Ashutosh enjoys writing on a variety of subjects including politics, current affairs, social and religious issues.
Before presenting my views on one of the most tragic incidents of communal violence in our country, I just wish to make a candid confession. As a writer, I do not hold the power to judge anyone guilty or not guilty. The 2002 Godhra riots in the Indian state of Gujarat were undoubtedly a black spot on communal harmony not just in the place of their occurrence but the entire nation as a whole. The justice for Godhra victims has been a long and tiresome fight. Has justice been delivered truthfully and without bias? I guess that will always remain a debatable topic. End of the day, we have to abide by the fact that court verdicts are based on evidence produced and investigations conducted. I pen down these thoughts in a clear conscience and devoid of any religious prejudice. Responses and feedback are appreciated!
The Communal Catalyst
Godhra in 2002, as we recall, was a chapter in our history which tarnished the so-called communal harmony to the extent that even with the passage of time, the pain has just not died down and the wounds are still far from healed.
Official figures reported:
- Death toll of over 1000 (790 Muslims and 254 Hindus among the deceased)
- 223 reported missing
- 2,500 injured
- Some 900 women widowed and 600 children orphaned
- An estimated INR 2 billion paid towards relief and rehabilitation work.
These are mere statistics that have been disputed too. Nonetheless, they cannot quantify the losses suffered by the victims that bore the brunt of the chaos!
How did it all start?
A day prior to the Godhra riots in the Indian state of Gujarat, 59 kar sewaks (Hindu devotees) were charred to death in a bogey of a Sabarmati Express train that was on route to Godhra from Varanasi. Most of the victims were women and children. What was the crime of these people? Why were they made to suffer in this inhumane way? No clarification was ever sought on this. Hearsay, theories and umpteen number of conspiracy angles is all that was bombarded upon the gullible minds. The very fact that whether the bogey was set on fire from outside or inside or the modus operandi still remains contested. The confusion still prevails despite people being judged guilty of conspiring and even being sentenced. Some suggest that it was meticulously planned as the flammable material to torch an entire bogey would have been pre-acquired. Some claim it a verbal spat that went ugly and led to a mass gathering and stone pelting.
Whatever the case may have been, these were the terrible developments on 27th February 2002, a day prior to the actual Godhra violence. The Gujarat government was fully aware that if these dead bodies were immediately brought to Godhra, it would have electrified the situation as the rumors were already floating thick and fast. However, since the bodies had to be handed over to the relatives, it was decided that the same would be done under the cover of night. What wrath was to be unleashed the next morning, no one could have predicted except the perpetrators of course. Aroused by the developments, some fringe Hindu groups were more or less provided with the arsenal to carry out the carnage in the name of avenging the dead. The path they chose was not just wrong and condemnable but also was about to have fatal and far-reaching consequences.
At this juncture, I do wish to call out that it is these religious zealots that usually remain on the forefront of inciting hate crimes. Needless to say, their sense of morality is based on convenience and their limited scope of understanding.
Then Gujarat Chief Minister's appeal to the people for peace
Carnage That Unfolded
Unfortunately, the hype around this incident had flooded the internet and other information sources with a lot of deliberately concocted stories. Some with ulterior motives, some attempting to expose the truth while some are just centered on hate-mongering period. Fake accounts and photoshopped stories are easily available on several forums. In all this hullabaloo, it becomes extremely difficult to get the real picture. Several versions of what happened on that fateful day are available in the public domain. Some from the survivors themselves, others from onlookers, observers, media and needless to mention the contributions by the conspiracy theorists. Changing stances and variations on citations by those that witnessed the carnage have raised enough doubts, time and again. But despite all the obfuscation, certainly not an iota of doubt that some right-wing Hindu groups were on the forefront of inciting and executing these heinous crimes and eventually it was the enraged mob that became the judge, jury, and executioner!
27th February 2002, as the violence broke out there was only chaos & devastation. The mobs went bloodthirsty and no one was spared. The mobs led by the right-wing targeted Muslim majority areas. There was some retaliation from the other side too and nonetheless of equally heinous nature. It was more like a brutal sight of execution, difficult to even portray in words - several women and young females were raped by the bigoted mob, even pregnant women were not spared from the wrath of these savages. Children and Elders mercilessly butchered like animals. Some even incinerated alive. Looting and arson was a common sight with shops and houses being vandalized and set ablaze. Several families entirely perished from the face of the earth. It was a black day and even mother earth cried tears of blood. Even to portray that horrific day, gives me jitters!
