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Pogrom and polls

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

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Even as the attacks on the minorities continue relentlessly, the BJP government's priority in Gujarat appears to be holding Assembly elections rather than providing relief and rehabilitation.

DIONNE BUNSHA in Panchmahal and Vadora

AROUND 1.5 lakh refugees are stranded in Gujarat's relief camps. Several people die in continuing violence every day, adding to the toll which has already crossed 800. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party workers stand accused of having orchestrated targeted attacks against Muslims across the State, killing them and hounding them out of their villages and ghettos. The attacks continue relentlessly in Ahmedabad and other parts of north and central Gujarat. The police barge into Muslim homes and harass residents as part of combing operations. Village residents whose homes have been destroyed are living in open fields. There is no way out for the homeless refugees in relief camps. They cannot return to their homes or start work again.

Local peace meetings organised by the District Collectors to get people back to their homes are not working out as planned. In some instances, they have rekindled violence rather than trust.

Bismillah Khan returned to the Baska relief camp from one such meeting at his Rameshra village in Halol on April 12, disappointed that the local leaders had not shown up. But little did he know then that his house and the houses of two others were burned soon after he left the village, as he made his way back to the relief camp that night. It was an unspoken message to stay away. On the night before the next meeting scheduled for April 16, three more houses were set on fire. Enough to sabotage any sign of peace. "How can we return when the police have done nothing to make sure we are safe, when our houses and shops are totally destroyed?" asks Bismillah.

Others who attempted to return also ran back to the relief camps. Alibhai Rehman Khatri's Hindu friends from his Rawalia village, visited him at the Baska relief camp and convinced him to return and reopen his shop. "I took a loan of Rs.6,000, stocked the shop with supplies and reopened my shop for eight days," he says. "Then there was a Bajrang Dal meeting in a nearby village, where they apparently planned to burn my shop and kill me because I had the guts to return. After that I have not gone back, even though my Hindu friends support me. They could also be targeted for helping me."

In many places, even police escorts have not helped. The police took Pathan Jafar Khan back to his home in Baranpura, Vadodara, to assess the damage. "While they were filing the report, a mob attacked from all sides. The policemen ran. Those in the Special Reserve Police tent stationed there refused to come out and help," says Pathan, who has sought shelter in Vadodara's Queresh Jamatkhana relief camp. Mehboob Sheikh from Kanvat village may also have to wait for long in the relief camp. "The police came back after assessing the situation in the village and told us that it was not safe for us to go back," he said.

Even though relief camps are the only refuge, the government is keen to reduce the numbers and close down as many of them as possible. "The Collectorate officials have asked us to stop taking new people into the camp. They said they want the camps closed by the end of the month. That seems impossible. People are still coming in every day, many of whom can no longer stay with their relatives," says a relief camp organiser in Vadodara. However, in a few places like Panchmahal, a sensitive District Collector has been undertaking rehabilitation and confidence-building measures more prudently.

In many villages, the camps have not yet been recognised by the government. At Bamanwad village, Panchmahal district, where an arson spree by a mob of outsiders destroyed 27 houses, people sleep in open fields. Unlike in most villages, Muslims here did not flee after the attack. They did not want to leave their land and belongings, meagre as these were. In an area where three successive years of drought has impoverished many people, local Hindus and people from nearby villages have been providing them food, clothes and support for the last six weeks. "The government refuses to recognise ours as a camp because they say we have already been given a cash dole for a maximum of 15 days. Only seven people, whose houses were burned, have got compensation. It is very difficult to scrape together some food every day. Most of us eat only once a day," says Ibrahimbhai Khatki, whose house was burned. In the neighbouring village of Nepania, where 140 houses were burned or damaged, the relief camp was recognised only on April 15, six weeks after the attack on the Muslim basti.

Yet the BJP government's priority is not to stop the fascist witch-hunt of Muslims and restore peace but to hold Assembly elections. It is time to grab the spoils of the state-supported Hindutva attacks, to count votes over dead bodies. Chief Minister Narendra Modi wants to get the refugees back to their homes, without any assurance of safety or proper rehabilitation, so that he can get on with the elections. It does not matter whether the refugees are ready to return to their homes. The government has to prove that the State is 'back to normal'. But as long as the Sangh Parivar's goons roam the streets, neither peace nor rehabilitation stand a chance.

It is unclear how the government plans to hold elections when the secondary school examinations in Ahmedabad and Vadodara which started on April 18, were being held under the shadow of fear. Children in relief camps were scared to travel to examination centres in parts of the walled city, where mobs still ruled the streets. Three schools in Dilli Darwaja, Ahmedabad, were attacked by a mob while children were writing their examinations. The police and the Rapid Action Force had to rescue them. The safety of Muslim children was evidently not a factor that was considered while fixing the location of examination centres. As a consequence, many children were compelled to miss their examinations. However, the government announced later that separate examinations would be conducted for children who could not write the examination that started on April 18.

