Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi sets off on his `Gujarat Gaurav Yatra' again. Will the Akshardham sentiment fuel his campaign momentum?
DAZED and confused. That is how most Gujaratis felt after two terrorists stormed the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar on September 24, murdering 37 persons and injuring 81. For a State yet to recover fully from recent communal violence, the death of innocent devotees, including of young children, came as a grim reminder that violence could still be sparked off anytime, anywhere.
Another tragedy in the cycle of violence that has struck Gujarat. But for the grim reapers of the violence, it was yet another tragedy to twist for the sake of deriving political mileage. Several VIP aircraft took off to Gujarat.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee cut short his visit to the Maldives and flew straight to Gujarat. He was in Gandhinagar within 24 hours of the terrorist attack. But earlier this year, after communal violence broke out in late February, he arrived on the scene 35 days later. Only after more than a thousand people were killed and 1.5 lakh were left homeless. Even Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani reached Gujarat only three days after the torching of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, which killed 59 people and sparked the communal violence. By then, Sangh Parivar mobs had already ravaged the State with attacks on Muslims. But, within three hours of the Akshardham siege, Advani made his way to the temple complex. Both leaders raced to the temple, clambering to claim the Akshardham `victory'.
Advani hailed it as "a victory over terrorism for India" soon after National Security Guards commandos ended the siege by killing the two terrorists. He asked the tired commandos to stand up and chant `Bharat Mata ki Jai'. Many in the Bharatiya Janata Party are already doing the victory dance, even before State elections have been announced. But it is a dance over dead bodies. It may be a victory that left 37 people dead and 81 injured.
By immediately blaming `the enemy', Pakistan, for the assault on the temple, Advani tried to deflect attention from the fact that it was a revenge attack. Innocent people had died in a suicide strike provoked by the Hindu Right. The militants apparently wanted to avenge the recent state-supported communal terror in Gujarat. The Sangh Parivar had orchestrated these attacks on Muslims following the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. While revenge is no justification for perpetuating violence, the attack symbolises the deep impact that the Gujarat carnage has had on persecuted Muslim youth. The police had anticipated terrorist attacks to avenge the communal carnage. It had alerted the government as early as in March. At Akshardham, a note found in the pocket of one of the dead militants from the Tehriq-e-Kasas (Movement for Revenge) stated: "This is a gift to Modi and Advani." Yet, Advani immediately accused Pakistan, in an effort to deflect attention from the BJP's hand in inciting the attack. Even before the investigations began, Chief Minister Narendra Modi insisted that the terrorists were from outside the State.
The police have reportedly unveiled two separate plots to assassinate Modi. Soon after the Akshardham attack, they arrested Samirkhan Pathan in Rajkot for allegedly planning to kill the Chief Minister. He was reportedly trained by the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist network. Later, three other accomplices were detained.
Whether the BJP will gain electorally from Akshardham depends on the extent to which voters may fall for its anti-Pakistan propaganda. The BJP is doing its best to milk the temple attack for all it is worth. The appeal is purely emotional stoking Hindu insecurity and playing on fears of more terrorist attacks. Modi is being projected as the Hindutva hero. A few months after the communal fervour had died down, Modi was besieged by dissent within the party. The powerful Patels, as a bloc loyal to former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, refused to cooperate with Modi during his electoral campaign. But for now, the dissenters are lying low.
The jingoism could be momentary. Some people are already looking farther on. "The party may get more votes after Akshardham, but there may not be an electoral sweep, as anticipated by most of its members," says a BJP insider. "Some voters are upset that Narendra Modi has brought violence to a once-peaceful State. He will now try to project himself as the man fighting terrorism, but he was the one who invited terrorists to Gujarat." The Congress(I) is also using Akshardham to highlight the State government's security lapses and its inability to protect the lives of Gujarat's citizens. But it is being drowned out by the BJP's anti-Pakistan discourse. Sensing that the BJP may gain an edge in cities by playing on fear and insecurity, the Congress(I) is focussing on the countryside and the government's neglect of rural development.
The BJP is still banking on its image as the self-proclaimed protector of Hinduism. But that image may have suffered a beating. The BJP government failed to safeguard one of the largest temple complexes in the State belonging to a powerful sect, the Swaminarayan sect. Many followers of the sect are from the politically powerful Patel community, who are traditional BJP supporters. They are likely to remain loyal to the party, but still resent Modi.
When Modi went to meet the head of the Swaminarayan sect, Pramukh Swami Shri Narayan Swaroop Dasji, hoping to convince him to make a statement condemning Pakistan for the Akshardham attack, he, instead, told Modi to "show restraint". Chiding the Chief Minister, the swami was reported to have said: "Whatever has happened at Akshardham has happened. Whoever has done it, we don't want to blame anyone. There is no need to drag any names into this now. And I think you should also stop referring to the ISI and `Miya Musharraf' and make efforts to maintain peace" (The Sunday Express, September 29, 2002).
