On February 27, 2002, 58 people were killed in a fire on board a train stopped outside Godhra station in Gujarat (one more later died in a hospital). Many of the passengers on the train were returning from Ayodhya, where they had been mobilized by the fascistic organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to take part in its provocative anti-Muslim campaign to build a Hindu temple on the site where the demolished Babri Mosque had stood.
While the VHP claims to be a religious-cultural group, it is in fact part of an organized political movement, along with its fraternal groups in the sangh parivar (family of organizations)—the BJP, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena, and others—that seeks to establish the theocratic rule of its own leaders over the entire subcontinent and beyond. Their program for religious minorities is summed up in the popular slogan: “There are only two places for a Muslim to go—Pakistan or kabristan (the graveyard).” They fight for Hindutva—Hindu supremacy. The groups in the sangh parivar are equivalent to ostensibly religious organizations in the US like the World Church of the Creator and Aryan Nation that want to see the country cleansed of anyone who’s not white, Christian, and Protestant.
In India these groups have state power. The movement’s electoral front, the BJP, was the leader of the ruling coalition government from 1998 until May of this year. The state of Gujarat has long been the BJP’s stronghold and it remains under BJP control. This state is one of India’s most urbanized and industrialized, and therefore one of those most sharply affected by the recent liberalization which has benefited the middle class and further immiserated the broad masses. As Workers Vanguard wrote (WV 567): “In India anti-Muslim communalism is the reactionary rallying cry for the fascist mobilization of the new middle classes in the context of general urban plebian rage and economic desperation.” The Concerned Citizens Tribunal, an independent investigation into the Gujarat massacre, reports that in Gujarat:
The RSS and the VHP control key functionaries in the State. Chief minister Shri Modi is an RSS pracharak [“propagator”—a core-cadre position]. Minister of state for home, Shri Zadaphiya, is a VHP activist. Shri SS Bhandhari, the governor of Gujarat... is also an RSS leader.
Saffron-colored sign-boards set up throughout every city and town in Gujarat after the BJP’s victory in 1995 welcome visitors to their locality “of this Hindu Rasthra” (state or nation).
The Hindu right sees Gujarat, in a phrase commonly cited by the press, as the “laboratory of Hindutva.” The massacre of Muslims they organized there in 2002 is a model for the genocide they would like to carry out across the subcontinent. And they say so explicitly: Ashok Singhal, the international president of the VHP, called what happened there “a successful experiment, which will be repeated all over the country now.”
The Hindu-right movement has been around since the beginning of the Independence struggle (Gandhi’s assassin was an RSS man), but until the mid-eighties it had always been marginal. It was the VHP’s Ayodhya campaign that originally launched it into the political mainstream. They claimed on the basis of local legend that the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque had been built by Muslim rulers to replace a shrine that marked the exact spot where the Hindu god and epic hero Ram was born. In 1984 the VHP started an ideological/paramilitary drive to tear this mosque down and build a temple devoted to Ram on its site as a first step towards inaugurating Ram Rajya—the rule of Ram. Agitation for the demolition of the mosque in 1989-90 sparked widespread attacks on Muslims and bloody reprisals in which several thousand Muslims and Hindus were killed. Several thousand more were killed—as many as two thousand of them, mostly Muslims, in Bombay alone—in orchestrated riots after VHP activists finally turned the structure into rubble in 1992.
Since 1989 artisans have been at work nearby, prefabricating the sandstone pillars of a new Ram temple. In January 2002 the VHP announced plans to erect the first of these pillars at the site in March of that year. Along with their paramilitary youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, they mobilized tens of thousands of young militants called kar sevaks (religious workers), who were said to be “ready for any situation.” Many of them were armed with trishuls—lethal three-pointed blades modeled on those carried by the heroes of Hindu mythology.
On February 27, as over 15,000 kar sevaks were amassing in Ayodhya for the announced beginning of construction (which was cancelled at the last minute, in the wake of the Gujarat violence, under pressure from more pragmatic elements in the center), others who had taken part in earlier preparations at the site were already returning home. The Sabarmati Express was dangerously overcrowded with these returning kar sevaks, many traveling ticketless.
Similar groups of kar sevaks traveling home on the same train at around the same time were reported to have harassed Muslim passengers and Muslim vendors at stations along the route. Two days earlier a Hindi-language daily in Faizabad (near Ayodhya) (Jan Morcha, February 25) had published a story about returning kar sevaks attacking Muslims and forcing them to shout “Jai Shri Ram!” (Hail Lord Ram!) According to the report, they pulled off Muslim women’s burquas and beat the women with iron rods. A young man who protested this behavior was said to have been thrown off the moving train. A fifty-year-old Muslim man was allegedly stabbed with trishuls. And so on throughout the journey. The victims were too scared to press legal action and local Muslim leaders appealed for calm.
The kar sevaks aboard the train that pulled into Godhra on the morning of February 27 had been acting in much the same way during the previous two days of their journey. The Washington Post (“Provocation Helped Set India Train Fire,” March 6, 2002) reports: “They exposed themselves to other passengers. They pulled headscarves off Muslim women. They evicted a family of four in the middle of the night for refusing to join in chants glorifying the Hindu god Ram. They failed to pay for tea and snacks they consumed at each stop.” Because of the fights they were starting, the train was running nearly five hours late when it arrived in Godhra at 7:43 AM.
