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Hindu-Muslim Violence in Indian Gujarat

The BJP, by not acting sternly against communal violence in Gujarat, has strengthened the violent trend of harassment against the Muslim minority

by Khaled Ahmed

Few Pakistanis care to know about Indian Gujarat; and the 2002 riots there against Muslims have hardly changed this. But there are facts that can’t be ignored. Many Hindus were driven out of Sindh after 1947, fleeing to India’s Gujarat, where local Hindu communities also rejected them. Shockingly, these same migrants, partly in a bid to be accepted as “true Hindus,” participated in the anti-Muslim violence in Godhra in Gujarat in 2002. These facts were revealed in Interpreting the Sindhi World: Essays on Society and History, a book edited by Michel Boivin and Matthew Cook (OUP 2010).

Like East Pakistan, nationalism in Sindh was language-based. The province was pluralist, just like East Pakistan, with Hindus and Muslims largely living together in peace. British scholar Richard Burton wrote about the province: “Hindu religion is not to be found in a state of purity in Sindh. Hinduism here is mixed up with the heterogeneous elements of Islam, and the faith of Nanak Shah. A Hindu will often become the murid (follower) of a Mussulman, and in some cases the contrary takes place … all great pirs revered by the Muslims have classical Hindu names.” The Supreme Court of India in 2004 fined a litigant for asking to delete Sindh from the Indian national anthem, thus challenging any organic relationship between territory and nationalism. The modern state of Gujarat consists of a strip of “mainland” Gujarat, the peninsula of Saurashtra, and the western arm of Kutch. Later Junagadh was also added. The Hindus of Sindh who fled Pakistan mostly moved to this state after Partition.

Train at Godhra

In Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State (OUP 2013) by Ward Berenschot, he has tried to objectively get at the root of the tragic Indian Gujarat riots of 2002. A helpful launch point is a comment posted on the Indian website The Print: “On Feb. 27, 2002, Sabarmati Express pulled into the train station of Godhra, a small town in the Western Indian state of Gujarat, ruled by a Hindu nationalist government since 1995. What exactly happened at the train station and soon thereafter remains trapped in different narratives.”

Sabarmati Express was carrying cadres (karsevaks) of the Hindu right from Ayodhya, where they had gone to express their vigorous support for building a Ram temple at a legally and politically disputed site. At Godhra, apparently, an altercation took place between Hindu activists and some Muslim boys serving tea at the train station. As the train began moving after its scheduled stop at the station, the emergency cord was pulled. Resultantly, the train stopped in a primarily Muslim neighborhood where, according to credible press reports, it was attacked by a Muslim mob. Two carriages were burned, and firefighting efforts hampered. The fire killed 58 passengers, including many women and children.

View from Ahmedabad

Writing about the Gujarat riots, the author explains: “Because of the sensitive nature of some of the material in this book, I have tried to protect the anonymity of my informants as much as I could. I have changed the names of two of the three neighborhoods that this book focuses on, Isanpur and Maneknagar. I wanted this book to stimulate discussion about the nature of local politics, not about the actions of particular politicians. Between January 2005 and March 2006 I lived with my wife in some of Ahmedabad’s most violent neighborhoods. I gradually integrated myself—to the extent that a white ‘foreigner’ with a funny Gujarati accent can ever be integrated—into the local political networks that call the shots in these streets.”

In the afternoon of March 1, 2002, hundreds of people gathered at a central square in Isanpur, a neighborhood on the eastern side of Gujarat’s largest city, Ahmedabad. The atmosphere was agitated, people were talking about a train coach that had been burned in a town called Godhra. Apparently Muslims had set this coach on fire, killing more than 50 Hindus. As one informant relayed, this tense atmosphere quickly turned violent: “When the news about Godhra came, people went out on the street. Just to watch what would happen. Then the rumor spread that Muslims were about to attack. So people felt the need to attack. People became afraid, so they started to attack. Many people came out, most of them just to see what would happen, while only some did the work. They carried the gas-cylinders and set things on fire.”

Muslims ‘had it coming’

Isanpur was one of the many neighborhoods where the incident in Godhra exploded like a cluster bomb. Inhabitants soon felt that violence between the Muslim and Dalit populations of the locality was inevitable on hearing the news … that a bogie of Sabarmati Express had been torched. They felt a vertigo-like sensation and smelled a big carnage by Hindus in the offing. In the afternoon of March 1 the large mob encircled a small Muslim locality and showered its houses from all sides with stones, crude bombs and bottles filled with petrol. The police on the street did not deter the mob. On the contrary, the small police force supported the rioters by supplying petrol and by firing on the inhabitants of the besieged locality, killing, and injuring several Muslims who ventured out of their houses. Meanwhile, the mob used gas cylinders to burn down the shops on the main street, and a group of rioters managed to enter the local mosque and set its interior on fire.