No doubt heinous crimes occurred in several Hindu dominated areas like Naroda Patya, Gulbarg Society, Naroda Gam, Ode, Machipith, Raghavapura and Sadarpura Village, where the Muslim population faced the onslaught. Some counter-offensives were also carried out in Muslim dominated areas of Himmatnagar, Danilimda, and Sindhi Market against the Hindus. However, the torching of human lives in the Gulbarg Society and Best Bakery or the heinous killings in Naroda Patya does shake one's conscience. 'Why this brutality? What was the crime of those innocent souls?'. Now whether we believe the mob was instigated or there was a political conspiracy, its imperative that one must ponder over as to 'where was the conscience of these self-righteous mob, while committing these atrocities?' Personally, I would still second my own opinion that this was beyond doubt 'devil inside the people unleashed' coupled with prejudice, hatred, sectarian divide, jealousy, inferiority complex or whatever label you put on it. Death of humanity above anything else, yet again. The 'yet again' being symbolic as this wasn't the first time we had witnessed such heinous crimes or religious divide based atrocities. There has been a never-ending history of such communal clashes, genocides and mob violence that has so far cost us thousands of innocent lives above everything else. Still, to this date, while on one hand, we boast ourselves to be a part of a modern and progressive society but ironically on the other we continue to somehow remain enslaved to our religious prejudices and hatred.
Witness Testimonies On Godhra Train Burning
The way I see it...
If the past was painful then a mourning present will only make a regretful future!!
— Ashutosh Joshi
Role of Media, Political Parties & Activists
Gujarat mostly remained peaceful in the aftermath of the riots and in the years that followed. The government, civilians and some NGOs actively engaged in the relief and rehabilitation work, as life slowly came back on track. Where blood has been spilled, peace does take time to establish and state of Gujarat as a whole was no exception. The blood however invited vultures or rather wolves in sheep' clothing, who utilized the issue for their ulterior motives and personal gains. The internal turmoil had already begun with some NGOs and Activist (especially those with a lavish lifestyle and dubious records) working at the ground level to exacerbate the situation. While all this had a lesser consequence in Gujarat, the impact as a whole on the social fabric and communal harmony was more far-fetched. Media has its own share of criticism for stepping forward and becoming the torch-bearers.
None of us can deny how this incident has been publicised till date both by the political as well as the media fraternity. And it will be unjust to not highlight their role in fuelling the violence and keeping the hatred burning by the repeated exploitation of the Hindu-Muslim divide. What's been more disheartening is how the fourth pillar of democracy - our media, projected this entire incident and proclaimed themselves as 'messiahs of minorities' just like the so-called secular politicians who suddenly became the 'guardian angels' to woo minority opinion towards them for their electoral gains. simply put, for media, it was crunching those viewership numbers and for politicians, it was all about expanding their voter base. Much of the Godhra outrage is all credits to these so-called secular and liberal voices, who followed the British 'divide and rule' policy of past, by pitting the two communities against each other. Trials conducted by media houses especially those based out of lutyens Delhi left no stone unturned to vilify and blame the majority group of the population(Hindus) in connivance with the state machinery. For some, it was a stepping stone in their career while for others it brought riches. I wouldn't go into specifics but certainly, a lot of these reporters of the Godhra fame did a grave injustice to their profession. The entire world saw the same picture as was projected to them day in day out. What was never emphasized upon was:
- Why did this happen?
- How do we make people accountable or remorseful to the least?
- How can we achieve a sense of closure for the families that lost their near and dear ones?
- How can we avoid such clashes in future, strengthen the law, pass legislation effective of dealing with such nuisance?
- Should we entirely blame the state as it took three days to curb the violence?
- Instead of generalizing, should we not question the morality of the people involved directly or indirectly? The sheep mentality and their hatred and animosity especially those zealots or fringe who burnt the train bogey and those who went bloodthirsty under the garb of avenging the dead??
An Islamic Televangelist's view on the Godhra incident
The Unending Trials
"Justice delayed is justice denied" certainly stands true in this case too. Though I wouldn't be exaggerating if I were to say that never in the history has there been an incident that was so thoroughly scrutinized and investigated by all of country's Law & Enforcement Agencies, Judiciary, Human Rights and even Foreign Organisations. Several investigating committees and commissions were constituted to look into the crimes committed during the riot period and verify charges against the accused that were apprehended. A daunting task it was amidst all the furor and hype that the incident had already garnered, the religious angle and needless to mention some bit of political arm-twisting both in favor and against. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and several NGOs termed the initial investigations and inquiries as shoddy and unreliable and it was then, the apex court had to step in to monitor the investigation especially in the sensitive cases. The honorable Supreme Court also played a crucial role in ensuring fair trials post extensive scrutiny, especially when the state machinery including the Chief Minister of the state was accused of inciting the gruesome mass murder.