The little town of Godhra has been notorious for communal violence since Partition, when thousands of Hindus fleeing Sindh in what is now Pakistan took refuge there. Their arrival sparked riots that drove thousands of Muslims out of town, and the Sindhi Hindus moved into the lots they vacated. The upper-caste Hindus in Godhra don’t allow the main community of Sindhis, the low-caste Bhaibands, to live on land they own. These Bhaiband Sindhis have only been able to expand their neighborhoods by displacing members of a low-caste community of Muslims called Ghanchis, some of whom are also rivals of the Bhaiband Sindhis in petty trade. Since 1947 there have been a series of twelve major riots between these two oppressed communities. Because the violence is partly fueled by competition for space, a lot of it takes the form of arson. Although the Ghanchis have traditionally been the biggest losers in these clashes, they take an active part in them. In 1980, in the midst of the worst riot in Godhra since Partition, Ghanchis surrounded the home of a Sindhi moneylender and set fire to it, burning the family of five alive. (Communal Riots in Post-Independence India, edited by Asghar Ali Engineer)
Following that atrocity, according to Peter Popham in The Independent (UK) (“The Hate Train,” 20 March 2002):
Curfew was clamped on the place for an entire year. When it was finally lifted, the Muslims fled the old town, building themselves crude cement villas on wasteland behind the bazaar. Since then, the two communities have lived as separately as possible.
Godhra station, to the regret of the Hindus, is located in an area that is now entirely Muslim. And a huddle of Muslim-owned businesses sprang up in shacks alongside the tracks, many of them motor-repair yards. This little slum, known as Signal Falia, has all the material a riot could require: stacks of bricks, petrol, and paraffin and calor gas cylinders. But it also had the necessary human material: a community impoverished and bitter and surviving in the margins of criminality.
The Sabarmati Express arrived in Godhra at 7:43 AM, time for breakfast. Kar sevaks got off to order tea and snacks from Ghanchi Muslim vendors on the platform. The various reports of what happened next differ in some of their details. According to most of them, the kar sevaks refused to pay, and when the vendors complained they shoved one of them around and pulled his beard. They told him they would only pay if he said “Jai Shri Ram!” Some of the other Ghanchi vendors ran off the platform to get help.
Sophia Sheikh, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, was waiting on the platform with her mother and sister for another train. According to her testimony before the Nanavati-Shah Commission, a young man with a saffron headband (that is, a kar sevak) grabbed hold of her, put his hand over her mouth, and pulled her towards the train which was ready to depart. When she cried out he let her go. The three women went away to hide in a room on the platform near the ticket counter.
When the crowd of Ghanchi men coming to the rescue of the vendor who had been assaulted got onto the platform, there was a story going around that a Muslim girl had been abducted and dragged onto the train. They started throwing stones at the train and shouting at the kar sevaks inside to release their girl. Kar sevaks got off to throw stones back.
At 7:48, after five minutes at the station, the train started moving. A minute later, before it left the platform, the emergency brake was pulled by several people to let the kar sevaks who had gotten off to throw stones get back on. They get on and at 7:55 the train starts moving again.
At around 8:00 the train stops a second time. It had not yet picked up speed and in the 5 or 6 minutes since leaving the station it had gone only one kilometer. It stops right in front of the Ghanchi slum settlement of Signal Falia. No one knows who pulled the emergency cord this time or why.
News of the skirmish at the station had reached Signal Falia. At that hour, just after the morning prayers, nearly everyone was still at home. A crowd of as many as 2000 Ghanchi men, women, and children, arriving in groups of ten or twenty, gathered along one side of the train. They threw stones.
Some time before 8:17 a fire started and quickly spread throughout car S-6. Of around 150 people packed inside the grossly overcrowded cabin, all but 58 escaped through a door and three windows. No one claims that the mob outside tried to stop anyone from getting out.
Four of those who escaped had to be hospitalized and one died the next day of a burn-related infection. Those who did not get out were burned alive. Their bodies were charred so completely that they could only be identified by the circumstantial evidence of their families. Justice J. S. Verma of the National Human Rights Commission visited the scene soon afterwards and reported: “I saw the burnt coach and saw chappals [sandals] still strewn. I saw children’s chappals too.” Twenty of the victims were men, 26 were women, and 12 were children.
In June 2002 two forensic reports commissioned by the prosecution from the government’s own lab challenged all official versions of how the fire in Godhra was started, which had never been supported by eyewitness testimony or physical evidence. Although 123 local Muslims have been charged to date under the repressive POTA laws, the prosecution is still not ready, after more than two and a half years, to bring its case. Many of the accused (and, illegally, their relatives) have spent months in jail without trial. Along with the police there are now two official tribunals conducting ongoing investigations into the case: the Nanavati-Shah Commission in Gujarat and the Banerjee Commission appointed by the new Congress railway minister, Lalu Prasay Yadav, in the center.
Since this forensic evidence was made public, all the major Indian press outlets have carried frequent articles reporting on the new doubts and the activities of the two commissions, many of them making the case for further investigation. Siddharth Varadarajan, writing in support of the new railway commission in a leader article in the Times of India last June, summarizes some of the new information:
Two years on, the investigation into Godhra has led nowhere and the country still remains clueless about how coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire. No comprehensive investigation has been conducted into whether the incident was deliberate or an accident, what flammable material caused the fire and what implications the forensic evidence and witness statements have.
The Gujarat police has arrested more than 100 Muslims under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and charged them with involvement. But the police case is flimsy. No evidence has emerged to suggest there was a pre-planned conspiracy other than a questionable confession by one of the accused. With the Forensic Science Laboratory concluding that the flammable liquid could not have been thrown inside S-6 by a mob from the outside, the police has not been able to answer the central question of how the fire broke out.
Railway officials and passengers present at the scene have testified before the Nanavati commission that they saw no Muslim enter S-6 during the fracas which erupted at Godhra station, let alone pour more than 60 liters of petrol as the police alleges. And then there is the second forensic report which states that samples lifted from S-6 contained no traces of petroleum hydrocarbons.
