India is a nation that was born in the bloodshed and displacement of the Partition riots. In its DNA, it inherited the schizoid gene of being a large Hindu nation with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. It was a historical faultline that was exploited for politics time and again. Ahimsa was the Gandhian ideal we paid lip service to but the reality far too often was mass violence. In urban ghettos, in the old cities across the land, small riots were part of the cycle of life. A religious procession would be taken out, a skirmish would take place, curfew would be clamped, a minor riot would have just taken place or been barely averted.
But the Gujarat riots of 2002 marked the apogee of communal hatred. Ten years after the Sabarmati Express coach was set afire in Godhra on February 27, and after the bloodbath that followed, we must pause and ask: can it happen again? Many would argue that it cannot because, in the long term, Narendra Modi has had to pay a price for presiding over a bloodbath after the advent of 24-hour television. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, however, he gained enormously. Modi ran a communally charged election campaign six months after the violence, when he would famously use “Mian Musharraf” as a rhetorical term for the entire Muslim community. Modi had been sent to Gujarat in October 2001, at a time when the BJP under Keshubhai Patel was doing badly and had lost a byelection. He began his first term as CM on Oct 7, 2001; five months later, the carnage happened; later in the year, in December 2002, he won the state election with a huge margin and began his second term. He has now been the longest-serving chief minister of Gujarat and will contest later this year for a fourth term.
Bombay 1992-93 Babri demolition sparks off first phase in Dec. A rampaging Sena fans flames through incendiary articles and inciting attacks on Muslim localities. (Photograph by Sherwin Crasto)
He most famously used communal polarisation as a political technique and it worked within the boundaries of Gujarat. Sociologist Ashis Nandy says that the problem also arose because for “months afterwards, Modi celebrated the riots. He appeared to be showing off”. Even the Shiv Sena, which had a decade before Gujarat orchestrated vicious riots in Mumbai, looked like relative amateurs at the riot technique compared to the systematic method that was applied and revelled in inside Gujarat. Nandy points out that the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 actually claimed the largest toll. But it’s a blot the Congress always tries to live down and not celebrate. “The whole psychology was different as Sikhs were a prosperous community that people admired and envied,” says Nandy. The Hindu-Muslim equation is another story.
As for Modi, he has become the development man, the business-friendly leader, but his image makeover as an acceptable national figure has not worked. Even BJP president Nitin Gadkari says, “What happened in Gujarat was an unfortunate incident. I don’t think it can or should happen again.”
Modi is stuck with the taint because Gujarat was the first mega riot in the age of 24-hour TV. There were victims in Mumbai, Surat, Bhagalpur, Jamshedpur, Hyderabad, Moradabad, Bhiwandi, earlier riots in Ahmedabad, a city that actually recorded one of the first big post-Partition riots in 1969. But they were just numbers, death tolls, the faceless victims of communal carnage.
But in Gujarat 2002, the stories were documented in heart-wrenching detail and etched in our collective memories. How Bilqis Bano’s daughter was snatched from her hands, flung against a rock, killed, and the pregnant woman raped repeatedly; how Zahira Sheikh survived the grisly burning of the Best Bakery in which her family was roasted alive; how limbs of children were hacked and little boys flung to their death in Naroda Patiya; how Ehsaan Jafri begged for the life of those who had sought his protection in Gulberg Society; how his widow Zakia Jafri still fights for justice and says her husband called the CM’s residence for help. The photograph of Qutubuddin Ansari begging for his life epitomises the plight of an entire community in Gujarat; thankfully, Ansari survived.
Flash points The Dec 6, 1992, Babri Masjid demolition; Sabarmati’s burning coach
The 2002 Gujarat riots also marked the coming of age of anti-communal activism. Several citizens, activists and lawyers who live within Gujarat have consistently fought against a state administration determined to block any probe. On the national stage, individuals like Teesta Setalvad have never relented, losing one legal battle to come back with another. Although Modi has been able to stay one step ahead of the legal snare, he is certainly bogged down by it. Outside Gujarat, he may have appeal for the BJP cadre, but regional parties want to keep a distance from him. If the big players of any regional front in the future are to be Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar, the CMs of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar would not like to share a platform with Modi even if realpolitik were to force any sort of arrangement with the BJP. Indeed, one can argue that the political price of riots is now too high. Modi is quite stuck.
The perpetrators of riots are long-term players in the political landscape. The Thackerays have again bounced back in the local polls in Maharashtra. But the city of Mumbai has changed under their watch. The ferocity and cruelty of the violence that ripped right through Bombay (which became Mumbai later) in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, in two phases in December 1992 and January 1993, came to symbolise the worst face of a seemingly inclusive city. Till then the city would be described as a cosmopolitan megacity where caste, class and religion were not the dominant markers of public life. Bombay was the city of dreams, its streets offered anonymity, its pavements could turn into homes, its constant whirring machine of enterprise and entrepreneurship played the great equaliser. Surely, such a place could not be derailed by communal violence? This belief turned into a shattered myth in those two spans of ’92-93 when nearly 850 people were killed, 575 of them Muslims; over 2,000 injured and nearly 1,00,000 displaced.
