Religions in conflict: India's state of war


It is five years since Gujarat erupted in violence
between Hindus and Muslims. But next week's elections
will be dominated by the fallout from the bloody
events 
By Andrew Buncombe in Ahmedabad 
Published: 07 December 2007 

http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article3231235.ece

It is called the Bombay Hotel but there is no service
to speak of.

Indeed, the 8,000 or so Muslim families who live in
this flyblown shantytown on the edge of the Gujarati
city of Amhedabad make do without running water and
regular electricity, never mind such luxuries as
bathrooms and medical facilities.

With a widely watched election taking place in Gujarat
next week, this shantytown is a crucial backdrop to
the contest being played out in one of India's most
restive states, between the ruling right-wing
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the
centrist Congress Party, the party of Jawaharlal
Nehru.

The people living in the Bombay Hotel area rushed
there for safety in the aftermath of Gujurat's 2002
violence during which up to 2,000 people killed and
thousands more wounded, most of them Muslims. The
attacks were carried out by Hindus, partly in
retaliation for an alleged arson attack on a train in
which more than 50 Hindu pilgrims were killed. The
killings, spread over three months, represent India's
deadliest religious violence since Partition in 1947.

That the aftermath of such violence should be a
political issue just five years after it took place is
perhaps not surprising. But in recent weeks the
violence of 2002 has been thrust to the forefront of
the current contest because of fresh allegations
directly accusing BJP officials and the state's Chief
Minister, Narendra Modi, of orchestrating the
killings.

Mr Modi and his supporters adamantly deny the
allegations. But few would argue that the 57-year-old
has become one of the most controversial politicians
in India. Animated, confident and charismatic, Mr Modi
has placed himself at the centre of the BJP campaign,
even as the allegations against him have mounted.

Indeed, it appears he thrives on controversy. When the
Congress Party's president, Sonia Gandhi, the
Italian-born widow of the assassinated Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi, alleged that Gujurat was run by "liars
... peddlers of religion and death," Mr Modi retorted
that she was merely "slinging Italian mud". He added:
"That kind of mud only makes me and the lotus [the
symbol of the BJP] stronger".

It has long been alleged that Mr Modi and senior
members of the BJP state government did nothing to
prevent the violence that broke out in the spring of
2002. It was soon after the fire on board the
Sabarmarti Express which broke out while the train was
stopped at the city of Godhra.

It was alleged that a Muslim mob deliberately started
the fire after they got involved in an altercation
with Hindus, but at least one government inquiry has
concluded it was caused by a cooking-fire accident on
board the train. In all, 58 pilgrims were killed 
among them 20 children  and the train was gutted.

The backlash began soon afterwards. In more than 150
towns and almost 1,000 villages, violence broke out,
overwhelmingly as Hindus attacked Muslim communities.
While there are also some reports of Muslims attacking
Hindus, few dispute that most victims were members of
the minority community that make up 10 per cent of the
state's population. The official death toll said 790
Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, though a number of
rights groups estimate the toll to have been double
that.

In the aftermath of the attacks the BJP government was
widely condemned for not acting to prevent the
killings. The Indian Supreme Court likened Mr Modi to
a "modern-day Nero" while the US government refused
him a visa on the grounds that he had "violated
religious freedom".

A report by Human Rights Watch said state officials
were involved. "What happened was not a spontaneous
uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated attack
against Muslims," it said. "The attacks were planned
in advance and organised with extensive participation
of the police and state government officials."

Last month, the allegations got more serious. An
undercover investigation in the news magazine Tehelka
said Mr Modi explicitly approved of the "pogrom" and
helped to protect perpetrators. Using hidden video
cameras, a reporter from the magazine filmed people
allegedly involved in the planning and carrying-out of
the killings. It quoted Haresh Batt, at the time the
leader of a fundamentalist Hindu organisation, as
saying: "[Modi] had given us three days to do whatever
we could. He said he would not give us time after
that. He said that openly. After three days he asked
us to stop and everything came to a halt."

It also quoted testimony from three men accused of one
of the massacre's most notorious incidents, the
killing of a former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri. He took
shelter in his home in the Gulbarg distrct of
Ahmedabad, from where he frantically telephoned the
police, colleagues in Delhi and even the Chief
Minister's office for help. None came. In all, at
least 39 Muslims were killed there. "Five or six
people held him, then someone struck him with a sword,
chopped off his hand, then his legs, then everything
else," the magazine quoted one of those accused as
saying. "After cutting him to pieces they put him on
the wood they'd piled and set it on fire ... burnt him
alive."

