7191India: Muslims Ruled Innocent of Train Fire AccusationWhich Caused Hindu Rioting
- Apr 8, 2007Radical thinking
By Jo Johnson
March 30 2007
The Financial Times, UK
Shortly before 8am on February 27 2002, a fire broke out on the
Sabarmati Express as it pulled out of Godhra, a town prone to
religious violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. Many of the
passengers were Hindu pilgrims returning from a ceremony called
Chetavani Yatra. Rescuers pulled 58 bodies out of carriage S-6, all
of them charred beyond recognition. An official report, published
four years later, in 2006, concluded that the blaze had been an
accident, but at the time it was blamed on Muslim youths, who were
accused of throwing petrol-bombs at the saffron-clad pilgrims.
The blood-letting started the next morning and continued until early
May, leaving about 2,500 Muslims murdered. Armed with knives,
firebombs and sharpened ceremonial tridents, and guided by electoral
rolls that revealed the location of Muslim homes, mobs began to move
across the state. â�What ensued was a ghastly sight the like of
which, since bleeding partition days, no Indian eye had seen,â�
wrote Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, in a report by the Tribunal of
Concerned Citizens, an independent body composed mostly of retired
â�Hindutva barbarians came out on the streets ... and, in all
flaming fury, targeted innocent and helpless Muslims. They were
brutalised by miscreants uninhibited by the police; their women were
unblushingly molested; and Muslim men, women and children, in a
travesty of justice, were burnt alive. The chief minister, oath-
bound to defend law and order, vicariously connived at the inhuman
violence and some of his ministers even commanded the macabre acts
The first to suffer were the largely middle-class inhabitants of a
housing complex called the Gulberg Society in the Chamanpura
district of central Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat. The
centre of an Indian commercial city saw a medieval and macabre dance
of death, humiliation and revenge, reported the Tribunal in its
account of the pogrom, Crime Against Humanity, which was based on
2,094 statements taken from survivors.
By 10am, a mob of between 20,000 and 25,000 people had surrounded
the Gulberg Society, where many had fled to shelter in the home of
Ahsan Jafri, an influential trade unionist and former MP from the
Congress party. In his desperation, Jafri made over 200 calls for
help that day. During earlier bouts of violence in Ahmedabad, he had
been able to protect his community, but not this time. At 2.30pm,
the politician was dragged out of his house, slashed with swords
until his limbs were severed, and then set alight. Around 70 others
from the Gulberg Society died with him that day.
A series of investigations by the Tribunal of Concerned Citizens, by
Indiaâs National Human Rights Commission and by Human Rights Watch
in New York later accused two Hindu extremist groups, the Vishwa
Hindu Parishad and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, of masterminding
the massacres. Numerous human rights groups, including HRW, argued
that the state government, led by Narendra Modi, a senior figure in
the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had been
wilfully deficient in its response.
For the millions of Muslims whose families opted to stay behind in
India at the time of partition, preferring life within the secular
federal republic promised by Jawaharlal Nehru to the safety of the
newly created Muslim homeland in Pakistan, it was a betrayal of
trust. â�It was the first full-blooded pogrom in Indiaâs
independent history,â� says Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of
political science at the University of Michigan. â�It was driven by
hatred and ideologically charged.â�
Modiâs approach to the riots may have helped him solidify his
electoral base ahead of that yearâs state elections. â�For every
action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,â� he said. The
machinery of justice, to the extent it was used at all, was stacked
against Muslims, who accounted, perversely, for the vast majority of
those arrested. Human Rights Watch alleged that the government of
Gujarat had systematically obstructed efforts to bring the
perpetrators to justice.
Police refused to file reports for the missing, let alone arrest
suspects. Witnesses who came forward to identify attackers were
harassed, threatened or bribed into turning hostile on the witness
stand, or simply into not showing up when the case went to trial.
Only Muslims who withdrew their testimony were allowed to return to
their neighbourhoods. For four years, impunity prevailed. Only in
early 2006, following the exasperated intervention of the Supreme
Court in New Delhi, was there some token progress, with the
conviction, by a Mumbai court, of nine people for the murder of 14
Muslims who had taken refuge in a bakery.
â�Gujarat was a turning point,â� says Sayeed Khan, a social worker
with political ambitions who runs Muslim Youth of India, a Mumbai-
based group that is battling against the radicalisation of the
countryâs young Muslims. â�After Gujarat, young Muslims started
asking themselves: âWhy are they killing us just for being Muslims?
