The recent widespread communal violence in Gujarat has shocked the world. The UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson has also voiced her deep concern. People from all walks of life in India have reacted with shock and dismay. The BJP government of Gujarat, as well as the NDA government at the Centre, have attributed the communal violence which broke out in Ahmedabad and other places on 28th February 2002, to the anger of the Hindus over the gruesome burning of ram sewaks in Godhra in the early morning of 27th February. The spontaneous outburst of the people following the massacre of the VHP activists, they argue, reached such proportions because of the ‘failure’ of the Opposition parties to condemn the incident unequivocally as well as the role of the national media which publicized ‘one sided stories’. The Home Minister has also commended the role of the Narendra Modi government in the Parliament, in having created a record of sorts by controlling the violence within ’72 hours’ as opposed to previous instances of communal riots under non-BJP regimes.
This theory of a spontaneous outburst of popular Hindu anger contrasted to the pre-planned massacre of VHP ‘pilgrims’ by ISI funded Islamic fundamentalists, lies at the core of the overt and covert justifications of the post-Godhra events, put forward by the Sangh brigade along with some allies of the BJP. For a preliminary assessment of the Gujarat situation, and as an act of solidarity with the suffering victims, SAHMAT organized a two day visit to Ahmedabad by a fact-finding team of Dr. Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Vishnu Nagar, Prasenjit Bose and Vijoo Krishnan on 10th and 11th March, 2002. The team visited several relief camps including two of the biggest in Bapunagar and Shah Alam, and a number of affected localities, and prepared this Report based on its experiences. We are grateful to Fr. Cedric Prakash of Prashant, Ahmedabad, and Teesta Setalvad, joint editor, Communalism Combat, Mumbai, and many other volunteers for the advice and help they gave us.
Ethnic Cleansing not Communal Riot
At the outset it is important to underline the fact that the events in Ahmedabad do not fit into any conceivable definition of a communal riot. All evidence suggests that what happened there was a completely one sided and targeted carnage of innocent Muslims, something much closer to a pogrom or an ethnic cleansing.
Moreover, the selective violence that was perpetrated was done with remarkable precision, suggesting meticulous planning and collation of information over a protracted period, rather than the spontaneous mob frenzy characteristic of a communal riot. It also clearly indicates collusion and not merely indulgence of the state machinery and the ruling political establishment. The condemnable Godhra massacre was of course the trigger in this case. But the point is that it could have been anything else, any provocative act on the part of any Muslim individual or group, possibly even of a lesser magnitude, would have led to similar consequences. The ground for this communal genocide was cleared in Gujarat much prior to the Godhra massacre. It is noteworthy that the attacks on the Muslims in Ahmedabad and the rest of Gujarat started a day after the Godhra tragedy, further indicating that this was no merely spontaneous reaction, but one connected to the Vishva Hindu Parishad [VHP] Gujarat Bandh call on 28th February.
The casualties reported officially are understatements. According to those involved in relief and rehabilitation work (who are also involved in collecting information regarding the actual number of casualties) the number of people killed in Ahmedabad alone would be nearly 1000. As against the total of around 700 including the victims of Godhra, which the government has cited as the total figure of casualties for the whole of Gujarat, they say that the number would be around 2000 if not more. Since the violence has spread to remote villages, access to which has been denied by the government, any estimation of the number of casualties by non-governmental sources has been rendered difficult.
An overwhelming majority of those who have been killed are Muslims, including women and children. While most of the dead fell victims to killer mobs led by VHP-Bajrang Dal activists, there were several instances of death due to police firing on helpless Muslims. Some eyewitness accounts of those who had fled from nearby villages (45-50 kms. from Ahmedabad) and taken refuge in the relief camps, suggest large-scale massacres of Muslims continuing in the countryside. Entire families have been exterminated in villages with nobody left to lodge complaints or claim the dead bodies.
Almost everybody suggested that the carnage this time have surpassed all previous instances of communal riots in Gujarat (1969, 1985, 1989 or 1992) both in terms of loss of lives, as well as in terms of the barbarism involved. It was added everywhere that never before had the killings been so one sided, which makes comparisons being made with the earlier riots also quite misleading.
Nature of Violence
The most prominent form of violence experienced in Ahmedabad were in the form of pogroms led by local level VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders in Muslim dominated areas. The long history of riots had already altered the geography of Ahmedabad an communal lines with majority of the Muslims being ghettoized in certain areas. This time several such Muslim dominated areas, mostly working class localities were targeted, some for the first time, by huge mobs numbering 5,000 to 15,000.
