Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
Gujarat burned and was convulsed with barbarous violence for over 40 days from February 27, 2002 when the Sabarmati Express, running from Faizabad to Ahmedabad, was attacked and torched at Godhra killing 58 passengers, many of them women and children. Whatever the provocation, as alleged by some, nothing extenuates the outrage. This utterly horrible crime calls for the swift pursuit and punishment of the perpetrators. Even as the Godhra tragedy was roundly condemned, the anticipated backlash took on the dimensions of a holocaust primarily aimed at the Muslim community. This soon engulfed central, north and northeastern Gujarat, including Ahmedabad, Vadodara and parts of the eastern tribal belt.
Nearly 800 persons were killed according to the official count; unofficial estimates are far higher. It was a slaughter of the innocents. The brutalities were unprecedented, especially against women. The targeting of Muslim homes, establishments and sources of livelihood was precise and bears evidence of premeditation. The term “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” have been used to describe the horror. Later, there were retaliatory strikes on Hindus, albeit on a lesser scale.
The Editor of Sandesh was to tell us that “Something happened”.
In the first week of April, some 120,000 victims of both communities were still to be found taking pitiable refuge in makeshift relief camps run by NGOs with some official assistance.
What remains is a miasma of fear, hatred, insecurity, guilt and grim foreboding. Gujarat and India have suffered a grievous moral and material loss from which it will take much time and effort to recover. A whole community was targeted for the alleged sins of its co-religionists at Godhra long prior to that event and far beyond Gujarat. Ancient wrongs, real and imagined, were sought to be collectively avenged by the savage violation of the rights of a living, demonised “enemy”. There has been an appalling emotional partitioning of minds into “we” and “they” among all too many across Gujarat and elsewhere in India. Millions in the country and throughout the civilised world have been appalled. Yet, in the midst of the carnage, there were innumerable stories, many yet to be written, of courageous and moving interventions by friends, neighbours and even strangers in defence of the helpless and endangered across this divide. That lends hope.
Overall, our finding is that the prompt and extensive portrayal by sections of the local press and national media of the untold horrors visited on innocent people in the wake of the Godhra carnage was a saving grace. The exposure of the supine if not complicit attitude of the State and manifest outpourings of communal hatred, stirred the conscience of the nation, compelled remedial action, howsoever defensively and belatedly, and activated the National Human Rights Commission, the Minorities Commission and other safety mechanisms. However, the role of sections of the Gujarati media, especially the Gujarat Samachar and more notably Sandesh, was provocative, irresponsible and blatantly violative of all accepted norms of media ethics. This cannot be lightly passed over.
There were certain inadequacies and lapses in general media coverage that we shall address; but the charge that the media was a major aggravating or even causative factor in the situation is specious and self-serving and must be dismissed.
The official information machinery of the State was clearly inadequate to the task and preferred to sing the praises of the Chief Minister rather than deliver timely and authentic information. Official attitudes encountered ranged from complacency to helplessness; but some officers were clearly uneasy at being disabled from doing their duty.
Gujarat was the first large scale “television and cable riot” covered in real time. This poses delicate issues and difficult choices that merit discussion. Finally, the role of digital communications, the mobile phone, SMS (smart mail service), email, web sites, autonomous computer generated handbills and posters, and the digital camera, was pervasive, insidious and oftentimes dubious, being prone to misuse. This “new media” has introduced an altogether new dimension of global and person-to-person communication that must be carefully assessed. Censorship is not the answer; sobriety, training, professionalism and codes of conduct are necessary.