After that, Bombay became Mumbai and no one really calls it a cosmopolitan place any longer. Resilient, yes, but not cosmopolitan. Bombay had its Hindu- and Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods but they were not community-insulated as has happened in the post-riots era. The ghettoising effect of 1993, which continues even today, has made the divisions sharper. In fact, it’s easier now to target this or that community and in many areas the “other” is not welcome at all, says Farooq Mapkar, who was witness to five namazis being shot in Hari Masjid by policemen, was wrongly accused of rioting and acquitted after 16 long years. A bank employee now, he says, “There is now a Muslim Mumbai and a Hindu Mumbai.”
Aligarh, 1990 125-150 people died in riots set off by killing of Muslims near a mosque by PAC. Misreporting, rumours, partisan PAC kept flames alive for nine days. (Photograph by HT (From Outlook, March 05, 2011)
The Shiv Sena in 1993 called itself the “defender of Hindus”. The Srikrishna Commission report famously indicted Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and said that “like a veteran general, he commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims, especially in January 1993”. The Mumbai police registered four offences against him for a communally provocative editorial exhorting such violence, but the go-ahead to prosecute was not given by the state government; then CM Sudhakarrao Naik famously said if certain leaders were arrested, Bombay would burn; it escaped his notice that the city had already burnt.
Riot After Riot
* In ’64, a wave of rioting in Calcutta, Jamshedpur and Rourkela killed 2,500.
Note: Only riots with a toll of five or more included; deaths due to bomb blasts not included
Data: Alka Gupta
Till ’92-93, the city police was seen as a proud force in khaki, worthy of being compared to Scotland Yard; their brutality and vehemence during the ’92-93 carnage turned them in the public eye into a force that did not hesitate to display the saffron beneath the khaki. As police officers and constables told the Indian People’s Tribunal in the immediate months, they “were Shiv Sainiks at heart and policemen of a supposedly secular state by accident”. As many as 32 policemen, including then joint commissioner R.D. Tyagi, were severely indicted by the Srikrishna Commission (SKC) for acts of omission and commission during the riots. None was punished; in fact, Tyagi was promoted to the post of city commissioner during the Sena-BJP regime in Maharashtra soon after.
Senior Sena leaders refuse to discuss the riots but point to the “thousands of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and Pakistani sympathisers” who live in the myriad lanes of the metropolis and “sometimes need to be put in their place”. If at that time the Muslims were the target, today the “other” is the bhaiyya or migrant from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Though political organisations may have found it increasingly difficult to stoke such large-scale, mind-numbing violence in recent years, Mumbai is still a tinderbox and vested interests can still play with people. Besides, the question of justice can’t be forgotten when we talk of riots. It rankles the victims that justice has still not been done; not only is justice a prerequisite for reconciliation, it’s also a necessary signal to those who believe they stand to gain by engineering such violence, victims say. The bomb blasts that followed in March 1993, killing 257 and injuring 800, have resulted in convictions, but no one has been punished for the ’92-93 riots except former Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar who was convicted in July 2008 and let off on a Rs 5,000 bail. When the Shiv Sena-BJP came to power in Maharashtra in 1994, barely a year after Bombay burned, the administration withdrew as many as 3,000 cases registered against their workers. The subsequent Congress governments did not drop cases against Muslims that even the SKC concluded were false.
This one-sided justice has exacted its price. The Muslims in the ghettos are angry and often justifiably so. Every bomb blast and terror attack since has meant comb-and-search-and-arrest operations in their mohallas. Now after every major and minor terror attack on Mumbai, mohalla committees mobilise their peace soldiers in bastis, community elders come out requesting calm and peace, Muslims display their patriotism through solidarity marches in case they’re perceived as anti-nationals. The peace is kept but the tensions simmer.
Still, the cycle has been broken in other cities. Hyderabad, for instance, has moved on. The old city is still a hothouse, but communal violence no longer pays. Amir Ali of the influential Urdu daily, Siasat, recounts this brief history of his city’s riots. Before 1994, he says, violence took place every year over processions of Ganesh Chaturthi, Moharram or Bonalu (an Andhra festival). The violence stopped in 1994, when the TDP came to power, though one could not pinpoint an exact reason. Then, in 1998, a poster appeared in the old city of Hyderabad depicting Ganesh with Kaaba under one foot and Medina under the other. Police investigations revealed that the poster was the handiwork of a Hindu politician and former mayor of Hyderabad. He was in fact a member of the Majlise-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen run by the Owaisi family that still has a grip on sections in the city! The linkages are circuitous, to say the least.
