Testimonies of terror

Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST

Various fact-finding teams record the tales of terror and tragedy in the communal cauldron of Gujarat.

Yeh andar ki baat hai, police hamarey saath hai (This is inside information, the police are with us).

graffiti on charred walls of madrassas in Gujarat, as documented by a fact-finding team comprising representatives of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) and the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat).

THE communal carnage in Gujarat could easily have remained an untold story but for the efforts of vigilant organisations to bring out its outrageous details. The involvement of elected representatives of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, from sarpanches to legislators, has been laid bare in the reports compiled by some of these groups, including a central delegation of the CPI(M) and AIDWA.

The CPI(M)-AIDWA delegation, which included, among others, Subodh Roy, Member of Parliament, and Brinda Karat and Subhashini Ali, general secretary and president of AIDWA respectively, was in Gujarat from March 10 to 13. Its members spoke to over a thousand people from the Hindu and Muslim communities and met government officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The team visited Godhra and made an independent assessment of the train-burning incident after speaking to a cross-section of people.

A four-member Sahmat team led by Kamal Mitra Chenoy, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers' Association, visited Gujarat on March 10 and 11. The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Vadodara, has also brought out a report giving an account of the incidents that occurred over a period of 20 days from March 1. The report was submitted to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on March 21.

All reports on the Gujarat violence contain some common observations: the methodical vitiation of the communal atmosphere; the complicity of the police and elected representatives; the involvement of several local BJP leaders; the systematic targeting of Muslim dwellings, shops and other establishments; the breakdown of the administrative machinery; the discrimination in providing relief and compensation; and the involvement of the victims' neighbours in the mayhem. They categorically state that the violence has mostly been constituted by state-sponsored attacks on Muslims and that describing it as "riots" would be incorrect. While the AIDWA report has stated that "it would be quite wrong to use the term 'riot"', the Sahmat team has observed that it is "important to underline the fact that the events in Ahmedabad do not fit into any conceivable definition of a communal riot". People who tried to help the victims were prevented or discouraged by the police, who were seen in the company of the mobs. In the Shalimar Complex area, expensive medical equipment was looted. The Sahmat report says that shops owned by Hindus remained untouched while about 50 shops owned by Muslims were targeted. Eyewitness accounts suggest that two BJP Ministers led the mobs that indulged in looting and arson.

The carnage had several new features. Muslims were attacked by their neighbours not only in the lower-middle class areas but also in the upper-middle class localities; seemingly urbane Hindus also participated in the looting; Muslims were attacked even in areas where they constituted the majority; and a large number of shrines and dargahs were vandalised or destroyed. It was also for the first time that tribal people had turned against Muslims in rural areas. Survivors explained to the CPI(M)-AIDWA team how the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had incited the tribal people to attack Muslims and their establishments. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and certain tribal people's organisations affiliated to it (such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad), which had been targeting Christian tribal communities, directed violence against Muslims.

The PUCL report points out that violence spread from normal trouble spots to several new areas. Even cattle were not spared: they were doused with acid and set on fire. The report states that a new round of violence started after March 15, the day shila daan was performed in Ayodhya. Muslim establishments that had escaped in the first round were targeted this time.

During its visit to Godhra, the CPI(M)-AIDWA team found that the burnt railway carriage, a crucial piece of evidence in the case relating to the attack on the Sabarmati Express, was lying unprotected. Stoves, jerry cans used to store kerosene or cooking oil, and bags of foodgrain were strewn around, which pointed to the possibility of inflammable materials having been already present in the bogey at the time of attack. The team's report states that the events that followed the torching of the carriage were not spontaneous. If that was the case, it says, then Godhra would have been the first target of communal attack. There was no incident of violence in Godhra after the carnage on the train on February 27. Planned attacks were carried out from February 28 to March 3.

The delegation was told that Godhra had been relatively free of communal tension although attempts were made from time to time to vitiate the atmosphere. The BJP was not a major force there until the last parliamentary elections. Bhupendra Singh Solanki, who had been arrested under the National Security Act in 1989 for fomenting communal tensions, was the victorious BJP candidate in the Godhra parliamentary constituency. A BJP candidate was elected president of the Godhra Municipal Corporation. He lost the vote on a no-confidence motion moved by Mohammad Hasan, who became municipal president subsequently. Hasan apparently had the support of eight Hindu corporators too. He is one of the main accused in the train attack case. The delegation, which met several prominent persons, including advocates, was told that Hasan had no criminal history.

According to the organisers of a relief camp at the Iqbal Primary School in Godhra, the attack on the train was not a premeditated one. They told the delegation that according to their information the events of February 27 had been triggered by an altercation between tea vendors and kar sevaks.

In other areas, especially Ahmedabad, the team observed that it was the various constituents of the Sangh Parivar, and not the administration, that sprang into action after the train-burning. During the two-day Statewide bandh called by the VHP on February 28 and March 1, violence was unleashed in urban areas. Significantly, Muslim-dominated localities such as Bapu Nagar were devastated and this was done even as the police accompanied VHP-led mobs. In Juhapura, witnesses told the delegation that local Hindus participated in the riots after the police taunted them.

