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Murder in India

We Have No Orders to Save You’: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat

a report by Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch, 68 pp., $7.00
The report is available on line at www.hrw.org/reports/2002/india/gujarat.pdf.

1.

In January this year, I was in Ayodhya, the north Indian pilgrimage town where in December 1992 an uncontrollable crowd of Hindus demolished a sixteenth-century mosque that they claimed was built by the Moghul emperor Babar over the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. I went to see Ramchandra Paramhans, the ninety-year-old abbot who heads both a militant sect of sadhus (Hindu mendicants) and the cash-rich trust that is in charge of building a Rama temple over the site of the demolished mosque. I found him tending his cows near the site. Born in the neighboring poverty-blighted state of Bihar, Paramhans has done rather well for himself in Ayodhya, where the richest people are Hindu abbots. With his dense white beard and matted locks, he came across as the irascible ascetic of Hindu legend, with apparently much to be angry about. The Hindu nationalists he thought he had helped elect to power in New Delhi hadn’t done enough to meet their promise of constructing the temple, even if they hadn’t stopped it from being prefabricated in a vast workshop not far from the site of the mosque.

That same morning, Paramhans told me, he had scolded L.K. Advani, the present home minister and one of the senior leaders of the ruling party, the BJP, who had witnessed the demolition in 1992. When I mentioned the constraints on Advani—the Supreme Court’s ban on construction, Muslim opposition—Paramhans became angry. “There are only two places Muslims can go to,” he shouted, echoing a popular Hindu nationalist slogan of the Eighties and early Nineties, “Pakistan or Kabristan [graveyard].”

Paramhans was expecting up to a million kar sevaks (Hindu activists) to visit Ayodhya in the days leading up to March 15, when he planned to shift the prefab gateway and pillars of the Rama temple to the site of the demolished mosque. His resolve appeared to be shared by some Hindu leaders I met at the large exposed field close to the temple workshop, where tents were being set up to host the tens of thousands of activists expected to visit Ayodhya during the next few weeks.

Thousands of Hindu activists from across India traveled to Ayodhya during the first few weeks of February. Many of them were from the prosperous western state of Gujarat, whose entrepreneurial Hindus, often found living in Europe and the United States, have been forming a loyal constituency of the Hindu nationalists since the 1980s. On February 27, some of these activists were returning on a train from Ayodhya when a crowd of Muslims attacked and set fire to one of the cars just outside the town of Godhra in Gujarat.

Gujarat has known several severe anti-Muslim riots in the last decade and a half. But Godhra, whose impoverished population is evenly divided between Muslims and Hindus, has an even longer history of organized crime and violence. Many of the local Hindus came over from Pakistan as refugees during the brutal partition of India in 1947. The Muslims, many of whom live in ghettos around the railway tracks, are known for their aggressiveness: in a riot in 1980 they burned alive five Hindus.

But it is still not clear whether the February attack on Hindu activists was planned. The Hindu nationalist government accused Pakistan of provoking the attack, but has produced little evidence of this. According to the recent Human Rights Watch report, ‘We Have No Orders to Save You, local police investigations have concluded that it was more likely the result of “a sudden provocative incident.” Articles published in a few north Indian Hindi newspapers a few days before the attack had referred to the provocative behavior of the Hindu activists traveling on trains to Ayodhya: at unscheduled stops outside railway stations, they had allegedly abused, even attacked, Muslims living in the slums close to the tracks, and in turn had been stoned.

On the morning of February 27, Hindu activists at the railway station reportedly refused to pay a Muslim vendor for the tea they had drunk until he said “Jai Shri Ram” (“Hail Lord Ram”). A fight erupted between Muslim vendors and Hindu activists. In the confusion, Hindu activists were said to have tried to kidnap a Muslim girl and take her into their carriage.1 Three minutes after the train pulled out of Godhra, a crowd of Muslim men, women, and children stopped it, and started stoning the car carrying the Hindu activists. The activists retaliated, but then retreated into their carriages and locked the doors when the number of Muslims outside grew quickly. The Muslims then reportedly set fire to the car using rags soaked with gasoline taken from the Muslim-owned auto-repair shops and garages near the railway station. Fifty-eight Hindus, many of them women and children, were burned alive.2

Murderous crowds of Hindu nationalists seeking to avenge the attack in Godhra rampaged across Gujarat for the next few weeks. According to the Human Rights Watch report, which mostly covers the massacres of Muslims in the capital city of Ahmedabad,

Between February 28 and March 2 the attackers descended with militia-like precision on Ahmedabad by the thousands, arriving in trucks and clad in saffron scarves and khaki shorts, the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist—Hindutva—groups. Chanting slogans of incitement to kill, they came armed with swords, trishuls (three-pronged spears associated with Hindu mythology), sophisticated explosives, and gas cylinders. They were guided by computer printouts listing the addresses of Muslim families and their properties, information [they] obtained from the Ahmedabad municipal corporation among other sources, and embarked on a murderous rampage confident that the police [were] with them. In many cases, the police led the charge, using gunfire to kill Muslims who got in the mobs’ way. A key BJP state minister is reported to have taken over police control rooms in Ahmedabad on the first day of the carnage, issuing orders to disregard pleas for assistance from Muslims. Portions of the Gujarati- language press meanwhile printed fabricated stories and statements openly calling on Hindus to avenge the Godhra attacks.

