Violence against the minority community continues in Gujarat even as the Narendra Modi government sticks to its stand that the situation is under control.
AS Noorjehan Ghachi and her family took their afternoon nap, their house was set on fire. Five members of the family were burnt to death and six sustained serious burn injuries. The brutal massacre in Abasana village in Ahmedabad district was part of the relentless pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Hindutva experiment, the only State where it rules with a majority of its own.
The Ghachi family was killed on April 3, just a day before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a long-overdue visit to the State. It took 36 days of violence, 750 deaths and the displacement of almost 1.5 lakh people to hit the Prime Minister finally. On the day before his visit, seven people, including members of the Ghachi family, died in the continuing state-supported terror campaign against the minorities. However, all that Vajpayee did was to make heart-rending speeches and express his shame and sympathy for the Muslim refugees against whom the Sangh Parivar had launched a witch-hunt. Vajpayee did nothing to prevent further killings or to initiate steps to arrest the perpetrators of the violence.
"I don't know how I can face the rest of the world after the shameful events in Gujarat," said Vajpayee, addressing refugees in the Shah Alam relief camp. "We don't know how he has been able to face us after all this time either," retorted a refugee, from the sidelines.
Mere words were not enough. There had been no reprieve in Gujarat's communal carnage. Apparently, the alleged mastermind of the pogrom, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has escaped unscathed. Demands for his dismissal from several sections of society, besides human rights organisations and Opposition parties, were squelched. Modi has been let off with a dressing down. "Officials should perform their duty and the political leadership should undertake its responsibility to protect citizens without any discrimination," Vajpayee said. But a day after his visit, it was business as usual in Gujarat. The violence continued, and 11 incidents of stabbing and two deaths were reported on April 5.
Narendra Modi's smug denial of the planned nature of the massacres has upset some of the country's most influential people and institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Yet he continues in power, owing to the support from the top brass of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who certified that he had handled the crisis well. His cover-up of the terror unleashed by Sangh Parivar cadre apparently pleased them. Although Modi was summoned to New Delhi by the Prime Minister, who was irked by his inaction in curbing the violence and his blatant support of its militant Hindutva perpetrators, the Chief Minister remained unruffled. However, his hopes of holding mid-term elections to the State Assembly to translate the saffron wave into votes were dashed. Instead of trying to set right the damage, Modi went on a seeming public relations campaign to project his stand to the media and business communities in Mumbai and New Delhi.
If Modi were to be believed, peace was restored in Gujarat within 72 hours; barring a few 'stray' incidents, it was business as usual in the country's most prosperous State; people in Gujarat observed Muharram and celebrated Holi peacefully; and the systematic targeting of Muslims was just a figment of the media's imagination. But his amazing denials found no takers. Almost all the refugees in the State's 104 relief camps are Muslims, revealing the extent to which the community has been targeted. Every day more people are being killed, mobs are still on the rampage in the streets of Ahmedabad and Vadodara, and new attacks are being launched in villages and towns previously untouched by communal violence. Rumours spread every day, keeping up the tension, fear and sense of insecurity. During both Holi and Muharram, curfew was enforced and heavy security arrangements were made in most places. People preferred to stay at home owing to the tension. In fact, many schools and colleges had to postpone examinations.
According to industry sources, the riots have resulted in an estimated loss of between Rs.3,000 crores and Rs.5,000 crores. Most business establishments run by Muslims were targeted during the riots - from small bakeries and hotels along the highway to large showrooms in Ahmedabad's elite shopping areas. Different versions of a pamphlet calling for an economic boycott of Muslims have been distributed all over the State. One such even lists the annual earnings of various business establishments run by Muslims in Kalol. Apart from shop-owners, thousands of daily wage earners in Ahmedabad are also on the brink of starvation. They have not earned anything for over a month. Moreover, a month of violence has had its effect on the financial position of the State government. With virtually no tax revenue collected in March, the government was unable to clear its bills and had to get an overdraft from the Reserve Bank of India.
THE role of the State police in aiding and abetting the violence has also become clear. In Naroda Patia, Ahmedabad, where 91 people were massacred, people who claimed that they were witnesses said that police personnel offered no help to the victims and instead pointed out homes of Muslims to the mob, which allegedly included certain Vishwa Hindu Parishad stalwarts. Near Ambika Mill in Gomtipur, Ahmedabad, witnesses to violence claimed that they saw a police officer supplying petrol from his jeep to a mob wearing saffron scarves and armed with swords and trishuls (tridents). The police refused to lodge a complaint against the officer. There were reports that in several places the police opened fire indiscriminately into Muslim bastis that were under attack. Innocent residents, young and old, were rounded up during 'combing operations' in Muslim areas. "These combing operations are a typical instrument of police harassment where the police just enter houses and arrest people in a random manner," said a senior police officer.