[...]After a series of incidents in which trains in shunting yards near Delhi mysteriously caught fire, the Ahmedabad-based Jansangharsh Morcha has suggested that the combustibility of the rubber vestibules connecting rail coaches be investigated. Many of the S-6 passengers have spoken of being engulfed by thick, acrid smoke of the kind generated by burning rubber. Only professional forensics, devoid of a political agenda, can help get to the truth. (June 19, 2004)
In July 2002 Shankarsinh Vaghela, the (opportunistic) senior Congress leader in Gujarat, told the press: “The FSL [Forensic Science Laboratory] report shows that someone inside the train set the fire. No Muslim could have entered the compartment. That too with 60 liters of petrol. The mentality of the VHP leadership is such that they are even capable of killing their own kar sevaks for their own gain. Believe me, I know them very well. [Vaghela being a former RSS/BJP man—our note]” (Frontline, July 20-August 02, 2002). At around the same time the CPI(M) politburo demanded a new investigation by a sitting Supreme Court judge on the grounds that since it had been established that the “state-sponsored genocide in Gujarat that followed the incendiary torching of the train at Godhra was pre-planned, a similar question mark arises on the Godhra incident” (The Hindu, July 7, 2002).
It has been shown that specific arrangements for the post-Godhra pogrom were made months in advance. Did the Hindu right therefore engineer the atrocity it ostensibly avenged, as the CPI(M) statement above suggests? Not necessarily. They may just as well have been preparing for attacks in the wake of the announced beginning of construction at Ayodhya, like those following the demolition of the mosque there in 1992. There is no evidence so far apart from this kind of speculation that the fire was set by an agent provocateur.
Circumstantial evidence that the mob caused the fire looks strong. It’s also true that the police have not been able to plausibly explain how they might have done it, or to provide any credible witnesses or physical evidence to support such a theory.
[UPDATE: On January 17, 2005 the Banerjee Committee issued an interim report citing forensic evidence that the fire could not have been started by fuel thrown from outside the train. The report suggests that a portable cooking stove used by a passenger inside the overcrowded coach may have been to blame. On the same day an NGO called the Hazards Centre released the findings of a panel of engineering experts who also conclude that the fire started inside the train and was most likely an accident. At the same time everyone on either side of this question no doubt has some kind of agenda, and the truth about this case will probably never be known.]
The first official word on the fire, broadcast repeatedly throughout the day on February 27 by the local district administrator, was that “the incident was not pre-planned, it was an accident.” But that evening Narendra Modi, the BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat, having visited Godhra that afternoon, declared in a public broadcast that the burning of the train was “a pre-planned act. The culprits will have to pay for it. It was not communal violence. It was a violent, one-sided, collective act by only one community.”
From the first day Modi’s government and its BJP allies in the center claimed the Godhra incident was the act of an organized terrorist conspiracy planned well before the train arrived in town and executed by a mob which had been waiting in ambush. This scenario was dubious on its face, even before all the facts were known: for one thing, how could an impoverished Muslim community have delayed a train’s arrival by five hours? Yet this charge was repeated insistently. Gujarat Minister of State for Home Gordon Zadaphiya on February 27: “This is just pre-planned, organized and as though all things have been prepared in advance.” Modi again on February 28: “It was a pre-planned attack. The charred bodies which I saw at Godhra railway station testified to the black deed of terrorism.” Propaganda distributed by the RSS, VHP, and the Bajrang Dal in the immediate aftermath claimed that Muslim passengers had been mysteriously asked to get off the Sabarmati Express at the station ahead of Godhra.
Modi went on, in the same broadcast on the evening of February 27, to claim that the Pakistani ISI had been behind the mob attack. The charge was echoed the next day in the center by the BJP Home Minister L.K. Advani (elected to parliament from Gujarat) and the BJP Defense Minister George Fernandes, who spoke of a “foreign hand” in the incident. The authors of the independent fact-finding report Gujarat Carnage 2002 note: “The accusation branded the local Ghanchi Muslims as Pakistani agents, in other words, as agents of a long-standing enemy power, thereby conforming to the traditional demonisation of Indian Muslims as sympathizers and cohorts of Pakistan.” The Gujarat State Health Minister Ashok Bhatt, visiting Godhra with Modi on the 27th, made the same implication: “Godhra has a notorious reputation. We suspect that many Pakistanis live here illegally.”
Advani on March 4 called Godhra a “pre-meditated attack” and contrasted it to the supposedly spontaneous “communal violence” of the post-Godhra pogrom that was then taking place. Zadaphiya justified his decision to use the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO, India’s version of the Patriot Act, supposedly aimed at prosecuting terrorist conspiracies) against those accused in Godhra but not against anyone implicated in the subsequent massacre by saying: “In Godhra an outside agency like the ISI was involved and it was a pure terrorist act. But what took place in the State later was mob fury.” Human Rights Watch reported in July 2003 that “[n]o Hindus have been charged under POTA [new name for POTO after the ordinance became an act] in connection with post-Godhra violence against Muslims, which the state continues to dismiss as spontaneous and unorganized.” And BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee, excusing the massacre, asked, “Who lit the fire?”
The Delhi-based NGO SAHMAT notes in its preliminary report that “[t]his theory of a spontaneous outburst of popular Hindu anger contrasted to the pre-planned massacre of VHP ‘pilgrims’ by ISI-funded Islamic fundamentalists lies at the core of the overt and covert justifications of the post-Godhra events, put forward by the Sangh brigade along with some allies of the BJP.” The Godhra-was-pre-planned scenario was intentionally put forward by the state first to motivate and later to justify the violence which followed.