What this story illustrates is that an attempt to trigger a riot is a political tactic. Paul R. Brass, author and political scientist from the University of Washington, who’s studied India’s communal tension and violence, calls it the institutionalised riot system or IRS. This IRS, he says, was created largely in northern and western India and it can be activated by politicians during political mobilisation or elections, and “the production of a riot involves calculated and deliberate actions by key individuals, like recruitment of participants, provocative activities and conveying of messages, spreading of rumours”. There are frequent rehearsals until the time is ripe and the context is felicitous and there are no serious obstructions in carrying out the performance. Does such an IRS still prevail in Mumbai, or Bhiwandi, Malegaon, Aurangabad, Nashik, Moradabad, Ahmedabad?
Recently, activists of the Hindu right were arrested in Karnataka trying to raise a Pakistan flag in a Muslim area. They presumably hoped they would trigger a riot and blame it on Muslims. One must conclude that small riots can and in all likelihood may continue to happen (there was recently a Gujjar-Muslim clash in Mewat not far from Delhi), but it would take a certain conjunction of politics, intent and regime to trigger anything on the scale of the Gujarat riots.
Meanwhile, the political saga of Modi continues, with his national ambitions all too obvious. As things stand now, he can be a national player only if the BJP gets a majority on its own. As that currently seems unlikely, Modi can perhaps examine his predicament from a philosophical, moral or literary viewpoint. He could ruminate over that quote of Lady Macbeth’s who kept washing her hands. “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say”!
By Saba Naqvi in New Delhi and Smruti Koppikar in Mumbai
Rather than looking at the possibilities of a recurrence of a pogrom, the need of the hour is to heal the scars of the earlier riots (Can it happen again?, Mar 5). The ‘compensation’ provided to the victims, both in terms of justice and aid and rehabilitation, has been thin and nominal; in reality, they face social ostracism. The haunting memory of your house being burnt, or your daughter being raped in front of you, is not easy to erase. The courts and the government, therefore, need to resort to unbiased judgements and punish those who do institutionalised rioting rather than hold out development as a surrogate placebo.
Aishwariya Sagar, New Delhi
To all those who express their discontent with the “biased” reporting of the media against the majority, I’d say, it is absolutely valid. The majority in every country has a responsibility not to let the minority feel marginalised. The social discomfort they feel develops very quickly into discontent, then into fear and concurrently into reaction. This stands true in India where the minority is defined by religion or in other countries where it is racial, on account of immigration. The more we run away from this responsibility, the more chaos it creates.
The post-Godhra riots will always remain a slap in Modi’s face. What they did is desanctify the land of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.
Janga Bahadur Sunuwar, Jalpaiguri
The 2002 Gujarat incidents, deplorable as they were, have been ballooned up to unnecessary proportions. Ten years is a long time, the point has been made enough number of times, and systems are in place so that this kind of thing is not repeated, not just in Gujarat, but anywhere else in India. Let’s get on with life and look to finding solutions to our daily problems like bad roads, inflation and all-pervasive corruption. By harping on thus about Modi, how are you going to undo what has already been done?
Praveen Kumar, Thane
In your cover story, you say the riots of 2002 marked “the coming of age of anti-communal activism”. You can hardly characterise it as anti-communal. Yes, you can say it’s come of age: that’s because people have learned to make money off it. It’s a business built on the basis of phony affidavits and fake stories. Such ‘activism’ has actually helped keep the polarisation active even though Gujarat has been prospering without any incidents for the last 10 years. You won’t see these combatants fighting for the victims of the 1984 riots as there is no glory or financial gain in doing that.
Maha, New Jersey
It looks like a section of the hyper-secular media wants to keep the Gujarat issue alive for another ten years.
Pramod Srivastava, New Delhi
Indians are so religiously and communally prejudiced that a Gujarat kind of riot can erupt anywhere, anytime at the slightest provocation.
K. Chidanand Kumar, Bangalore
Modi is a monster because he allegedly presided over the killing of 1,200-odd people. Rajiv Gandhi is a saint despite the mass murder of Sikhs in Delhi and his infamous dismissive remark about the earth shaking when a tree falls. And yes, Modi has not apologised in 10 years. But it took Congress 25 years to mumble an apology of an apology for the 1984 riots.
Charan Rawat, Mumbai
Won’t you ever get tired of this eternal Modi-bashing? This issue, sadly, is more like “celebrating 10 years of Modi hatred” than looking at things with an unbiased view.
Kiran Voleti, Chennai
Whatever the secular lobby may hope and pray for, Narendrabhai will remain the hope for a large population of educated middle-class Hindus.
Rajiv Chopra, Jammu
A beast asleep? Certainly, and all the more necessary that the perpetrators are not allowed to get away. Outlook deserves special praise for playing a part in keeping the pressure on for all these years and not letting 2002 be forgotten.
