Stoking the fires in Gujarat

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

With the State government refusing to crack down on Sangh Parivar leaders responsible for the communal carnage, targeted attacks continue in Gujarat.

DIONNE BUNSHA in Ahmedabad and Vadodara

AFTER being confined to a relief camp for 15 days, Munnabhai Pathan finally gathered enough courage to return to his house at Avdhoot Nagar in Makarpura, Vadodara's (Baroda) industrial area, on March 17. He had fled when his locality was attacked by a mob. Too scared to continue to live there, all he wanted to do was to pick up whatever was left of his belongings and leave. The fact that the police were willing to escort him reduced his fear perception.

But even the police could not protect him. That afternoon, as Munnabhai and his neighbours nervously picked up the remnants of their belongings, local goons quickly assembled a mob. As Munnabhai and his friends made their way back to the relief camp in police vans, they were attacked by a 1,000-strong armed mob. While others escaped with injuries, Munnabhai and 25-year-old Nasirbhai Sheikh were lynched to death. Four others are in a critical condition. They never made it back to their families which anxiously waited for them to return.

On March 3, four days after the saffron mobs first came out on the streets to kill Muslims in order to avenge the Sabarmati Express massacre on February 27, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the law and order situation in the State was 'under control'. Although the mass carnage had abated, targeted attacks continued in some parts of Gujarat, especially Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Bharuch, even three weeks after the Godhra outrage. Although life seemed to be back to normal in Ahmedabad's elite areas, the ghettos were still tense, some of them under curfew. Incidents of killing, stabbing and arson were witnessed every day. Between March 12 and 18, in Ahmedabad alone 51 people were killed and 40 injured and 1,000 homes and shops destroyed. The total number of deaths registered in Gujarat stood at over 700 on March 20. Around 1.1 lakh people have fled their homes and are living in relief camps. Even people who sought shelter in relief camps were attacked. Despite ''police protection'' a mob threw petrol bombs and stones twice at the Odhav relief camp in Ahmedabad, which shelters 4,000 refugees. Such is the state of affairs in Narendra Modi's Hindutva State.

The government insists that peace has returned to Gujarat. But people like Naseem Ilyas Chipe would disagree. Her life is far from normal. As recently as March 17, she left her hut and ran to the Shah-e-Alam relief camp when the houses nearby and the factory where she worked in Dani Limbada in Ahmedabad's industrial area, were torched. "Four cars drove into the Dalit basti. Later, people wearing saffron scarves attacked us with swords, petrol bombs, bottles and acid. They were shouting, 'cut them, kill them'. Obviously, Bajrang Dal and VHP cadres had instigated the Dalits," she says. In the police firing that ensued, one Dalit was killed and two other people, including one Muslim, were injured. Four Muslims were arrested. "When I went with some women to ask the police to release our boys, we were beaten, abused and kept in the police station for a few hours. Why do the police arrest those who are attacked?" asks Naseem. In fact some local BJP leaders were hanging around police stations during the period of disturbance, trying to influence the police.

Her question is echoed by most Muslims who have been attacked. Most of them feel helpless and insecure since the police have ignored complaints, refused them help, opened fire into Muslim bastis and beaten Muslim women. "When we called the police for help, they told us to remain indoors and lock the door. The second time we called, they said no police van was free to come and save us. The goons kept shouting for my young daughter. Finally, our Hindu neighbours helped us escape," says Sairaben Sheikh, who fled from Danteshwar Society near Vadodara to a relief camp.

In fact, the majority of the incidents of violence in Vadodara could have been averted had the police imposed preventive curfew on March 15 when the VHP decided to hold processions all over the country to celebrate the shila daan puja held in Ayodhya. Instead, a violent procession made its way through the city, looting and burning shops owned by Muslims as it passed, escorted by a large police contingent. Curfew was imposed only after the damage was done. "Had we declared curfew, the majority community would have been incensed. Besides, we had limited manpower," said Police Commissioner of Vadodara D.D. Tuteja. These were lame excuses, considering the fact that Vadodara still witnesses violence in places from where no communal incident has been reported before. Mistrust of the police has deepened so much that despite a curfew, people held a protest march demanding Tut-eja's resignation.

When Naseem's (not his real name) parents called from his home town asking him to rescue them, the first people he turned to for help were not the police, but volunteers of the Baroda Peace Committee. Surprising as this may seem, it is even more so when Naseem revealed that he is a police inspector himself. One of the few Muslims in the police force, Naseem was totally shaken by the brazen communal bias he witnessed within the force in the last three weeks, during the witch-hunt against Muslims. "I don't trust the police to help me," is the only thing he is willing to say.