That violence was in fact an organized paramilitary attack directly incited and sponsored by the state, and carried out by the state’s own agents and groups in connivance with it. But it has been a conscious political strategy of those who organized the bloodbath to portray it otherwise. That the violence against Muslims was a spontaneous reaction to Godhra was the line of the Modi government from day one. On March 1 Modi promised to control the “riots resulting from the natural and justified anger of the people,” adding that “[t]he five crore [crore = 10 million] people of Gujarat have shown remarkable restraint under grave provocation.” The next day he explained the ongoing killing spree like this: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
As Madhu Prasad writes (Manushi, 129), “The claim of spontaneity was propagated both as a justification for the ethnic cleansing... and as a cover-up for the obvious complicity of the state apparatus and the political party that governs Gujarat.” And also in order to identify the entire Hindu population with the activity of the Hindu right: a resolution of the all-India general council of the RSS on March 18 calling the Gujarat massacre “natural and spontaneous” went on to warn, “Let the Muslims understand their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority.”
Having painted the Godhra tragedy in the most inflammatory way possible, Modi further prepared the ground for mass murder by deciding to carry the remains of the victims—even those who belonged to other places—to Ahmedabad. They were brought there that very night by motor cavalcade. The authors of Gujarat Carnage 2002 note:
[A]t the best of times, the presence of the badly charred bodies and body parts would have been provocative. In Ahmedabad, with its previous history of communal violence and tension, such an act followed by the public display of the remains prior to cremation, could at best be described as reckless and foolhardy. The time of the arrival of the bodies was broadcast on the radio, ensuring a large and inflamed crowd would gather at Ahmedabad station.
This grotesque exhibition was received with chants of “Khoon ka badla khoon” (Seek blood for blood). (It’s notable that on March 2, at the height of the massacre, the father of a twenty-two-year-old Godhra victim told reporters:
I am extremely disturbed by what is happening in our area. I had pleaded with folded hands to all who came to my son’s cremation to restrain themselves and maintain peace. Killing other people is not a solution. Losing a son is shattering, and I want no father or mother to suffer from this feeling.)
Meanwhile, the VHP called for a state-wide bandh (a mob-enforced shutdown of all business) for the next day in memory of the Godhra victims. This was intended, and understood, as a call to action for VHP/Bajrang Dal cadre. It also made sure that Muslims would be at home that day, and that normal business would not get in the way of the paramilitary gangs. The state BJP endorsed the call and Modi himself announced it that evening, making the action effectively state-sponsored. The bandh, the Gujarat Carnage 2002 authors say, “marked a premeditated transition from a local riot to an organised and pre-planned State-wide protest which was bound to result in a bloodbath....”
The Concerned Citizens Tribunal reports that according to a member of Modi’s cabinet who confidentially testified before it, after Modi made the bandh call he met with senior police leaders and specifically instructed them that “a Hindu reaction was to be expected and this must not be curtailed or controlled.” That same night senior ministers from Modi’s cabinet had a meeting at which, the Tribunal writes, “a diabolical plan was drawn and disseminated to the top 50 leaders of the BJP/RSS/BD/VHP, on the method and manner in which the [initial] 72-hour-long carnage that followed was to be carried out.”
But this was all a matter of last-minute tactical coordination. The real planning and preparation had been done long before the Sabarmati Express arrived in Godhra. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal reports that for at least two years earlier,
training camps were conducted by the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, backed by the RSS and supported by democratically elected representatives from the ruling BJP. The camps were often conducted in temples. The aim was to generate intense hatred against Muslims painted as “the enemy,” because of which violence was both glorified through the distribution of trishuls and swords, and justified as the legitimate means of self-defense.
These camps, which included arms training, especially targeted lumpen dalit (untouchable) youth, who were paid between 3000 and 5000 rupees a month to attend. In April 2002 the VHP bragged that at least 260,000 youth in Gujarat had undergone training. Six months before the massacre began these programs were reportedly sped up in advance of the Ayodhya temple-construction campaign.
More specific preparations were made in the immediate period leading up to the massacre. In particular, information identifying Muslim residences and businesses was systematically compiled. In cities this was done through household surveys conducted by female VHP workers, data from cable TV operators, and government documents including electoral rolls and tax records. In villages members of Bajrang Dal training cells directly made up lists of all Muslims living nearby. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal reports that “[I]n most places, Hindu houses among Muslim bastis [neighborhoods] had been marked out before the attacks using saffron flags, or pictures of Ram and Hanuman, or with crosses. Evidence before the Tribunal shows that in some places this marking was done a few days before February 27....”
There were many other signs of systematic, detailed, military-style planning. The destruction of Muslim-owned showrooms and factories required training, planning, and sophisticated techniques. According to Gujarat Carnage 2002:
The mobs were huge, at times several thousand strong. They were brought in buses and trucks. Vehicles were also used to ferry thousands of LPG gas cylinders, which in turn were widely used as explosives to destroy property. There must have been official connivance to release such large quantities of LPG gas cylinders.
These cylinders, which are provided for home use by the Ahmedabad municipal corporation, were apparently stockpiled ahead of time. For two months before the massacre there had been a major, widely reported shortage of gas cylinders in the city.
Mob leaders during the massacre carried computer printouts of Muslim homes and businesses. According to Gujarat Carnage 2002:
The targeting of Muslim homes, institutions, establishments and shrines was very precise and accurate. Even when there was only one Muslim shop or home in a congested Hindu-dominated area, it was attacked, ransacked and burnt. Businesses that had Hindu or non-Muslim names [often deliberately chosen after past communal violence to avoid trouble in the future—our note] were identified and targeted along with others in which Muslims were minority or sleeping partners.
