Shah Alam relief camp on July 11.-AMIT DAVECIAL/ REUTERS

The local Muslim community already lost more than 1,000 lives, and thousands of homes and jobs in systematic communal attacks by Hindutva mobs against Muslims after February 27 when the Sabarmati Express was burned in Godhra, killing 59 passengers. Ever since, Gujarat's Muslim community has been shaken. They have witnessed the most gory attacks on their people. Picking up the pieces of their lives has proven difficult as they face an economic boycott. Many have seen their homes and shops being razed to the ground to make way for the construction of temples. Living in a State whose government abetted the massacres makes every Muslim fearful.

Ayub Khan, a tailor who lives and works in Dariyapur, finished work for the day and headed off for the Shah Alam relief camp on the eve of the yatra. "It's not safe for us here. We don't trust the rath yatris or the police. During the recent violence, it was the police who fired on innocent people here, even though there was no riot in the area," he says. With the police swarming the neighbourhood ahead of the event for days, fear of the police also drove residents away. As part of the security measures, the police organised rehearsals and drills in the days leading up to the yatra. "The police only target us. Even when we are attacked and run for safety, the police fire at us. We live on the border with a Hindu colony. If anything happens, where will we run?" he asks.

His distrust of the police was echoed by many others. The residents of Punjabi Galli in Dariyapur recently constructed a huge iron gate to keep outsiders away as well as to prevent random police combing operations. "We are scared of the police, not the rath yatris. The rath yatris are people like us. But it was the police who encouraged the killings in the past few months. They entered homes and shot at innocent people," says Rizwana Noormia Sheikh, a Dariyapur resident. While boasting of its ability to restore law and order, the Gujarat government points out that the largest number of people have been killed in police firing while quelling the violence. However, it does not mention that a disproportionately large number of these firings killed the victims of the attacks rather than the criminals. This has made Muslims even more scared since they have no one to turn to. "It's the first time that we are deserting our houses because of the rath yatra. What bigger shame than having to escape from your own home?"

On July 7, a shop belonging to a Muslim, set ablaze by a mob in Chotta Udaipur, about 200 km from Ahmedabad.-AFP

WHILE most of the 7,000 people who fled in fear of the rath yatra will get back to their homes soon, Ahmedabad's relief camps still house around 30,000 others. They have had no choice but to live in the most unhygienic and inhospitable conditions for almost five months. Their livelihoods and the education of their children have been disrupted. Most of them have been unable to return to their homes, fearing further attacks or because they do not have the money to rebuild their homes. The amounts of compensation doled out to refugees by the Bharatiya Janata Party government have been pathetic, generally ranging between Rs.2,000 and Rs.3,000. Many people have not even received cheques for even these amounts from the government. Yet, the State is trying to shrug off responsibility for the refugees. It is willing to provide supplies to only for of the 20 camps that are now operational in Ahmedabad. The others simply do not exist in government records anymore. Most of the camps in the rural areas, where people live without even shelter during the monsoon, have also been de-listed by the government. The supply of food, water and electricity has stopped. A government that aided and abetted the violence obviously will not bother to help the victims get back on their feet again.

The government's only preoccupation, it would seem, is to hold elections at the earliest opportunity to ride the Hindutva wave generated by the communal attacks orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar. Fear is a key element of its electoral game plan. The Gujarat government brushed off the concerns and anxieties of its Muslim citizens regarding renewed violence during the rath yatra. At the same time, the Chief Minister appealed to Muslims not to take out processions during the Moharrram festival in March. Despite suggestions from top police officials to cancel the yatra this year or change the route, the government remained adamant. Said a police officer: "The rath yatra at such a time is very dangerous from the security point of view. Especially in Ahmedabad, where two to three lakh people celebrate it on very narrow roads. Over the years, the festival has become a Hindutva yatra on the streets. It is hijacked by these elements every year." Over the years, the yatra has become a festival to be dreaded since it threatens to turn into a flashpoint for communal clashes.

But this year, the Hindutvavadis had already sated themselves. After having unleashed widespread violence over the last few months, they spared no effort to ensure that the rath yatra was peaceful. Heavy police security was deployed. The streets were dotted as much with khaki as with saffron. The government probably spent more money on arranging security for the festival all over the State than it has on the refugees in the relief camps. In order to prevent trouble, the yatra was cut to a third of its usual size. Only 35 trucks were allowed on the 15-km route; normally there are around 100. Nothing was going to stop the yatra. The prestige of all the 'true Hindu patriots' in the Gujarat government was at stake.