As I write, organized violence of the kind the HRW report describes seems to have ended in Gujarat, although stray killings still go on. The Indian government has acknowledged that more than 850 people, mostly Muslims, have died; other reports, including those of British diplomats, put the number of the dead at around two thousand. About 230 mosques and shrines, including a four-hundred-year-old mosque, have been razed; some of them have been replaced with Hindu temples. Close to 100,000 Muslims are in relief camps. The HRW report also describes how retaliatory attacks by Muslim mobs across Gujarat have left 10,000 Hindus homeless.

The scale of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, which the HRW report alleges was “planned well in advance of the Godhra incident,” seems to be matched by its brutality. According to the HRW report,

The bodies have been buried in mass gravesites throughout Ahmedabad. Gravediggers testified that most bodies that had arrived—many were still missing—were burned and butchered beyond recognition. Many were missing body parts—arms, legs, and even heads. The elderly and the handicapped were not spared. In some cases, pregnant women had their bellies cut open and their fetuses pulled out and hacked or burned before the women were killed.

The killings were mostly confined to Gujarat. In north and central India, there had been lately little anti-Muslim rioting of the kind the nationalist politicians organized in the early Nineties in order to unify a hopelessly fragmented Hindu electorate against a common Muslim enemy. But while south India, where relatively few Muslims live and where the Hindu nationalists have limited support, has been largely peaceful, Hindu–Muslim relations have remained tense in north and central India, where the Hindu nationalists have most of their urban upper-caste voters.

Human Rights Watch has followed reports by Indian human rights organizations in calling attention to “state sponsorship of the attacks” as well as the Gujarat government’s later attempt to protect Hindu nationalist leaders accused of murder and arson. According to the report, police officials in Gujarat have often omitted the names of senior leaders involved in the attacks from reports filed by Muslim victims. The state government has transferred police officials who have tried to prevent attacks on Muslims or confronted the attackers. It has detained and arrested Muslims across the state on false charges. In recent weeks, the government has arrested some local BJP workers accused of rape, murder, and arson, but has not moved against the more prominent Hindu nationalists charged with committing similar crimes.

The chief minister of Gujarat, a young, up-and-coming leader of the Hindu nationalists called Narendra Modi, quoted Isaac Newton to explain the killings of Muslims: “Every action,” he said, “has an equal and opposite reaction.” The Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who visited the site of the massacres a whole month after they began, expressed shame and lamented that India’s image had been spoiled. “What face will I now show to the world?” he said, referring to his forthcoming trip to Singapore. Later, at a BJP meeting, he rejected the demands from the opposition and the press that Modi be sacked and proposed early elections in Gujarat. They are likely to be held soon and the BJP is expected to retain power.

In a public speech, Vajpayee seemed to blame Muslims. “Wherever they are,” he said, “they don’t want to live in peace.” “We have allowed them,” he added, referring to Muslims and Christians, “to do their prayers and follow their religion. No one should teach us about secularism.” A resolution passed by the RSS, or National Volunteers Organization, whose mission is to create a Hindu state, described the retaliatory killings as “spontaneous”: “The entire Hindu society had reacted…. Muslims understand,” the RSS said, “that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority.” Both the Indian prime minister and his most senior colleague, L.K. Advani, are members of the RSS, which was involved in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

2.

When the ancient Persians and Arabs first used the word “Hindu” to refer to the then obscure people living beyond the river Indus (Sindhu in Sanskrit), they probably did not realize that their convenient shorthand would still be around centuries later. Much is known about the diverse castes, religious sects, folk and elite cultures, philosophical traditions, and languages that exist, or have existed, on the Indian subcontinent. But India remains for most people outside it a country of “Hindus.” It even seems cohesive enough to represent “Hindu civilization” in Samuel Huntington’s millenarian vision of a “clash of civilizations.”

The description, which is not unwelcome to the Hindu nationalists who often despair at the lack of unity among Indians, suppresses not only the diversity of what is called “Hinduism”—a category invented by the British in the nineteenth century—but also the presence among the one billion peoples of India of over 130 million Muslims, the third-largest Muslim population in the world. It also denies history: that Muslims from Persia and Central Asia and their descendants ruled a variety of Indian states for much of the last eight centuries, and that India once was, as part of the Moghul Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the cultural center of the Islamic world.

  1. 1

    See “Investigating Godhra,” The Hindu, March 15, 2002, and “Godhra Revisited,” The Hindu, April 15, 2002.

  2. 2

    A recent report prepared by the Forensic Science Library which forms part of the police indictment against sixty-two Muslims for the attack in Godhra seems to contradict earlier reports by suggesting that the fire was started from inside the train. (See The Hindu, July 4, 2002.)

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