”We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens ….”
– Preamble of the Indian constitution
India – In the dawn of the 21st century the foresighted constitution noted above is becoming a travesty, at least in the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat, the home state of Mahatma Gandhi, who was martyred for secularism and non-violence, is in chaos in the name of Rama, a Hindu god.
The mercury in the death toll barometer is nearing 2,000. Every day there is murder and destruction.
Here in Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat, everything is under curfew. There are heavy restrictions on the press. Military and paramilitary forces are patrolling in the urban centers. Yet nothing is under control. Fear has gripped everybody. Under the demolished buildings naked children are searching for valuables. They won’t find a single penny here.
When I went through a rural village near national highway No. 59, villagers told me that everything had been ruined. All their belongings, including small huts, were smashed. Now they are sheltered under huge trees where they live in utter fear.
Yet their plight goes on without relief. State authorities are not interested to even file a First Information Report (FIR), a common procedure in India to enable victims of crimes to collect remuneration. Insurance companies are refusing the claims of the victims with valid insurance coverage because of the absence of the required FIRs.
Broken cooking gas cylinders that were used to explode buildings, long swords and empty petrol cans are common in urban and rural areas. How did all these weapons get here? What many fact-finding missions have revealed is all this violence is the ulcerated face of state-sponsored terrorism.
This carnage commenced on a fatal day, Feb. 27, at Godhra, far away from Ahmedabad. Far-right-wing Hindu nationalists (“kar sevaks”) were traveling to Ayodhya to participate in a “shila puja,” a Hindu ritual. Ayodhya is a disputed site because 10 years ago kar sevaks tore down a mosque there, demanding that a temple to Rama be built. The site, they claim, is the birthplace of Rama, a Hindu god. The building of this temple is on hold, being fought in the courts.
When the train, the Sabarmati express, pulled into Godhra, a fight erupted between the Hindu extremists and Muslim tea vendors at the station. A large group of Muslims gathered and started attacking the train. An intense fire erupted. Officials told fact-finding delegations that, for a coach to catch fire and burn so quickly, it either had to be doused with gasoline and/
or there were flammable materials inside the coach. There were stoves and cooking gas cans inside the coach.
Fifty-eight kar sevaks, mainly women and children, were killed in the inhuman attack, which was roundly condemned by all.
This was the incident that the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an extreme Hindu right-wing group, used to unleash the still ongoing genocide against Muslims. The VHP has political backing from the right-wing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the national government and the Gujarat state government.
On Feb. 28 the VHP called for a statewide “bandh” (total strike) in protest of the train attack. Ruthless and bloody violence against innocent Muslims began on the same day. Deliberately created rumors began to fly all over Gujarat that Hindus were killed by Muslims. Along with these rumors, religiously poisonous pamphlets were also distributed by Sangh Parivar activists. Sangh Parivar is an umbrella organization of BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and Siva Sena – all Hindu far-right extremist organizations.
From that morning, the Hindu fascists took charge with the blessings of the state apparatus governed by BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Many fact-finding missions found that the Modi government allowed mobs of armed men to attack the Muslim community and burn down and destroy Muslim-owned businesses without any interference from the police. After many days the national government was forced to send in the Indian Army to gain control.
During a massacre in which former Congress Party member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri was brutally slain, police stood and watched, becoming mere spectators.
There has not been any satisfactory explanation given for the police inaction here. Sources told me that Jafri’s spirited criticism of Chief Minister Modi during a recent election was a factor in the persistent lack of police response.
Police officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed that Jafri had made frantic telephone calls to the Director General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary of State, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) and others. Three buses of the city police were on hand around Jafri’s house but didn’t intervene. The marauders broke into his house, stripped and raped his teenaged daughters, and burned them alive along with their father.
In Naroda-Patia, about 150 people were killed before the eyes of State Reserve Police (SRP). Eyewitnesses told this correspondent that SRP not only refused to save the lives of fleeing Muslims but also tear-gassed them and forced them towards the armed Hindu mobs.
