Monday, Mar 27, 2023

History of Communal Violence in Gujarat

History of Communal Violence in Gujarat

Crime Against Humanity  
Volume I An inquiry into the carnage in Gujarat 
List of Incidents and Evidence  
By Concerned Citizens Tribunal -Gujarat 2002

History of Communal Violence in Gujarat

“There are many religions as there are individuals; but those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion. If Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, the Mahomedans, the Parsees and the Christians who have made their country are fellow countrymen and they will have to live in unity if only for their own interest. In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.”

— Mahatma Gandhi, quoted by Jagmohan Reddy and Nusserwanji Vakil in the Judicial Commission Report on the Ahmedabad Riots, 1969.


To no state of the country could these warning words apply better than to Gujarat, the birthplace of the Mahatma, where the misuse of religion for political ends re- sulted in the worst carnage against a religious minority post-Independence. Between 1961-71, 16 districts in Gujarat were rocked by communal violence, recording some 685 incidents in urban and 114 in rural areas. Of the 685 incidents in urban Gujarat recorded for the decade, 578 occurred in 1969 alone, during the worst riots in that ten year period. Starting with Ahmedabad, the worst affected city, violence spread to several other places including Vadodara. The description of one instance of rioting in Ahmedabad, as re- counted before the Tribunal by a prominent human rights activist from Gujarat who was an eyewitness at the time, epitomises the malaise of inter-community relationships in the region:

“A gruesome episode in the afternoon (September 20, 1969) brings out the depth of animosity against the Muslims. A young Muslim, enraged by the destruction of his property said he would take revenge. Upon this the crowd seized him, showered blows on him, and tried to force him to shout ‘Jai Jagannath’. Staying firm, the youth refused even if that meant death. To this, someone in the crowd responded that he might indeed be done away with. Wood from broken shops was collected, a pyre prepared in the middle of the road, petrol sprinkled on the pyre as well as on the youth, and he was set alight with ruthless efficiency. What is remarkable is that there was no resis- tance from any Hindu. The wails of the Muslim inhabitants of the area were drowned in the celebration of the incident by the Hindus.”

This was Gujarat’s first major bout of communal violence involving massacre, arson and looting on a large-scale. The violence took over 1,100 lives and property worth several crore rupees was destroyed. (Vengeful slogans on the streets shouted by Jansanghis – the BJP in its former incarnation — basically called the violence a reprisal or revenge for 1946. (Before Partition and Independence, the Muslim League had a significant presence in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation). Planned riots took place for the first time in Vadodara in 1969. Shops of Muslims, marked out in advance for easy identifica- tion were systematically destroyed, suggesting pre-planning and organisation.

In the period, 1974-1980, other issues preoccupied Gujarati society. The 1981 anti- reservation agitation, a reaction to the KHAM policy adopted by the ruling Congress at the time, was re-channelised into a major communal conflagration, in a shrewd bid to check the sharp polarisation taking place among Hindus along caste lines. Con- ceived as a vote bloc of some OBCs, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, KHAM, (K as in Kshatriya – not to be confused with the upper caste Kshatriyas —, H as in Harijan, A as in Adivasis and M as in Muslims), the logic of numbers rendered KHAM unmatchable in terms of electoral arithmetic.

This fetched the Congress huge electoral dividends; defying the anti-incumbency factor, the party swept the polls in the 1985 polls, winning many more seats in the Assembly than it had in 1980. But apart from the upper castes, KHAM outraged Patels, the intermediate caste with real economic muscle and immense political clout. As the Patidars (Patels) took upon themselves the task of dismantling KHAM, the Congress leadership, which had discovered the magic electoral formula was either unwilling or unable to evolve a political programme to sustain the onslaught. And Muslims, the last link in the chain, proved to be the weakest link.

The issue of reservation quotas for backward castes and communities became the focal point for the hostile political mobilisation of the upper castes, which turned vio- lent. Communal riots between Hindus and Muslims now began to follow on the heels of caste violence as the former served the cynical purpose of diverting attention away from the growing cleavage within caste-Hindu society. Fortuitously for the caste-Hin- dus, the caste struggle in Gujarat coincided with the establishment of the VHP and soon thereafter, the Bajrang Dal in the state. These RSS outfits were conceived with a specific agenda – wooing of the ‘lower’ castes with a programme of ‘Hindu unity’.