After the riots many commentators noted the absence of remorse in Gujarat’s society. It was a widely held opinion that Muslims “had it coming” and that they “needed to be taught a lesson.” There was little indignation about the role of Gujarat’s government during the rioting; 10 months after the violence the ruling political party won a handsome victory in the state elections. Very few of the individuals and the police officers named in various investigate reports or in the more than 4,000 FIRs submitted have been punished despite the persistent and brave pressure from riot victims and various activists; the courts in Gujarat have been very reluctant to sentence riot perpetrators.

Muslims to live under Hindu Rashtra

Only after India’s Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was one state minister—Maya Kodnani—finally jailed in 2009 for leading a violent mob. It seems that riot cases are still only adequately pursued once they are moved to courts outside Gujarat. Similarly, the official inquiries into the post-Godhra violence—the Supreme Court’s Special Investigation and the state-appointed Nanavati Commission—were being pressured by petitions from riot victims more than eight years after the violence, no report has been finished and their independence is in doubt. In the meantime, many riot victims could not been return to their houses: in 2004 there were still about 10,000 people living in 81 relief camps throughout the state, in often appalling conditions.

The present-day Hindu-nationalist movement in India dates back to 1925, when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was funded. Its call for a revival of Hinduism combined with a fervent nationalist pride proved to be popular and the organization grew rapidly, creating new affiliated organizations in its rise. Today one speaks of a family of Hindu-nationalist organizations (Sangh Parivar), all committed to turning India into a Hindu Rashtra, a society and polity based on Hindu values. The RSS came to be seen as the social wing of the family (because it runs thousands of schools, hospitals and does charity work), the VHP (World Hindu Council) as the religious wing (as it aims to promote Hinduism in India as well as abroad) and the political party BJP as the political wing.

Men of Bajrang Dal, Women of Durga Vahini

The VHP also generated several organizations; most notable are its youth wing, called Bajrang Dal, and its women’s wing Durga Vahini. These are just the most prominent Hindu-nationalist organizations, as there are a great number of other organizations—from student unions, peasant groups, and trade unions or tribal welfare organizations—in the Sangh Parivar. Although formally independent organizations, these different ‘family members’ maintain very close ties because its supporters and leaders are often active in several organizations.

Commentators have often pointed to the popularity of these Hindu-nationalist organizations and their ideas as an explanation for the 2002 violence. Gujarat is considered to be a laboratory of Hindutva because of the entrenchment of organizations like the VHP and the RSS in Gujarat’s society, in politics and in state institutions. Indian scholar Girish Patel argued that “the Gujarat catastrophe was the successful outcome of the Hindu-communalization of civil society and capture of the state and it’s Hinduization at the service of the RSS and its affiliates.” He added: “Prejudices against Muslims are indeed widespread, and organizations like the RSS and the VHP are held in high esteem throughout Gujarat. At the time of the rioting various cabinet ministers maintained very close relations with these organizations, including Chief Minister Narendra Modi who used to be an RSS pracharak (organizer). Many high-level bureaucrats and police officers openly nurture relations with these Hindu-nationalist groups.”

Chamchas and Mahajans of Gujarat

And there are Chamchas, or sycophants, in Gujarat, numerous men that associate themselves with local and state-level politicians. These “party workers” are indispensable for these political leaders as organizers of rallies, as campaigners during election times, and as intermediaries who help political parties maintain local support and gather funds. In return for these valuable services, party workers profit from preferential access to politicians and bureaucrats. This access turned into a source of revenue—when party workers sell their services and it can help to build a local reputation, which a party worker can use to launch a political career of his own. Because of their usefulness, party workers occupy a prominent place in their localities: they are approached when a streetlight needs repair, when somebody needs treatment at a municipal hospital, when a license needs to arranged, etc.

From the Mughal era onwards, Gujarat’s rulers and their officials relied on the Mahajan—“big man”—to deal with the local population. They often needed consent of the mahajan to raise taxes, and sometimes even used them to collect the tax. The mahajan were also the channel through which local grievances and requests were transmitted to the court; emphasizes how, especially from the 17th century onward, the mahajan acquired more active political role beyond his older commercial and social functions. In this fashion, state officials and the mahajan helped each other to preserve their power: the Mahajan also occasionally sought the help of state officials to punish a person who had disobeyed rules. The sheth functioned as a spokesperson for the whole Mahajan, and the officials dealt with the Mahajan only through the sheth. This enabled the merchants to restrict the interference of rulers and state officials in their businesses; to a certain extent Gujarat’s rulers administered the state only indirectly, through the institutions of the Mahajan and especially through the nagarsheth.