The role of the Special Reserve Police (SRP) has come in for special condemnation. In Naroda Patiya, one of the places that witnessed the worst type of communal frenzy, a woman lost 11 of her family members in the violence. She told the delegation that when she begged the SRP personnel to help, they said: "You people burnt Hindus in the train, now you have to pay the price."

The delegation found that a factor that enabled communal mobs to carry out systematic attacks on Muslims was a survey conducted recently on the pretext of collecting Census data. Even Muslim-owned shops with Hindu-sounding names were identified by the mobs and razed to the ground. (Some Muslims had given Hindu-sounding names to their shops because shops with Muslim names had been easy targets in the past.) The fact that cranes, trucks and shovels were used to demolish walls disproved the theory that the violence was spontaneous. The destruction of 44 mosques and the dargah of Wali Gujarati, a revered Sufi poet, in Ahmedabad showed that the attempt was to wipe out the symbols of the religious identity of Muslims.

All three reports bring out the fact that inflammatory leaflets were circulated widely. According to the CPI(M)-AIDWA report, one such leaflet, dated August 18, 2001, was found in one of the carriages that was burnt in Godhra - an indication that these leaflets were used for communal mobilisation on the Ayodhya issue.

That a communally surcharged atmosphere had been built up over a period with the connivance of the police and the State government was evident from the account given by a young woman victim from Randhikpur village in Dahod district. According to her, her village was attacked by VHP and Bajrang Dal members in early 1999 on the grounds that the residents sheltered a man and a woman who had got married despite their different religious backgrounds. During the attack, 350 Muslims fled the village and their properties were ransacked. A few months later, members of the Christian community were attacked. Although the attack by a 5,000-strong mob lasted 10 hours, the police came nowhere near the scene. According to this young victim, on March 1 she was raped by three men after she fled her village for safety. She was five months pregnant then. Other people who fled the village along with her, including her baby daughter, were killed. All the attackers are known to her and she has named them.

The reports of the CPI(M)-AIDWA team and the PUCL record the sexual violence unleashed on Muslim women. According to the victims, police personnel also perpetrated such crimes under the pretext of "combing operations". Maqsuda Bibi, who was at the Iqbal Primary School camp, told the delegation that her children were thrown into a well. Her village was attacked on March 5, long after the Narendra Modi government claimed that violence had been controlled within 72 hours.

In Pandarava village, where more than a hundred people were reportedly killed, the attack was led by the sarpanch. Several women were killed or injured while they tried to save their children or other family members. The victims told the delegations that the mobs comprised local people and outsiders who had come in trucks.

In many urban centres, explosives were used to blow up houses, shops, dargahs and mosques. The reports of Sahmat and the PUCL say that liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders came in handy for the assailants. In Urban Nagar, Ahmedabad, witnesses told the CPI(M)-AIDWA team that the brother of a State Minister was seen in the company of the police, directing the mobs on February 28. Structures that could not be razed by the mobs were mowed down by trucks. The rioters were armed with swords, iron and wooden rods, and inflammable materials.

THE administration's bias was evident in the relief camps, which accommodate about a lakh of Muslims. The CPI(M)-AIDWA team noted that there was little effort to file first information reports even 10 days after the violence broke out. There was also no clear picture of rehabilitation measures. The team has noted with concern that the government had not even considered postponing examinations. This is seen as another instance of bias; concessions were granted for students who were affected by the earthquake last year.

The reports indicated that the relief work has been left to the surviving members of the Muslim community. The reports of the CPI(M)-AIDWA team and Sahmat point out that with the exception of the Kankaria camp in Ahmedabad, all others were run by members of the Muslim community. There was hardly any monetary assistance, though a delayed government order (issued on March 5) had allocated Rs.5 per head to buy essential commodities and specified the quantum of grain and oil to be distributed. However, the allocations fell far short of the needs.

The fact-finding teams found that the weekly rations at the Shah Alam camp were not sufficient even for a day's consumption. Medical assistance too was absent, and there was practically no women medical personnel present. Sanitation was inadequate. The Sahmat report says that this was surprising because the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation was controlled by the Congress(I). This team also found that while a Deputy Collector was in charge of the Kankaria relief camp, larger camps accommodating about 9,000 persons had practically no official support. When the CPI(M)-AIDWA team inquired about the absence of officials in the relief camps, the Additional District Collector said that government employees were scared to venture into Muslim camps. This explanation was not convincing because several non-Muslim volunteers were helping out the victims in the camps.

The procedure for claiming compensation was cumbersome. There was also a shortage of application forms. According to the CPI(M)-AIDWA team, at the time of its visit to the Bapu Nagar camp only 200 forms had been distributed against the requirement of 8,000.

The government has not announced a rehabilitation package for the thousands of people languishing in the camps. Nor are the camps protected from potential marauders.

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