Police officials had several explanations to offer on why they had not been able to contain the violence even more than 20 days after it began. Tuteja said that attacks were reported from areas where no trouble was expected, catching the police off guard. He added that the recent violence was also partly a backlash by Muslims. This claim seems hollow, considering the fact that almost all the attacks have been on Muslim homes and shops. Muslims have been too overwhelmed to be able to retaliate.

COMMUNAL violence was seen for the first time in areas inhabited by tribal people, and this has been explained away as spontaneous looting by poor tribal people. However, the Sangh Parivar's hand in instigating Adivasis is clear. It has been mobilising support in Adivasi areas for the past one decade. More recently, it held a Trishul campaign to convert Adivasis to Hinduism by awarding each one of them a trishul and a picture of Hanuman at public meetings. The Sangh Parivar is now using its new converts as foot soldiers. In Kinwat village in Baroda district, an attack was launched on a Muslim basti on March 12. "Our Hindu neighbours had warned us that people in the village were talking about getting the Muslims out. But we never believed it would happen," says Ejal Sheikh, who sought shelter in a relief camp in Vadodara city after the attack. "Adivasis came at us with arrows, swords and other weapons. They looted and burned everything. They were given alcohol and instigated by powerful Hindus and Bajrang Dal and VHP people. They have been organising meetings in the village for the past one month. Their aim was to destroy us," he said. Several refugees from Kinwat have still not been able to trace their family members.

Also part of the fascist pogrom has been the use of propaganda to create fear and mistrust of the minority community. Some mass-circulated Gujarati newspapers have been instrumental in spreading rumours and stoking hatred for Muslims. Local television stations have also contributed to vitiating the atmosphere. Pamphlets propagating an economic boycott of Muslims by 'Hindu patriots' are also being circulated. While Vadodara's Police Commissioner claimed that local television channels had been banned, no action has been taken against the powerful newspapers.

In an interview given to the web portal, Keshavram Kashiram Shastri, the 96-year-old chairman of the VHP's Gujarat unit, said that the list of Muslim shops to be targeted was prepared on the morning of February 28, just before the attacks began. "It had to be done," he said, "We don't like it, but we were terribly angry."

After raising the communal frenzy to a feverish pitch, the Sangh Parivar is unlikely to let it die, not until it has been translated into votes for the BJP. "The violence will continue. The Sangh has to keep fuelling violent incidents to maintain some level of fear. If this emotional support flags and more rational issues such as economic problems crop up, the BJP will suffer," says an observer.

ANOTHER disturbing experience was police apathy in registering first information reports (FIRs). The police were not available to file FIRs in relief camps, even though they were aware that the victims of attacks could not leave the camps to lodge complaints at police stations. In cases where FIRs have been filed, the accused are described as unidentified persons, although the victims insisted on naming them. Volunteers in Ahmedabad's relief camps say that in some cases the police have framed false criminal charges against victims of the attacks and were threatening them with arrest. "Moreover, the police insist on filing a mass FIR for each incident. They refuse to file individual complaints. How then do we have proof of the extent of damage to our property?" asks a refugee in a relief camp in Vadodara. Many FIRs have been filed without even contacting the victims of the attacks, often underestimating the extent of damage.

While an FIR has been filed by victims of the Naroda Patia massacre against Dr. Jaideep Patel, the VHP's Ahmedabad general secretary, and Mayaben Kodnani, BJP MLA, they have not been arrested. No case has been filed against Praveen Togadia, the VHP's international general secretary, who was also reportedly seen at Naroda Patia where 91 people were ruthlessly massacred. However, the police have shown missionary zeal in arresting people connected with the Sabarmati Express tragedy. Recently, the main accused in the case, local corporator Haji Bilal Ismail Sujela, was arrested, bringing the number of accused in the case to 62. All of them have been booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO). But the Sangh Parivar's terrorists remain untouched. Leaders such as Togadia have even been provided extra security.

Narendra Modi recently declared that there was a conspiracy to ruin the State, which was hatched in Dubai and Kolkata. But, for conspiracies Modi need not look any further than his own backyard. Things seem to be going according to plan in Gujarat, which the BJP describes as its 'model State' - a Hindutva experiment that the Parivar would like to replicate all over the country. The perpetrators of state-supported terror seem to be getting away scot-free. They continue to keep violence simmering in order to make sure that people like Munnabhai never go back home alive.

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