Print edition : April 28, 2017

A truck that was set afire by the rioters at Vadavali village. Photo: ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Firoze Khan with the burnt remians of his cash savings. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Farhana Sheikh and Yasmin Parvesh outside a gutted shop. Photo: Anupama Katakam

The relief camp set up by a Muslim charitable organisation in the village.

In a short but brutal attack by a mob on the Muslim quarter of a Samras Panchayat village in Gujarat, hundreds of people become homeless and lose property worth several crores.

“WE heard the drums roll and start to beat. When this happens we know something bad is about to happen and we are in danger,” said Farhana Sheikh at Vadavali village in Gujarat’s Patan district. “The police told us to run to the maidan and take refuge over there. Suddenly, thousands of men wielding weapons, carrying burning torches and even guns, surrounded our part of the village. Then they began looting and burning and destroying anything and everything they saw. Not a single house or shop was spared. We have lost not only our homes but material possessions worth several crores of rupees. We have nowhere to go,” she said.

On March 25, two students, a Hindu from the nearby Sunsar village and a Muslim from Vadavali, were involved in an altercation at an examination centre at Vadavali. Although the fight was defused by the local people, a group of men from Sunsar reignited it a few hours later and mercilessly beat the Muslim boy. The tension escalated further when some 7,000 men from the neighbouring villages attacked Vadavali’s Muslim quarters. One person was killed in the violence and several were injured. While women and children were spared, almost every house in the Muslim quarter was looted and gutted. The residents of Vadavali have blamed members of the Thakor and Darbar communities, which have a large presence in Sunsar, for the violence.

In recent years Gujarat has witnessed sporadic communal riots but the Vadavali attack, if one goes by news reports and available evidence, appears to have been a planned one, its manner of execution reviving memories of the 2002 post-Godhra riots. Rights activists and observers said it was possible that dangerous political elements had planned to use communal disharmony to influence the State Assembly elections scheduled for later this year. They feared that the State might witness more such arson and riots.

“In the past few years, there has been a pattern: small riots, which do not attract national attention, have taken place. The attack is short but brutal. As in Vadavali, it is over in a matter of hours. This way no curfew is imposed and the incident is dismissed as a case of minor communal disharmony. Killing and molestations are avoided as these would invite media attention,” Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer and Jan Sangharsh Manch activist, said.

Volunteers of the Human Rights Legal Network (HRLN) have recorded incidents of riot in Surendranagar and Modasa districts. “It actually takes just a small thing to set off violence and because the perpetrators are not booked or punished early enough, there is no deterrent. As a result, the majority community has become a law unto itself,” Govindbhai Parmar of the HRLN said.

Destruction and loot

This correspondent visited Vadavali to get first-hand knowledge of the destruction wrought on the Muslim-dominated area of the village. Close to 100 houses were completely burned down; in some cases only the charred walls remained. Household items, furniture, doors, cupboards and windows were either gutted or covered in soot. Hazardous chemicals used in setting fire to the houses had caused the plaster to peel off. Metal wires, fans and cycles lay twisted; cars, jeeps, trucks and scooters were burnt so badly that only the frame remained.

It is a matter of concern that although riots and arson took place on a large scale, only 13 men were arrested in connection with the case. The residents said no charges were filed against the accused and not a single stolen item was recovered. Vast amounts of gold and cash had been looted from cupboards and lockers.

Unofficial estimates have pegged the stolen cash and gold at Rs.25 crore. The police, who are so efficient at smoking out terrorists, have thrown their hands up as they are unable to identify the culprits as they came from several villages.

Interestingly, two first information reports (FIRs) were filed after the incident, one of them by Muslims against members of the Thakor community, who they believe led the attack. In the second FIR, filed by the Thakor community, 14 Muslims have been named.

According to a lawyer, Thakors have already filed their case and even applied for anticipatory bail. The Muslims are yet to find a lawyer to represent them. This is a recurring pattern; the beleaguered minority community in Gujarat always finds it difficult to get adequate legal representation in view of the forces working against it.

Other than the District Collector, K.K. Nirala, and a few police officers, not a single person from the administration visited the village in the aftermath of the riots.

The Collector reportedly told the local media that it was a “Hindu-Muslim communal fight and a report has been filed”. He refused to comment on the incident. The local Member of the Legislative Assembly, belonging to the Congress, paid a visit but could do little, the residents said. “Not a single Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] MLA or Minister visited us,” Sheikh said.

More than 100 Muslim families are forced to live in makeshift shelters until their houses are rebuilt. Their fear is palpable but they are confident of bouncing back. Neglect by the state is visible in that the relief camp was set up with the largesse of Muslim charitable organisations and not on the government’s intervention. The government had not set up relief camps in 2002, too local people pointed out. The shelter is a 20 ft x 20 ft canopy supported by bamboo poles, without protection on the sides, and a canvas spread on the ground. A small kitchen has been set up, and communal meals are served on large plates.

“We have been living like this for the past 11 days. There is no electricity. Our children have to appear for board examinations. It is very hard on them. There is nowhere to sleep. It is scorchingly hot during the day and even at night,” Yasmin Parvesh said.

The day this correspondent visited the village, the women were cleaning their homes as the panchnama had been completed. In spite of repeated washing, the soot and the smell of smoke would not go. “We will have to start from the beginning. Our life was destroyed in a few hours. The injustice is that there is no one who can fight for us or cares about doing something,” Farhana Sheikh said.

