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NHRC-centric view of Gujarat riots: Between hope and despair

Ashok Chatterjee* reviews the book, “Lest We Forget History: Tracing Communal Violence in Gujarat 2002″ by P G J Nampoothiri and Gagan Sethi (Books for Change, Rs 300, 2012), which recounts Gujarat’s tragedy from the perspective of a special monitoring group set up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC):
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National attention is focused once again on the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Conflicting accounts have emerged from the Supreme Court’s Special Investigation Team (SIT). Its apparent exoneration of Narindra Modi is challenged by the Courts amicus curiae, while a cover story in TIME on the Chief Minister as India’s icon of economic growth has failed to remove the visa ban imposed by the US since 2002 on grounds of human rights violations. “Lest We Forget History” recounts Gujarat’s tragedy from the perspective of a special monitoring group set up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) soon after the killings began, on which the co-authors served.
Their conclusion is chilling: “The vibrance of the State ensures that life is a series of celebrations from Kite Festivals to Garbas to Diwali and carnivals. The list is endless. In such a scenario, who wants to remember what happened to some of our own brethren just a few years back?” Reason enough for this riveting reminder of what happened during three terrible months in 2002, and in the ten years that have followed even if two baffling mysteries remain: what actually happened at Godhra station on 27 February 2002, and later the same day in the CM’s Gandhinagar office when instructions were given to assembled officials and police?
Gujarat’s failed experiment in ethnic cleansing is traced back by PGJ Nampoothiri and Gagan Sethi to Gujarat’s age-old contacts with Islam and the impact of ‘divide and rule’ during British colonialism. The violence of Partition was followed by periods of harmony, including the unity of all communities during the Mahagujarat movement.
The new state’s lofty ideals were shaken in 1969 when the Gujarati press “went berserk” in reporting an incident at Ahmedabad’s Jagannath temple, stoking unabated violence just as irresponsible Gujarati media would do again 32 years later. The authors describe 1969 as the “defining movement”, revealing the political possibilities of communal discord that would be exploited first by the RSS, Jan Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha, then by the Congress’ infamous KHAM strategy to regain lost power, by the VHP yatras of the 1980s that led on to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and finally to the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. As Gujarat was swept into another wave of violence, its path to 2002 was being traced in blood.
Losses in bye-elections and signs of Congress resurgence suggested the BJP’s need for what the author’s describe as “something spectacular”. A gory spectacle was offered by the tragedy at Godhara station on 27 February when 59 of kar-sevaks returning from Ayodhaya were killed in the inferno that engulfed Coach No S6. With the CM’s visit, the fateful decision was taken to transport the charred bodies by road to Ahmedabad, overruling the advice of the local Collector. As blood poured from stoked passions, Gujarat turned quickly into flame.
Nampoothiri and Sethi were part of a special monitoring group set up by NHRC in soon after the killings began. Both had impeccable credentials in the service of their adopted state: Nampoothiri as a police officer since 1964 and Sethi as the co-founder of Ahmedabad’s renowned Janvikas-Centre for Social Justice. NHRC’s intervention helped the outside world to know correctly what was happening in Gujarat, although the Commission itself faced formidable hurdles to stay its hands. False claims were made that NHRC had denied hearings to petitioners, and that its Chairman Justice J S Verma was hostile to Gujarat because he had been involved as Chief Justice in legal positions on the Narmada Dam! The authors record the violence that was meticulously researched and planned, with mobs “fully prepared” through a “carefully crafted strategy of mass involvement of the public at large”. With few exceptions, Gujarat’s multitude of godmen, entrepreneurs and prominent citizens maintained a strict silence as the pogrom engulfed village after village, city after city in a conspiracy of silence shared by many. Desperate pleas to the police for help from terrified Muslim communities drew a response entirely new to Indian experience “We have no orders to save you”. What happened at a meeting in the CM’s office in Gandhinagar on the evening of 27 February 2002 has remained bitterly controversial ever since. Nampoothiri and Sethi recount the several versions of that event, recording the belief that “there was no discussion. The Chief Minister spoke and the others dutifully listened. No officer has cared to openly share information as to what transpired…..but secretly and in confidence a few have talked…The Chief Minister left no one in any doubt whatsoever on what was expected of them (and what was not). Undoubtedly the instructions were clear and simple….”