The worst instance of such an attack was at Naroda Pattiya where a big settlement of Muslims of about 25,000 inhabitants was completely destroyed by the rioters. Survivors of the attack who are now spread over several relief camps in the city recall that the local police totally sided with the riotous mob. The Noorani masjid was first attacked and burnt with the help of LPG cylinders, tyres, petrol and kerosene. When some of the Muslim youth tried to resist the mob, the police fired at them and even killed some. Residents in the camps claimed that the Special Reserve Police [SRP] force present refused to provide them sanctuary and forced them towards the waiting rioters. Once the resistance was broken with the help of the police, the rioters stormed inside the settlement, burning and looting at will. Eyewitness after eyewitness in the relief camps described gory incidents of children being burnt alive and women being raped. One expectant woman’s belly was cut open, her foetus wrenched out and dashed to the ground. The enormity and ferocity of the attack forced all the surviving residents of the settlement to run away. Every house was looted and burnt and the entire settlement completely devastated.
The falsity of the official figures suggesting only around 70 deaths in the Naroda Pattiya incident was evident from the testimony of so many survivors from that area who named their kith and kin whom they had seen dying in front of their eyes. The actual death toll will be much higher. Many also narrated how the SRP misguided a large group of people who were trying to escape into a trap, where the mob killed them and threw the bodies into a well. Most of the dead bodies were charred or mutilated beyond recognition and an overwhelming majority of the survivors did not manage to have access to the bodies of their relatives and perform the last rites in a dignified manner. Residents of Naroda Pattiya identified Vipin (owner of an Auto Agency), Jai Bhagwan of Gangotri Society, Mukesh (alias Gudda), Naresh and Chotta , all local level BJP/VHP workers, as having murdered and raped before their eyes. Inspector Surela of the local Police Station had it seems visited Naroda Pattiya after the Godhra incident and had assured safety to the elders of the area. Several eyewitnesses recalled his active participation along with others in his force, in the carnage.
Another such major organized attack was carried out on a Muslim settlement at Sundaramnagar near the Bapunagar locality. A visit to the affected area, disclosed a similar pattern of attack, from the eyewitness accounts. A local madrassa situated near the boundary of the settlement was attacked by a mob of nearly 15,000 accompanied by the police who fired at the Muslims who tried to offer resistance. Truckloads of LPG cylinders were brought and used to cause explosions inside the buildings. Trucks were also used to batter down the boundary wall to create a breach for the rioters to enter. A pitched battle was fought here between the Muslim inhabitants and the rioters who had surrounded them from three sides, for nearly 36 hours. During this period fresh batches of rioters were reportedly brought in luxury buses and fatigued ones taken away. Finally the resistance collapsed and the Muslim dwellers had to run away for their lives. The rioters entered into the settlement from all sides and carried out loot and arson on a large scale using petrol bombs and gas cylinders. Most of the dwellings in the settlement as well as private vehicles like scooters, bicycles or auto rickshaws were burnt completely. Even metallic furniture and ceiling fans had melted under the impact of the explosions.
The graffiti left behind by the rioters on the charred walls of the
completely burnt madarasa at Sundaramnagar boasted of the police support:
Yeh andar ki bat hai
Police hamarey saath hai.
Yeh andar ki bat hai
[This is inside information, the police is with us].
Jaan se mar dengey
Bajrang Dal zindabad
Narendra Modi zindabad.
[We will kill. Long live the Bajrang Dal, long live Narendra Modi.]
Other Muslim settlements in the vicinity at Akbarnagar, Rahmatnagar, Islamnagar, Madinanagar and Ansarnagar, some being at a stone throws distance from the local Police Station or the local police officer’s office, were similarly attacked, looted, with many of their buildings burnt and razed to the ground.
Similar instances of such pogroms reveal certain common characteristics. Firstly the rioting mobs were huge ones and with a substantial segment properly trained for such activities. In fact, they more resembled a militia rather than spontaneously mobilized fanatics. The premeditated nature of the attacks is indicated by the almost exclusive selection of Muslim commercial establishments, residential areas and individual residences. After the experience of earlier riots, most of the Muslim establishments had non-Muslim, mainly Hindu names. Yet the attackers reportedly had lists, and specifically targeted Muslim properties. In instance after instance, we saw Muslim shops, workshops, and flats burnt and looted while the neighbouring Hindu owned properties were untouched. The modus operandi was often the same. Vehicles including trucks were brought to cart away the loot. In the cases of factories and commercial establishments that had strong grills and metal shutters, gas cutters were used to gain access. LPG cylinders were used to blow up residential rooms and shops. Thousands must have been used. Such massive provision of LPG cylinders must have involved official collusion, if not sanction.