In perhaps the most glaring cases of police indifference, the calls for help from two judges, both Muslims, were not heeded. They had to abandon their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Justice M.H. Kadri, a sitting judge of the Gujarat High Court, was not given police protection despite several calls for help. He left his official residence and sought refuge in a colleague's home. Justice A.N. Divecha, a retired judge of the High Court, also had to leave his home. He returned to find it ransacked. Despite the heavy security outside the Gujarat High Court, trucks were burned outside its gates on February 28. Several judges fled the premises of the court.
Apparently, a large section of the police seem to have complied with the orders of their political bosses. The few who ignored political interference and tried to prevent the escalation of violence were punished with sudden transfers. While the violence continued, 27 police officers were transferred. The names of officers who prevented flare-ups and took stern action against the culprits were mentioned in the government order. For instance, Rahul Sharma, Superintendent of Police (S.P.), Bhavnagar, was transferred within 20 days to a less active post of Deputy Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad (Control Room). In Bhavnagar, Sharma had nipped violence in the bud by taking action against local VHP operatives. It is alleged that Sharma's actions angered the local BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly.
Vivek Srivastava, who was shifted to the prohibition department from his position as the S.P. of Kutch, played a major role in preventing mob violence.
Even as the storm of communal violence swept across 15 districts of Gujarat, Kutch remained peaceful. It is alleged that despite interventions by Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia, he arrested the district Home Guards commandant, Akshya Thakkar, who is also apparently a local VHP leader, for stirring trouble in Kutch. A communal incident was reported a week after his transfer. On April 2, shops were burned following the defacement of an idol at a place of worship in Anjar town. Incidentally, the RSS has been trying to strengthen its base in Kutch ever since the January 2001 earthquake in the area.
Another officer, Pravin Gondia, who accepted a First Information Report (FIR) naming local MLA Mayaben Kodnani and VHP general secretary Jaideep Patel in the Naroda Patia massacre, was shunted to an inconsequential post in the civil defence directorate. The posting of two other officers, Himanshu Bhatt and M.D. Antani, has also drawn criticism from various quarters. The transfers have shaken the police force at the highest levels and prompted even the Director-General of Police of the State to write to the Chief Minister opposing the transfers, which were announced without his approval.
The extent to which the authority of senior police officers has been undermined is a matter of grave concern in police circles. "I received a call from a Minister asking me not to shoot at Hindus," said one police officer. While political interference has been an occupational hazard for most police officers, they now feel that it has reached dangerous levels in Gujarat. In the first few days of rioting, when Sangh Parivar activists massacred hundreds, two Ministers, Ashok Bhatt and I.K. Jadeja, were allegedly sitting in police control rooms in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar respectively and monitoring the situation. Many victims also reported that local BJP leaders were stationed at police stations, influencing the operations of the police.
At a meeting with Narendra Modi and other Ministers, top police officials pleaded with the Chief Minister to allow them to take action against VHP and Bajrang Dal cadre in order to curb the unending violence. "There has been political interference throughout the history of the police force. But this time it is more dangerous since the fascist ideology behind it is one of hatred and one which attempts to subvert all democratic institutions," said a police officer. He also pointed out that RSS and VHP cadre were cornering positions in the Home Guards and the Gram Rakshak Dal. Moreover, the few Muslim police officers in the State force have been systematically sidelined. In fact, in the last seven years, none of the eight Muslim Indian Police Officers (IPS) officers in Gujarat have been given an executive posting that has jurisdictional authorities and deals with crime and law and order functions.
While the government would like to portray the ongoing violent incidents as communal clashes, they are in fact not. Muslims are still targeted, though in some cases they have defended themselves. The political motives behind the attacks have been exposed in several instances. Many Congress(I) strongholds in Kheda, Anand, Mehsana and Vadodara, which remained unaffected earlier, are now burning. Moreover, rumours, and pamphlets such as those circulated before Holi instigating Hindus to 'take Ram's name and attack and kill Muslims', keep stoking the fires of fear and hatred. The sending of bangles by the VHP to villages that have remained peaceful has also ignited violence in many places. "Bangles were also sent to our sarpanch some time back. But our village remained peaceful until April 1," said Razzak Vora from Boryavi village in Anand district.
Although there is little doubt that the pogrom was a well-planned one, no police investigation seems to be looking into the VHP's role in the conspiracy. Apparently, only the Godhra incident is considered as being the result of a conspiracy. A senior police officer said: "The fact that they gathered so many people to attack at the same time, points to the level of planning by the VHP. They used gas cylinders, swords and petrol bombs at several places, which also shows they were premeditated attacks. The VHP launched a massive membership drive last year, ensuring itself a ready mob. They had with them lists of Muslim homes and shops. Obviously, they were waiting for something to happen. They seized the opportunity when the Sabarmati Express tragedy occurred."
As new tragedies like the massacre of the Ghachi family keep unfolding in Gujarat, it seems the Prime Minister can do little to keep the violence, or his Parivar, under check.