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Riots a child’s play: I was aghast… How deep was hatred, how casual was talk to kill

By Gagan Sethi* 

The year 2002 has been traumatic in the history of Gujarat. For those of us who have seen communal riots from close quarters ever since 1960s, there have been no winners or losers. Most of these riots may have been triggered by some odd incident. But their impact could be seen in the realignment of physical and economic spaces between communities at war. The state has been found to be wanting for immediacy in action, and yet very soon normalcy would prevail.
The 2002 trigger was the barbarous incident of burning of the Sabarmati Express train at Godhra. Fifty eight people were charred to death. The impact of the incident was even more far-reaching, as this time the state machinery allegedly supported whatever happened in the aftermath of the Sabarmati Express incident.
If the state is perceived as ineffective or inefficient, there is always a hope that justice would prevail. But when the state is seen as the abettor, things are bound to be different.
During the 2002 riots, one of the posters said, “Yeh andar ki baat hai, Police hamare saath hai”. The poster suggested the bravado of the perpetrators of violence, and how it met with accolades. Indeed, the communal divide had been taken to a height.
One of the most glaring instances of this divide was the day when I, along with my senior colleague PGJ Nampoothiri, a former DG of Gujarat, special rapporteur of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), visited relief camps in Ahmedabad to assess the situation. Along with Nampoothiri, I was the only other member of the monitoring committee under NHRC chaired by Justice Verma.
We came out of the relief camp in Shah Alam, which was one of the largest, and we found ourselves surrounded by majority Hindu localities. At the relief camp we had seen death, fear, hopelessness, pain and misery, families still separated ala Parzania style. We wondered how to communicate all this to the NHRC.
As we were still moving on, we passed through a small Hindu basti, where we saw a group of children playing a game. The innocent game was replicating a real life magnum opus, which they had witnessed from the windows of their houses.
The children in fancy dresses with saffron bands, having sticks covered with silver paper, looking like swords and guns, were chasing another group of children who were masquerading as Muslims with paper skull caps. They were shouting, “miyao ne khatam karo… balo… maro!! Jai Hulladiaya Hanuman!” I was aghast! The riots had become a game, a children’s play – like cops and robbers.
How deep was hatred, how casual was it to talk about killing another human species? Was it just politics or a deep-rooted bias of the majority fanned by myths about imaginary differences? To me the game was up!
Was the idea of India so fragile, was the identity of an Indian which propounds equality, fraternity and justice for all a pipedream sacrificed at the altar of a new Hanuman called Hulladiya?
Thirty years of engagement in civil society strengthening … and I felt we were back to basics. In real terms, it meant starting work with school children and bringing back subjects of civics and moral science, taken away from modern school curriculum.
This gave birth to our new programme at Janvikas, Videoshala and citizenship education (http://janvikas.in/education.html). I only hope that bit by bit we will retrieve the civil society space through a new breed of youngsters who will say “Jai Bharat” with the understanding of at least our Preamble.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice

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