Santosh John Samuel, Kochi
Can Gujarat 2002 happen again? Not if BJP is the ruling party. If the Congress is ruling, then we will be back to the riot regime because it thrives on dividing the society on religious and caste lines.
I feel quite depressingly certain that we shall be seeing even more ferocious bloodbaths in the days to come.
Atul Chandra, Mumbai
It was rather intriguing that Doordarshan chose the third week of February 2012—election time—to telecast Nandita Das’s Firaaq (which deals with the 2002 Gujarat riots) on its national network. Would it now show Parzania? Or wait, why don’t they telecast Amu, which is on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984? And with proper advance publicity to boot! Or even better, maybe rescue Kissa Kursi Ka from oblivion!
Harsh Rai Puri, Bhopal
Only the film industry has done justice to sensitive subjects like riots. No wonder Modi was afraid to have Parzania screened.
S.S. Almal, Calcutta
Gujarat 2002 might be replicated unless medical science can fully eradicate insanity from India like it did smallpox, unless politicians refrain from caste-based strategies, and religious places stop delivering provocative sermons.
Rajneesh Batra, New Delhi
If indeed we have reached a place where the political costs of riots are too high to figure as a benefit in the cost/benefit analyses of political parties, maybe one part of the problem would be solved. Still, electoral politics are about the short term. Over the long term, perhaps Modi’s winning a possible lifetime CMship of Gujarat is enough of a pro to offset losing a shot at a national role.
Arun Maheshwari, Bangalore
Ten years have passed since Gujarat was set on fire,
When on grounds of religion, mankind conspired
Bilqis Bano’s daughter was snatched from her
That moment is clear in her head, it did not blur
In that minute she saw her child die
That one minute can never really pass by
Qutubuddin Ansari’s face was all over the world
They saw his folded hands and moist eyes
His scream could be heard
Those fateful hours and days
Humanity was on a pyre
To save a brother, a daughter
There wasn’t much they could do
Apart from pray for a miracle
Hoping it’s just an awful dream, an unreal ordeal
Only to see the faith go in vain
To live with scars and a mind torn with pain
Where is justice, after all these years?
Why do people still live with fears?
Gujarat lived the most dreaded nightmare,
Yet, everything is so unfair
After seeing and reading all those stories
We only lose faith in this country
From a layman, it’s an appeal to the powers that be,
To put justice on priority
Though a mother who lost her child will always cry silently
Families that lost their love will never laugh carelessly
Only a ray of justice can illumine their lives
And help them regain their faith in humanity.
Your cover story on the Gujarat riots (A Beast Asleep?, Mar 5) failed to note that the state has been virtually trouble-free since the 2002 riots. And Narendra Modi must be credited for that.
Sandip K. Pitty, Calcutta
The Gujarat riots were an organised effort by the higher administration to kill Muslims and destroy their property. Unfortunately, even the sit set up by the Supreme Court was found wanting in its work, almost as if it wanted to somehow put Modi in the clear.
C.A. Chaly, Kochi
If perpetrators of riots are punished severely, riots will never happen. But when the likes of Sajjan Kumar (of 1984 Delhi fame) and Narendra Modi go scot-free, riots will definitely recur.
Prof H.S. Dimple, Jagraon
'Curfew clamped in old city areas of Hyderabad after communal clashes
Tension erupted in the morning following reports of alleged desecration of a religious place in Kurmaguda, wherein some devotees complained that they found "meat" and green-coloured water near a place of worship "
let us now blame modi,rss,ramsena etc.After all there is heavenly peace right from Wagha Border to Arabia as none of these riots instigators are in Crescent Lands .
Isn't NASSER ?? By the way did you read the names of innocent Muslims who have been framed by BJP for stealing 2 lac crores worth of Waqf lands .
When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake ...... You forgot that the instigator of the biggest riot in the country is a former PM,his pals organised it from their sitting rooms in Delhi ...........
As for being selective, no one is being that anymore than you are: the fact that you focus on Hindu violence without analyzing the causes behind why Hindus are becoming increasingly aggressive is disgustingly selective. The Kochi mayor case as well as increasing militarization of religious organizations like SIMI et al are obvious enough reasons, but it doesn't suit you, so you will ignore them. Go right ahead, but don't expect others to do the same.
Santosh John Samuel,
The fact that you chose to focus on statistics rather than the substance of my arguments clearly shows that you have no answers to my questions. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists (the PFI in your state is a case in point) are running amok all across India and you want Hindus to lie down and play dead? Isn't going to happen. As for this debate, if you can answer the questions posed to you instead of raising the bogey of Hindu fundamentalism, it would contribute to the improvement of the quality a whole lot. Your feeble attempts to divert attention remain just that: feeble attempts.
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