In Gujarat, on 27 February 2002, 59 people were killed when a fire swept through several compartments of the Sabarmati Express train as it was returning with Hindu religious pilgrims from the town of Ayodhya. Ayodhya itself, some readers will recall, was where, in December 1992, the destruction of a 500-year-old Mughal-era mosque by Hindu zealots set off spiraling riots around India and, particularly in the country’s economic capital, Bombay, riots that, by early 1993, had left more than 2,000 dead, the majority of them Muslims targeted by Hindu mobs. In March 1993, in what is seen as a response by Muslim extremists, 13 bombs exploded nearly simultaneously around Bombay, killing 257 people.
So when that fire - a tragedy that an inquiry committee lead by Justice U.C. Banerjee concluded in early 2005 was an accident - swept through the Sabarmati Express, it carried with it not only the heat of oxidation but also the scorching power of terrible history.
Between February 28 and March 2 2002, Human Rights Watch later concluded, “thousands of attackers descended on Muslim neighborhoods, clad in saffron scarves and khaki shorts, the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist groups, and armed with swords, sophisticated explosives, and gas cylinders. They were guided by voter lists and printouts of addresses of Muslim-owned properties-information obtained from the local municipality.” Some 2,000 people, again the vast majority of them Muslims, were slain, and some 100,000 were left homeless.
But there is more. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and a member of then then-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with no evidence, claimed publicly at the time that the killings were an “organized terrorist attack" and threw the Gujarat state government's support behind a call for a general strike to protest the deaths. Even more pointedly, Gujarat’s state police were under instructions from the Modi administration not to act firmly against anyone participating in attacks against Gujarat's Muslim population. Human Rights Watch wrote that “the groups most directly involved in the violence against Muslims include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that heads the Gujarat state government.” An account of the destruction in some detail can be found in Asia Society fellow Mira Kamdar’s new book, Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming the World (Scribner). The Indian journalist Dilip D'Souza has likewise been remembering Gujarat's carnage in frequent postings on his blog from Bombay.
What, one may ask, was the official sanction against Narendra Modi (who continues to make speeches in Gujarat fanning anti-Muslim sentiment) and his subordinates for their role in the slayings of so many of their fellow citizens? Was Modi relived of his post, hauled before a tribunal, punished and sanctioned and sent to prison?
The United States revoked Modi's tourist visa, citing the provisions of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act and the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which forbid foreign government officials who are "responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom" from being eligible for a visa to the U.S., and later denied him a diplomatic visa, as well. Mr. Modi is apparently still a welcome visitor in Europe, though.
And in India itself, where the government of Prime Minster Manmohan Singh frequently proclaims his administration’s commitment to the rule of law and credentials as the safeguard of India’s secular democracy? Silence. A silence, as the Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, slain seven years ago this month, might say, to awaken the dead, the dead of Gujarat still awaiting justice.
Many years earlier, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, surveying the often pointless destruction of the Irish civil war, penned the following lines in his poem, The Stare's Nest by My Window, which seem like an eloquent meditation with which to conclude this posting.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
no clear fact to be discerned…
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Five years on, remember Gujarat.