Among Indian civil society, the reaction has been one
of outrage. Many have called on the Congress
Party-dominated central government to order an
inquiry. Others have questioned why the police are not
investigating the allegations against Mr Modi.

But in Ahmedabad, once known as the Manchester of
India because of its now faded textile industry, the
reaction has been different. While Muslims have seized
on the report as proof of what they always believed,
some BJP supporters have simply chosen to ignore it.

More troubling, there are suggestions  and some
anecdotal evidence  that Mr Modi's support has grown
in the aftermath of the allegations. Such is the
belief that the Chief Minister has benefitted from
being seen by fundamentalist Hindus as someone who
will "stand up" to Muslims, it is not uncommon to hear
claims that Mr Modi was behind the Tehelka story.

"Modi himself has made this. He knows that people will
like it," said Gulman Hussain, a Muslim printing press
worker who was sitting drinking tea at a stall in the
centre of Ahmedabad.

What is curious is that, with the two sides running
close in the polls, the Congress Party has chosen not
to make more of the seemingly damaging allegations
against Mr Modi, barely raising them in its campaign.
A Congress Party member, who asked not to be named,
said: "The Congress Party has to be careful. It needs
the support of Hindu voters. It does not want to raise
this issue."

Alkesh Patel, an Ahmedabad jeweller, who declined to
reveal how he will vote next week, said: "The 2002
violence is the main issue. They do not generally
speak openly but when the poll comes, the issue is
very important for the public... I think the BJP will
win. It will be communualism. No one is saying so in
public but everybody knows."

Asked why the Congress Party was not raising the
issues in Tehelka, Raju Parmar, an MP and party
spokesman, chose instead to question the motives
behind its publication. "Why has it come in the middle
of the election? The people of Gujarat will decide,"
he said. Asked why the party was not calling for an
inquiry, he said: "The law will take its own course."

Mr Modi has spent most of the campaign promoting the
BJP's effort to develop Gujarat's economy. The party
has pushed itself as the agent of development in a
state that is seen as succeeding in attracting outside
investment from industrialists. As he travels the
rural parts of the state, one of Mr Modi's more
populist slogans has been: "You give me lotus, I will
give you Lakshmi [the goddess of wealth]."

Many believe this. "I will vote for Mr Modi. For the
last seven years he has done a lot of good work and he
is the only person not corrupted," said Susir Sarkar,
a businessmen. "He has built roads and done
infrastructure."

In recent days, Mr Modi has switched tactics.
Repeatedly challenged by Congress over the state's
economic development, the Chief Minister has opted to
change the headlines with statements on the death of
Shorabuddin Sheikh. The alleged underworld operative
was shot dead by police in 2005 in what is commonly
termed a "fake encounter"  a staged incident in which
a suspect is deliberalty targeted. Several senior
police officers have been arrested over the killing,
but this week Mr Modi said he himself had ordered the
hit.

"What should have been done to a man from whom a large
number of AK-47 rifles were recovered, who was on the
search list of police from four states, who attacked
the police, who had relations with Pakistan and wanted
to enter Gujarat?" he asked of a rally of supporters.
They responded by chanting: "Kill him, Kill him." Mr
Modi replied: "Do I need to take Sonia Gandhi's
permission for this? Hang me if I'm wrong."

Analysts say Mr Modi's comments were significant
because it was the first time in the campaign he had
resorted to communalism. Mr Sheikh was a Muslim, as
are many of those killed in so-called fake encounters
with the police. "All fake encounters involve
Muslims," said the analyst and author Achyut Yagnik.
"So, by saying that, he is saying 'I will protect you
against Islamic fundamentalism'."

Mr Modi's comments resulted in the state's Election
Commission accusing him of breaking guidelines
designed to deter politicians from inciting racial
hatred. But the Chief Minister appears to show little
concern. The next day he spoke at another rally
demanding the hanging of "terrorists" in police
custody.

For all its local issues, Gujarat's election has
national implications. If the Congress Party manages
to win control of the state assembly  the BJP holds
127 of its 182 seats  it may be persuaded to call a
snap general election. At the same time, re-election
for Mr Modi could reinvigorate the BJP and see his
brand of Hindu-centric campaigning thrust to the
foreground.

Meanwhile, for the displaced people of the Bombay
Hotel, talk of electoral politics fails to resonate.
Raisu Isabanu said her son, Mohammed Yasin, 20, was
shot dead in the 2002 violence. "I cannot think of
anything after I lost him," she said. Of Mr Modi, the
man accused of so much, she said: "We don't want him
to run again."








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