Senior police officers have indicated that their hands were tied, implying that top brass of BJP did this. In his report, National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) Chairperson Justice J.S. Varma expressed his utter disapproval of the actions and inactions of Gujarat police. He ordered the Gujarat government to hand over major cases to other investigating agencies.
The ties of the Gujarat government to these far-right groups are well known. The RSS and VHP control key functionaries in the state starting with Modi. The Minister of State for Home, Zadaphia, is a VHP full-timer. The Governor of Gujarat, S.S. Bandari, is also a RSS man. Sangh Parivar activists have also penetrated state institutions, including the police. This takeover of the governmental machinery led to the erosion of the function of government which is to uphold the Constitution and protect the lives and civil rights of its citizens, regardless of religion.
The Gujarat police is a shame for police forces all over the world. The NHRC notes that the communal marauders were widely reported to have been singling out certain houses and properties for death and destruction in some districts within the view of police stations.
“Indian democracy lies on four pillars, legislature, judiciary, executive and freedom of press,” said Dr. B.R Ambedkar, chief architect of the constitution of India. These words were scrapped by the religious extremists. State journalists are assaulted by rioters and also by police. Take the case of Sonal Kellog, crime reporter of the Asian Age daily. She and another reporter were beaten up by the police in Gomatipur, where they were taking pictures for their reports. When Kellog complained to the deputy commissioner of police, R.J. Savani, all he said was. “It might have been a mistake.”
Medha Patkar, a well-known environmentalist and anti-globalization leader in the movement to prevent the building of a series of dams which will displace 400,000 people in Gujarat, was attacked by a gang under the leadership of Amit Thackrey, state secretary of BJP’s youth wing, while attending a peace meeting. A number of reporters from different dailies and television channels were also attacked, including by police who smashed cameras with a vengeance.
But some local language dailies enjoy press freedoms by making propaganda for the Sangh Parivar. These papers cook up news stories which inflame religious animosity. Under the law of the land such reportage that causes animosity between communities is a criminal offence. Yet the government had not taken any action against these offenders until recently.
Non-governmental organizations and dignitaries opened rehabilitation and relief centers for displaced Muslims. Around 1.5 million Muslim people have sought shelter in these centers. An acute shortage of food, medicine, and drinking water and lack of hygiene makes life miserable. Epidemics like measles, chickenpox, smallpox and diarrhea are common in the camps.
I visited a crowded rehabilitation center, Shah-E-Alam, near Ahmedabad. Forty thousand inmates face daily hardship, including a lack of adequate toilet facilities and clean water. The government did nothing to solve these problems.
Psychologically shattered, people of these camps are reluctant to go back to their own villages, where they expect more attacks and destruction.
Gujarat was the second most industrialized state in India before Feb. 27. The state has been in the forefront of economic development, contributing 17 percent of the country’s total investment. The actions of the Hindu extremists ground the economy to a halt. According to the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce the economic damages are Rs 7280 crores, which is about $1.4 billion. The textile industry, the backbone of the Gujarat economy, is devastated.
The transport sector and hotel industry are the worst hit. The State Road Transport Corporation’s revenue has dropped to less than 20 percent. Diamond polishing units, the chemical and dye industry, and the pharmaceutical industry have also been hit by the riots.
The BJP government in Gujarat came to power in 1998, promising freedom from hunger, fear and corruption. The people of Gujarat realized the hollowness of this slogan and the BJP suffered badly in recent local elections. The BJP lost in Uttar Pradesh, which is the nearest state to Gujarat.
Many political parties including BJP allies, demanded the removal of Modi, yet he still remains. The Left parties are leading protest marches and public meetings all over the country for this demand.
International communities have come forward to condemn the carnage. But the Indian Foreign Affairs Ministry is working overtime to convince the world community that Gujarat is an exceptional case and that Indian secularism is in safe hands. Yet secularism is not safe in the hands of the BJP and other religious extremists.
M.K.N. Moorthy is the editor of a progressive Malayan-language magazine, Janyugum Monthly, and lives in Kerala, India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org