The gruesome strategy to leave Gujarat’s Muslims homeless and hopeless is recalled in a heartbreaking litany of assault, murder, rape, arson and looting gathered by NHRC investigators. These include the burning of Best Bakery and 14 of those who lived and worked there, the trauma of Zaheera Sheikh who witnessed this slaughter, the heroism of gang-raped Bilkish Bano and her husband Yakub in braving threat to seek justice over ten years of intimidation, the slaughter at Gulburg Society of Congressman Ehsan Jafri and 58 others (calls to high places for help all ignored), the “indescribable bestiality” of the rape and murder of Kausarben and her unborn child, a thousand homes in Naroda torched, “not one shop in a stretch of about two kilometres could be saved”. The list continues, as does “the reluctance of various officials to honestly perform their duties” with “sickening regularity”. Traditional amity between Muslims and dalits and adivasis was broken by years of well-planned strategies for polarisation through “a strong dose of religion”. “Special care was taken to destroy heritage sites”: the monument to musician Ustad Faiz Khan and the Bandukwala library in Baroda decimated, as were 302 dargahs (including that of the medieval poet Wali Gujarati, bulldozered within sight of Ahmedabad’s Police Control Room), and over 200 mosques. Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram was targeted, even as his influence seemed to have fled Gujarat. Mayhem was facilitated by successfully dividing Muslims from other marginalised communities, Advisai and Dalit. Electoral roles were used to target Muslim locations with great precision, even in Gandhinagar’s “impenetrably fortified Secretariat”. Even after “inordinate, unpardonable delay in the army deployment” more than twelve hours after they have landed at Ahmedabad, the Army were made “to cool their heels … waiting for red flags to be provided” while middle-class citizens participated in looting.
Worse was to follow. Over 150,000 fled into some 150 relief camps hurriedly organized in mosques and graveyards. Denied State attention and even the most basic relief facilities, forcible closures were spurred by Modi’s description of relief camps as intolerable “children producing factories”. Innuendo was used to imply that the National Commission for Minorities, the Chief Election Commission and Human Rights Commission were all institutions biased toward Muslims. Compensation was denied, then withheld or set at absurdly low levels. Gujarat’s mature experience in Narmada rehabilitation and its 2001 earthquake management was now nowhere to be seen. Attempts to return home were faced with social and economic boycott, demands that none of the accused in neighbourhood criminal cases should be punished, and offers of compensation that were “sometimes less than even Rs100”. With the authorities making “no effort to conceal or disguise discrimination”, the authors devote one of the most perceptive chapters in this important book recounting “the short journey” from relief camps to colonies of 4,500 internally displaced families whose earnings have been crushed by some 75%. That remains today as one of the most tragic legacies of Gujarat 2002.
Here and there, as NHRC record show, upright officers did their duty in face of unimaginable odds. Soon the “cynical attempt to capitalise on communal polarisation” would lead to Modi’s surprise recommendation in July to dissolve the Assembly, even in the midst of sporadic violence. In elections finally held in December 2002, the BJP returned to power with a two-thirds majority. The implications of this victory for Gujarat and for India have been debated even since. The book concludes with an analysis of Modi’s recent ‘Sadhabhavana’ extravaganzas: colossal melas at huge public expense, made famous by his refusal of a Muslim headgear, even as relief and compensation are denied to thousands after a decade of waiting. So what about the future? While the book attempts to shake a collective amnesia, the authors conclude with a telling observation. NHRC Chairperson Justice Verma’s letter to the Prime Minister in 2003 regretting that “not enough had been done to ensure the victims, our country and the world at last, that the instruments of the State are proceeding with adequate integrity and diligence to remedy the wrongs that have occurred” has to this day been left unacknowledged.
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*Former executive director, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad

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