21 years of Gujrat Riot
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Gujrat riot: 21 Years, Who To Blame?

2002, a dark time in India’s recent history. A turbulent time when communities living in harmony for years suddenly turned against one another and became violent to spill blood.

It was when a group of people out of hatred carried out the worst carnage against a religious minority post-Independence.

Communal riots were not new in India, and Gujrat has been through some of the worst communal riots from the late 60s till the 80s. But what makes the Gujrat riot of 2002 stand out is the degree of violence that was carried out and especially the targeting of women. Even young girls and innocent children were not spared.

So what led to this violence? Was it simply hatred between two communities or was it a part of a greater ploy to destabilize the harmony for something more dreadful that is yet to come?

A journey to divide

It all started in 1984, VHP launched a campaign for the construction of a temple of
Rāma on the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya.

The campaign sparked religious tension and politicization of this issue, with many Hindu nationalist groups supporting the temple’s construction and Muslim groups opposing it.

This led to a series of violent clashes and protests over the years, ultimately culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by a mob of Hindu extremists, This triggered nationwide communal riots in India.

On February 24th, 2002 VHP further escalated its pressure on the government
by initiating a 100-day ritual of reciting the name of Rama, attracting thousands of “devotees” or so-called kar sevaks to its camp in Ayodhya.

February 27, 2002,

A train returning from Ayodhya carrying around 1,700 Hindu pilgrims and kar sevaks arrived at the Godhra railway station, nearly three and a half hours behind schedule. They were coming from a maha yagna, a ritual arranged by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Ayodhya.

What actually sparked the conflict is still not clear, but according to the reports, there was a minor scuffle between a Muslim tea vendor and the hindu kar sevaks.

In a paper titled ‘Communal Riots in Gujarat: The State at Risk?,’ Christoph Jaffrelot discusses what caused the incident at the Godhra station.

According to the paper published, kar sevaks who went for the maha yagna were returning home aboard the Sabarmati Express. There were thousands of Hindu devotees who had gathered together in a few coaches.

They chanted Hindu nationalist songs and slogans the whole journey, abusing Muslim travelers. One family was even forced to exit the train for refusing to recite the kar sevaks’ battle cry, “Jai Shri Ram!”.

More abuse occurred at the stop in Godhra: a Muslim shopkeeper was also ordered to shout “Jai Shri Ram!” He refused and was assaulted until the kar sevaks turned on a Muslim woman with her two daughters. One of them was forced to board the train before it started going again.

The train began leaving the station after a five-minute halt and had not gone more than a kilometer when the emergency brakes were pulled.

“…the train came to a standstill in the center of a Muslim neighborhood inhabited by Ghanchis, a group from whom many Godhra street vendors are from. according to multiple sources, there were around 500 to 2,000 of them surrounding the coaches occupied by the karsevaks and attacking it with stones and torches,”

In a vulnerable position, the kar sevaks told everyone to close the doors and windows.

The train continued its journey but was forced to stop again after only half a kilometer due to a technical problem. A mob of over a thousand people then rushed towards the train and began pelting it with stones once again. It targeted three kar sevak coaches and set fire to coach S-6, killing 59 people and leaving many others injured. The victims included 27 women and 10 children.

Burning the truth

There are multiple versions of this incident and multiple reports but even after 20 years there is no conclusive answer.

According to the official report, which was submitted in 2008 after years of investigation, it is found that the Sabarmati Express train was set on fire by a mob of around 150-200 people, predominantly Muslims, who were incited by local Muslim leaders.

But the findings of the commission have been challenged by many because there are still grey areas regarding what or who set the fire.

Many human rights organizations and independent investigations have disputed this conclusion, and have alleged that the violence was planned and carried out by Hindu nationalist groups, with the involvement of state officials.

Another forensic analysis by FSL Assistant Director Dr. M S Dahiya reveals that speculations about the coach being set ablaze by an angry mob are unconvincing.

The report suggests that the fire was not caused by an accident, but was a deliberate act of arson. Investigations made by the Ahmedabad-based Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) have shown that almost 60 liters of inflammable liquid, most likely gasoline was poured from inside the compartment by someone before it was set on fire.

Also, photographs of the burning coach clearly show the flames blazing from within and without even touching the exterior paint of the coach. The images also show rescuers attempting to wash down the flames while standing close next to the flaming coach which suggests that the fire was ignited from within the coach.

This tragedy shocked the whole country, and the nation was in despair. It was still difficult for anyone to comprehend what had occurred. But as the events were unfolding, the rage started to outburst. Within hours it triggered violent riots across the state and this time it was the whole of Gujrat that was burning.

Fueled by Hate: The Catalyst for Chaos

At the time of the incident, the Gujrat government was led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and headed by Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
On the evening of that incident, in a meeting held at Godhra, after a discussion with the Chief Minister, it was unanimously decided that the dead bodies of Karsevaks should be sent back to Ahmedabad by road in trucks. Instead of handing over the dead bodies to family members, they were handed over to Vishwa Hindu Parishad and put on display which agitated the mass.
This would further escalate the situation.
The former home minister of Gujrat, Haren Pandya was one of the important witnesses who had accused the Modi administration of allowing and provoking the 2002 anti-minority riots. (in which 1,200 people were killed.)
According to his testimony, Narendra Modi had convened a meeting where he urged the top police officials to “go slow on Hindus”
Modi told the officials that they should expect a “Hindu reaction” after Godhra. They were also told they should not do anything to contain this reaction,”
Curfew was imposed the next day in Godhra but not in other parts of Gujrat which led to widespread violence.

