Two decades of Gujarat riots: When narratives are distorted and grievances manufactured to create victimhood

Salim Khan, proverbial Bollywood scriptwriter of the Salim-Javed fame and father of superstar Salman Khan, once raised a pertinent question:...

Salim Khan, proverbial Bollywood scriptwriter of the Salim-Javed fame and father of superstar Salman Khan, once raised a pertinent question: India saw hundreds of riots, but why is Gujarat-2002 alone associated with a chief minister? “How come Narendra Modi has been singled out as the devil incarnate as if he personally carried out all the killings during the riots of 2002?” he wondered aloud.

Khan’s question is pertinent. Gujarat 2002 was, without doubt, a dark chapter in India’s post-Independence history, but it was neither the only one to have happened in the country since 1947, nor was it the worst of the riots. A look at the following numbers would help put the Gujarat violence in the right perspective:

• Officially, a total of 262 Hindus and 863 Muslims were killed in the Gujarat riots. This includes those who lost their lives in the police firing (though the unofficial number must be much higher, it would be enough to suggest that the victims belonged to both sides of the religious divide).

• 61 Hindus and 40 Muslims lost their lives in police firing in the first three days of the riots.

• Of the 25,486 people identified as accused in the riot-related activities, 17,489 were Hindus, while 7,997 were Muslims. The total number of accused arrested was 26,997, out of which 19,198 were Hindus.

• As of 5 March 2002, 98 relief camps were running in the state, of which 85 belonged to Muslims, while 13 were for Hindus. At one time, 40,000 Hindus lived in refugee camps.

If one compares Gujarat 2002 with Delhi 1984, one can see a stark difference: While Gujarat had all the semblance of communal violence in which both sides clashed with each other and suffered, though on a different scale (the first official victim of the Gujarat violence, for instance, was a Hindu auto-rickshaw driver named Ranjeet Vanjara), Delhi had all the ingredients of being a state-orchestrated pogrom targeting one religious group. In 1984, the victims belonged to just one community, and in three days of mayhem on Delhi’s streets, more than 3,000 Sikhs were brutally massacred. To add insult to their injury, the then newly elected prime minister Rajiv Gandhi used an outrageous “big tree falling” analogy to explain their killings!

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Closer scrutiny of the available details suggests that the alleged mishandling of the 2002 riots wasn’t the real reason for villainising Modi. It was the fury and the fear of Modi dismantling the Nehruvian consensus, with which even Vajpayee’s BJP had a certain comfort level, that made the dominant Left-liberal ecosystem go after him. The assault on Modi was constant and consistent. As Modi biographer Lance Price writes in The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India, “Few politicians in India have faced such a barrage of personal attacks as he (Modi) has done since his first days as a public figure.”

No one killed Godhra victims!

It all began with a massacre on 27 February 2002 when 59 karsevaks, including 27 women and 10 children, were roasted alive in a train bogey by Islamist terrorists in Godhra. The incident was viciously distorted then, as it remains twisted two decades later. One can gauge the level of manipulation and falsehood from Christophe Jaffrelot’s 2021 book, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy. The French author wonders if Godhra happened after a Muslim shopkeeper was forced to utter “Jai Shri Ram”. Or, did it happen after a Muslim girl was abducted in that fateful train? There were also rumours about the karsevaks being heavily drunk.

Through such innuendos, which mostly came via stories circulated by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (one isn’t surprised why Jaffrelot doesn’t mention the source of these stories), attempts were made to tarnish the image of victims: One is made to believe that these people invited wrath upon themselves through their wrongful acts! The fact is, these theories have already been debunked by the Nanavati Commission, set up by the Supreme Court. The assumption that a mob of 2,000 armed Muslims assembled within a few minutes, hearing the abduction of a Muslim girl, belies common sense. Also, the narrative of “molester and molesting pilgrims” doesn’t fit into the reality of a Hindu going on a dharma yatra, especially with his family.

Following stone-throwing, four railway coaches were set ablaze, trapping several passengers inside

But then the Congress-led UPA government, which came to power at the Centre in 2004, was hell-bent on twisting the narrative to suit its secular agenda. What else can explain the setting up of the UC Banerjee Committee, set up by the railway ministry, to probe the Godhra killings? The Nanavati Commission, set up by the apex court and led by a former Supreme Court judge, had already looked into the issue. As per the provision of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, Section 3(b), once a commission has been appointed to inquire into any matter by a state government, the Central government shall not appoint another commission to inquire into the same matter. The Gujarat High Court later, on 13 October 2006, declared the Banerjee Committee illegal. Interestingly, this Committee contradicted the Nanavati Commission’s report, saying there was no attack from outside. No one, thus, killed Godhra victims! Is it any surprise that railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav pushed the Committee to release its interim report ahead of the 2005 Bihar elections?

Manufacturing grievances

In her book, Modi, Muslims and Media: Voices from Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, Madhu Kishwar interviewed Uday Mahurkar, who had covered the 2002 riots for the India Today magazine. Mahurkar, while recalling his visit to the Shah Alam dargah, which had been converted into a refugee camp, said: “Bandeep Singh photographer was with me. On one side of the dargah there is a big room where one lady named Belim was briefing the press and giving highly exaggerated accounts of what had happened. She was crying hysterically in front of journalists. As soon as the media persons moved away, she instantly stopped howling... On the other side of the partition, there was a squint-eyed man from Karnataka. A lady was sitting with him with a tape recorder tutoring this Muslim from Karnataka to say, ‘I am so angry at the riots that I am going to become a terrorist.’” Reportedly, the lady tutoring the Karnataka man was Teesta Setalvad!

