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