By Dionne Bunsha
It was a sunny day but no one dared to venture out of their homes. The streets were bare, curfew still in force. Godhra felt like a ghost town, but it was actually crowded with refugees. The doors of its schools and hospitals hid the exodus of people who had fled here after being hacked, raped, and tortured during an anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002.
As soon as I entered the hospital, I faced the crush of people in the ward, all with terrible wounds and horrific stories to tell. While I was talking to a man slashed by sword wounds, I felt something tugging at my kurta. It was his seven-year-old daughter, Sheela.1 When she finally caught my attention she said: “You know, they threw children into the village well. I don’t know how many children have drowned.”
Amid the sea of stories of rape and murder, I still remember Sheela’s eyes staring up at me, hoping that I could tell the world about the crimes she had witnessed. For the next four years, I reported on the aftermath of the carnage in Gujarat for Frontline magazine, telling the stories of refugees whose homes and businesses were captured, of murder witnesses who were arrested while killers roamed free. I wanted to tell the story of how the extremist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in power in Gujarat under the leadership of Narendra Modi, had turned the state—Gandhi’s birthplace and the home base for many of his civil rights campaigns—into a land of intolerance where mobs ruled long after the violence ended.
The Gujarat carnage may be dismissed today as a footnote, an aberration, but violence has been the BJP’s strategy in innumerable instances.
Now, 12 years after the mass murders in Gujarat, Modi is set to become India’s Prime Minister. The world’s largest democracy may have voted for one of the most undemocratic leaders in its contemporary history. In a significant victory, the BJP, led by Modi, won 282 of 543 seats in India’s Parliament, the first time since 1989 that a party has won a clear majority. Disgusted by the corruption and lethargy of the ruling Congress (I) government, which was reduced from 206 seats in parliament to 44, voters were restless for change and the BJP reaped the rewards, managing an overwhelming victory despite receiving just 31% of the vote share.
The Indian media has been euphoric about the pro-Modi “tsunami” that has swept across the country. Stories of Muslims and mosques being attacked in Modi’s victory celebrations have been buried in the back pages or ignored while Modi declares that “India has won! Good days are ahead.” The horrors of the 2002 pogrom and the undertone of intimidation that still lingers in Gujarat have also been ignored in favor of Modi’s promises of economic growth. Many Indians, it seems, are eager to buy into Modi’s claims of being the “Vikas Purush” (Man of Progress) who will bring prosperity and good governance to India just as he did in Gujarat. His urban middle class supporters hope that he will transform India using his “Gujarat model of development,” that he is not corrupt, and that he will abandon his divisive prejudice against minorities. However, Modi’s governance record casts doubt on such naive optimism.
The Gujarat carnage may be dismissed today as a footnote, an aberration, but violence has been the BJP’s strategy in innumerable instances—from the destruction of a 400-year-old mosque called Babri Masjid in 1992, which was incited by the party and led to further violence against Muslims across the country, to the Muzaffarnagar riots last year, where BJP leaders allegedly incited violence again. For the thousands like Sheela, India needs to remember the past, because it could well be its future.
The Gujarat pogrom occurred after a conflict between Hindu pilgrims and a Muslim tea vendor at the Godhra railway station escalated into violence and arson. 58 Hindus died and Modi immediately called the tragic incident a “terrorist act.” His allies in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an extremist Hindu group, announced there would be “Blood for Blood.” That evening, Modi allegedly told police officers “to let the mobs vent their anger.” The next day, armed mobs targeted Muslim homes while the police refused to save them. More than 1,000 people were killed, around 2,500 were injured, and over 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, became refugees. Police stood by watching during the attacks, refused to file cases, and hid evidence. According to Human Rights Watch, the death count is likely closer to 2,000.
