Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

Ten weeks after, Gujarat remains on the edge. And K.P.S. Gill's efforts to revive the State's coercive apparatus represent at best a holding operation.

VHP office, Ahmedabad: Jai Shri Ram!Frontline: Hello, I'm calling from Frontline magazine, I'd like to speak to someone who... VHP office: Jai Shri Ram! Frontline: Hello? VHP office: Jai Shri Ram! Frontline: Yes, can I speak... VHP office: If you don't say Jai Shri Ram, we will not talk to you.

EIGHTY days after the worst communal carnage in recent Indian history, an unquiet peace has descended on Gujarat. Since May 10, when a new team of top police officers took charge in Ahmedabad, there have been just two killings, one of them a murder unrelated to communal issues. Since the coming of top-cop K.P.S. Gill as security adviser to Chief Minister Narendra Modi, more than 200 activists of the Hindu Right have been arrested. Through the State, orders have been issued to search for and confiscate the weapons used by the death squads. Some riot-devastated shops along the main road in Ahmedabad's Delhi Darwaza area are being rebuilt.

Peace? Not quite. An estimated 125,000 Muslim refugees driven from their homes during the violence remain in camps through the State. Efforts have been made to coax some refugees back to their neighbourhoods, but organised Hindu-communal hostility and unconcealed threats have ensured that the return has been almost invisible. Upwards of 65,000 refugees remain in cramped, unhygienic camps in Ahmedabad alone, living out in the sweltering heat without even minimally adequate state support for sanitation and health infrastructure. The Gujarat government still has no clear plan for the rehabilitation of riot victims, or the reconstruction of homes, businesses and places of worship destroyed over the past 10 weeks.

Gujarat remains on the edge, and Gill's efforts to revive the State's coercive apparatus represent at best a holding operation. As holding operations go, however, the project has been near-flawless. The former Punjab Director-General of Police arrived in Gujarat with no real mandate, and even less formal power. One source of influence was the Central government's desire to end violence, an objective propelled both by discontent within the National Democratic Alliance and pressure from the international community. More important, Gill made clear before leaving New Delhi that he would sacrifice his formidable reputation if the State government proved uncooperative. The prospect of Gill returning to Delhi was sufficient threat to ensure that almost all of his demands for high-level police transfers and the grant of a free hand to contain violence were conceded.

Modi was, as a result, forced into decisions he may under other circumstances have been unwilling to make. The large-scale arrests of the cadre of the party and its affiliated organisations have left many within the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad incensed. They believe that the Chief Minister has caved in to Central pressure. It was also made clear to politicians, many of whom had taken over police stations during the violence, that they would have to stay away from police work. Several low-level officials who had backed violent mobs during the riots were discreetly removed from the scene. And although Gill was unable to secure the services of the Punjab Police - a force that few now seem to recall played a key role in breaking up VHP mobs in New Delhi after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid - additional units from the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force were moved in.

IMPROVING policing, however, will not by itself solve the larger problems that Gujarat faces. It is widely understood that state power was abused in the course of the pogrom that followed the killings at Godhra. Official data obtained by Frontline makes clear that Muslims were the victims of a largely one-sided, well-planned massacre. In fact, it makes little sense to describe what happened as a communal riot. Although several independent authorities believe that the data understate Muslim casualties, they nonetheless bear out media allegations of police bias.

Although the number of Muslims killed was more than five times the number of Hindus, and in value terms Muslims lost almost 10 times the property that Hindus lost, police firing was directed on both communities evenly. Official data accessed by Frontline also affirm that no effective firing, intended to kill or cripple members of violent mobs, was used until March 1, three days after the Godhra killings. Muslim places of worship were also targeted with impunity and only very little retaliation took place.

All this, of course, is known. What few observers have noted, however, is that this abuse was part of a larger collapse of the very apparatus of the state. Few people know that the power to call in the armed forces to contain an unmanageable law and order situation lies not with the State government, but with the District Magistrate. Section 129 of the Code of Criminal Procedure empowers any executive magistrate or police station in-charge to disperse an unlawful assembly by force. If an assembly threatens public security, Section 130(1) mandates that the Executive Magistrate of the highest rank, almost always the District Magistrate or District Collector, can ask the armed forces to intervene. Section 130(3) mandates that any officer requisitioned "shall obey such requisition". Each district in India has emergency management plans, which include specific details of the Army units to be requisitioned in case of crisis.