Gujarat police’s money on the side

In one incident, police officials sensed an opportunity when they arrested a 10-year-old Muslim boy for stealing silver ornaments from his neighbors. As the boy quickly confessed his crime, police officials thought that they could make some money by offering his family their help in settling the issue. They approached the boy’s grandmother and asked her for 25,000 rupees; in return they would prevent the boy from being sentenced. At first the old woman agreed, but then she changed her mind just before the case was scheduled to be heard in court. The police officers, frustrated with this change of heart, furiously beat the old women with a stick until they broke her bones. They beat her so badly that her injuries could not be concealed. This presented the high-handed police officers with a problem: they had to represent the old woman in court to settle her grandson’s case.

After deliberation at the police station, the officers decided to keep the grandmother in their police van. To prevent the judge from noticing her injuries, they used another old woman as a stand-in in court. Apparently this other old woman played her role well, because the judge did not notice the mix-up. After the court case was conveniently settled, they took the little thief’s grandmother to the hospital to get her treated. There they left her with the words, “If you do [tell] anything we will shoot you.” That was the moment municipal councilor Ahmed Faraz got involved in the case, who relayed that the story be known. The old woman was a relative of a local goonda (‘criminal’), Sirajbhai, who felt he had no other option but to ask Ahmed Faraz for help.

All-India trend of marginalization

The current prominence of Hindu-nationalist organizations and their ideology can be understood in light of the way these organizations have gradually developed the capacity to provide their followers with access to state resources. The current polarization of Gujarati society along religious lines has been facilitated by the control that Hindu-nationalist organizations currently wield over the distribution of state resources. This control, and the absence of alternative political mobilization in Gujarat, can help explain the relative riot-proneness of Gujarat.

As most voters in India look to politicians to maximize their access to state resources, a strategy of targeting some groups of voters and excluding other groups can be observed throughout India. But while in other states caste, class or regional cleavages have served this purpose, such cleavages have been less prominent in Gujarat’s politics since the 1980s. Unlike most other Indian states, Gujarat has not seen a sustained and successful political mobilization on the basis of caste or class divisions over the past 30 years.

Gandhinagar attack

As the competition for control over the resources of the state has often been fought under the banner of religion, a barrage of accusations and grievances have constantly reinforced the tensions between Muslims and Hindus. Both political rhetoric and the functioning of local patronage channels have created the impression that one’s religious identity is closely bound up with one’s chances of benefiting from the resources and jobs that the Gujarat state provides. This impression, that a member of the other religious community is also a competitor, is dangerous: together with the growing insecurities caused by the integration of Gujarat’s economy in global markets. The shifting patterns of state-society interaction helped to create the political atmosphere in which the 2002 Hindu-Muslim violence could take place.

In August 2002, a multi-storied temple in Gandhinagar in Indian Gujarat was attacked by two terrorists of unknown identity killing 30 men, women and children. The Black Cat commandos called to action killed the terrorists in the ensuing gun-battle. Pakistan, anticipating the barrage of accusations from New Delhi, condemned the attack and attributed it to the intensified communal environment created in the state by the BJP government. But that didn’t stop then-deputy prime minister Advani from saying that the attack was an “act of India’s enemy.” One did not need a high IQ level to read Pakistan into it. The stock phrase is freely used by both countries to explain acts of terrorism taking place in their territories. Indian officials also linked the act to elections in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir through a self-serving logic: since the turnout was largely in defiance of the Hurriyat Conference appeal, the terrorists have struck in Gujrat to further muddy the waters there.

Pluralist Indian opinion

The entire world and most of India (70 percent by one Indian estimate) did not support the action taken by the BJP central government in the wake of the communal violence in Gujarat. Even the BJP’s top leadership had to adopt the dual policy of saying they were ashamed at what happened and continuing the policy of support to the Gujrat government whose police actually facilitated the massacre of the Muslims at the hands of Hindu goondas. The central BJP command defied the overwhelming Indian opinion, including some independent media channels traditionally identifying with BJP’s ideology, to get rid of the Gujrat government to allow some objectivity to prevail in a situation where blind hatred has taken over. Muslims were killed in sporadic incidents and were pushed to the wall. The BJP was unwilling to see the growing trend of isolating and targeting the Muslim community.

The truth of the matter is that the BJP, by not heeding the advice of the other political parties in parliament on the issue of Gujarat, actually strengthened the violent trend. If the 150 million strong Muslim community, already counted among the less privileged population, despairs of ever getting a fair deal from New Delhi, it will add dangerously to the problems being faced by Indian polity. It will also spell trouble for Pakistan whose interest is linked to a “pluralist” India whether the ruling elite of Pakistan realize it or not.

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