What really happened in Gujarat?

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Pyromania Mobs set fire to vehicles and other belongings at the Khokhara locality in Ahmedabad on 28 February 2002
Pyromania Mobs set fire to vehicles and other belongings at the Khokhara locality in Ahmedabad on 28 February 2002

As the tide of passion, soul searching and recrimination over Gujarat ebbs, it is becoming possible to look for answers to the question that has been tormenting all Indians since 1 March. “What went so horribly wrong in Gujarat that 750 people had to die (in addition to those killed at Godhra) and more than 100,000 had to be rendered homeless and destitute?” All of us know that the security of the Indian State in future years — in short, the safety of our children — depends upon our finding the answer. But till just a short time ago, most of us had despaired of finding one.

As the dust settles, however, answers are beginning to emerge. First, did the Gujarat government really do nothing to forestall a bloodbath that it could see coming or incredible as it may seem in retrospect, did it fail to anticipate the bloodbath? Till a fortnight ago, the general perception was the former. But since then reports like those of the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Minorities have given a more nuanced picture of what actually happened. These have accepted the Gujarat government’s contention that it did foresee trouble and took precautionary steps to keep it in check, but was caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the mob fury that erupted on 28 February. The Gujarat government’s own account, given on 5 March, of how events unfolded is valuable because it lacks the element of hindsight found in media reports.

“As soon as the seriousness of the Godhra incident became known, the state government immediately issued alert messages on 27 February 2002 to all district magistrates, commissioners and district superintendents of police. The administration was directed to exercise vigil and deal with anti-social and communal-minded elements firmly. Another alert message was issued the same day directing that preventive action be taken and adequate police bandobast (arrangements) maintained.

“Further, the state government constantly reviewed the situation and decided to first call in additional central paramilitary forces on 27 February 2002 and thereafter the army on 28 February 2002. The state also requested additional forces from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Two companies of Maharashtra Reserve Police Force arrived and were deployed in Surat. In addition, 66 companies of the SRP (State Reserve Police) were deployed immediately on 27 February 2002 itself.

“As violence was reported on 28 February 2002, commissioners and superintendent of police were directed in no uncertain terms to take effective action to disperse unruly mobs. In fact, curfew was imposed in some affected parts of Ahmedabad on 28 February itself.

“On 1 March 2002, which was Friday, the administration was alerted to keep peace and provide adequate bandobast to places of worship. On the same day (1 March), the police was instructed to implement riot-control measures, enforce the curfew strictly, intensify patrolling and take all necessary measures.”

Anarchy Policemen try to bring the riots under control
Anarchy Policemen try to bring the riots under control, Photo: AP

But no one had anticipated the size or fury of the mobs that took to the streets on 28 February and 1 March. This was not so much a failure of intelligence as a failure to anticipate what television was likely to do to the communal powder keg in Gujarat. All through the evening of 27 February and the morning, the news channels beamed visual images of burnt bogies and charred corpses at Godhra to millions of living rooms throughout India. Seeing the bogies and corpses made it real. It became possible to imagine the petrol and flammable chemicals being thrown into the bogies, the screams of those trapped inside, their desperate attempts to get out and the frustration of these attempts by the stone pelting, knife- and rod-wielding mob outside. The point of no return was probably reached when it became known that among the 58 burnt at Godhra were 26 women and 10 children. In short, the mob had burned families. Godhra became everyone’s nightmare. What followed was in some sense inevitable. Mobs of up to 20,000 took to the streets and simply overwhelmed the police. They included large numbers of the new middle class because this class has television sets.

Despite that, the Gujarat Police did try to restore law and order. The figures given by it to, and accepted by, the National Commission for Minorities speak for themselves. Till 5 April, 137 persons had been killed in police firing, of whom 71 were Hindus. Of these, 90 had been killed by 6 am on the morning of 5 March. By 5 April, 9,500 persons had been arrested, of whom two-thirds were Hindus. Only 3,900 of these had been picked up in the first five days. This shows that the police continued to go after vandals and those it suspected of having participated in the looting, long after the actual violence had died down.

What gives cause for anxiety, therefore, is not how the administration behaved, but how the state’s political leaders behaved. If the overwhelming mass of newspaper reports are to be credited as being accurate, these leaders tried to force the release of the VHP and Bajrang Dal cadres whom the police and district administration had arrested, and when a police officer or district magistrate resisted, he was punished by being summarily transferred to a ‘staff’ job where he would push a pen in a closed room all day. In short, even while a beleaguered administration was doing its level best to cope with an unprecedented upsurge of communal violence, the political leaders of the state, who were elected by the people to protect them, were doing all they could to undermine the administration’s capacity to do so.

This article originally appeared in Outlook on 11 April 2002

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