All accounts say that wherever the violence reached, Muslim properties were looted, burned, and demolished while buildings belonging to Hindus standing right next to them were left untouched.
Reports of the activities of the so-called mobs that carried out the massacre all suggest paramilitary training, organization, and deployment. Dressed in “saffron scarves and khaki shorts, the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist groups” (Human Rights Watch), these groups of up to 10,000 young men or boys each were “led by well-known elected representatives from the BJP, leaders of the VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS and even cabinet ministers” (Concerned Citizens tribunal). They chanted “Jai Shri Ram!” and “Hindu baccha Ram ka, Musalman baccha haram ka!” (Hindus are children of Ram, Muslims are bastards!) According to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal:
The evidence before the Tribunal clearly points to scores of key actors leading large mobs, fully aware of what they had to do and achieving their task with precision. This suggests the existence of a private, trained militia running into thousands in Gujarat. A militia, moreover, established and made fighting fit through training camps, distribution of weaponry and hate propaganda glorifying violence. Weapons used in attacks, such as swords, were of the same brand, and must obviously have been distributed in advance across large tracts of the state. The deployment in many of the attacks of large tempos or trucks, full of hired hooligans, some local and others from UP, MP or Maharashtra, identified as such because they spoke in Hindi or Marathi, is a worrying indicator of the scale and reach of these underground operations. Village-level evidence points to hired mobs, where the hooligans were equipped with trishuls, iron rods and swords, carrying supplies of water, salted beans and peanuts and liquor pouches and paid Rs. 500 per day or Rs. 1000 per night.
The Concerned Citizen’s tribunal distinguishes three levels of assailants. There was a leadership made up exclusively of sangh parivar cadre that used mobile phones and printed lists of targets to coordinate and direct attacks. Below them were the “chief executioners” arriving in trucks, minivans, and jeeps loaded with arsenals of weapons and supplies of petrol, gas cylinders, and other chemicals. It was these who carried out the shootings, hackings, rapes, and arsons. The Tribunal notes that “[t]he planning was so elaborate that a particular group of people had been assigned only the task of loading guns.” A third level of assailants looted shops and homes.
At Modi’s orders, two members of his cabinet occupied police control rooms in Ahmedabad throughout the early hours of the massacre. They made sure instructions were followed not to interfere with the violence. As a result, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and the International Institute for Justice, calls for help received replies like: “We don’t have orders to save you”; “We cannot help you, we have orders from above”; “If you wish to live in Hindustan, learn to protect yourself”; “How come you’re alive? You should have died too”; “Whose house is on fire? Hindus’ or Muslims’?”; and “Why did you take birth as Muslims, you should have been born Hindus.”
Police often led the charge on the streets, shooting Muslims who got in the way of the gangs. Survivors report giving up hope of resistance when they saw the police were against them. “In almost all the incidents documented by Human Rights Watch the police were directly implicated in the attacks. At best they were passive observers, and at worst they acted in concert with the murderous mobs.... In many cases in the guise of offering assistance, the police led victims directly into the hands of their killers” (Compounding Injustice). As for the Indian army, troops arrived at the border hours after the attacks broke out but Modi didn’t let them into the state until the worst violence was over. The killings, rapes, arsons, and demolitions went on at a lower level for months.
Police complicity continued after the massacre was over. When Muslims tried to lodge complaints against specific, named assailants, police refused to accept them or changed the names to meaningless omnibus designations. Only after the initial 72-hour orgy were any Hindus arrested or shot on sight by police. Most or all of these were dalits and tribals. Mob-leaders and sangh parivar members enjoyed complete impunity. Not one person has been convicted to date on charges related to post-Godhra violence (with the exception of Muslims prosecuted on false charges to cover up police shootings). This is such an embarrassing exposure of India’s “secular democracy” to foreign investors worried about instability that the Supreme Court was forced to rule that fair trials within Gujarat were not possible and recently ordered retrials of three of the most notorious cases out of state. (Just today there was news that in one new trial a key witness has mysteriously changed her story.)
Muslim victims consistently received no compensation or a mockery thereof for loss of life and property. Makeshift “relief camps” set up in such sites as graveyards to harbor the more than 100,000 refugees of the violence are denied food and basic services. Modi has called these camps “baby-making factories.”
Most large-scale communal violence is instigated with political motivations, but the Gujarat massacre, along with a couple of other atrocities of recent Indian history, are special cases. This was not a tit-for-tat exchange of mob attacks, not an uncontrolled mobilization of the general population. Not a “communal riot” in that sense, it is better called a “massacre” or “pogrom” to evoke the one-sided nature of the violence. In this respect and in its scale and organization it recalls the main phase of the Bombay riots of 1992-93, in which Hindu-right Shiv Sena cadre butchered Muslims in similar numbers.
But as a state-sponsored action, its only Indian precedent is the Congress-led massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own Sikh bodyguards to avenge her seige of the Golden Temple. As Hindu-chauvinist mobs whipped up and led by Congress cadre were littering Delhi with as many as 3000 charred corpses (and perhaps 2000 more in other places), Rajiv Gandhi gave them his blessing: “When a great tree falls, the earth shakes.” The BJP has plainly taken this massacre as a model and a license. BJP Defense Minister George Fernandes responded to reports of fetuses torn from pregnant women’s abdomens by saying, "Stories are being told about Gujarat violence as if it was happening for the first time. Did it not happen in 1984 on the roads of Delhi?"