â... All over India, there are youths who think there should be
revenge. And theyâre ready to do whatever it takes.â�
In the past 18 months, India has been lashed by a wave of terror
attacks outside the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, the main
battleground for Islamic militants waging a jihad against Indian
â�occupationâ�. Some see a pattern emerging. It started in October
2005, on the eve of the Hindu holiday of Diwali and the Muslim
festival of Eid, when bombs exploded in markets across Delhi,
killing 62 and injuring 210. It continued in March 2006, when blasts
in Varanasi, a city holy to Hindus, killed 15 and injured 60.
The following month, explosions at Delhiâs main mosque, the Jama
Masjid, injured 13. Thirty-five Kashmiri Hindu villagers were shot
dead in May. Then, on July 11, a date that has become known as
Indiaâs 9/11, terror struck Mumbai, with seven bombs hitting the
commuter train network, the backbone of the cityâs transport
system, killing 209 and injuring more than 700. In September, blasts
in Malegaon, a town in Maharashtra prone to communal violence,
killed 37 Muslims as they left a mosque after Friday prayers.
And then on February 18 this year, as the five-year anniversary of
the Godhra train attack approached, terrorists placed kerosene bombs
linked to sophisticated timers on an overnight train from Delhi to
the Pakistani city of Lahore. Six minutes before midnight, as the
Samjhauta Express travelled through late-winter wheat fields north-
west of Delhi, two firebombs exploded inside denim-clad briefcases,
causing an inferno in carriages packed with slumbering passengers
that left 69 dead.
The catalogue of atrocities demands explanation. Why is India, a
country that prides itself on its democratic safety valves and
vibrant political system, proving so vulnerable to terrorism? Indian
authorities have in almost every instance laid the blame on Pakistan-
based militant groups, citing their opposition to a peace process
that would end the jihad. Ajai Shukla, a leading security affairs
analyst in New Delhi, says India is looking for scapegoats beyond
â�While external support certainly fans the flames of disaffection,
terrorism increasingly springs from radicalised elements within
India that have not been able to address issues by other means,â�
says Shukla. â�Besides the disaffection in Indiaâs north-eastern
states and in Kashmir, Gujarat is now becoming a fertile recruiting
ground for terrorist cells. Setting up terrorist cells has been made
wonderfully simple by poor law-and-order enforcement and lax
financial regulation that allows criminal groups to flourish and
terrorist groups to ride piggyback on them.â�
This tendency to blame the â�foreign handâ� also ignores the
assessment that even sophisticated Pakistan-based militant groups
are likely to be dependent on local terror cells to carry out their
attacks. â�After the Mumbai blasts, there is now no doubt that
there are terror cells in India,â� says Varshney. â�That kind of
attack cannot be undertaken without a deep local knowledge of Mumbai
and without serious local co-operation, whether paid for or
Academics believe the roots of Indiaâs worsening terrorism problem
can be found in a complex fusion of greed and grievance. While an
unscrupulous criminal underworld plays an important part in
facilitating and carrying out terror attacks, that is just part of
the story. Despite three years of turbo-charged growth, there are
still hundreds of millions living in abject poverty, with next to no
stake in this newly wealthy and self-confident society. Some,
inevitably, succumb to the blandishments of recruiters from the
countryâs myriad insurgencies and extremist movements.
Unless these underlying causes of Indiaâs susceptibility to
terrorism are addressed, Indiaâs path to superpowerdom will be
bumpier than almost everyone now predicts. In that context, the
successful integration of Indiaâs Muslim population has strategic
significance for the subcontinent and for the political west. The
Muslim community, although far from monolithic, forms the second
largest religious group in the country and represents just under 14
per cent of the 1.1 billion population.
In global terms, India has the largest Muslim population after
Indonesia and Pakistan. By the time its population stabilises,
sometime in the middle of this century, demographers expect it to
number between 320 and 340 million, and its share of the total
population, by then 1.7 billion, to be almost 19 per cent. Indiaâs
success as a society will, to a considerable extent, depend on it
reversing a worrying trend towards radicalisation in certain
sections of that population.
Many take this for granted. Announcing a strategic partnership
between the US and India last year, George W. Bush, for example,
repeatedly hailed India as a model for the successful integration of
a large Muslim population in a secular political framework. In
recent weeks, however, such complacency should have been punctured
following the governmentâs release of a shocking study of how the
countryâs Muslims as a whole have fared since independence.