To this date, almost one and a half decade later we are still seeing convictions and that's certainly a positive sight. Then again there have been judgments which may be considered unfair or controversial or rightly put influenced to some extent. From witnesses changing their statements to those turning hostile, there hasn't been a scarcity of any of it either. But of course, despite the delay, convictions have happened and continue to happen.
In November 2011, a fast track court had sentenced 31 rioters to life imprisonment and acquitted 42 people for lack of evidence. The case was related to Sadarpura village incident, in which 33 persons were burned to death. The Naroda Patya massacre of 97 people saw a former state minister convicted to 28 years imprisonment and the leader of a right-wing group being awarded life sentence among the other convictions. Gulbarg Society verdict on 17th June'16 too was quite satisfactory penalizing 11 of the 24 accused to a life sentence. The judge termed the violence as the dark day in the history of civil society. The case involved a mob attack on Gulbarg Society, a Muslim neighborhood in which 35 Victims including a former member of Parliament from the opposition party were burned alive.
Undoubtedly, plenty of questions and skepticism still surround a lot of verdicts. The victim families too may not have been fully satisfied with these judgments and especially the delay that aggravated the pain and suffering. But at least, there has been some sense of closure and that's a relief.
Have Your Say
Despite being a Hindu majority, India has firmly upheld its secular credentials and has always welcomed every religion, culture and allowed them to equally flourish and so shall continue, irrespective of what ideology dominates the ruling dispensation. Our 'Unity in Diversity' is something we have always flaunted and felt proud of despite often being deceived into drawing daggers for our own countrymen.
It's high time that people towing the divisive lines do some introspection. It's also imperative for people talking about minority rights violation to not continuously attempt to peddle through a selective narrative which only breeds hate-mongering and draws boundaries in the society. Before choosing sides in this whole majority-minority discourse, we should question ourselves and introspect as to who really gets benefitted in all this chaos? How about for a moment consider the plight of minorities elsewhere? How much of freedom do they truly enjoy? The Orthodox mindset has never helped and it will never help in the future either. While demanding justice is fair but it would be equally unfair if our heart only selectively goes out to Godhra victims only from one community. Indeed there is no justification for a crime. However, it's absolutely absurd to say "my crime is lesser than yours" especially in the context of Godhra riots or to even have that kind of thought process.
Not an iota of doubt that these were heinous crimes, a violent outburst of communal hatred, that swept away everything in its path irrespective. While this has been debated zillion time already any further discussion to the same stream of thoughts would be a waste - A simple catch-22 situation. Instead, one needs a more open and rational perspective on this entire episode. To say these were crimes against a particular community (Muslims to be specific) would certainly be unfair as there were Hindus killed too, both by police firing and by the rioters and not to forget those torched to death, a day before the incident. Just because one has lesser blood on their hand, doesn't nullify their crime or justify their wrongdoings either. End of the day each and every life should be accounted for and considered. Whether it was 254 Hindus v/s 790 Muslims or vice versa or whatever the exact number may be, it doesn't convey a one-sided story! Just to reiterate, "more than crimes against a community or group, these were crimes against humanity". No statistic, theory or explanation can justify it especially for the families that lost their loved ones and became the victims of the rage. Having said that I do wish to conclude with some questions for any sane mind:
- How long will we keep living in this fallacy or is it more bloodshed that we want?
- Are we too naive to be deceived so easily or are we mere pawns in the hands of a few?
- Is this so-called communal harmony that we often boast off, just a sham, a cover-up on the boundaries that have been long drawn in our mind, heart, and soul?
- How is that despite being educated and rational, we can be so selective and have a one-sided view or to be specific a religion-centric view?
- Why is Godhra the only iconic hate-crime or communal violence that continues to remain the epicenter of discourse and discussion? Thousands have perished in this country due to communal riots. Why don't we demand justice with equal aggression for other such heinous crimes?
The law, of course, will take its own course. On our part, we should all come together and unequivocally demand justice for every life lost in communal violence and hate crimes till date without bias, prejudice, provocation or social amnesia. If we can't do that, then just like we moved beyond 1947, '84, '89, '90 and many more communal incidents in the past, we should move beyond 2002 as well.
The Nanavati Commission Report - Commission of Inquiry Consisting of Justice G.T. Nanavati & Justice K.G. Shah
Justice U.C. Banerjee Commission Report
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2016 Ashutosh Joshi