Secondly, in most of the cases the attacks were organized on 1st March, i.e. the day of the VHP sponsored Gujarat bandh which was also supported by the State BJP unit. The Godhra incident having taken place on 27th February, it is evident that the day of 28th February was utilized to gear up and mobilize the huge machinery deployed for the pogroms. Thirdly, the connivance of the local police as well as the SRP was absolute. 1st March being a Friday, the attacks almost invariably started with police firing or provocation on the congregation of Muslims at masjids during the jumma namaaz . Fourthly, the brutalities were excessive including sexual violence against women and children and burning alive of helpless people. Fifthly, the attacks were led by local level VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP leaders who had no fears of being identified or booked. These leaders, as well as leading attackers were allegedly carrying both mobile phones as well as water bottles. Finally, the entire effort suggests a concerted attempt to terrorize, uproot and drive away the Muslims even from their hitherto ghettoized settlements.
Since the entire purpose of the attacks was to kill and brutalize a particular community, irrevocably damage its economic interests, and force it out of earlier settlements to existing Muslim ghettoes, these attacks can only be described as ethnic cleansing. The partisan role of the state, the government, police, civil administration, the ruling party, the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the rest of the Sangh brigade, all point to this ethnic cleansing being state sponsored.
Targeting with Precision
The one sided nature of the violence mentioned above was further exemplified by the fact that the Hindu dominated areas surrounding the completely devastated Muslim settlements remained untouched and were back into normalcy within a few days. This selective violence, executed with remarkable precision has indubitably helped in preventing a consolidation of opinion within the majority community against the violence, if not gaining its tacit support. The message of the violence was quite clearly conveyed--if you are a Hindu you need not fear at all; this is not directed against you as long as you do not side with the Muslims.
Thousands of shops and business establishments belonging to the Muslims were ransacked and destroyed, often being selectively chosen from within a cluster of shops. A visit to Shalimar Complex where nearly 40 out of 50 odd shops belonged to Muslims disclosed how those were selectively targeted, looted and burnt on the day of the VHP sponsored bandh. A doctor couple whose chamber and pathological laboratory were situated in the complex was robbed of all their belongings including expensive medical equipment. The rioters came in large numbers and broke open the shutters and simply carried away every thing within the shops before burning them. Goods worth lakhs of Rupees were looted in this complex itself. Shops owned by Hindus were left untouched. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the Revenue Minister in Gujarat government (former Home Minister) Haren Pandya, and another Minister Ashok Bhatt were personally present during the looting and arson, and actually led the mobs.
Hotels and restaurants owned by Muslims also came in for this selective attack. Given the history of communal riots these restaurants were already running under ‘Hindu’ names like Tulsi, Abhilasha etc. to conceal their Muslim ownership. However, the information regarding every such business establishment was there with the rioters. It has been alleged that a local Gujarati daily Sandesh carried the names of all such Muslim owned establishments in Ahmedabad which were running under ‘Hindu’ names, about a month earlier. The worst such instance was the burning of the Hans Inn where inmates, mostly people from outside Gujarat, were not even allowed to come out and 14 of them were burnt alive inside the building. It is claimed that a Punjab Police officer and constable who had come for an investigation were among the victims. The name of Haren Pandya was repeatedly mentioned regarding this case also.
Socio-economic War against Muslims
This selective targeting of business establishments is only a part of the greater economic war the VHP proposes to wage against the Muslims in Gujarat. A leaflet circulated by the VHP (Annexure 1) calls for a total economic boycott of the Muslims in order to ‘throttle’ them, 'break their backbone’ so that ‘it will be difficult for them to live in any corner of this country’ . It is precisely this vision which was being implemented when Muslim establishments were being selectively looted and destroyed.
This communal project also becomes clear from the fact that Muslims from all sections of the population, from slum dwellers to businessmen and white collar professionals to senior government bureaucrats were targeted during the attacks. A visit to the posh locality of Paldi revealed how even the upper middle class sections of the Muslim community were targeted. The Delite and Tarana Apartments were completely gutted and the belongings of the Muslim flat owners of these multi-storied apartments looted. The residents included the Director of Industries, Gujarat government and a senior employee of the Gujarat University. Frantic phone calls to Ministers, ruling party politicians and even to politicians in Delhi could not prevent the total destruction of the apartments by a 5000 strong mob which broke open into the flats and ransacked them. The residents were able to avoid the fate of Ehsan Jafri (former Congress MP who was burnt alive in Gulmarg Society ) by silently hiding in the terrace of the building and not raising their voice even when the mobs went on a rampage inside their homes. They could not conceal their deep hurt while recollecting that many people from their neighbouring apartments whom they had known and lived together with for several years, not only cheered the rioters during the long they operation but some of them actually participated in it.