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
Gujrat on fire
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.
Conspiracy and Conspirators
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.
A Quest for Justice
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, 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.
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.