Sunday, April 08, 2007

Remember Gujarat

Five years ago this spring, in the India state of Gujarat, something dark and terrible took place that appears to have passed from the world’s consciousness and conscience with little long-lasting impression, swept away in the tide of violence and blood emanating daily from other parts of the world, chiefly Iraq.

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.


Balaji said...

Punish Modi for what? This is not a banana republic where the executive can send anyone to prison. Modi government should have been dismissed at that time for failing to bring the riots under control. Even here one can only accuse him of incompetence.

Failing that, the only authority to punish his so called failure were the people. Modi himself dissolved the state assembly and went to the people to seek a renewed mandate which they gave him.

The people charged with rioting are on trial in the courts. That too in another state to give more credence to their impartiality. Given all this, where is the question of Modi being punished for anything.

Trial by media is not acceptable anywhere. More so in a democracy. What the US government does with its visa policy is irrelevant. By that yardstick Iran would want to hang George Bush for his crimes against humanity. Shall we go ahead?

Michael Deibert said...

Dear "Balaji" (for the uninitiated, "Balaji" is another form of Venkateshwara, a Hindu god who manifests himself via the deity Vishnu),

To answer your question "Punish Modi for what?" you need to look no farther than the nearest copy of India's voluminous constitution, which Mr. Modi (and Gujarat Governor Sundar Singh Bhandari) took an oath to uphold when the former became Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001. The Constitution clearly explains in Article 355 that "It shall be the duty of the Union to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every State is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution."

That Mr. Modi most definitively didn't protect Gujarat from disturbances is beyond dispute, and, judging from some of his recorded public statements during and after the carnage there, a strong case could be made that he actively encouraged mob violence. In most countries, such a serious violation of both the letter and spirit of a nation's constitution would result in impeachment proceedings, trial, eventual removal from office and hopefully legal sanction of the government officials in question, in this case Mr. Singh Bhandari and Mr. Modi. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that held national office during the 2002 unrest in Gujarat respected the constitution which they themselves had taken and oath to uphold, that would have been their quite lawful and constitutional response, one that firmly respects the separation of powers, to Mr. Modi's action. Unfortunately, as with most politicians, the BJP preferred to play to the mob.

I myself found it quite telling that, in a 2002 interview with The Hindu after tendering his resignation, what were Mr. Modi's thoughts? To mourn the cleaving of Indian unity that the Gujarat riots revealed? To say a prayer for those fellow countrymen lost to the mob's rage? Not at all. Mr. Modi said the following: "It is a conspiracy against Gujarat and its people. Rumors were spread to demoralize the police forces, divide the administration and create an atmosphere of mistrust. ...Attempts are going on even today to save the Godhra killers. All those who came rubbed salt into the wound." In addition to an apparent bold-faced lie (there were no Godhra "killers," as a commission of inquiry later determined), Mr. Modi appeals to the basest type of "us vs. them" nativist sentiment in appearing to downplay and justify the murder of 2,000 fellow Indians.

The contention that "the people charged with rioting are on trial in the another state to give more credence to their impartiality" would also seem to speak of a highly selective reading of history.

In its January 2007 Country Summary for India, Human Rights Watch writers that "there has still been no accountability for the deaths of more than 2,000 Muslims in the western state of Gujarat... there continue to be delays in the investigation and prosecution of these cases." Human Rights Watch has also documented that, instead of helping Muslims in finding their relatives' bodies, the Gujarat police have instead victimized and harassed them.

In Amnesty International’s March 2007 report, "Five years on - the bitter and uphill struggle for justice in Gujarat," the human rights group stated that "the Government of Gujarat remains unrepentant for its failings to protect the Muslim minority and to ensure that victims obtain justice, truth and reparations." The report went on to quote Prof. T. K. Oommen, a member of the Sacchar Committee mandated to look into the "social, economic and education status of the Muslim community in the country," as saying that Gujarat continues to reel under a state of "economic apartheid and ghettoization"(3) of Hindus and Muslims and that "ever since the 2002 riots, the polarization of communities in Gujarat has acquired a physical dimension."

In its own Country Report on Human Rights Practices for India (2006), the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor stated that "in many cases attempts to hold perpetrators of the Gujarat violence accountable were hampered by the manner in which police recorded complaints. Victims related that police refused to register their complaints, recorded the details in such a way as to lead to lesser charges, omitted the names of prominent people involved in attacks, and did not arrest suspects, particularly supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)." Despite a handful of convictions thus far, far more cases have resulted in acquittal due to due to a lack of evidence springing from pervasive and credible allegations of faulty investigations and witnesses being afraid to testify.

This situation is by no means of sole concern to foreigners. India's National Commission of Minorities said in October 2006 that 5,703 riot- affected Muslim families have yet to be properly compensated and rehabilitated. The commission’s chairman, Hamid Ansari, went so far as to denounce the “abdication of Constitutional responsibility on the part of the state government with reference to victims of the 2002 riots who are living in barely human conditions.” A powerful recent Times Of India Op-Ed by Harsh Mander stated quite succinctly that “there is perhaps no instance since Independence of such open and sustained denial to a segment of citizens — of elementary rights of security, livelihood, shelter and legal justice — only on the grounds of its adherence to a minority faith.”

If you chose to dismiss all of this as "trial by media" or a mere comment on the U.S. government's visa policy, that is your right, but I am confident there are many more of your countrymen with a more responsible commitment to the rule of law and good governance in India who will see things rather differently and act accordingly.


Anonymous said...


Being Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Modi is accountable for what has happened in Gujarat. However, by no means he is responsible for Gujarat riots, neither he acted as a catalyst for Gujarat riots. The only reason behind Gujarat riots is the hatred between Hindus and Muslims and Godhra incident worked as a catalyst. Period. Modi or anybody else could not have prevented riots in Gujarat. Dig back to Gujarat history and you will find riots every year in different degrees and scales. The scale of riots in 2002 was significantly higher because of the strongest catalyst so far - Godhra incident.

Michael Deibert said...

I am not sure that I follow your logic as to how an accidental train fire was the “catalyst” for a well-organized pogrom against the Muslim citizens of Gujarat, nor how the deliberate, directed inaction (at best) of the Gujarat police force was not Mr. Modi’s responsibility, as is the continued inaction/intimidation towards the victims of the violence by representatives of the state government continuing today.

A note on “anonymous” postings: As a general rule, I don’t post anonymous comments as I feel that actually putting one’s name down increases the responsibility and thoroughness with which one expresses their thoughts here on the internet, but I have bent the rules slightly here as every comment thus far posted has been either anonymous or via a pseudonym. I can only assume that those posting are in fact too embarrassed of the positions they hold to admit to them publicly.