Trickles Out: The Gujarat Pogrom Five Years Later
By Zahir Janmohamed
02 March, 2007
I was uncertain if the ghazal
concert by Jagjit Singh would still be held in Ahmedabad, Gujarat on
that fateful day, February 27, 2002. I had reason to believe otherwise:
just a few hours earlier, I received a call while working in a Hindu
slum in Ahmedabad that communal violence had erupted. Apparently a train
of Hindu pilgrims was attacked somewhere, I was told, and that I should
immediately return home. An American Hindu colleague of mine and I both
waited for the bus to take us across town to the Hindu host family with
whom I was staying. But as my Hindu friend in the slum community received
text messages about what was really ensuing, he ran out and said, "No
Zahir, you specifically have to leave." I was eager to know why
but he never budged. "Its for your safety," he kept imploring.
It was only on the rikshaw
ride home that the picture emerged: our Hindu driver carefully skirted
all the Muslim majority locales in Ahmedabad as off in the distance,
we could see fires flaring up in only Muslim populated areas. As we
drove through a mixed Hindu-Muslim neighborhood, we found ourselves
stuck in a massive traffic jam, only later to learn that
just a few hundred yards ahead of us a Hindu mob had stopped a car full
of Muslims, removed them from their vehicle, and burned them alive.
It is difficult to say this
without sounding profoundly naive and perhaps insensitive, but at the
time, it seemed pretty normal. Perhaps that was a reflection of the
company I kept. I had arrived just twelve days earlier to work on micro-finance
issues and I was posted to work in a Hindu slum area. I never took much
notice of this: my intention in working in Gujarat was to understand
my ancestral homeland and to learn and to help people, regardless of
their religious background.
When I returned home later
that day, my boss Raju bhai assured me that the violence was nothing
unusual. India blows off some steam from time to time, he told me, and
that the violence would flare up for a day or two and then subside.
Perhaps he had a point, I thought. Despite romanticized notions of Gujarat
being tolerant, probably on account of it being the birthplace of the
non-violent sage Mahatma Gandhi, communal violence between Hindus and
Muslims in Gujarat has flared up intermittently since 1969. Between
1987 and 1991 alone, for example, 106 Hindu-Muslim skirmishes erupted.
But neither he or I had any ability to know that what would transpire
in the subsequent months would amount to a State sponsored pogrom against
Gujarati Muslims in what many of have rightfully called one the darkest
chapters in India's history.
We ended up going to the
Jagjit Singh concert that night. After all, in the Hindu area where
I lived and where the concert was held, I had no way of knowing that
just a few miles away in the Muslim locales, some of the worst violence
was ensuing, already on that first night. It is difficult and troubling
to think about that concert, let alone to muster the courage to admit
that I attended, while so much chaos erupted around me. Within the confines
of the manicured lawns of the concert setting, Singh's lyrics, many
taken from poems by Muslim poet Mirza Ghalib, hearkened an India ripe
with Hindu-Muslim synergy, an India that I found disappearing in my
subsequent six months working with the 85,000 displaced Gujarati Muslims
in Ahmedabad alone.
I do not wish to recount
the details of what happened in Gujarat, as that has been extensively
documented, most exceptionally in Human Rights Watch's "We Have
No Orders to Save You," and journalist Dionne Bunsha's Scarred:
Experiments with Violence in Gujarat. Nor do I wish to recall the personal
toil of witnessing violence on this scale--that is far too personal
to elucidate in this space and at least for me, in the guise of non-fiction.
But I wish do elucidate two points from that episode that have sinced
shaped my activism.
The first is that the initial
telling of a historical event is seldom the complete or even accurate
version. When the violence reached an unbearable level, I thought that
my presence, as a Gujarati Muslim, was endangering my dear Hindu friends.
So I left for New Delhi where I soon found myself addressing a gathering
of NGOs about my experiences. But I learned that speaking about Gujarat
is partly about giving testimony and partly about withholding information.