Even prior to the Akshardham attack, several Hindu and Jain priests were angry with the BJP government. The Jain muni, Acharya Mahapragya, had asked Narendra Modi to call off the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra in order to prevent violence in the State. A delegation of sants called on the Chief Minister with a list of their problems, which they felt were being ignored by the BJP government.
Just a few weeks before the attack, Modi had come under fire both within and outside the party for making insulting speeches against Muslims during his triumphal campaign with an eye on the coming elections the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra. He said: "What should we do? Run relief camps for them? Do we want to open baby-producing centres? But for certain people that means `hum paanch, hamare pachis' (We five and ours 25)...We must teach a lesson to those who multiply like this."
Despite the chaos after Akshardham, Modi resumed his Gaurav Yatra on October 5, which is perceived as another act meant to stir trouble in the State. This time the yatra started at the Ambaji temple, situated close to the Gujarat-Rajasthan border.
Modi's bus-turned-chariot, which is fitted with a hydraulic elevator, briefly passed through Rajasthan as well. Incidentally, the Managing Director of the Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation, J.S. Rana, who refused to provide 600 buses at concessional rates for the BJP to ferry people to the yatra, was moved out of his post. He is now Principal Secretary, Cow Breeding and Pilgrimage.
At Ambaji on October 5, the anti-Pakistan rhetoric continued. Modi blamed Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for the conspiracy to assassinate him. But when it came to Akshardham, the rhetoric changed . "Vote-hungry politicians are saying Akshardham was attacked because I made critical remarks about Musharraf," Modi said. But he claimed that terrorists had launched attacks in order to stop the Jammu and Kashmir elections and to demand the release of ten jailed terrorists. Once again, it amounted to a convenient and unsubstantiated deflection from the truth.
Following the BJP's cue, the VHP has also used the anti-Pakistan line. It demanded a war to "break Pakistan into 40 pieces". The VHP's call for a national bandh in protest against the Akshardham attack struck fear in Gujarat. It was during the previous VHP bandh after the Sabarmati Express burning that communal mayhem overwhelmed the State.
This time round, Muslims, who had just returned to their homes, fled back to the relief camps. "Last time they attacked us on the day of the VHP bandh. As soon as we heard about the Akshardham attack, we feared another onslaught. The police advised us to leave our homes. They couldn't offer us protection. So we left late at night in a truck organised by the relief committee. We spent the night in a school and then made our way here," said Ershad from Naroda Patiya, where the most horrific massacre had occurred, one that killed more than 83 people.
No one was killed during the latest bandh. But two people were stabbed in Surat and riots broke out in Ahmedabad, Bhuj, Bharuch, Palanpur and Valsad. Even two weeks after the bandh, scuffles continued in Vadodara and Bhavnagar. The Sangh Parivar chose to exercise restraint. The fear of President's Rule being imposed if violence erupted again probably prompted the Sangh to rein in its cadre. Perhaps the BJP did not feel the need to stir trouble this time since it sensed that it was already riding a strong Hindutva wave. The VHP offers a somewhat different explanation. Its international president, Praveen Togadia, said that the bandh was peaceful this time because the State had responded effectively to curb the terrorists.
Chief Minister Narendra Modi's explanation for the bandh being relatively peaceful went thus: "This time, pseudo-secularists behaved and did not make statements against the majority community."
The Congress(I) had tried to beat the BJP at its own game, using the Akshardham incident to appeal to Hindu voters. It pre-empted the VHP by calling for a bandh on the day after the siege. Its bandh, however, did not create the same degree of fear.
Both Vajpayee and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi visited Akshardham at the same time the next day. The Prime Minister expressed his grief over the fact that terrorists had entered a religious place. But significantly, there was no similar expression of sorrow when his own cadre destroyed around 209 masjids and dargahs during the communal carnage.
Several historical monuments were obliterated. The 18th century tomb of Sufi saint Vali Gujrati was destroyed in Ahmedabad. Overnight, there was no sign of its existence (Frontline, May 24, 2002). The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation built a tarred road over the ruins, leaving no trace of the historical monument. In Vadodara too, the tomb of Hindustani music maestro Faiyaz Khan was destroyed and wreathed with burning tyres. The stone mosque of Malik Asin in Ahmedabad, a protected monument built in the 15th century, was razed with bulldozers. The mosque of Muhafiz Khan in Ahmedabad was also destroyed. There was never any talk of punishing the `terrorist' mobs behind these attacks.
Post-Akshardham, the Gujarat BJP has latched on to the anti-Pakistan bandwagon.
It is pointing the finger outside, in order to deflect attention from what lies within. Just before a crucial election, the party had no great achievements to speak of. It will now use the anti-terrorism stand to shift focus from its government's failures as well as its hand in the cycle of violence. With every new outbreak of violence, the politicians keep counting the votes.
It is the ordinary people who mourn the mounting deaths.