The 2002 Gujarat riots continue to serve as warning to India’s minorities
A senior Indian police officer, who was sacked in 2015, submitted a sworn statement before the Supreme Court of India alleging that then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had deliberately allowed anti-Muslim riots in the state. More than 1,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims, in the violence of 2002.
Writing in monthly Himal in October 2006, Prashant Jha told the story of the massacre. If 2002 was an experiment in the Hindutva laboratory, men like Babubhai Rajabhai Patel of the Hindutva outfit Bajrang Dal were at the forefront of conducting it. The short, stocky Babu Bajrangi, as he was popularly known, would pass off as an average middle-class trader. He claimed to be a social worker. Sitting in his second-floor office in the Ahmedabad suburb of Naroda, Bajrangi talked about his NGO, Navchetan, which “rescues” Hindu women who have been “lured” into relationships with Muslim men. “In every house today there is a bomb, and that bomb is the woman, who forms the basis of Hindu culture and tradition,” he says. “Parents allow her to go to college, and they start having love affairs, often with Muslims. Women should just be kept at home to save them from the terrible fate of Hindu-Muslim marriages.”
Bajrangi’s NGO worked to prevent inter-religion love marriages, and if such a wedding had already taken place, it worked to break the union. When a marriage between a Hindu woman and Muslim man gets registered in a court, within a few days the marriage documents generally end up on Bajrangi’s desk. The girl is subsequently kidnapped and sent back home; the boy is taught a lesson. “We beat him in a way that no Muslim will dare to look at Hindu women again. Only last week, we made a Muslim eat his own waste—thrice, in a spoon,” he reveals with barely concealed pride. All this is illegal, Bajrangi concedes, but it is moral. “And anyway, the government is ours,” he continues, turning to look at the clock. “See, am meeting Chief Minister Modi in a while today.”
One might have dismissed Babu Bajrangi as a bombast when he claimed proximity to the chief minister, or described the beating of Muslim boys. But for a man of pious stature in society he is also accused of burning Muslims alive. As the chief accused in the infamous Naroda Patiya case, one of the worst instances of brutality during the 2002 violence, he was alleged to have led the mob that killed 9 people in the area. It is a burden that rests lightly on Bajrangi’s shoulders. “People say I killed 123 people,” he says. Bajrangi laughs, “How does it matter? They were Muslims. They had to die. They are dead.”
The Gujarat massacre
After there was fire in a train compartment carrying Hindutva activists the morning of Feb. 27, 2002 at the Godhra railway station, killing 59 people, Narendra Modi decided to unleash a reign of terror against the state’s Muslims as a “reaction.” The cause of the fire is still uncertain, though a central government enquiry committee reported that it was accidental, and not the result of any conspiracy. In a vulnerable political position, and unsure of future electoral prospects, Modi felt this was the right spark to ignite communal passions through the state, and blamed the incident on Muslims. He instructed senior officers to let the Hindus express their anger, or the rioters be allowed a free hand. Modi’s state machinery and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) jointly planned the attacks, with the police themselves in many places firing on the victims rather than the rioters.
The state’s support to the perpetrators of the pogrom continued after the carnage. Out of the 4,252 cases registered in connection with the violence that gripped Gujarat in February, March and April of 2002, the files for more than 2,100 were simply closed. A few senior police officers revealed the manner through which the state subverted justice at every stage—by distorting and manipulating complaints at the police station, assigning investigations to the very officers accused of assisting in massacres, and allowing the accused free rein to coerce witnesses into changing statements. With several public prosecutors simultaneously in the ranks—or even the leadership—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, the prosecution itself silently assisted in getting approval for bail applications.
After a severe indictment of the Gandhinagar state government by the National Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark decision in 2004, ordering re-examination by a high-level, state- appointed committee of the decision to close more than 2,000 cases. The court ordered the transfer of investigation from the state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation in select cases, and moved two cases out of Gujarat entirely. In 2012, a three-member special investigation team absolved Modi of any involvement in the massacre following a controversial probe that the public prosecutor at the time slammed for seeking to “browbeat” witnesses.
And what of the social and economic condition of the victims? The state government’s own conservative figures put the total loss of property at Indian Rs. 9 billion. The government has distributed Rs. 563 million to the affected persons, which makes up about nine percent of the calculated damage. At the peak of the riots, more than 150,000 people were in relief camps, which were summarily shut down by the government after four months. With the state washing its hands of any rehabilitation for the affected, those who could not return home have had to live in resettlement colonies constructed by community organizations. Almost 10,000 families are said to remain internally displaced n Gujarat.