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Diversionary tactics

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

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"STORIES are being told about [the] Gujarat violence as if it was happening for the first time. Did it not happen in 1984 on the roads of Delhi?" This question, raised by National Democratic Alliance (NDA) convener and Defence Minister George Fernandes during the debate in the Lok Sabha, marked a new low in the abrasive defence put up by the government in the House. However, Fernandes' justification of the Gujarat violence is not new. His argument has been consistently used by Bharatiya Janata Party Members of Parliament whenever the Gujarat riots is debated in Parliament. Apparently, the logic behind this argument is that because the 1984 riots took place in Delhi when the Congress(I) was in power, the party had no right to criticise the BJP for what is happening in Gujarat. The strategy seems to be that attack is the best form of defence.

Can the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in North India, which followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, be compared with the continuing violence in Gujarat? "1984 was a crude attempt to settle scores. Gujarat is deliberate ethnic cleansing," said journalist Rahul Bedi, who covered one of the worst riot-affected areas of Kalyanpuri in Delhi in 1984. Bedi has since then deposed before commissions of inquiry set up by various governments to inquire into the 1984 riots.

Political scientist Rajni Kothari, who worked in relief camps during the 1984 riots, said: "Both the riots have been horrendous events, which need to be condemned outright. A nerve-chilling similarity I see between them is in the technology of using kerosene to burn people. This was first seen in 1984. It seems to have been perfected in the Gujarat riots." Kothari is one of the few people who have maintained that the Delhi riots were a 'pre-planned pogrom' and would have taken place even if Indira Gandhi had not been assassinated. He has been critical of state complicity in the riots. Referring to Gujarat, he said: "If 1984 was a genocide led by the state elite, then Gujarat is more so."

On the face of it, the violence in Gujarat is a re-run of 1984. The 1984 rioting continued for four days during which, according to unofficial accounts, more than 2,000 people were killed. The violence in Gujarat has been continuing for more than two months. "The long duration of the Gujarat riots... makes it worse than 1984," said Kothari.

The points of similarity between the two events are government complicity, the role of police, the use of kerosene and petrol to burn people, selective targeting, the role played by rumours and violence against women. After the 1984 riots, independent commissions formed by civil rights groups conducted investigations about the role of politicians in them and came up with detailed reports. The People's Union for Democratic Rights and the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), in their report "Who are the Guilty? Report of Joint Inquiry into the Causes and Impact of the Riots from 31 October to 10 November, 1984", had run a list of guilty politicians who not only led the mobs but also participated in the killings. In its interim report on the Gujarat violence, the PUCL has highlighted state complicity as an important aspect. The report said that state complicity was evident in Chief Minister Narendra Modi's reaction, which was "too casual and nonchalant, exuding uncalled-for bravado about deft handling of law and order. He has evaded all sense of responsibility and accountability".

Moreover, in the case of the 1984 riots, even government inquiry reports have been ignored. For instance, the Kusum Lata Mittal report, which indicted senior police officials for their role in the riots, still gathers dust in the Home Ministry. Independent inquires, such as the ones conducted by the Citizen's Commission and the PUCL, underlined the role of the Delhi Police in the riots. The Nanavati Commission, currently looking into the riots, is hearing depositions - some of which are against police officials who participated in rioting or assisted rioting mobs in 1984. The report of an independent fact-finding mission, led by Kamal Mitra Chenoy and Achin Vanaik, "Gujarat Carnage-2002", and the preliminary report of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have highlighted the role of the police in the Gujarat violence. According to "Gujarat Carnage-2002", the police are to blame not only for failing to control the mobs, but also for "refusing the fleeing Muslims shelter, tear-gassing them, forcing them towards the waiting mobs".

Besides stabbing, the most common form of attack in the 1984 riots was dousing the victims with kerosene and setting them on fire. In most cases, it was done after putting rubber tyres around them. According to the PUCL, petrol bombs and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders were used in the Gujarat violence.

Violence against women in the 1984 riots was documented by Madhu Kishwar of Manushi, who reported instances of rape and assault. In Gujarat, sexual violence has been used as a weapon against minority women. The spreading of rumours through the use of pamphlets was used effectively in Gujarat. In 1984, there were widespread rumours about Sikhs having poisoned the water supply system of Delhi in the last two days of violence. In Gujarat, according to the PUCL, people were warned of a Muslim retaliation or of approaching Muslim mobs.

However, despite such points of similarity, what makes the Gujarat violence different from the 1984 riots is the rabid communalisation of the violence-hit society. For instance, the PUCL has reported the use of Ram and Hanuman motifs to encourage and instigate violence. On the other hand, religious symbols were not used in the 1984 riots. Although it is true that the scene preceding the 1984 riots was communally surcharged because of events like Operation Bluestar, the situation was much worse in Gujarat.

This is also because Gujarat has a history of riots. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots were not preceded or followed by any major Hindu-Sikh riots. Gujarat, on the other hand, had witnessed an estimated 106 major riots between 1987 and 1991.

It is true that the eighth Lok Sabha held no debate on the 1984 riots. Rajiv Gandhi retained P.V. Narasimha Rao in his Cabinet though he was the Home Minister when the riots took place. The Congress(I) never held a discussion in Parliament on the Ranganath Misra Commission, which inquired into the riots and white-washed the 1984 killings. However, this is not reason enough to congratulate the members of the present Parliament for having discussed the 1984 riots when violence in Gujarat continues. Kothari said: "The bigger question that remains unaddressed is of emerging communalism which is seeping into the middle class who support riots. Nobody is addressing this malaise."

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 25, 2002.)

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