Gujrat on fire

The violence erupted in many parts of Gujrat but was severe in the cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and Godhra, and in rural areas such as Mehsana and Sabarkantha and it lasted for weeks.
In a series of violent attacks, the Muslim community was viciously targeted. Their houses and businesses were wrecked in brutal attacks. There was chaos all around inviting mass killings, rape, and arson.

Striking at the heart of the Muslim community, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake, entire neighborhoods and ghettos were burned to ashes, and businesses were reduced to rubble and ruin.

The violence was unrelenting, leaving only devastation and heartbreak. The Muslim community was left reeling, their very survival threatened by senseless violence and their community was ripped apart.

The streets echoed with the screams of the innocent, as mobs roamed unchecked, unleashing a wave of terror upon the Muslim community.

People who witnessed it saw unspeakable horror and brutality, as the state was plunged into a maelstrom of violence and bloodshed.

Conspiracy and Conspirators

The subsequent riots that followed the Godhra train burning incident were a case of “permitted violence” and not a result of administrative failure. This was said in a court hearing where the lawyer argued, asking why a curfew was not imposed immediately in the other cities of Gujarat.
The Gujarat government was accused of allowing the mobs to operate with impunity. The government was also accused of actively encouraging the violence, and of providing support to the Hindu mobs.

The government of Gujarat and the BJP have denied any wrongdoing, and have argued that the violence was a spontaneous reaction to the Godhra train burning. However, several investigations, including one by the Supreme Court of India, have found evidence of state involvement in the riots.

Many people were arrested and charged with crimes related to the riots, and several high-profile figures, including BJP politicians and police officers, have been convicted of involvement in the violence.

Some reports and investigations have alleged that the police not only failed to intervene to stop the violence but also actively participated in the attacks or failed to protect the Muslim community.
Some have alleged that the police actively helped the rioters by providing them with weapons or information about the location of Muslim-owned homes and businesses.
There have also been reports of the police filing false charges against Muslims and failing to investigate or prosecute the individuals responsible for the violence.
Allegations were made about police officers being told by administrators not to react and even make space for the Hindu mobs to carry out these attacks.

The aftermath

According to official figures, the post-Godhra riot left 1,044 people dead, 223 people missing, and 2,500 people injured. There were 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus among those who died in Gujarat.
However, civil rights activists and NGOs put the figure of those killed in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat at over 2,000.
Around 2 lakh people were displaced in the riots of 2002 in Gujarat. Most of them remained displaced for a year until some Islamic relief organizations and NGOs settled 16,087 people in 83 relief colonies across the state.
The most horrific and heinous image that emerged from the communal riot was that of innocent women and children subjected to the most sadistic and vicious forms of violence.
They were stripped and molested, and were subjected to sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, and insertion of objects into their bodies. Their dignity and humanity taken from them in the most inhumane ways imaginable.
And to make it worse, a majority of these women who suffered this violence were then burnt alive, their screams for mercy falling on deaf ears. Among the survivors, many have spoken out about the atrocities they faced but many have been silenced for fear of further attacks and for fear of censure from their own families and community.

A Quest for Justice

As the smoke cleared and the ashes settled in the aftermath of the Godhra train fire incident, the Gujarat government moved quickly to appoint a commission to investigate the tragic event.
It was solely led by K. G. Shah, a retired Gujarat High Court judge. But due to his close ties with Narendra Modi, it was thought that he could influence the investigation and provide a biased report.
But the commission, led by K. G. Shah, a retired Gujarat High Court judge, was shrouded in controversy from the start. The judge’s close ties with Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, raised serious questions about the integrity of the investigation and the possibility of a biased report.
The appointment of a judge with such clear conflicts of interest cast a dark shadow over the investigation, fueling suspicions of a whitewash and a betrayal of the victims’ pursuit of justice.
Later the commission was re-constituted to include G. T. Nanavati, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, after protests from human rights organizations.
The commission came to be known as the Shah-Nanavati commission.
Because of the riot that sparked after the Godhra train fire incident, the mandate was later enlarged to include the investigation of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
There were allegations against the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was criticized for his handling of the violence.
There were also allegations about the state machinery being complicit in the violence or at least failing to intervene to protect the Muslim community.
Many human rights organizations have alleged that the violence was pre-planned and executed by Hindu nationalist groups with the involvement of state officials.

