Trouble in the air

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

Several instances of low-intensity violence in Gujarat in recent weeks point to the tenuous nature of the peace in the State.

WHO would imagine that a hysterical statement made by an evangelist in the United States would lead to a round of riots, arson and killing in India, so far away. Welcome to the globalisation of fundamentalism.

When an insulting and preposterous remark by the right-wing American baptist Rev. Jerry Falwellagainst the Prophet Mohammed was reported in the local press, riots broke out at Solapur in Maharashtra and Modasa in Gujarat. In an interview on the CBS channel's `60 Minutes' programme, Falwell had said that the Prophet was a "terrorist''. This made front-page headlines in Gujarat Samachar, the most widely read newspaper in Gujarat, drawing attention to the wild charge and provoking strong reactions to it. Later, Falwell apologised for his irresponsible statement, and Gujarat Samachar seemed to regret having highlighted the story in the first place as it had done.

Closer to home, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray called for the formation of "Hindu suicide squads" to counter "their terrorism", in a statement published in his party's newspaper Saamna. During his Dasara day rally in Mumbai, he said: "Trouble-making Muslims should be wiped out from the country... kick out the four crore Bangladeshi Muslims and then the country will be secure."

The Maharashtra Police have filed a criminal case against the Sena leader over his statement. With his popularity flagging, Thackeray's speech was clearly an attempt to capitalise on the communal violence in neighbouring Gujarat, to stir passions after the Akshardham temple attack. Surprisingly, Thackeray's provocative statements did not face any other opposition. It was Jerry Falwell's outburst that kicked off riots in Maharashtra.

A Muslim group called the Raza Academy called for a bandh by Muslim businesses to protest against Falwell's remark. No other Muslim organisation supported the bandh. In fact, most of them spoke out against it.

Nevertheless, riots broke out in Solapur on October 11 when a rally turned violent after some youth insisted that all shopkeepers down their shutters. One of the shops apparently belonged to a Shiv Sainik. The police fired into the crowd, killing five persons. Another four persons were killed in the violence. Around 170 people were injured and 1,000 were arrested during two days of violence. However, trouble had been brewing in Solapur even before Falwell's statement. Tension had flared up when some Hindu youth teased a young Muslim woman. The bandh gave trouble-makers an excuse to spread havoc.

The day before the bandh call in Gujarat, trouble broke out in Modasa town in Sabarkantha district of Gujarat. A handful of youth took out a protest rally, which turned violent when others on the street threw stones at them.

In the riot that followed, five persons were injured and five shops were looted. On the day of the bandh, some shops in the predominantly Muslim areas of Ahmedabad remained closed even though no Muslim group was in favour of the bandh. Fear played a strong role. "There is still a lot of tension in Gujarat. People are afraid. Anything can spark violence. This was a chance for miscreants to create trouble. That's why we didn't support this bandh. Shops remained closed due to fear and intimidation by a few thugs," said Mohammed Shabir Ahmed Siddiqui, the Imam of the Jama Masjid in Ahmedabad.

The police said that the Raza Academy is a fringe group whose leaders have questionable records. "Maybe they were trying to gain political mileage or were using this incident to create trouble," said a police officer. However, Rashid Ahmed, from the Mustufa Raza Academy in Ahmedabad, said: "Even if Muslim leaders didn't support the bandh, at least the Muslim community did. We were responding to soothe their hurt sentiments. We wanted only a peaceful protest."

Meanwhile, a different kind of violence erupted in Panchmahal district , where some of the bloodiest violence in rural Gujarat occurred in March 2002.

Crude bombs exploded in two State transport buses. The first explosion occurred on October 15, the day of the Dasara festival, at the Godhra bus station in a bus that had arrived from Adadara. Five passengers were injured. A crude pipe bomb had been planted inside the bus.

Then, on October 16, eight people were injured when a tin box filled with explosives and nails blew up in a bus at Lunavada bus stand. The police have not been able to identify any suspects, but say that they were probably local miscreants, considering the fact that crude, low-impact bombs were used.

"More worrying than these explosions is the fact that riots keep breaking out in different parts of Gujarat. In the past two weeks, violence has occurred in Bhavnagar, Jhalod in Dahod, Prantis in Sabarkantha and Sihor in Bhavnagar. There is still tension and a big divide. It carries on even after seven months because the government hasn't made any efforts to restore peace," said a police official.

Vested interests and fundamentalists on both sides of the religious divide are trying to manipulate the volatile atmosphere. The Shiv Sena, the popularity of which is waning, is also trying to import communal hatred from across the border and use Gujarat's tragedy for its political mileage. After the major round of Gujarat violence, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have been trying to fan communal hatred in Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

The restless calm continues. Until there are efforts to punish the guilty, to mend broken ties, even an obscure evangelist in a faraway land is enough to provide provocation.

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