Iraq War


India Elections

US Imperialism

Peak Oil


WSF In India







Gujarat Pogrom






Join Mailing List

Submit Articles

Contact Us


Darkness And Light In Modern India

By Harsh Mander

16 April, 2004
Punjab Pro

Usman Shaikh was one among a few hundred young women and men who volunteered to work as aman pathiks (or peace workers) in the wake of the blood-drenched carnage of the spring of 2002 in Gujarat. Uprooted from his native Ahmedabad, Usman tirelessly shuttles between the ravaged and traumatised villages of rural Godhra allocated to his charge. Together with the other aman pathiks, he strives to rebuild the brutally ruptured bonds of trust and harmony between the two profoundly estranged communities. I asked him once whether he missed the loved members of his family in the long weeks that he is separated from them every month. He replied, ‘Since 1969, my home has been looted and destroyed five times in communal riots. I am working so that it is not destroyed a sixth time’.

The carnage that convulsed the state of Gujarat has left in its wake a profound human tragedy that does not heal or abate. The agony of Gujarat, its blood-drenched humanity soaked in ideologies of hatred and divide, has hurtled the people of our vast country into a defining crossroads. The manner in which they respond today will determine the kind of country and world that we leave behind for our children. At stake is the affirmation of justice, our pluralist heritage, indeed our very survival as a people who care, and a polity that is genuinely democratic and humane.

During the India’s long struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, a groundswell of popular support and mass mobilisation gathered behind Mahatma Gandhi, and it shared his vision of a resolutely secular nation, with freedom and equal rights of citizenship for people of every faith, community, caste, class, colour and gender. There was also influential mass support for more radically egalitarian and democratic ideologies of the left and dalit movements. However, psuedo-religious extremist leaders fought for and secured an independent Islamic nation carved out from Muslim majority segments of India. Extremist Hindu organisations were implacably opposed to Gandhi’s humane and inclusive Hinduism and nationalism, and one among their ranks assassinated him just months after India became free. The constitution of India, drafted by one of India’s most revered leaders from a community, which traditionally was subjected to the most savage caste discrimination, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, established the secular, socialist and democratic foundations of the new nation.

However, psuedo-religious extremist organisations continue to challenge this vision of India, more aggressively since the 1980s. Their mobilisation is organised most powerfully around the symbol of a medieval mosque, the Babri Masjid, which they claim had been constructed after demolishing a temple built to commemorate the birth-place of revered Hindu deity Ram. A massive mob assault on this Muslim place of worship in the sacred Hindu town of Ayodhya resulted in its brutish demolition in 1992. As the highest courts of the land attempt to arbitrate the rival claims to the disputed site, extremist Hindu organisations continue to demand that the site be handed over for the construction of the Ram temple regardless of the decision of the courts, or independent historical evidence.

Several mass campaigns for converging on the incendiary disputed site vacated by the demolished Babri mosque have been organised over the years by fundamentalist Hindu organizations, more vigorously in the run-up to periodic elections, continuously smouldering and fanning sectarian passions. A train-load of activists of these organisations were returning to Gujarat from this contested site at Ayodhya following one of a long series of such campaigns, on the fateful day February 27, 2002. At the railway station in a small town called Godhra in Gujarat, a railway compartment of a passenger train was set afire, resulting in the horrific death by burning alive of 58 people, many of them women and children. It was widely and influentially propagated that the merciless arson was organised by a mob of Muslim people living close to the railway station. This was used potently as an instrument to explode prejudice and hatred against the entire population of Muslim people living in Godhra, Gujarat and indeed everywhere in India, and to justify their slaughter and rape and subsequent socio-economic boycott all across Gujarat. However, later forensic investigation has led many human rights activists to contest this version of the source of the fire in the ill-fated train compartment of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra.

Within hours of the burning of the train, cities, towns and villages across the state of Gujarat were convulsed simultaneously by mass violence of a scale and brutality rarely seen in modern India. Gujarat, the industrialised prosperous province in the west of India, was tormented by one of the most barbarous and gruesome episodes of ethnic blood-letting, compared to the many that have scarred the country since the trauma of its Partition more than half a century earlier. This resulted in the gruesome slaughter, often by burning alive, of an estimated 2000 men, women and children, and mass rapes and killings including of young girls. More than two hundred thousand people were rendered destitute, their homes and livelihoods plundered and destroyed. They took refuge in makeshift relief camps that came up across the state of Gujarat. There followed widely shared national outrage and anguish, about the enormity of mass brutality which was substantially targeted at women and children from the minority Muslim community, and the role of the state authorities who enabled or actively abetted the planned massacre and destruction.