People in affected areas of Ahmedabad (which led the way for Vadodara and other cities) firmly denied any build up of hostilities prior to the riots. More telling was the way in which the burning of shops was balanced out, arithmetically as it were, between the Hindus and Muslims in the initial stages. It took some time before rioting gathered momentum on its own. Retaliation and counter-retaliation sent waves of violence across cities, its virulence manifest in the fact that for the first time stones and crowbars were giving way to guns, petrol bombs, and other explosives. This was ‘progress’ of a nasty kind. The caste war had dovetailed into a communal conflagration.

A striking new feature of the 1985 anti-reservation stir was the mobilisation of upper caste women in support of their men folk. They stood like a buffer between the agitating mob and the police. Facing insults and brickbats, the police was effectively prevented by these women from taking any strong action against the mob. In April 1985, the police revolted and participated in the violence. They burnt down the office of Gujarat Samachar in Ahmedabad. In the course of the communal riot engineered to quell the caste war, it was under police supervision that 400 Muslim houses were set ablaze and reduced to ashes all over the state.

To bring the difficult situation under control the army had to be called in. It soon found itself in the midst of extremely trying circumstances. The VHP, hardly a force so far, launched a vicious campaign charging the army with pro-Muslim bias. The reason: its commanding officer happened to be a Muslim. The Muslims, on the other hand, complained of a pro-Hindu bias. In order to win civic confidence the army even had to undertake a poster campaign.

Unlike 1981-82, by 1985 the lower castes were better organised, often with aggres- sion. The last phase of the agitation saw an Adivasi backlash. Huge rallies were organised in tribal areas sending warning signals to the upper castes. In Bhiloda, a tribal pocket in Sabarkantha district, armed young tribals went on the rampage. Patels living in the neighbouring village of Takatunka were attacked and robbed. Within a few minutes, 26 shops were devastated.

The nexus between anti-social elements (of both communities) and politicians, which was started in 1969, when Hitendra Desai was chief minister, and encouraged under Chimanbhai Patel’s rule from 1969-1970, got a further boost in the ’80s when Madhavsinh Solanki was chief minister. The patronising of liquor mafia dons belong- ing to rival communities, Hindu and Muslim, by different factions of the Congress in Ahmedabad and Vadodara led to the criminal-politician nexus behind communal vio- lence surfacing with a vengeance.

In 1982, in Vadodara, there were riots around a Ganesh Chaturthi procession. In 1983, there was the first political mobilisation by the Sangh Parivar around the ‘Ganga Jal ’ (‘Holy water from the Ganges’) and the ‘Bharat Ekta Yatra’ symbols. In 1985, it started with anti-reservation riots again, the issue being a hike in quota for OBCs by the Congress government. Communal riots were then engineered by the party in power to defuse the explosive caste conflict.

Between 1987 and 1991, 106 communal incidents took place in Gujarat. Political rivalry and conflicts during elections were responsible for triggering around 40 per- cent of these riots. Tensions related to ‘religious processions’ were responsible for another 22 percent of these clashes.

It was from Gujarat, in September 1990, that LK Advani launched his Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra leaving a nationwide trail of violence in its wake. In 1990 itself, there was major violence in Gujarat because of Advani’s rath yatra. Starting from Somnath, the yatra traversed through the heart of Gujarat. The chief architect of that yatra was Narendra Modi. During the years of communal violence in 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1990, Modi was general secretary of the BJP. That is when the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign became a central issue in Gujarat. Men, women and youngsters from Gujarat, constituting possibly the largest contingent from anywhere in the country, partici- pated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Surat, a town with an unblemished record of communal harmony, joined other centres in Gujarat which had a more fractured history of inter-community relations. Violence spread to rural areas that had hitherto been largely unaffected.

In September 1990, on the occasion of Ganesh Visarjan, Vadodara saw the worst- ever riots in the walled city. Shops belonging to Muslims in the walled city and Raopura were broken open with the aid of gas cutters, looted and burnt. During the Ganesh Visarjan procession, the destruction took place in broad daylight, in the presence of the police. Elected leaders of the BJP directed well-planned attacks on the property of Muslims on the main road. The Jumma Masjid near Mandvi was also attacked. It was soon after this riot in Vadodara that Advani’s rath yatra began. Stray incidents of violence continued for months after this incident.