Paramilitary personnel patrol the streets of Ahmedabad on July 11.-

Many of these 'Hindu patriots' who wreaked havoc with peoples' lives have got away scot-free. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) made sure that its 'boys' were safe from the reach of the law. In fact, it even launched a fund collection drive in middle-class Hindu localities to raise the legal fees payable to defend them. But the lawyers did not have to work too hard. The local police did enough to help. They refused to file cases against Sangh Parivar leaders and activists although victims and witnesses tried doggedly to register first information reports (FIRs). When cases were filed, they were on the basis of group FIRs for an incident in the area, instead of for each complaint filed. That reduced the number of times, if at all, the accused would have to be arrested. No action has been taken, for example, against BJP MLA Mayaben Kodnani and VHP secretary Dr. Jaideep Patel whose names were mentioned in connection with a gruesome massacre at Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad. The first riot case came up for hearing recently regarding the burning of shops in Lunawada. The accused were let off within two days since the police case against them was so flimsy. The saffron brigade is gloating over the manner in which they have been able to subvert the system and use state power to their advantage.

As the akhadas made their way through the streets, some individuals flexing their muscles in frenzied arrogance, and the few Muslim elders who stayed back in the neighbourhood to guard their homes closeted themselves behind closed doors and windows. Muslims all over the State were told to observe a self-imposed 'janata curfew'. Even Muslim areas through which the yatra did not pass were deserted. As soon as the last rath had crossed the Muslim-dominated Dariyapur area, the police cordoned off the road and there was a collective sigh of relief among Muslims. They celebrated the peaceful passage of the yatra through their neighbourhood. It helped that the police were hurrying the yatra on, attempting to get it all over as quickly as possible. Usually the yatra starts from the Jagannath temple at 7 a.m. and returns late at night. This time, the police tried to get it over much earlier.

A protective iron gate freshly put up at the entrance to Punjabi galli at the Muslim-dominated Dariyapur area, a few days before the yatra.-DIONNE BUNSHA

The event was considered an 'acid test' for the Narendra Modi government, and it was essential for his political survival and future that the rath yatra passed off peacefully. All of the BJP's hopes of an early election in October hinged on proving that it can please its hardline Hindu supporters and yet maintain peace when it wants to. Chief Minister Modi as well as former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel were present at the yatra prominently.

The government's security adviser K.P.S. Gill endorsed Chief Minister Modi's decision to go ahead with allowing the yatra by saying that changing its route would only create more tension. Gill also backed the BJP's stand by declaring that early elections would ease tension in the State by putting an end to any politically-motivated violence. Although Gujarat's Muslims are still threatened, Gill announced that since the rath yatra was peaceful, his work in Gujarat was over. With tempers still remaining so frayed and elections around the corner, many people would say it is just the beginning of another phase.

A group of 'Hindu patriots' proceeding to join the procession.-DIONNE BUNSHA

In the public jubilation over a peaceful yatra, all the terror and violence that preceded it seemed to have been relegated to the background. Around 7,000 people left their homes and fled to relief camps, according to Fr. Victor Moses from the Citizens' Initiative, a group of non-governmental organisations helping with relief operations. In the build-up to the yatra, trouble broke out in Gomtipur, Ahmedabad. Shivramdas, a mahant of the Saryudas Temple in Prem Darwaza (which is on the route of the rath yatra) was arrested for possessing nine country-made pistols. Country-bombs and arms were seized also in Bhavnagar. A potential suicide bomber, who said he wanted to avenge his son's death, was arrested in Ahmedabad while the yatra was under way. Police fired 20 rounds, injuring two persons, when trouble broke out at the yatra in Sherpur village, Anand district. Even as the yatra was in progress in Ahmedabad, stone-throwing in Kheda, Anand district and curfew was imposed.

To realise just how peaceful it really was, you only have to ask people like Sayeeda Maniyar. They have spent sleepless nights in fear and terror. Even though they are relieved that the yatra passed off without violence, they preferred to wait and watch for a day or two before leaving the camps. Peace is yet to return to their homes - and their minds.

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