Among the aching images that I have described in this volume, and will carry in my heart throughout my life, is of a small boy of six in the Juhapara relief camp in Ahmedabad, his eye gashed, his head wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, who described to me in agonising detail as I held him in my lap, how his father, mother and six brothers and sisters were battered to death before his eyes. My heart was repeatedly lacerated as I heard the gut-wrenching testimonies of gang-rape of young girls and women, often in the presence of members of their families, followed by their murder by burning alive, or by bludgeoning. A broken old man, insane with grief, who lost his entire family, shared with me the story of his life, wondering why he was still alive. An escaping family, spoke of losing a young woman and her three month old son, because a police constable directed her to ‘safety’ and she found herself instead surrounded by a mob which doused her with kerosene and set her and her baby on fire.

In no sectarian conflict in recent Indian history, has there been such extensive and organised sexual brutality, targeting women and young girls with mass rape and burning alive. The use of Muslim women’s bodies as battlefields, to avenge, subjugate and even eliminate, an entire community, has strong echoes of Bosnia, where also rape was widely used by the state and military apparatus, as a strategy of ethnocide.

The unconscionable failures and active connivance of the state police and administrative machinery is now widely acknowledged. The aching sickness in my soul has deepened further in the months that passed, as I observed with disbelief the continuing silent annihilation of the devastated innocent survivors through the unprecedented merciless subversion of all civilized norms of relief and rehabilitation.

An entire body of more than forty independent citizens’ reports, with an unwavering fearless commitment to truth and justice, have gathered overwhelming evidence of the enormity of the brutality, state complicity, long advance preparations for the carnage and the deliberate abdication of responsibilities for relief and rehabilitation. Those who spontaneously volunteered to research and write these reports include several of the most respected retired judges, activists, writers, school and university teachers, lawyers, doctors, trade unionists and retired civil servants in the country, women and men of unimpeachable integrity and social conscience. Collectively these reports, with masses of hard evidence and heart-wrenching testimonies, piece together what builds into unassailable affirmation of one of the gravest mass crimes in India’s recent history.

The majority of citizens group’s reports elaborate exhaustively the harrowing details of the savagery. Beyond a few pages, it is hard to read, even less imagine or reconcile with evidence of the abyss of bestiality and mass sadism into which our people stooped. The report of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal comprising retired senior judges of the Supreme Court, senior advocates and activists, marshals evidence which shows how “in the macabre dance of death, human beings were quartered and the killing protracted while the terrorised survivors looked on; the persons targeted were dragged or paraded naked through the neighbourhood; victims were urinated upon, before being finally cut to pieces and burnt. Hundreds of testimonies before us show how this manner and method of killing has left an indelible imprint on the minds of the survivors”. It notes that, “the burning alive of victims was widespread”.

Several citizens group’s reports have documented the deeply harrowing experiences of the survivors of the carnage in the grim aftermath of carnage, particularly because of the unconscionable and unprecedented refusal of state government authority to establish relief camps, which were instead run by community organisations; the forced premature closure of these camps; and niggardly and arbitrary compensation. The denial of relief and rehabilitation by the government of Gujarat is a harrowing, disgraceful tale of premeditated, unrepentant and merciless perverse exercise of public authority. It began in the immediate aftermath of the mass violence. Terrified survivors, women, men, girls and boys, fled to the enclaves of safety that they located, with only the clothes on their backs. These were mostly open spaces in Muslim ghettoes of cities, towns and villages, places of worship, schools, parks, sometimes graveyards. Initially, people slept under the open sky. As the numbers continued to swell, to well over one hundred thousand people in Ahmedabad alone and the same numbers in other parts of the state, mostly spontaneous voluntary teams were organised for the management of the camps. They mustered stockpiles of food supplies, medicines, drinking water, facilities for sanitation, cooks, health and sanitary workers.

Even as the weeks and months elapsed, the state was almost nowhere visible amidst these admirable but austere self-help efforts of the affected communities. After around ten days the district administration began the supply to camps of uncooked food rations, and occasional visits of medical teams with supplies. In the two decades that I spent in the civil services, I have never observed a single instance in earlier times in which it was not the state which led relief operations after any major disaster human-made or natural. The organisation of relief and rehabilitation is central to the training and traditions of the civil services. In the past, governments may have faltered in the outcomes of its programmes. But Gujarat carnage of 2002 marks a sordid first in which civil service functionaries consented to and co-operated with merciless political dictates to completely abdicate responsibility for relief, and over time even to thwart community efforts to provide shelter and succour to the hapless survivors of the massacre.

The summer temperatures were pitiless, and the mercury pushed to 45 degree centigrade, sometimes higher. Life in the relief shelters became even harder - old people, children and women listlessly sought shade under the tattered shamianas or the few trees that dotted the graveyards and open grounds. The residents of the camps were even more threatened with the arrival of the monsoons. The camp organisers increasingly found themselves under intense official pressure to close the camps. Starved of food supplies, some camps persisted for two months or more with donations raised by voluntary organisations. A very small number of camps continue to operate, but are without food supplies. They were just primitive covered spaces that extend a bare semblance of shelter to internal refugees with nowhere to go. The camps gradually emptied as all except the most terrified or destitute residents were thus forced to leave for their old damaged homes, or to live with relatives within or outside the State. Or, dozens of people crowded together, in small hired rooms in Muslim ghettoes.