A group named the Affected Citizens of Ahmedabad called for a boycott of the examinations when the government shifted examination centres out of Muslim-dominated areas. "It is more unsafe for us to travel to majority-dominated areas," said Zakia Johar, one of those who called for the boycott. While Education Minister Anandiben Patel claimed that the examinations were attended by 95 per cent of the students, Affected Citizens estimated that around 12,000 students did not attend the examinations in Ahmedabad. It petitioned the Supreme Court asking for re-examination for students who missed the examinations. The court issued notice to the government asking to explain why the examinations cannot be held later.

"The violence doesn't end. The goons know they can get away unpunished. The VHP will continue instigating minor incidents until the elections in order to keep up the sense of fear and insecurity," a police officer said. In fact, the VHP had distributed swords before the violence broke out and continues to do so weeks after, according to a press report. In rural Gujarat, Bajrang Dal and VHP activists continue to hold meetings before they launch an attack.

The police have ensured the criminals immunity from the law. Refugees complain that the police are unwilling to name the main culprits, who are mostly VHP or BJP workers, in first information reports (FIRs). Moreover, individual complaints are clubbed into one for an entire village or neighbourhood, so that even if the accused are arrested, it is only once, rather than on the basis of separate FIRs. With the criminals still on the loose, witnesses who have filed FIRs are afraid to return to their homes. At some local reconciliation meetings, local leaders are said to have demanded that refugees retract names from the FIRs if they want to go back to their villages.

Even people advocating peace have been under attack by those interested in keeping trouble brewing. Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad had never seen violence until recently. As NDTV cameraman, Pranav Joshi, lay injured among the Mahatma's letters and photographs, it became apparent that the same forces that were behind the Mahatma's killing were not willing to spare even this haven. A peace meeting at the ashram was disrupted by the BJP youth wing, which protested against the presence of Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar. In the ensuing scuffle, the police beat up several journalists. Pranav Joshi was seriously injured and was hospitalised. Part of the fascist plan is evidently to stifle any voice of dissent, be it from the media or from activists, judges or unyielding police officers.

Recently, Health Minister Ashok Bhatt in a letter attacked three Christian groups that have been active in Gujarat's peace initiative, and the aid agency ActionAid-India. Bhatt said the groups that had "discredited" Gujarat's image during the violence against Christians in Dangs district in 1998 were at it again. He also alleged that foreign-funded organisations supported the terrorists behind the burning of the Sabarmati Express.

How far the BJP's game plan, of using Hindutva and violence to shift attention from the real issues facing Gujarat, has worked will only be known later. The BJP has failed to deliver on its main election slogan - na bhay, bhook, bhrashtachar (no fear, hunger or corruption). This summer, more than 2,000 villages in Gujarat are expected to suffer acute water shortage. During the last two summers, hunger deaths and water riots were reported in the drought-hit areas of Saurashtra. "Despite being the most industrialised State, Gujarat has widespread underemployment and informal employment. Ahmedabad has one of the highest rates of poverty among India's major cities," says Dr. Darshini Mahadevia from the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad. Corruption has become institutionalised and has paralysed the government machinery. Voters are also upset with the government for the delay in undertaking rehabilitation measures for the victims of the January 2001 earthquake.

Narendra Modi was brought in to replace Keshubhai Patel as Chief Minister in October 2001 because the party sensed the growing public anger against its government. Modi, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) hardliner who had never stood for an election earlier, was expected to organise the cadre for the 2003 elections: he took over after the BJP lost two Assembly byelections, one of them in Sabarmati, which falls within Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's Lok Sabha constituency. The first signs of the BJP's declining popularity were evident during the September 2000 district panchayat elections, in which the party lost 23 of the 25 district panchayats and the majority of taluk panchayats. Earlier, it controlled 24 district panchayats. In the municipal elections in 2000, the party lost two crucial municipal corporations - Ahmedabad and Rajkot - which it had retained for 13 and 24 years respectively.

Modi has tried to revive the party's flagging popularity by using a militant Hindutva line. He is attempting to implement the party's fascist plan in the Hindutva laboratory, the only State where the BJP has a clear majority, 117 of 182 Assembly seats. In fact, less than a month after the violence in Gujarat began, BJP district committees were asked to assess the party's chances if mid-term elections were announced. Elections are scheduled to be held next year. The pattern of the recent violence also reveals that certain Congress strongholds in north and central Gujarat, the predominantly tribal Panchmahal and Sabarkantha districts, were targeted by VHP mobs.

The continuing violence seems to be laying the ground for the big fight ahead. It is time for free and unfair elections in India's Wild West.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 27, 2002.)

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