I remember telling that gathering that contrary to popular notions of
Indian communal violence, the violence in Gujarat was most acute in
mixed locales and that the only safe areas were Muslim ghettos. That
fact rattled the notion that communal violence is minimized when Hindus
and Muslims intermix. Gujarat proved just the antithesis - Muslims were
most vulnerable when they lived in close proximity to their Hindu neighbors.
I told that group, much to their dismay, that I understood why many
Gujarati Muslims had built ten foot walls to protect their families
and their homes. Thinking of communal harmony was privilege that many
Gujarati Muslims could not afford to think of as they witnessed the
mass scale rape of women and the pillaging of their homes.
This self-censorship was
magnified when I returned to the US and I began showing photographic
proof that the initial train attack was burnt from the inside and was
likely the work of the Hindu pilgrim themselves. At one event in LA,
I was nearly punched in the face by an angry audience member. Needless
to say, I learned to finesse my message, especially when speaking to
audiences who believed the mistaken notion that what transpired was
a tit-for-tat riot.
Part of the problem in achieving
an honest dialogue on this issue is that the Gujarat violence is viewed
as a problem of the past and as an aberrant blotch on India's record
that evaporated when the violence subsided. This could not be farther
from the truth. Lingering problems exist within Gujarat, the least of
which are the palpable tensions. And while antagonism against
Muslims thankfully has not manifested itself in brutal violence since
2002, there is still widespread curtailment of the rights of Muslims,
Christians, Dalits, and others in India. India's central government
may now acknowledge what transpired in 2002, but there is still strong
denial at the popular and governmental level within Gujarat.
For example, eighty-seven
Muslim men have been held since 2002 for "starting the train fire"
and "igniting the violence," despite India's Supreme Court
own acknowledgment which found the Hindu nationalist BJP group complicit
in the violence. Hemantika Wahi, the standing counsel for Gujarat, recently
responded to possible news that these 87 may be set free and also to
charges India's draconian anti-terror laws have been used to target
Muslim by noting that "Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists
are Muslims." Most recently, a film called "Parzania"
by Gujarati director Rahul Dholakia about the 2002 violence was prevented
by theater owners in Gujarat from being screened, despite the fact that
the filmed had already cleared India's rigorous (and often politically
slanted) film censor bureau.
Film's like Dholakia's are
promising, partly because they help usher in a more honest discussion
of what transpired. After all, it was not long ago that those who called
the violence pre-planned and orchestrated by the state were called absurd.
But often the truth trickles out, and though its pace may be frustrating,
it is still nonetheless cathartic for those who seeking a public reckoning
of the pain they endured.
The second lesson Gujarat
taught me is not to compare two historical tragedies. When I spoke at
college campuses throughout 2003 and 2004, I often found it tempting,
especially when addressing Muslim audiences, to compare the Gujarat
violence to another barbaric act, that of the slaughter of Palestinians
in Jenin, which also happened in early 2002. I had reason to make this
comparison: Muslims throughout their world expressed justifiable outrage
over Israel's incursions into Jenin but remained largely silent over
the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. But I quickly learned to cease
making such comparisons, partly because I refused to participate in
an effort to pit and to measure the suffering of one people against
I have been called many things
in the past five years, most of which are not suitable to publish on
this site. But perhaps one of the most unfair criticisms leveled at
me and other activists working against communalism in India is that
somehow our assessment of what transpired in Gujarat is maudlin or excessively
sentimental. This indeed may be the case, but it is not without reason.
I will always remember 12 year-old Sadik, who I met in a relief camp
just shortly after the violence ensued. He fled for relief after he
witnessed his father burned alive and his mother raped and then immolated.
He never did speak to me - or to anyone - during the six months that
I saw him in the camp. But at night, after the aid workers would leave,
I often found Sadik sitting alone in the corner, crying quietly.
I am not sure what has happened
to him since but I suspect there are nights when he still cries and
wonders why, five years later, his tears are still needed.
is an associate editor of alt.muslim and the co-founder of The Qunoot