Congress bears much of the responsibility for the nationwide communalist escalation of the last two decades. The Bajrang Dal was formed as an anti-Sikh group during Indira’s chauvinist offensive. Shiv Sena was created by Congress in Bombay to kill Communists and suppress the labor movement. Rajiv Gandhi broke the locks on the Babri Mosque in 1986 to let Hindu worshippers in, he launched his 1989 campaign with a speech in Ayodhya promising to bring about “Ram Rajya,” and weeks before the elections that year he let the VHP lay the foundation stone of a new Ram temple at the site. While it’s true that, as an electoral maneuver, Congress can accommodate Muslim fundamentalism as well as Hindu nationalism—as when it passed an act of parliament to subject Indian Muslim women to sharia divorce law—at bottom it has always been the main party of the uppercaste Hindu big bourgeoisie. Gandhi was the first to raise the call for the Ram Rajya. Congress has criticized the BJP over the Gujarat massacre, but where was Sonia when Ahmedhabad was burning?
And, of course, it has been the imperialist-sponsored economic policies that Congress introduced and now promises to carry on that have fueled the sudden rise of the communalist far-right. As Workers Vanguard wrote (WV 528): “Much of [the BJP’s] explosive support has come from the growing middle class spawned by Gandhi’s economic ‘liberalisation’ in the 1980s, who live in terror of the prospect of sinking back into utter destitution.”
In the 2002 elections held in the wake of the massacre, the Gujarat Congress Party attacked Modi... for failing to protect kar sevaks at Godhra. Sonia Gandhi signaled the party’s “soft Hindutva” platform in the state by launching its campaign there after prayers in the pilgrimage center of Ambaji. The state party chief was until quite recently a hardcore BJP/RSS cadre, as was the candidate they ran against Modi. The BJP, meanwhile, put up election posters with Modi on one side and Musharraf on the other; an election day ad read: “Pay your homage to the Godhra martyrs. Cast your vote.” Modi and the BJP won in a landslide. A Muslim Congress worker in Gujarat complains:
We people became like footballs and we are being kicked by both of them. BJP thinks that the more aggressive they are towards Muslims, the more Hindu votes they will get. The Congress thinks if they protect the Muslims they lose Hindu votes so they do not stand up for us. Muslims cannot vote for BJP and are forced to vote for the Congress. Either way we lose. (Threatened Existence, International Institute for Justice)
The Gujarat government has set the death toll of the massacre at around 850, but this is generally believed to be a willful underestimate. Most independent accounts—including those cited by Human Rights Watch, Gujarat Carnage 2002, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, SAHMAT, the International Institute for Justice, the US State Department’s 2003 International Religious Freedom Report, and an internal report by senior British diplomats leaked to the British press in March 2002—put the number killed at over 2000. Some estimates add another 500 who are missing and presumed dead.
In addition to these murders, hundreds of Muslim women were raped or sexually tortured and over 100,000 Muslim men, women, and children were made homeless and forced to flee. The massive property damage to Muslim homes and businesses was not just collateral. It was a deliberate effort to uproot and economically sabotage the community. About 10,000 poor Hindus, most of them dalits, were also displaced or made destitute due to loss of property or jobs as a consequence of the state-sponsored attacks.
There have also been many cases of local, small-scale communalist retaliation by Muslims, almost all of them against dalits. Dalits were prominent participants in the massacre and they make a vulnerable target.
A convenient one, too—most of the dalit slums are right next to the Muslim slums. If there is any community in India more oppressed than Muslims, it is dalits. After the catastrophic 2001 Gujarat earthquake, international relief workers had to label their emergency blood supply by caste, as even the dying wouldn’t accept a transfusion of lower-caste blood—and dalits are the outcastes, the ritually unclean, the lowest of the low. Tribals, who in remote areas played a similar role in the massacre, are landless peoples who subsist outside of settled society at a level of primitive scarcity. Some of them, members of the so-called “denotified” tribes, are stigmatized and persecuted as hereditary criminals—a criminal legacy of British imperialism.
Although Islam does not officially recognize caste, among Indian Muslims the Ashraf (noble), who claim descent from foreign invaders or indigenous high-caste converts, are higher than the Ajlaf (base), said to be descended from low-caste converts. Both branches contain many endogamous, caste-like groups ranked hierarchically like Hindu jatis according to ritual purity. Ajlafs, who make up 75% of the Muslim population, are called “Muslim dalits” or “dalit Muslims” by those who would like to see them receive reserved seats in public universities and government jobs according to their proportion in the total population, like those constitutionally granted to dalits. Actually Ajlaf communities include those equivalent to Hindu backward castes as well as to untouchable (dalit) ones. But it is quite true that the great majority of Muslims are oppressed by uppercaste Muslims and Hindus on the basis of caste on top of the communal oppression and class-based exploitation they live under. And all Muslims are aligned with low castes and dalits in casteist thinking for eating meat. Although probably the worst atrocity to come out of the recent RSS/BJP “cow protection” campaign so far occurred when five dalits were lynched in the presence of police after having been caught performing their caste duty of skinning a dead cow scavenged from the roadside, the campaign itself is principally aimed against Muslims.
In Gujarat, Muslims and dalits worked side by side for decades in the textile mills of Ahmedabad. Throughout the eighties they both supported Congress in a bloc that also included tribals and kshatriyas, a populous low-caste community in Gujarat not related to the high martial caste of the same name. This Gujarati version of the rainbow coalition was known as the KHAM formula—for kshatriya, harijan (dalit), adivasi (tribal), and Muslim. But in the mid-eighties, under the leadership of Vaghela (now state Congress chief) and Modi—both of them kshatriyas—the BJP started consciously trying to attract dalit and backward-caste votes. The culmination of the Ayodhya campaign in the early nineties and the riots accompanying it split Congress’s low-caste/dalit-Muslim coalition in two—in Gujarat and nationwide.
