Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
The Fuse is Lit
Meanwhile, on February 27 itself, subsequent incidents of violence in Godhra town were brought under control but trouble erupted elsewhere in the district and other parts of the State. The torched carriage No. S-6 was detached and the Sabarmati Express continued its journey, disgorging trumatised passengers en route at Vadodara, Anand and Ahmedabad. Word spread. The return of badly charred bodies to grieving families stirred passions. The VHP sounded a call for a Gujarat bandh on February 28 which was endorsed by the ruling party. A “ashti yatra” was mooted but fortunately called off in time. However, Gujarat was already in flames.
There was little doubt that the Godhra carnage was likely to provoke a strong backlash in view of Gujarat’s sad record of periodic riots on a variety of issues. Preparations were according made to meet the situation. However, mob fury took over. The subsequent seeming justification of the brutal reaction by linking it to the ‘original sin’ of Godhra lends credence to the widespread charge of official passivity if not connivance and a clear lack of political will within the ruling establishment. Innocent Muslims (“Babar ke aulad”) were deliberately and calculatedly targeted for dastardly crimes attributed to their co-religionists not merely in Godhra but earlier elsewhere. There can be absolutely no sanction for such ‘transferred guilt’. Though Muslims defended themselves and did indeed retaliate in some cases, the reported breakdown of deaths, arrests, fatalities and casualties from police firing and “refugees” huddled in the relief camps tell their own story. The “riots” were clearly one-sided.
The national print and electronic media documented the holocaust and the meticulous targeting of Muslim homes, mohallas, shops and establishments, factories, hotels and eateries and other economic assets as well as dargahs, mosques, shrines and kabristans. Neighbouring Hindu properties were spared. Obviously these targets must have been marked out as even Muslim establishments with names like Tulsi Restaurant or Tasty Bakery largely catering to a Hindu clientele, were looted and fired.
Sheela Bhatt posted an interview with K.K.Shastri, the 96-year old President of the Gujarat unit of the VHP, on the rediff.com portal. This makes chilling reading. According to Mr Shastri, the list of Muslim-owned shops was prepared on the morning of February 28. It was done as “we were terribly angry (over Godhra). Lust and anger are blind”. “Hindutva was attacked. This is…. a tremendous outburst that will be difficult to roll back”. Further, “we can’t condemn it because they are our boys”. Shastri added,“The VHP has formed a panel of 50 lawyers to help release the arrested people accused of rioting and looting. None of these lawyers will charge any fees because they believe in the RSS ideology”.
Mr Shastri is said to have denied making these remarks. The two VHP Joint General Secretaries, Mr Jaydeep Patel and Dr Kaushik Mehta, whom we met at the VHP office in Ahmedabad, also contradicted the report, making out that Mr Shastri was old and hard of hearing. They rejected the theory that Muslim premises were targeted. Sheela Bhatt has the tape. The text of the rediff.com story as reproduced by “Mainstream”, Delhi, is at Annexure 3. The tenor of the April issue of “Vishwa Hindu Samachar” published by Rashtra Chetna Prakashan and edited by Mr K.K.Shastri lends credence to what he told rediff.com. A two-page article therein praises “Chhote Sardar” for his handling of Godhra and its aftermath.
Many media persons experienced the anger of Hindutva forces. So did the Guild team. One of its members was closeted with some print and TV journalists at Ahmedabad’s Circuit House on April 1, when there was a loud commotion. A group of six or eight VHP storm troopers burst into his room shouting and gesticulating, jostling those present, vehemently accusing them of hatching a dark conspiracy behind closed doors. A Gujarat Information Directorate official sought to intervene and said that discussions were in progress with a representative of the Editors Guild. The mob thereupon turned on the latter vociferously demanding to know whether he was Hindu or Muslim. He replied that that was irrelevant, said he was a “Hindustani”, gave his name and asked the intruders to introduce themselves and state their purpose. They refused to identify themselves, shouting “hum Hindu hai”, each insisting in turn that this was his name. It was explained that the Guild Team was in Gujarat to inquire into the media scene and wished to meet everybody and hear all sides of the story. It was going to Gandhinagar the following day to meet with ministers and officials. This evoked the derisive retort that they, the intruders, were the “ministers” we should hear. They were then invited to sit down coolly and relate their version of events.
The group slowly simmered down. Its spokesmen charged the English media and national TV channels, with defaming the majority community with one-sided and totally biased coverage. “They only listen to Muslims and ignore Hindus”. They do not focus on Muslim rioters and damage to Hindu property. Hindus who escaped from the Godhra inferno and admitted to hospital in Ahmedabad and Hindu refugees in the Prem Darwaza and other relief camps had not been interviewed. Aaj Tak invited the harshest rebuke, especially for its prompt coverage of the first few hours. The demand was that this channel should be shut down and its “licence” revoked. Aaj Tak was probably first on the air with live footage of the rioting. The Times of India and Indian Express, both of which have Ahmedabad editions, were also singled out for mention.
The VHP vigilantes left after about 30-40 minutes to cries of Jai Sri Ram and the two ringleaders did finally give their names and calling cards. They expressed regret for any offence caused but insisted we should meet the VHP leaders and provided the mobile telephone number of Mr Jayant Patel, Joint General Secretary, who was at that time travelling in Kutch. By now a small posse of policemen had arrived and as the Guild Team went to the Prem Darwaza and Shah Alam relief camps, a DCP awaited us with a message from the Police Commissioner seeking to know if we wished to lodge any complaint or sought police protection. We declined both offers.
Mr Jaydeep Patel was contacted that evening and the Team did meet him and Dr Kaushik Mehta, the other VHP Joint General Secretary, a couple of days later. On our narrating the incident, they said that the VHP was so popular that all sorts of people went about using its name. Earlier, in mentioning this same incident to the Chief Minister, we said this little episode had told us more than anything else about the mindset behind the riots. We expressed surprise that “partners” of his Government should behave in this manner. Mr Modi agitatedly denied such partnership.