Commissioned by the prime minister and produced by a committee
chaired by Rajinder Sachar, a former justice of the Delhi High
Court, the report presents a sharp counterpoint to perceptions of
India as a stable, inclusive and multicultural society. Of all the
groups yet to benefit from Indiaâs spectacular recent growth - set
to hit 9.2 per cent this year - none, apart from so-called dalits
(once known as â�untouchablesâ�) and tribals, have fared as poorly
â�Muslims in India have this sense of being degraded,â� says
Sarfaraz Arzu, editor and publisher of The Hindustan Daily,
Mumbaiâs oldest Urdu-language newspaper during an interview in his
office on the first floor of a crumbling building near Mohammed Ali
Road. â�Theyâre not getting their share of the national pie. They
see things whizzing past them at high speed. They see growth in all
sectors, but are untouched by this growth. They are not the only
section of society untouched by this growth, but they are excluded
because of their identification as a distinct religious group, which
means, in simple terms, that theyâre targeted for what they are.â�
Moreover, in a world ever more connected by cable television and
internet chatrooms, the communityâs feeling of vicarious
victimhood is also growing. Arzu has devoted the dayâs front page
to violent protests around the world against Israeli excavations
near the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islamâs third holiest site.
Later that day, there will be anti-Israeli demonstrations in the
Azad maidan, a triangular field in south Mumbai used for cricket
matches and political rallies.
Indiaâs 140 million Muslims are divided along class, caste and
sectarian lines, with sociologists describing their relationship to
the rest of Indian society as one of â�upper class inclusion and
mass exclusionâ�. A small elite - typified by the Khans that rule
Bollywood, the aristocratic Nawabs and businessmen such as Azim
Premji, chairman of Wipro, a leading software group - thrives in the
new India, while the masses, mostly low-caste converts from
Hinduism, face marginalisation.
The Sachar committee found that Indiaâs Muslims, constantly
battling perceptions that they are â�anti-nationalâ�,
â�unpatrioticâ� and â�belong in Pakistanâ�, are reluctantly
withdrawing or being pushed into ghettos. Markers of their identity,
such as the burkah, the purdah, the beard and the topi, a Muslim
cap, invite ridicule and harassment. Bearded men find that they are
routinely picked up for interrogation, hijab-wearing women that they
struggle to find jobs.
Sachar notes that many Muslims are unable to buy or rent property in
the area of their choice and find their children rejected from good
schools. This has contributed to the sharp growth in the number of
madrassas. The phenomenon should not be exaggerated: just 4 per cent
of Muslim school-age children now attend full-time madrassas,
according to Sachar. But in some states, including the populous
northern state of UP, where more than 7 per cent of Muslim
schoolchildren are being educated in religious seminaries, madrassas
are spreading rapidly.
Behind the green gates of 41 Mohammed Ali Road is the Minara Masjid
complex, where 450 young Muslim men aged between 12 and 25 live and
study at the madrassa attached to the mosque. â�There has been a
100 per cent increase in the number of madrassas in India over the
last five years,â� says Syed Ather Ali, principal of the madrassa,
which provides students with lodging, board, books and medical care.
Students pass their days translating and memorising the Koran and
their nights sleeping on mats in a number of concrete-floored
The educational system is failing Indiaâs Muslims, whose average
literacy level was 59.1 per cent in the 2001 census, compared with a
national average of 65 per cent. While the average child in India
goes to school for four years, Muslim boys will spend around 36
months and Muslim girls just over two and a half years. Just 4 per
cent of Muslims above the age of 20 are graduates or diploma
holders, compared to 7.4 per cent for the country as a whole.
Muslims, tellingly, account for 1.3 per cent of students at the
elite Indian Institutes of Management.
Poorly educated Muslims generally end up working as self-employed,
economically vulnerable casual labourers. Relatively few pick up
coveted salaried jobs, which tend to be monopolised by high-caste
Hindus. And those Muslims who do receive regular salaries tend to
occupy the lowest rungs within organisations, with more than 70 per
cent having no written contract or social security benefits. Poor
work conditions are also reflected in lower earnings. The proportion
of Muslims living below the poverty line, at 31 per cent, is higher
than the 22.7 per cent for the country as a whole.
Sachar found that Muslims had an â�abysmally lowâ� share of prized
government jobs, accounting for just 3 per cent of posts in the
Indian Administrative Service, the elite corps of the civil
bureaucracy, 1.8 per cent of the Indian Foreign Service and 4 per
cent of the police. They had such a low profile in the military that
the Ministry of Defence denied Sachar the data. The community is
only consistently over-represented in the prison population. In
Maharashtra, for example, Muslims account for more than 40 per cent
of those jailed for less than a year.