The BJP’s rule in Gujarat was the party’s “Hindutva experiment,” the rehearsal for its larger vision of a Hindu nationalist state. A few months after the pogrom, VHP leader Ashok Singhal said: “We were successful in our experiment of raising Hindu consciousness, which will be repeated all over the country now.” He said that villages had been “emptied of Islam”, and Muslims had been sent to refugee camps, and that this was a victory for Hindu society. Is this the model of governance that India really wants?
The girls were kidnapped at the request of their families who did not want them to marry outside their religion and caste.
Zakia Jafri, the aged widow of the late Gujarat Congress(I) leader Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the massacre, appealed to the courts asking for charges to be filed against Modi for criminal conspiracy. A Magistrate court in Gujarat dismissed her case, leading Modi to claim that the courts have given him a “clean chit.” However, Jafri is now challenging this verdict in the Gujarat High Court, stating that investigators have ignored evidence of Modi’s involvement in the criminal conspiracy. It is too early, then, to presume that Modi has a “clean chit.” Now that Modi is in power with a large majority, though, it seems even more unlikely that the courts will dare to cross his path.
The BJP is the political arm of a network of right wing organizations called the Sangh Parivar, which shares a Hindutva nationalist ideology that defines Indian culture solely in terms of “Hindu values.” Inspired by Hitler, Mussolini and European fascism, the Sangh’s ideologues—M.S. Golwalkar and V.D. Savarkar, among others—envisioned India as a Hindu nation, where others would live as ‘second class citizens’. The Sangh Parivar is headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the organization for which Modi started working at the age of 10, and which was briefly banned after a former member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Though the Sangh Parivar raises hysteria over Muslim “terrorists,” its members have been allegedly involved in several terror attacks within India, including the Malegaon bomb blasts in 2008.
When asked about his role in the Gujarat pogrom during a TV interview, Modi walked off the set.
The Sangh’s cadre are trained and armed while young. I visited their training camps in Gujarat where young boys are taught rifle shooting and judo, and indoctrinated with the Hindutva philosophy. One of the young activists told me: “We should have weapons to protect our religion and our country. Muslims should be removed.” Babu Bajrangi, a leader of the militant Bajrang Dal, boasted to me that he had kidnapped more than 400 Hindu women who married non-Hindu men. The girls were kidnapped at the request of their families who did not want them to marry outside their religion and caste. Bajrangi kept them locked in his farmhouse outside Ahmedabad for several weeks, arranged forced abortions if they were pregnant, and sent them back to their parents after “teaching them the right values.” A few girls managed to escape. Similar strategies are adopted across India to ensure women adhere to “Indian values.”
Dissenters who have challenged the Modi government in Gujarat, including former BJP minister Haren Pandya and Right to Information activist Amit Jethwa, have been mysteriously killed. Over the course of Modi’s election campaign, several journalists were threatened and silenced by Sangh Parivar activists as well as by media owners. Police officers who provided proof of Modi’s complicity in the pogrom were arrested or made to resign. When Arvind Kejriwal, the opposition leader from the Aam Aadmi Party, visited Gujarat to probe into Modi’s claims that it is a model state for development, his car was attacked by BJP workers and he was arrested for allegedly violating the election commission’s model code of conduct. Celebrity actor Aamir Khan’s films Rang De Basanti and Fanaa were not allowed to be screened in Gujarat because he spoke out against the government’s pet project, the Sardar Sarovar dam.
Meanwhile, Modi—the strongman with the “56 inch chest,” as he likes to describe himself—cannot even face an interview until questions have been vetted by his PR team. When asked about his role in the Gujarat pogrom during a TV interview, Modi walked off the set. The Editorial Director of India TV, Qamar Waheed Naqvi, resigned after the channel aired a “scripted” interview with Modi hosted by its editor-in-chief, Rajat Sharma.
Of course, the Congress Party has a violent past too; its leaders were involved in a massacre against Sikhs in 1984. But targeting minorities and stirring violence isn’t a deliberate part of the Congress’ agenda, whereas Hindutva was part of Modi’s campaign, which used religion and caste to polarize voters. At election rallies in the eastern state of Assam, Modi threatened to deport Bangladeshi migrants who were Muslim and provide refuge to Hindus from Bangladesh. Giriraj Singh, a senior BJP leader, warned that there will be no place in India for those who want to stop Modi. Those opposed, he said, will have to go to Pakistan.