Sustained and systematic efforts were made by organisations like the BJP and its Sangh Parivar affiliates to communalise Gujarati society, through large-scale distribu- tion of hate literature and other means. Hinduism was given more and more aggres- sive interpretations with a conscious design to promote a feeling among Hindus that they, the majority community, were being treated unjustly through ‘appeasement’ of Muslims by various ‘vested interests’. The view that Muslims were fundamentalist, anti-national, and pro-Pakistan was systematically promoted. In some cases, Hindus were even exhorted to take up arms to defend their interests.

After 1992, there was a relative lull punctuated by stray incidents of violence against Muslims. From 1997 to 1999, especially in south Gujarat, a new trend was visible. The Sangh Parivar managed to create a divide, turning Hindu tribals against Christian tribals. In ’98 and ’99, Christian institutions – churches, schools, hospitals were sys- tematically targeted particularly in Dang, Surat and Valsad districts. This divided the tribal community into two camps — Hindu and Christian.

The BJP first came to power in Gujarat in the mid-nineties. But, since 1998, with the coming of the Keshubhai Patel government, and more so with Narendra Modi taking over as CM in September 2001, public space and atmosphere has been com- pletely vitiated within the state. In recent years, the unending barrage of hate litera- ture helped create a state of mind, even as persistent communal tension contributed to the perpetuation of violence as a way of life. Steady state support was extended to the activities of organisations such as the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and the organisations it spawned. Anti-Christian propaganda and violence were initiated. Posts within the bureaucracy at various levels, police and Home Guards and educational institutions have been steadily filled with persons wedded to a communal worldview.

Sustained efforts have been made to penetrate the tribal belt, where the influence of the BJP was earlier limited. Trishuls, swords and other weapons have been distributed during ceremo- nial and religious functions. Training campaigns were organised to spread hate-ideology. Contrived ‘aggressions’ by the Muslim community (‘abduction’ and ‘forced mar- riage’ with Hindu girls), and Christians (‘forced conversions’) have been used to whip up local sentiments to a fever pitch. The utter failure of the law and order machinery and other wings of the state to check such blatantly unconstitutional behaviour are truly worrying for the future of secularism and democracy.

In the past four years alone, an atmosphere of threat and intimidation has deeply affected the social fabric of Gujarati society. In 1999, during the Kargil war, violence erupted in Ahmedabad city when Gujarat’s Muslims were subtly and not-so subtly projected as being pro-Pakistan and anti-India. In 2000, Muslim property running into crores of rupees was looted or destroyed all over the state in ‘retaliation’ to the killing of Amarnath yatris by terrorists in the Kashmir valley. The activities of organisations like the VHP, RSS and BD have become more and more brazen as they defy the law, confident that with ‘our government’ (BJP) in power, they need have no fear of any censure or penal action.

It is under this political dispensation that the ground for the present carnage was carefully laid and at any appropriate moment, ruthlessly implemented. If the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution are to be redeemed and reaffirmed, that exercise must begin with Gujarat -the land of the Mahatma. Let every man or woman guilty of base crimes, however highly placed they be and irrespective of the short-term political consequences, be tried speedily and punished. India and its Constitution are crying out for redressal. As are the souls of the victims massacred in gruesome fash- ion. And the plaints of the traumatised survivors of the Gujarat carnage.

Judicial Commissions on Communal Violence in Gujarat The Jagmohan Reddy and Nusserwanji Vakil Commission of Inquiry was instituted in 1969 in the wake of the violence that claimed 1,100 lives. Unfortunately, irrespec- tive of their political affiliation, successive governments in power have shown no interest in punishing the guilty, or in initiating the systemic changes recommended to check the recurrence of unbridled violence.

In 1986, the Dave Commission was appointed, but the Congress(I) government under Chimanbhai Patel found its recommendations politically inexpedient. Hence, it simply did not accept the findings that were made. In between, the Kotwal commis- sion also investigated bouts of communal violence in Ahmedabad city. Again the report was not implemented.

The Chauhan Commission was set up after the brutal violence in Surat in 1992, in the course of which, too, women were gang raped. This commission had completed its report and needed barely a 15-day extension for finalisation of the document, when the Congress-supported Vaghela government disbanded it. As a result, the find- ings of this commission could not even be made public, let alone the issue of its recommendations being acted upon.