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 CURRENT ISSUE APRIL 15, 2002  

STATES: GUJARAT

End of Hope
Vajpayee found the riot-torn state so bruised that his visit may have failed to have a
balming effect

By Uday Mahurkar

PATIENT EAR: Vajpayee was shaken by the ugly experiences of victims end of hope

On April 4, 2002, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee walked through the Shah Alam camp in Ahmedabad, through the intangible debris of a once, almost mythical, composite society. The camp is home to 9,000 displaced Muslims, refugees in their own country, victims, like countless others, of the religious violence that has gripped Gujarat since the incineration of kar sevaks in Godhra on February 27, 2002.

Admittedly of an emotional bent, the prime minister is a seasoned campaigner who has seen misery and violence, riots and calamities more times than most people have had birthdays. Yet even he was visibly shaken that Thursday morning.

HATE RULES: Muslim protesters on an anti-Government campaign

Addressing the crowd at Shah Alam, he spoke of the violence being a "national shame", of India having "lost face in the world". It was also an indicator of helplessness. The prime ministerial visit was supposed to provide the healing touch. It was easier said than done.

Why has the violence in Gujarat not subsided? The Government of Chief Minister Narendra Modi famously claimed to have brought the situation under control in 72 hours. Even if that statement be discounted, the question of why people are still dying in Gujarat remains. The death toll so far is 800. On the eve of Vajpayee's visit five Muslims were killed in Abhasana village near Ahmedabad. Masked men literally cut them apart and then set them afire. A day earlier, in Ahmedabad's walled city, a knife attack allegedly instigated by a Muslim group left three people dead-all Muslim.

THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES: A young girl in Ahmedabad's Gomtipur area holds a bomb that didn't explode, while a mother and son (below) survey what remains of their home. Scenes like these are spread across a state that has never seen such communal violence in its history.

In conventional reckoning, the chief minister would have had to be held responsible. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has sharply criticised the Modi Government and called for a CBI investigation into the Godhra killings and four separate massacres of Muslims following that original sin.

As Vajpayee visited Muslim settlements, he heard complaints, stated and unstated, muted or merely implied about Modi. When he went to middle class Hindu areas, there were only slogans of "Narendra Modi zindabad. Chhote Sardar zindabad". Even if the comparison to the Sardar-Vallabhbhai Patel-be dismissed as sycophantic hype, the fact was that Modi was unfazed. Earlier while addressing Muslim victims, Vajpayee virtually put the blame on his delayed visit on Modi saying, "I was advised by the state Government not to come because of security reasons."

CONSTANT VIGIL: The police on a combing operation in Muslim-dominated Juhapura

Despite Vajpayee's public attempts to distance himself from his chief minister, the local man is entrenched. For a section of the state, he was a villain; for many others a hero. Modi was either black or white. There was nothing grey about him. His persona has became a metaphor for Gujarat's complete and utter polarisation.

Till the middle of March, the post-Godhra violence was largely generated by extreme Hindu groups and aimed at Muslims. On March 13, the Supreme Court's ruling banning any religious activity in Ayodhya proved a psychological setback to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its affiliates. It was also the day when some people in the Muslim-dominated walled city of Ahmedabad burst crackers in celebration and unfurled banners saying, "You darkened our skies. We will spill your blood on the streets."

Led by Justice Verma, the NHRC team pointed out that religious hatred had infected even tribal areas.

The Hindu zealot had had his fortnight; it was time for his Muslim counterpart to reawaken. The next few days saw mayhem. In Ahmedabad, violence broke out on March 17 when Dalits in the Danilimda area were attacked by Muslims. On March 19, it was Modasa, a town in Sabarkantha district. A police officer's son was stabbed and two communities went berserk. A local LIC building was attacked during office hours.

The stories only got more macabre. In Himmatnagar, a young man who went to a Muslim-dominated area to do business was found dead, with his eyes gouged out. In Bharuch, the murder of a Muslim youth led to mass violence. Next the Sindhi Market and Bhanderi Pole areas of Ahmedabad, hitherto calm, were attacked by mobs.

This phase, really, was one of Muslim mobs attacking Hindus. By the time Vajpayee arrived the Hindu throngs were looking for blood again. The cycle seemed unending, at least for the immediate future. To Naresh Raval of the Congress, leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, the solution is clear: "As long as Modi continues this violence isn't going to stop. The Centre should immediately dismiss the Modi Government and take charge of the state."

Like many other businessmen, Dhiren Shah, a textile merchant in Ahmedabad, is praying for peace. He seems to have definite views on how it can be achieved. "Unless the attacks from the Muslims end, violence will continue. Any attempt to dismiss Modi will see Gujarat in flames." Quite obviously, Modi has the support of Hindus like Shah.

This year's religious riots have crossed new frontiers. Take Umreth, a little town in Anand district that had practically never seen communal violence. This year it did and when local BJP leader Vishnu Patel tried to pacify a Hindu crowd, it turned on him.

If the geography of religious hatred has changed, so has its sociology. As the NHRC team headed by its chairperson, Justice J.S. Verma, reported after its visit to Vadodara, "The district magistrate said that for the first time in the history of communal riots in his district, rural tribal areas were affected ... (He) tried to explain the attack by tribals on members of minority community (largely Bohra Muslim traders) on the ground of economic exploitation of tribals by traders."

Other than inefficiency, the authorities face some genuine problems in trying to arrest the culprits. Combing operations in Muslim-dominated areas in particular have been rendered difficult. In Juhapura, just outside Ahmedabad, residents cut the power lines and gathered mobs of women as human obstacles when the army arrived to conduct search operations at night. This experience was by no means unique, it was repeated in areas like Kalupur and Gomtipur. Locals explained it as "spontaneous"; police officials said it only provided cover for criminals to remove arms and ammunition.

The ghettoisation of Gujarat has only been furthered by the past month's events. Says Arif Sultan, living in the Shah Alam camp: "Even if the Government rebuilds our homes at the same spot there is no guarantee of safety. We should be resettled in safe areas." So Muslims will live in even more overwhelmingly "Muslim areas", Hindus in "Hindu colonies". An internal partition will be institutionalised.

Accompanied by Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Uma Bharati, Vajpayee went to Gujarat with a relatively generous relief package for riot victims: Rs 1.5 lakh rather than Rs 1 lakh to the next of kin of those dead; a ration of 35 kg of foodgrains to each affected family living below the poverty line; Central government schemes for widows and orphans.

Yet there was nettle even Vajpayee couldn't grasp. From economist I.G. Patel to cultural figure Mallika Sarabhai to HDFC Chairman Deepak Parekh, Modi has many people asking for his job. When asked what advice he had for his chief minister, Vajpayee shot back, "As a ruler, I follow my raj dharma (ethics of governance) and that is the duty of every ruler." The dig wasn't lost on Modi who replied that he was indeed following his raj dharma. As his day ended, Vajpayee must have realised too that the RSS and local BJP constituency were in no mood to sacrifice Modi. The prime minister, a man whose precise political beliefs are sometimes a mystery, must have had a thoughtful flight home.

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