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The indelible stain of Gujarat

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22 March 2012 10:07

What with the hoopla surrounding the elections in Uttar Pradesh, this year's second-biggest exercise in democracy, and Sachin Tendulkar reaching his one-hundredth hundred, it has been easier than it should have been to overlook the tenth anniversary of the Gujarat riots.

In 2002, the state capital, Ahmedabad, and a string of nearby towns witnessed some of the most grotesque communal violence since India's partition, during which more than a 1000 people, the vast majority Muslims, were slaughtered. Hindu mobs, wearing saffron bandanas and brandishing swords, iron bars and trishuls, tore through the streets destroying mosques and setting alight Muslim-owned businesses. Then they murdered their owners and gang-raped women and children.

Consider the plight of a Muslim man who tried to protect his sister-in-law and young child. First, his skull was cracked open with a sword and his eyes doused with diesel oil. Then he was set alight. His sister-in-law was stripped and raped, then drenched in kerosene and burned alive. The three-month old baby she had cradled in her lap was thrown into the flames.

Gujarat was the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. More depressing still, it is also one of India's most thrusting states – a reminder that rising living standards are not always a guarantor of communal advancement. Indeed, in the first pogrom of the 'Incredible India' age, the murderers co-opted new technology. Computer print-outs of voter lists were used to identify Muslim homes and businesses. Rioters deployed mobile phones and texts to better coordinate their attacks.

That Gujarat remains such an indelible stain on India's reputation, however, is because the police and state authorities did so little to prevent to the violence. Indeed, they have been accused of being accomplices to the slaughter. They allegedly allowed the mass murders in revenge for an arson attack on a train carrying returning Hindu pilgrims from the holy town of Ayodhya, in which at least 58 people were slain.

Ayodhya, of course, has long been the rumbling fault-line of Indian communal politics, the town where Hindu nationalists in 1992 demolished a fifteenth century mosque in the frenzied desire that a Hindu temple would soon rise from its ruins. At the very least, the authorities turned a blind eye. Some of the worst violence took place within metres of police stations, where unmanned switchboards echoed to the sound of unanswered calls for help.

Worse still, the politician ultimately in charge of the police during the riots, Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi (pictured), is not only still in office, but spoken of as a future Indian prime minister. This despite allegations from a senior police officer that he deliberately allowed the slaughter to occur (Modi denies this), and his refusal to apologise for the violence.

Nor has the Bush Administration's bold decision in 2005 to bar him entry to the US impeded his progress. If anything, Modi's notoriety and celebrity have risen in tandem. 'He may be a mass murderer,' wrote the influential columnist Vir Sanghvi, as he tried to explain the spike in popular support for Modi after he was assailed by Washington, 'but he's our mass murderer.'

Now, he is the most high-profile figure in the Hindu nationalist BJP, a party which has struggled to find a commanding figurehead since Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee suffered a surprise defeat in the 2004 'India Shining' election. Aged just 61, young by the standards of India's gerontocracy, he also has time on his side. Rahul Gandhi, a possible future rival in general elections scheduled for 2014, is the only other Indian politician who attracts such unending speculation.

Burnishing Modi's reputation is Gujarat's economic success. Impressed by its double-digit growth, The Economist has labeled the state the 'Guandong of India' (though The Economist regularly criticises Modi). The Chief Minister, presumably eyeing national office, has also sought to rehabilitate his image, most recently, and barefacedly, by mounting a three-day fast to promote peace and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. This week, Modi has made the cover of the Asian edition of Time, his face accompanied by the caption: 'Modi means business but can he lead India?'

Again without evident embarrassment, Modi is also pushing ahead with plans to build the world's tallest statue, twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, which he refers to as the 'Statue of Unity.' Yet the people of India would do well to remember the burned-out buildings that continue to disfigure what were once prosperous Muslim neighbourhoods, and also the slain residents who died in them. Derelict and haunting, they are the true landmarks to Narendra Modi's rule.

 Photo by Flickr user Al Jazeera English.

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