â�This government was brought into power by two forces: the anger
of the poor and the anger of the Muslims,â� says Mobashar Javed
Akbar in an interview in the New Delhi offices of The Asian Age, a
newspaper he edits. And although prime minister Manmohan Singh
provoked an outcry among Hindu nationalists when he promised in
December to make sure that Muslims and other minorities had â�first
claim on resourcesâ�, analysts say the governmentâs lack of
follow-through may cost the Congress party dearly in the imminent
elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 31 million Muslims.
â�The root problem is economic,â� says M.J. Akbar. â�If you look
at Indian Muslims, their traditional businesses, such as crafts and
weaving, have been wiped off the economic map, and there has been no
effort to create jobs in the space stolen from them. And now the
malls that are coming up across the country are about to eliminate
their traditional role as suppliers of meat, wiping out another
large source of employment. The impact of all of this will be 10
years of serious violence.â�
Of the 700,000 towns and villages in India, the vast majority are
free from communal conflict from one year to the next. But the
potential for such violence is a terrifying underlying reality.
Communal violence left 40,000 dead and injured between 1950 and
1995, according to research by academics Steven Wilkinson and
Ashutosh Varshney. The costs of riots have been overwhelmingly borne
by Muslims, forced to leave their homes, businesses and land for
sanctuary in safe Muslim areas.
â�Fearing for their security, Muslims are increasingly resorting to
living in ghettos,â� the Sachar report notes. But access to water,
toilets, electricity, schools, clinics, banks and ration shops is
often limited or non-existent in Muslim areas. The absence of these
services affects women in particular because they are reluctant to
venture beyond the confines of â�safeâ� neighbourhoods to access
these facilities from elsewhere, with knock-on effects on literacy
and child health.
Sofia Khan, a 42-year-old human rights activist, moved to Juhapura,
a Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad, in the aftermath of the July 2006
Mumbai commuter train attacks. She says she was hounded out of her
home after local television stations advised viewers to check out
their neighbours. â�If you talk to the minority community today,
theyâre just pushed into a corner. For us, thereâs no âVibrant
Gujaratâ [Modiâs slogan for the state], itâs just violent
â�Itâs five years now and thereâs no sense of remorse in
society at large, no sense of justice. Overwhelming feelings of
insecurity and fear, these are our biggest problems. Fear that you
will be targeted, fear that you will be victimised, fear that there
will be another backlash. You cannot open your mouth. You cannot
engage in human rights activities. Many people who were engaged in
relief work are now in prison.â�
Juhapura is the biggest ghetto in Gujarat, with a population at
400,000, that increases with every communal riot in the state.
Disparagingly nicknamed â�Little Pakistanâ� by some Hindus, it is
on all sides carefully separated from adjacent neighbourhoods by
empty wastelands that serve as no-manâs-lands separating the two
largest religious communities. â�Itâs just as if it was a border
between India and Pakistan,â� Khan says.
From her fourth-floor office, the trained lawyer overlooks a relief
camp for victims of the 2002 riots. NGOs say as many as 35,000
remain camped in 81 semi-permanent colonies set up by Islamic relief
organisations. Access to public services is poor. India is in the
throes of a telecoms revolution, but Khanâs building in Juhapura
cannot get the state-controlled service provider to install a
landline: â�There is not a single bank or broadband internet
connection in the area and you can forget about having a public park
or a library, those are luxuries.â�
When religious organisations such as the Islamic Relief Committee,
Jamaat Ulema-e-Hind and Imarat-e-Shariya opened madrassas, they
filled a vacuum left by the state. One conservative religious
organisation, Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Trust, has set up a relief
camp at Siddikabad, which has become a semi-permanent home for about
130 families displaced by the carnage of 2002, some of whom came
from the Gulberg Society.
â�The government has not done anything for us,â� says Mukti P., a
middle-aged woman carrying water pots, who is so frightened of
retribution that she requests I do not use her full name.
â�Whatever has been done for us has been done by our own people.â�
Abeda P., 36, who says her husband and daughter died as they hid in
Jafriâs house, says: â�When Narendra Modi dies, then there will
be communal harmony in Gujarat because [alive] he will not allow it
in the state.â�
Ravi Nair, a human rights activist who runs the South Asian Human
Rights Documentation Centre, says these relief camps provide
â�cannon fodder for Islamic fundamentalist groupsâ�. His
assessment finds an echo with Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit
priest, who was recently honoured by the French government for his
work promoting religious harmony in Ahmedabad. â�The whole ghetto
is on the boil,â� he warns.
â�Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are living in Juhapura without
access to public banking services, schools, or drinking water.
Weâre pushing an entire community to the brink. One doesnât need
a lot of common sense to realise thereâs going to be a reaction.
Forgiveness and reconciliation can only happen in the context of
justice. Suppose my daughterâs been raped, my only sonâs been
killed, and I can see the person responsible behaving with impunity.
How then do I bring myself to forgive?"
That day, Modi and I sit down together. The apostle of Hindutva
("Hinduness") has just addressed investors at the "Vibrant Gujarat"
conference in Gandhinagar. He is an electrifying orator, and the
global business community cannot get enough of a man in charge of a
state that expanded by more than 11 per cent last year, making it
the fastest growing investment hotspot in India.
The idea of "Hinduness" emerged between the two world wars as an
alternative to the Gandhian nationalist rhetoric of inclusiveness.
While Hindu nationalist parties have had to tone down sectarian
rhetoric to win power by building broad coalitions at national
level, strident and threatening religious politics are frequently
found at local level. Since the BJP's defeat in the 2004 national
elections, Modi has sought to cultivate a less ideological image.
For the moment, though, he remains something of a pariah within the
Indian political system, a status that has been reinforced by the
fact that he has been banned from travelling to the US. In March
2005, the US State Department publicly denied him a visa, pointing
in a statement to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act
barring entry to any foreign government official who "was
responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly
severe violations of religious freedom".
In his meeting with the FT, Modi wants to talk business, not
religious politics. Amid increasingly fierce competition between
Indian states for investment, he has adopted the most can-do
attitude of all chief ministers. Across the country, the
government's policy of promoting Special Economic Zones, Chinese-
style capitalist enclaves, has run into fierce opposition and many
chief ministers have gone off the idea. But not Modi: "The whole of
Gujarat is a SEZ," he says. "S stands for spirituality, E for
entrepreneurialism, and Z for zeal."
Would he like the US to lift the travel ban? "It is up to them," he
says without hint of rancour. Asked why Gujarati Muslims feel
marginalised and excluded from this growth, he shakes his head as if
to imply a logical impossibility. "This state has constant double-
digit growth. Would that be possible if 10 per cent of the
population were excluded? That's my question to the questioners."
The glib response saddens Rahul Dholakia, the director of Parzania,
a new film about the Gujarat pogrom that is essential viewing for
anyone wanting to understand why the events of 2002 continue to have
such a far-reaching impact on the politics of religious identity in
India. Based on the true story of a father and mother's tragic hunt
for their cricket-loving son, Azhar Mody, who was swept up by the
sword-wielding mob that ransacked the Gulberg Society, it is, at
times, just too painful to watch.
The film ends with an appeal: "His parents are still waiting for
him" - and offers an e-mail address and mobile telephone numbers to
which information on his whereabouts can be sent. Parzania, which
has received critical acclaim and met with commercial success, is
showing in nine Indian cities. But the people who would be best
placed to help the family are unlikely ever to see it: the Bajrang
Dal, the Hindu extremist youth group, has seen to it that no cinema
in Ahmedabad, Gandhi's adoptive town, has yet dared show it.
Manubhai Patel, the head of Gujarat's multiplex operators'
association, told Dholakia to seek the permission of a notorious and
self-professedly violent Bajrang Dal leader by the name of
Babu "Bajrangi" Patel. Arrested in 2002 following the pogrom, but
released shortly afterwards, Babu Bajrangi now runs an NGO,
Navchetan (New Awakening), which forcibly "rescues" Hindu women who
have been "lured" into relationships with non-Hindu men, and is
widely loathed in the Muslim community.
The idea of recognising Bajrangi as a legitimate authority was
repulsive to Dholakia, a friend of the missing boy's parents, whose
names were changed for the film. When he refused, the theatre owners
said they could not show his film. "I can see the anger in the
Muslim community," Dholakia says. "They will retaliate unless
they're given a non-violent platform to express their anger at being
denied justice. They will react in the way they find easiest, which
is through violence."
Sixty years ago, on the eve of independence, Nehru, called on his
countrymen to help him "build the noble mansion of free India where
all her children may dwell". He declared: "We are citizens of a
great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up
to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may
belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights,
privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or
narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are
narrow in thought or in action."
His words are as true today as they were then.
Jo Johnson is the FT's bureau chief in Delhi.
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