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***

Forgotten 58: Twenty years of Godhra, and here’s the first list with names and details of those burnt alive inside train

The worst indictment for Setalvad came from her one-time associate, Rais Khan, who was stationed in Gujarat and would send daily reports to her. Raid fell out with Setalvad in 2008. In a video-recorded interview he gave reasons: “I had given numerous photographs to Teesta Setalvad of rioting mobs during that period. They clearly showed faces of known party workers and leaders of the Congress party along with VHP/Bajrang Dal and BJP cadres. Teesta has never released those pictures that implicate Congressmen… Likewise, she never mentions or shows pictures of Muslim mobs attacking Hindu homes and business establishments during that period. When I began pointing (this) out…, she let loose a propaganda campaign that I had been bought over by the VHP.”

Setalvad wasn’t alone in manufacturing grievances. A thriving industry soon came up comprising people such as Arundhati Roy, Harsh Mander and Shabnam Hashmi, who created a toolkit — first of its kind — to manufacture Muslim dissent in Gujarat for a global audience. The state was projected as “the laboratory of Hindutva” with no place for minorities.

Gujarat not for minorities?

At a time when a few thousand Kashmiri Pandits, residing in the Valley under the Prime Minister’s employment scheme, are putting pressure on the Central government to pull them out of the Valley citing threats to their lives, Gujarat saw hardly any real migration of Muslims. Those few who left the state in 2002, made a return soon after. Even the Muslim tailor named Ansari, whose terrorised face became the face of the 2002 riots, returned to Gujarat after spending a few months in West Bengal. Today, he wants to be protected from his “secular” well-wishers led by Setalvad!

Kishwar explains in her book how Muslims from other states have been migrating to Gujarat for work. “There is a huge inflow of migratory labour in our state, a large percentage of them being Muslims. This is borne out by the new Census data,” she quotes Zafar Sereshwala, a Gujarati businessman who has made a long journey from being a Modi hater to his admirer, as saying. “For example, in the foundry industry, the basic tasks of melting and moulding are done by people from Agra and Bijnor, a large percentage of whom are Muslims. There are numerous new settlements, which are exclusively inhabited by Muslims of UP, Bihar, and Orissa, etc. There are a number of Bengali goldsmiths all over Gujarat.”

As per the 2010-11 Tendulkar Committee report, appointed by the Central government to study state-wise poverty among Muslims in rural India, Gujarat’s figure of poor Muslims stood at 7.7 per cent, which was in sharp contrast to the all-India figure of 26.9 per cent; the Congress and communist-ruled states fared quite miserably in comparison. The Sachar Committee data too showed that the financial assistance to Muslims provided by the government for welfare schemes was much higher in Gujarat than in most other states. Even the Gujarat government’s record in assisting the SME sector is well documented. The 9 per cent Muslim population runs 22 per cent of SMEs in Gujarat.

Modi’s reign has also worked in favour of Muslims on another count: Post-2002, Gujarat saw no communal disturbances; this was distinctly different from the past which saw massive riots on a regular interval — 1969, 1985, 1987, 1992, et al — and sometimes killings would continue for months. In every instance of communal violence, it was this class of Muslim entrepreneurs that suffered the most; their property would be gutted and each time they would be forced to restart their life and business afresh from scratch.

No redemption for Modi

Looking back, one can argue that the 2002 riots could have been handled better. But in Modi’s defence it can be said that he was just a few months into administration, having become the chief minister a few months before. Also, his response to seek the army’s help within 72 hours of the riots was by no standard a belated action; other state governments facing a similar situation had taken a much longer time in the past. Modi had even reached out to neighbouring states for assistance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy @BJP4India/Twitter

The response of the Congress-ruled states to the Gujarat riots has been interesting: On 1 March 2002, Modi appealed for help to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra — all Congress-ruled states then led by Digvijaya Singh, Ashok Gehlot and Vilasrao Deshmukh, respectively. While Vilasrao Deshmukh did lend some forces, Digvijaya Singh and Ashok Gehlot refused to do anything. The government of Madhya Pradesh, in fact, took 13 days to respond and turn down the request!

Despite his criminal indifference, Digvijaya Singh’s ‘secular’ credentials remained unsullied. But Modi was in for a ‘special treatment’. He did everything he could to win over his critics, to salvage his image. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes in his book Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, “As I walked into his (Modi’s) office, he made me forget that I had come to meet the chief minister of a significant state and that he was a political leader of considerable eminence… Modi’s warmth towards me had a personal touch… his choice of words, expressions on his face and the overall body language touched a personal chord in me.” Yet, when Mukhopadhyay came out of the meeting, he was not willing to grant Modi any redemption — he thought Modi was evasive on the riots. He refused to give him the “benefit of doubt” despite understanding that “his reticence was due to the legal maze that surrounded the issues relating to the riots in 2002”.

As one reads Mukhopadhyay further, he seems to echo the sentiments of Ashis Nandy. The noted sociologist, in his May 2002 essay in Seminar, recalled an interview with Modi when he was “a nobody, a small-time RSS pracharak trying to make it as a small-time BJP functionary”. Nandy wrote, “I came out of the interview shaken and told (Achyut) Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps ever a mass murderer.”

Now, that’s called execution, Left-liberal style! No looking at data, no cross-checking of facts. Everything is predetermined. Much like the fate of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who — despite being a Mahatma and regardless of doing everything in favour of the Khilafat movement — was seen by a prominent Muslim leader of the time as “inferior to any Mussalman though he be without character”. Gandhi was born in a “wrong religion”. Likewise, Modi has been infected with a “wrong ideology”. There was no redemption for Gandhi. And there couldn’t have been one for Modi.

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