Sanjiv Bhatt

Sanjiv Bhatt, a former Indian Police Service officer of the Gujarat cadre, stepped forward with a shocking revelation. In a bombshell affidavit filed before the Supreme Court of India, Bhatt accused the then Chief Minister of the Government of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, of playing a direct role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Bhatt alleged that Modi had called a meeting where he instructed top police officials to turn a blind eye to the violence, allowing Hindus to vent their anger against the Muslim community.
But despite the gravity of these accusations, the Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court of India dismissed Bhatt’s claims and concluded that he did not attend any such meeting.
This was a dramatic turn of events that raised serious questions about the integrity of the investigation and the search for justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots.
In 2015, Bhatt was expelled from the police service, on the basis of “unauthorized absence”.

In October 2015, the Supreme Court denied Bhatt’s request to form a special investigation team (SIT) to look into cases filed against him by the Gujarat government.

The court lifted a stay on his trial in these cases and asked him to face prosecution. The court observed that, “Bhatt was in active touch with leaders of rival political parties, was being tutored by NGOs, was involved in politics and activism of creating pressure, even upon 3-judge bench of this court, amicus and many others”

Later, Bhatt was convicted to life imprisonment by the Sessions Court of Jamnagar District in the state of Gujarat on June 20, 2019, for his role in a custodial death case from 1990.

Babu Bajrangi

Babu bajrangi, another key witness of this incident was accused of inciting violence against the Muslim community and leading mobs in attacks on Muslim neighborhoods, homes, and businesses. He has also been accused of involvement in the murder and violence of Muslims during the riots.

In a sting operation, Bajrangi was heard on tape boasting about his role in the violence and the number of people he and his associates killed. He also made remarks about the involvement of Narendra Modi.

Babu Bajrangi was granted bail by the supreme court judge Akshay H. Mehta, who replaced KG shah when the latter died before the submission of the commission’s interim report.

His conviction and sentence have been widely criticized, with human rights groups and others arguing that many other leaders and members of Hindu nationalist groups who were involved in the violence have not been held accountable.

The Rise & Fall: Politics of polarization

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came under fire for not visiting Gujarat during the violence, which some saw as a failure to show leadership and solidarity with the victims of the violence.

However, the prime minister went on to visit the riot-torn state of Gujarat on 4 April where he said he was “ashamed” at what had happened in Gujarat and the fact that many people “had become refugees in their own country”.

While riot victims clapped for Mr. Vajpayee, they shouted slogans against Chief Minister Narendra Modi who accompanied the prime minister to the camps.

This was Mr. Modi’s first visit to the camps although he lives in the same city.

Agitated riot victims shouted “Modi Hai Hai”

many victims accused Narendra Modi as being the one who directed the killings.” People urged the prime minister to replace his government.

The Prime Minister also left a message for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at the end of his one-day tour of the trouble-torn state: Rajdharma ka palan karo. “Raja ke liye praja-praja mein koi bhed bhaw nahin hona chahiye” (The ruler should not discriminate between his subjects). However, the prime minister ruled out the much-demanded change in the leadership in Gujarat and said “I don’t see that possibility”.

There are claims that the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prepared to dismiss Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s Chief Minister at the time, after the 2002 post-Godhra riots, but withheld the decision as Home Minister LK Advani had threatened to resign from the Cabinet on the issue.

But the next year was crucial for Narendra Modi when he emerged as a national leader and was reelected as the chief minister of Gujrat with a majority. Riding the hate wave, the polarisation between Hindus and Muslims paved the way for BJP and Narendra Modi in Gujarat cementing his position as the unquestioned leader of the state.

Controversy Remains

In 2003, The Concerned Citizens Tribunal (CCT) concluded that the fire had been an accident. Several other independent commentators have also concluded that the fire itself was almost certainly an accident, saying that the initial cause of the fire has never been conclusively determined.

The Union government led by the Indian National Congress party in 2005 also set up a committee to probe the incident, headed up by retired Supreme Court judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee.

The committee concluded that the fire had begun inside the train and was most likely accidental. However, the Gujarat High Court ruled in 2006 that the matter was outside the jurisdiction of the union government and that the committee was therefore unconstitutional.

The Shah-Nanavati committee report from 2008 concluded that the fire of the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express was a deliberate act, not an accident. It also acquitted Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, stating there was no proof that he or anybody in his government was engaged in the incident.

The Godhra train burning and the anti-minority riot that followed after this incident had a major impact on the political and social climate in Gujarat and India, and it continues to be a highly controversial and divisive issue.

The violence was widely covered by the media, both in India and internationally, and it led to widespread condemnation and calls for justice. The incident also had an impact on the Indian political scene, with the BJP accused of polarizing the nation and the ruling party blamed for not doing enough to stop the violence.
Even 20 years after the incident, a lot of questions went unanswered and a lot of truths were behind the veil. We might now know what sparked the violence in Godhra station, or what actually caused the burning of the S-6 coach, We might not know who was instrumental in orchestrating these communal riots, and how the state machinery was involved. We might not know the perpetrators behind the veil, and the cannon fodders who were used as pawns to promote an agenda.
But one thing is for certain, it was an orchestrated pogrom to divide a country known for its inclusiveness and secular identity, and India will have to bear the brunt of hatred that was spewed for years to come.

Written by Mustafizur Rahman

Mustafizur Rahman is a member of the Daccanomics editorial team.

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