Modi managed to ride to victory on the upsurge of anger against the Congress (I), capturing the public imagination with theatrical public meetings—during which Modi’s speeches were broadcast via 3-D hologram—and exaggerated claims about Gujarat’s economic progress, which Modi takes credit for and has promised to replicate across India.
The truth is, however, that Gujarat was one of India’s more prosperous states even before Modi became its chief minister. “Gujarat’s performance in the 2000s does not seem to justify the exuberant optimism about Modi’s economic leadership,” say economists Maitreesh Ghatak from the London School of Economics and Sanchari Roy from the University of Warwick. Gujarat’s Human Development Index (HDI) was above the national average in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the 2000s under Modi, it fell to the national average. Gujarat’s HDI ranks 9th among the country’s 20 major states, according to the latest HDI computations for Indian states.
Modi is corporate India’s favorite, though, because many companies have benefitted from his largesse in Gujarat. An official Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report of 2012 stated that government-owned firms in Gujarat granted “undue benefit” to big industrial houses, which resulted in revenue losses worth millions. Modi has been travelling across the country for his election campaign in jets owned by the Adani Group, which purchased government land in Gujarat at heavily discounted rates while Modi was in power. Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, one of BJP’s opponents in the election, alleged that as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi lobbied with the national government to increase gas prices three-fold to favor the Ambani Group, his close allies and India’s largest corporation. These facts tear apart the myth of Modi as Mr. Clean.
The Gujarat model is one characterized by unrestrained power and large subsidies to industry, which comes at a price for the poor. Despite protests, the Gujarat government has usurped land from farmers and wages in the state are 15-20% lower than India’s average. Every year, more than 500 farmers in Gujarat commit suicide, unable to deal with debt. When I visited Malak Nes village where a suicide had occurred in 2007, a group of farmers told me, “Look the holes in our chappals (slippers)—they are broken. Can you please send them to Modi? He gives speeches saying that farmers in Gujarat drive Maruti cars. Can you ask him which farmer in Gujarat has a Maruti car? We can’t even afford a new pair of chappals.” Farmers pay around 14% interest to banks, and over 60% to moneylenders. Compare this to the $1.2 billion loan that the Gujarat government gave to India’s biggest industrial house, the Tatas, at 0.1% interest, to be paid back after 20 years.
Cloaked under the guise of development, Modi’s real agenda is likely to be guided by the RSS, whose priorities are very different from Modi’s campaign promises of electricity and toilets in every home, bullet trains, and 100 new cities. Even before election day, the RSS made it clear that they expect Modi to move forward with the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, on the site where the historic Babri Masjid (mosque) was demolished by Sangh activists in 1992, an act which led to communal violence across India. It also expects Modi to abolish Article 370, which grants special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. This is likely to be met with great resentment in Kashmir, a state fighting for its independence from India. To retain “Indian moral values,” the RSS also wants Modi to take a hard stance on issues like the legality of “live-in relationships” and “homosexuality.”
It is clear why India’s billionaires are backing Modi. It’s also evident why Hindu nationalists would be excited by his rise to power. But a wider range of voters, yearning for a change and hope, have bought into Modi’s hype as well. They have voiced their choice for development, effective governance, and the “good days” that Modi has promised. In doing so, they may have inadvertently opted for Hindutva’s brand of fascist rule, where violence is engineered for political ends, where women and minorities live in fear, where children are trained to hate, where corporations can muscle over the poor, and where we may never hear of these abuses because dissent is silenced.
I can still feel Sheela tugging at my kurta.
1Sheela’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Dionne Bunsha is a journalist, and author of the book Scarred: Experiments With Violence In Gujrat, a narrative of the violence in Gujarat in 2002 and its aftermath.