And within the last ten years almost all of the mills in Ahmedabad have closed, leaving hundreds of thousands without jobs. Dalit and Muslim workers, always the poorest sections of the working class there that also includes members of backward castes, have become increasingly lumpenized. The futureless dalit youth are now being told by the Hindu right that Muslims have stolen their (nonexistent) jobs. The paltry wages and ornamental positions they receive for attending the shakhas (Bajrang Dal training camps) are a big deal in their communities, where almost no one is employed or associates with caste Hindus in any way. For this segregated and despised population, the illusory sense of belonging to Hindu society is a powerful lure.
It was dalits and, in remote areas, tribals, who were cynically used by the brahmin-dominated, openly casteist Hindu right to do the most dehumanizing dirty work of the Gujarat massacre. They did the bidding of the same reactionary forces that in 1981 and 1985 in Ahmedabad targeted dalits in the anti-reservation riots, at which time many Muslims heroically protected dalits. In 2002 dalits, tribals, and backward-caste Hindus did give Muslims refuge in some rural and far-flung areas, according to expert testimony before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal. But overall dalits and tribals committed most of the worst violence. This is surprising, and an argument against the massacre being a “spontaneous Hindu reaction”—dalits and tribals are the very last groups you would expect to see rushing out to avenge an attack on Hindus. Their mobilization against Muslims has driven apart these once-allied sections. This use of dalits and tribals as lumpen shock troops for the fascistic Hindu-right shows plainly why the fight against caste oppression will be a strategic question in the Indian revolution.
In September 2002, a horrific shooting spree by two gunmen in Ashkardham temple complex, not far from CM Modi’s residence, left 33 dead and 70 wounded. It was apparently committed by an otherwise unknown group calling itself the “Movement for Revenge in Gujarat.” Starting in December 2002, Bombay was hit by a series of explosions on buses, trains, and railway stations. Twin blasts on August 25, 2003, one in a taxi parked by chance at the Gateway of India and another in one driving through a crowded bazaar, killed 52 people, bringing the cumulative toll up to 65 killed and over 200 hurt. Four suspects in this last pair of attacks admitted to having planted the bombs on behalf of a new group called the “Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force.”
This is the most familiar face of anti-Hindu Muslim communalism in India today: terror attacks by tiny, isolated jihadist groups. The BJP can accurately claim that overall communal conflict was way down under its rule: traditional localized Hindu-Muslim rioting has become quite rare. Since the riots of 1989-90 and 1992—particularly the Shiv-Sena-led massacre in Bombay—and with the BJP’s lurch into the political mainstream, India’s 250 million Muslims have become an increasingly endangered species. In most cases they’re no longer in a position to retaliate in kind, or even to defend themselves. It’s left to the jihadists to seek blood for blood. Except in Kashmir, which is a special case, these groups have no mass base.
Ahmedabad was at one time a center of the Indian textile industry with a large, unionized, inter-communal working class. With the closing of more than fifty mills there over the last three decades, about 125,000 of these workers have been driven to seek other work, largely in what is known as the informal sector, which includes service jobs, petty trade, and casual, non-union labor. In his 2004 study The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedabad, India, the labor historian Jan Breman proposes that it is this mass de-proletarianization that has made it possible for one set of slum-dwellers to be mobilized to kill another:
Pushing a huge workforce out of mill employment and denying them the rights which used to dignify their work and life, has caused not only material impoverishment but has also led to the exclusion of these people from real and proper participation in mainstream society. In my analysis the boundaries along which social identities are drawn, based on caste and religion, have contributed to the strengthening of primordial loyalties. These bonds now constitute the meager social capital for the masses fighting with each other to occupy the scarce space available in the lower echelons of the urban economy and society. Right from the start of the social and political mobilization of mill workers, as I have argued in Part I, their separate identities were both acknowledged and manipulated. These fault lines, however, could be moderated and even overcome in the workplace and in the neighbourhood. Such moments and features of being part of the same collectivity faded away when they became uprooted from their formal sector livelihood. In the desperate search for work—which is casual in nature, lowly skilled, and badly paid—they have learnt to stick to their own segregated niches and easily fall prey to propaganda that says they have nothing in common with those who happened to be their workmates and neighbours.
(November 2, 2004)
POSTSCRIPT (February 2009):
Two years ago, Dionne Bunsha reported in The Hindu (“Five years after Godhra and the pogrom,” February 28, 2007) that many of those displaced in the Gujarat massacre had still not been able to resettle: “There are still 81 relief camps with around 30,000 refugees across Gujarat. The campsites do not have basic amenities like water or electricity, even though its residents are paying municipal taxes.” And those who had managed to find homes, along with many others continually being forced out, found themselves in a city becoming totally segregated along communal lines: “Muslims have been pushed into ghettos. Juhapura, Ahmedabad's biggest ghetto, has a population of over 300,000 people but no civic amenities. Only recently, it was made part of the city's municipal area. Many elite Muslims—judges, doctors, lawyers, businessmen—have been forced to move to Juhapura. No one in a ‘Hindu area’ will sell a flat to a Muslim, even if he or she is willing to pay a premium. There is not a single bank in Juhapura, not a single State transport bus passes through here.”
At the same time, in a demonstration of what Hindu Rashthra really means for dalits, forced segregation along caste lines is getting more and more common in Ahmedabad. The Express News Service reports (“Dalits live in separate colonies in Ahmedabad,” June 19, 2007):
In a recent trend, Ahmedabad is witnessing 'only-Dalit' residential societies—around 300 of which have come up in the last few years. However, for most Dalits, it is not a matter of choice, but of compulsion.