The state government has refused to rebuild the vandalised religious structures. The same defiant abdication of responsibility for rehabilitation characterises state actions as documented in various reports. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal report estimates that, “apart from the loss of about 2,000 lives, the destruction of businesses is worth at least Rs 3,800 crore. The damage caused to private homes and agricultural properties of at least 3,00,000 victims of Gujarat has not been computed”. However, “not only has no comprehensive rehabilitation package been declared even five months after the violence, no survey has been conducted. And by its behaviour and action, the government has made it clear that it wishes to have nothing to do with the physical and psychological rehabilitation of its own people, the Muslims of Gujarat”. The Tribunal notes that the state government is “abdicating its primary role as protector and provider of all its citizenry.”

Over a year and a half has passed since Gujarat was devastated by the death-dealing squall of hate that traumatised the nation, the state slipped off the front pages of national newspapers. The widely shared assumption is that after the stunning electoral endorsement, peace has been restored to the ravaged state. A journey of healing that took us through tribal regions that were the epicentre of the violence that had ripped apart Gujarat, revealed to us the frightening anatomy of this utterly counterfeit peace.

Authentic peace can be founded ultimately only on justice, trust and dignity. In the wake of blood-drenched betrayal and mass brutality, the construction of an enduring peace required both the healing of remorse and compassion and the demonstration of justice done. Neither was evident anywhere during our harrowing travels. Instead, we witnessed twisted malformed mutations of peace, based on a resigned social acceptance of settled fear, utterly unequal imposed degrading compromises and the practice of second-class citizenship.

The majority of leaders of the marauding mobs, even when named in police complaints, walk free, compounding the terror of the residents. Of 4252 cases registered in the wake of the carnage, more than 2107 have already been closed by investigation authorities, claiming lack of evidence. On the other hand, even where the mass violence exclusively targeted the minorities, as was the situation in an overwhelming number of cases, it is they who are being arrested in legions under fabricated charges, including under the draconian anti-terrorism law of POTA. Of the 240 cases registered under POTA in Gujarat, 239 are against Muslims and one against a Sikh. Frequently, as in both Naroda Patiya and Godhra, the peace-makers are especially targeted for arrests, lawyers from the majority community are unwilling to defend them and even the courts are reluctant to free them on bail.

Gujarat has a proud tradition of social movements, constructive organisations and trade unions. Most of these did not even attempt to confront the demons of brutality in the years when they were being nurtured, or in the dark days when they broke loose. Few staked their lives to halt the death-dealing throngs. Most are unwilling even to reach out and heal, amidst the torment and destruction of what survives. They did not attempt to confront mobs as they set aflame people and properties, they set up no camps to shelter the bereaved and destitute survivors. They remain mute as all civilised norms of relief and rehabilitation were openly and wantonly subverted by the state. Their thin alibis of ‘neutrality’ amount to taking sides with injustice. The question that social organisations elsewhere in the country need also to ponder is whether indeed they would act differently if sectarian violence broke out tomorrow where they work. And if they too would remain passive, then a whole tradition that lays claim to progressive ideals of justice and caring, is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis.

This crisis extend also to most of the political class, barring the left. Even parties built on the foundation of secular ideologies, at crucial moments of our recent history, have displayed a singular lack of nerve, of the courage of their convictions, and have floundered in the faint-hearted calculus of vote-banks. It would be a historic betrayal if across the political spectrum, practitioners of politics do not realize just how much is at stake, and also that in the long-run, what is ethically right is also politically sound. Opportunistic compromises, open or tacit, with communal ideologies, may seem to secure immediate gains, but they permanently erode and imperil the secular and humane foundations of the polity.

Amidst the bleak despair of this ignoble abdication, a few organisations bravely banded together under banners like the Citizen’s Initiative in Ahmedabad. Many others grappled with the even more daunting challenges of rural communalism. Despite threats to the very survival of some of the organisations, they refused to flinch from their resolute collective stand against injustice.

The parched compassion of Gujarat was quenched most of all by the stream of volunteers, mostly young people, who continue to pour into Gujarat, eager to contribute in whatever way they can, to show that they care, and suffer with their fellow citizens in Gujarat. In this hour of national darkness, many lamps were lit. With quiet individual acts of caring and courage, it is ordinary people, in several corners of the country, who have defended the gravely threatened humanism and democratic traditions of our land.

I have been most touched by the aman pathiks or peace volunteers, mostly painfully young men and women who responded to our call in Ahmedabad to work for healing and rebuilding. Many of the volunteers had themselves suffered gravely in the carnage. As they showed me pictures of the ruins of their burnt and plundered homes, or spoke in low voices sometimes of the violence suffered by members of their own families, I wondered how many of us in their position would be able to summon the same inner resources to forgive so quickly and cheerfully help others in need.

As we stumble in the darkness and despair of this defining moment in our collective history, it is the lamps of compassion, humanity and justice lit with resolution and faith by our ordinary people that still illuminate our paths.