The majority of the Muslims of Vadavali are involved in farming, with many families owning up to two hectares of land each, while some of them are involved in grain and cattle trade. They were reasonably self-sufficient. Although the various communities of the village lived in separate quarters, communal harmony existed in the village. “They wanted to weaken and destroy us and they achieved it,” said Babubhai Lalkhan Belim, brother of Ibrahim Lalkhan Belim who was killed even as he pleaded with the mob not to enter his house.

“We will manage to put our lives back on track. We don’t need that kind of help. What we want is punishment and jail for those who destroyed our lives. The reality is that in Gujarat that will not happen,” Belim said.

Sheikh’s and Belim’s helplessness is a reflection of the situation in Gujarat. This was clearly a direct and deliberate attack on a minority community. They have no power to counter it or seek justice. Yet, the entire incident has been played down.

The trigger

The altercation between the two youths was apparently an excuse, local people said. Local bodies elections are scheduled for April 8, in Vadavali there will be no elections as it follows the system of Samras Panchayat, a State government scheme under which the village co-opts the sarpanch harmoniously and as such qualifies for special funds from the government.

In Vadavali, Hindus and Muslims split the five-year panchayat term equally. As per the rotational system, Rashidaben, a Muslim resident, was to become the next sarpanch. “We think some Hindu political bodies are unhappy with this arrangement and decided to meddle with the system,” said Haneefbhai Qureshi, a cattle trader, whose home was robbed by the mob. Others believe that it was a planned attack to “weaken and suppress” the Muslim community. “The attackers knew many weddings had taken place and so there would be jewellery, gold and cash in our cupboard lockers,” Qureshi said.

“If you look at the way they ravaged the place, you will notice that they went about it very methodically; it was completely planned,” Yasmin Parvesh, whose husband is recovering from a bullet wound, said. “In such a short time they were able to gather and collect people from other villages. While setting fire to our houses, we were told, the mob first took the gas cylinder out and then threw in the chemicals, which would ignite a fire. The gas cylinder would have caused an explosion and they could have been killed as well,” she said.

Yasmin Parvesh said when the mob arrived she was immediately reminded of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. The men were carrying swords, large metal lathis and speared rods, and some held guns, she said. “We were running for the maidan with our children, hoping they would not come there. The police told us to take shelter over there. Their only intent was to loot. They beat up a few men and killed Ibrahimbhai because he was not letting them in. It is extremely shocking that the police did not prevent the mob from going into the houses. Instead they told us to run and allowed the attackers to go on a rampage. “It never fails to surprise me as to how the police are so complicit in these attacks. Why can’t they stop the rioters?” asked Khairunnisa Pasta, a lawyer with the HRLN.

“It is obvious that they were targeting Muslims. There is a small metal works factory, owned by a Patel, on the border of the Muslim quarter. That has not been touched,” Khairunnisa Pasta said.

Fact-finding team

Soon after the incident, a fact-finding team comprising several activists and rights groups camped at Vadavali to gather information, which it hopes to use as evidence in the case against the perpetrators of the violence. Shamshad Pathan, who was part of the team, said that among the many observations that were made by the affected, one was that they were astounded by the speed and manner in which thousands of people were able to gather in a matter of hours to carry out the attack.

The following are the collective points gathered by the team from the affected community:

1. Some victims said that the fight between the two students from other villages was resolved but one person threatened to kill everyone before leaving Vadavali. He was a member of the Shiv Sena.

2. Two State Reserve Police Force personnel belonging to the Thakor community were part of the rioting mob and they fired their guns, wounding Rashidaben’s husband Sultan Bhai.

3. The rioters came from villages that were situated 10 kilometres from Vadavali. Within an hour, at least 7,000 people had gathered with weapons, petrol and kerosene. The police did not do anything. The attackers burnt houses, shops, and vehicles, and robbed the houses.

4. On the day of the incident, Haji Pir’s fair was on. The majority of the Muslims of Vadavali undertook a foot march to the Haji Pir’s dargah, and this prevented a big loss of life.

5. The rioters have uploaded their video clips on social media to boast about their bravery and to incite communal riots in the area.

The team’s key observation is: “The Assembly elections in Gujarat will be held in 2017. Keeping this in mind, the BJP is promoting rioting through its organisations. Keeping the Hindutva agenda in the centre, BJP is doing communal politics, which will maintain the caste equation and vote for BJP in the name of Hindutva. Recently, the nature of the riots has changed, in which small riots are being organised in small towns, and especially in places where riots do not spread in the 2002 genocide.

“Information received under the Right to Information Act has revealed that from 2005 to 2015, 656 major communal riots have occurred in Gujarat, in which 76 people have been killed and more than 1,650 people have been injured and property worth billions of rupees has been damaged. Since 2015, riots have taken place in Gujarat’s Kutch, Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Bharuch, Anand, Sabarkantha and Vagara districts.” The Vadavali incident should be kept alive at any cost, said Teesta Setalvad, an activist with the Committee for Justice and Peace. Unless the case is fought, this pattern will continue. However, it requires fearlessness to fight right-wing forces in Gujarat. The State is proving each day that the saffron brigade is becoming invincible and that it is here to stay at whatever cost.