'Even if a Dalit can afford a flat in areas dominated by the upper castes, they are often denied by the builders or the seller,' retired IAS officer P K Valera, who lives in one such Dalit society in Ramdevnagar, says.
Some social scientists say the alienation started in 1982, after the anti-reservation agitation, but agree that the caste and class distinctions have become more serious in recent years. This trend can be seen not only in the walled city but also in the posh areas of west Ahmedabad like Satellite, Vastrapur, Bodakdev, Ambavadi.
Separate colonies for dalits remain a universal feature of Indian villages, but the increasing enforcement of this practice in an urban environment is alarming. The article quotes a local dalit businessman as saying, “When do they (Sangh Parivar) consider us Hindus? Just check the list of the dead and wounded in the riots, you will find names of only Muslims and Dalits. Only during elections and riots, they come to us. Otherwise, we are never considered as a part of Hindu society.”
In December 2007 Narendra Modi was solidly reelected chief minister in a vote widely considered a referendum on his role in the 2002 massacre. Praful Bidwai, writing for the Inter Press Service news agency, reports (“Modi’s victory in Gujarat is a triumph of religious bigotry, communalism,” December 29, 2007) reports that:
The Congress didn't mount a half-way credible challenge to Modi. It did its utmost to duck issues pertaining to the violence of 2002, whose victims continue to be excluded, discriminated against and re-victimised. It carefully avoided any reference to the pogrom, to the state's culpability in planning and executing it, and to the BJP's failure to deliver justice to the victims.
Right since it came into power nationally, the Congress hasn't lifted its little finger to secure justice for the victims. In Gujarat too, it refused to take a clear stand against Modi's brazenly communal political mobilisation strategy. It adopted a 'soft Hindutva' posture, and competed with Modi on his own terrain. Each time Modi cited Godhra, the Congress would talk about the Akshardham temple attack.
Even worse, the Congress recruited anti-Modi BJP rebels, many of whom deeply implicated in the 2002 carnage, such as former junior home minister Goverdhan Zadaphia. It gave tickets to many, thus damaging its own credibility and undermining the possibility of projecting itself as secular.
Last month at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit in Ahmedabad, the leading members of India’s capitalist class endorsed Modi’s leadership. Kumarmangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates, was quoted the Calcutta Telegraph (“Modi locks adoring leadership in bearhug,” January 13, 2009) as saying, “To become an economic superpower, India needs many Narendra Modis.” Ratan Tata, whose Tata Motors recently abandoned its unfinished plant in Singur, West Bengal—where it faced resistance by poor peasants against the seizure of their farmland despite the best efforts of the CPI(M)-led state government there to repress them—and moved the project to Gujarat, interrupted his praise of Modi to literally put his arms around him. The Telegraph reports: “Tata said a state would normally take 90 to 180 days to clear a new plant’ but in the Nano case, we had our land and approval in just two days.’ In his ‘humble experience, it had never happened before,’ Tata added, seizing another opportunity to extol the ‘speed and transparency’ with which Modi worked.” The following day at the summit the financier Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal of the Bharti telecommunications group vied with Tata, Birla, and each other to commend Modi’s accomplishments and went on to promote him as a future national leader (DNA, “Anil Ambani, Sunil Mittal promote Modi as PM,” January 15, 2009). Both men explicitly endorsed Modi for prime minister, a possibility which in the context of the Mumbai attacks and ever-heightening tensions with Pakistan, not to mention the decrepitude of the BJP’s current national leadership, is looking ever more real.
Most of the major fact-finding reports on Godhra and the post-Godhra violence—including Crime Against Humanity (Concerned Citizens Tribunal, November 22, 2002); Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat (International Initiative for Justice (IIJ), December 10, 2003)—with background on the ideology and history of the Hindu right; Gujarat Carnage 2002, A Report to the Nation by an Independent Fact-Finding Mission: Dr. Kamal Mitra Chenoy, S.P. Shulka, K.S. Subramanian and Achin Vanaik (April 11, 2002); Ethnic Cleansing in Ahmedabad: A Preliminary Report, SAHMAT Fact-Finding Team to Ahmedabad, (10-11 March 2002); “We Have No Orders to Save You”: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (Human Rights Watch, April 30, 2002) and the follow-up report by Human Rights Watch, Compounding Injustice: The Government’s Failure to Redress Massacres in Gujarat (July 1, 2003); and Genocide, Gujarat 2002 (July 2002), a special edition of the anti-communalist journal, Communalism Combat, edited by Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad—are all available online at www.onlinevolunteers.org/gujarat/reports/index.htm. Depending on when they were published these reports may have some out-of-date information, especially on Godhra.
Also available online are archives going back at least as far as 2002 of Frontline, The Hindu, The Times of India, Outlook India, rediff.com, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, The Guardian, the BBC World Service, and The Independent. See also the online archive of Communalism Combat (http://www.sabrang.com/cc/archive.htm), especially Gujarat, One Year Later (April 2003) and Godhra Revisited (October 2003).
Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy (Penguin India, 2003), compiled by Times of India editor Siddharth Varadarajan, collects major pieces on the events by journalists and activists.
Jan Breman's The Making and Unmaking of an Industrial Working Class: Sliding Down the Labour Hierarchy in Ahmedhabad, India (Oxford UP, 2004) is cited above.
See also Communal Riots in Post-Independence India, ed. Asghar Ali Engineer; Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, Peter van der Veer; The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, Christophe Jaffrelot; and “Social Stratification Among Muslims in India,” in Caste: Its Twentieth-Century Avatar, ed. M.N. Srinivas.