Indian Administrative Service officers in Gujarat, like their Indian Police Service counterparts, argue that their political and bureaucratic superiors prevented them from discharging their duties. Their allegation is sad, since no sanction of this kind is actually required. Section 132 provides that no officer shall be prosecuted without Central government sanction for having acted, or even having purported to act, under Section 130. This sweeping immunity, along with generous rules granting security of service, exist precisely so that officers will be able to resist any order from politicians or their superiors to act illegally. Sadly, very few officers in Gujarat found the courage to do what was both ethically and legally correct. Few of the many officers who complain of political pressure can say just what they did to resist or negate it.

As a result, effective power in Gujarat is wielded not by the state, but by the Hindu Right. Ahmedabad-based architect and social activist Keerti Patel recalls a recent visit to a village to discuss the return of displaced Muslims: "The village head was very hostile to the idea. So I asked him if he thought all the 140 million Muslims in India could be driven away. 'I don't know about them,' he replied. 'But the 56 who we have thrown out will never return'."

Dozens of reports of Muslims being forced to sign letters of apology to the Hindu chauvinists who attacked them have provoked no state response. The rot, tragically, stretches all the way to the judiciary. Data on the re-arrest on riot charges of individuals already facing trial in other cases makes for sad reading. It shows such Muslims are considerably less likely to obtain bail than their Hindu counterparts, even though fewer numbers were involved in violence. The recent arrest of Junagadh-based Bajrang Dal leader Mansukh Kanji Patel on the charge of arms-running underlined the point; he was released on bail without even a day's police remand.

BENEATH the surface, signs of a continuing onslaught by the Hindu Right are only too evident. On May 15, the Gujarat Police arrested Mansukh Kanji Patel and his driver Dinesh Hasmukh Vekaria, while they were ferrying 99 swords and 200 daggers. The weapons, the police found, were to be sold and distributed in Junagadh and Rajkot. Similar arms movements, although less high-profile in nature, have been detected in Ahmedabad. Random checks carried out by the city police have led to some 25 instances of interdiction of knives and home-made bombs since May 10. Interestingly, several recoveries of gold and silver have also been made during these checks. "We're going to go hard after these weapons movements," says Ahmedabad's Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of traffic, Samiullah Ansari.

Pitted against efficient policing is also a powerful web of political power and business greed. The massive exodus of Muslims from Hindu-majority areas, and the parallel movement of Hindus from Muslim-majority areas, has sparked a property-price boom on either side of the Sabarmati river. Much of the trade is in middle-income and upmarket apartments. Ahmedabad's well-entrenched and influential property mafia has another interest in keeping the violence going. Attacks on slum settlements, several of which took place through April, open up new land for redevelopment. The mafia groups have well-known links with ruling-party politicians, at least some of whom also hope to use continuing violence as a means to further the intra-factional BJP project of replacing Narendra Modi.

On top of it all, the Gujarat government's own commitment to keeping the peace is still at best ambiguous. Gill, with Union government backing, succeeded in bringing in two well-respected Additional Commissioners of Police, Satish Sharma and Satish Verma. Days later, the State government sent the Additional Commissioner of Police in charge of crime, Anupam Surolia, on deputation to the Border Security Force. Surolia was, among other things, in charge of investigating the two worst massacres in Ahmedabad, those of Naroda Patiya and the Gulbarga Society. Interestingly, Surolia had earlier applied for the deputation but his request was rejected by the State government.

Abandoned by the state, Gujarat's Muslims have little choice but to retreat further into the ghettoes. Despite Gill's recent round of meetings with Muslim community leaders, there is a genuine crisis of trust within the community. Such responses are not new. Mafioso Abdul Latif, who ran one of western India's largest extortion, liquor and gambling rackets, won support by protecting the community during times of communal violence. During the 1984 municipal elections in Ahmedabad, he contested in five wards simultaneously while in jail, and won in all of them.

Such an inward turning, as history has shown, will do little to secure the genuine interests of the community. Come the next Assembly elections, in March 2003 or earlier, the BJP is certain to seek the legitimisation of the disgraceful pogrom it has presided over. No one believes that the Union government will do the sensible thing and impose Central rule in Gujarat: it, quite simply, has no reason to do so. The vibrant civil society initiatives provoked by the outrage in Gujarat need to be transformed, against the clock, into a meaningful political offensive.

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