“The Gujarat Carnage 2002, is certainly one of the bloodiest chapters of post-independent India. The painful reality is, that those responsible for it, are now at the helm of power in India” – Father Cedric Prakash (Human Rights Activist)
Confronting past crimes is unsettling, particularly when the perpetrators continue to enjoy political immunity. Fifteen years ago on 28 February 2002, violence in Gujarat, India covered the news headlines as an estimated 2,000 Muslims were massacred over several months across 16 districts in the country.
Attack on board the Sabarmati Express, Godhra
The Sabarmati Express train started its journey from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh towards Ahmedabad, Gujarat on the 25 February 2002. Among its passengers were kar sevaks, volunteers for a religious cause, who were returning from their pilgrimage at the Ram temple in Ayodhya; they had attended a prayer event organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation. Eye witnesses reported that, at various station stops en route to Ahmedabad, kar sevaks targeted Muslims with intimidation and harassment, including anti-Muslim slogans such as “Muslim Bharat Chodo, Pakistan Jao” (“Muslims, Quit India! Go to Pakistan”).
Three hours late, the train pulled in to platform 1 at Godhra station, Gujarat. It was 07:30am, on 27 February 2002. Reports suggest that while passengers had waited for the train to arrive, several unsavoury incidents took place on the platform, including the harassment of hawkers, the molestation of a Muslim girl, anti-Muslim slogans and grave disruptive behaviour.
Soon after departing from Godhra station the train stalled twice. Then, coach S-6 became engulfed in flames, killing 58 passengers who were believed to be kar sevaks. The train was carrying approximately 1,700 kar sevaks and it is unclear how many kar sevaks were on board the jammed packed coach. Manoj Mitta in his book “The Fiction of Fact Finding,” says that, “The exact sequence of events from the arrival of the train at the platform to the blaze…or how exactly it came to be stalled twice – has remained shrouded in mystery.” Despite the State Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) conclusion that the pattern of burn showed that the fire could not have come from the outside, the state government insisted that the fire were induced from the outside, suggesting that Muslims had hurled home-made bombs into the coach.
The complicity of Gujarat’s Chief Minister in the violence
Within hours of the Godhra fire the then-Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi visited Godhra. Without any investigation he issued a public statement, saying that the fire on coach S-6 was an act of premeditated terrorism, and the Central Government claimed that it was instigated by the Pakistan Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and aided by the Muslims of Godhra.
The situation was exacerbated when the Chief Minister instructed that the charred bodies of the victims of coach S-6 to be taken to Ahmedabad in a motor cavalcade.
Investigations later carried out by the Concerned Citizen’s Tribunal noted that the procession of charred victims resulted in agitating an already highly tensed situation, causing the Hindu fundamentalist mobs to retaliate against the Muslims, committing mass murders.
Interviews conducted by the Concerned Citizen’s Tribunal with over 2,000 witnesses and survivors revealed that those who had orchestrated and carried out the attacks were drawn from the Sangh Parivar (the family of fundamentalist Hindutva organisations, inspired by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology). The Tribunal also reported that on the evening of the 27 February, two of Chief Minister Modi’s ministers, together with members of the Sangh Parivar, organised meetings to plan reprisals. Evidence before the tribunal also suggested that the police were directly taking instructions from the Chief Minister’s administration who had directed them not to act firmly against those who carried out the attacks against Muslims.
The murder of Ehsan Jafri MP
Among the most glaring indictments against the Chief Minister was for the brutal attack and murder of former Congress Member of Parliament, Ehsan Jafri, in Gulberg Society, Ahmedabad, on 28 February 2002 – one day after the train incident.
Evidence suggests that Ehsan Jafri, himself a Muslim, had made more than 200 phone calls on the day for help, including calls to the Chief Minister, Director General of Police and the Police Commissioner.
In a testimony taken by Human Rights Watch, an eye witness said that Ehsan was hacked to death and set on fire but the police did not come to his aid. The police station was less than a kilometre away from where the incident took place.
On the evening of the 28 February, Modi delivered a speech appealing for peace, which was aired by Doordashan, a state sponsored channel. The speech was focused entirely on the burning of the train coach and made no reference to the subsequent attack on the Muslim community in Gulberg Society. Modi had denied knowing anything about the Gulberg Society massacre, which had occurred just hours before the press conference.
Concerns of Continuing Incitement
In 2008, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the criminal case against Modi’s involvement in the attacks. Contrary to popular understanding, Modi was not absolved from criminality by the Supreme Court of India; the SIT only recommended that there was insufficient evidence.
The accusations against Modi for making inciting remarks and his failure to instruct the law enforcement agencies to take action against the perpetrators of the massacre, continue to beset to this day.
The case of Gujarat is far from over, as far as justice and accountability is concerned. As cases from the 2002 pogrom continue in court (as of June 2016, two more cases are still pending), one is reminded that the historical animosity towards religious minorities is a key concern. In 2002, the VHP described the Gujarat massacre as a “successful experiment.” In 2014, Pravin Togadia, leader of the VHP, and well known for his hate speeches against India’s religious minorities, publicly warned the Muslims not to provoke another “Gujarat” in Muzaffarnagar.
“The case of Gujarat is far from over, as far as justice and accountability is concerned.”
If the masterminds behind the Gujarat massacre are not held to account, and if the Sangh Parivar continue to have a favoured political position, the deep legacy of hate and impunity of the 2002 Gujarat violence, will not go away. This begs the question – what assurance of protection and freedom would citizens of India who belong to a minority religion have?
By CSW’s India Advocacy Officer