The Spiral of Violence

Rajdeep Sardesai


In a state where death has become a daily statistic, the question one is asked most frequently now is when will the violence in Gujarat really end? It's a tough question to answer, and frankly, in a situation like Gujarat, no one can safely predict when the streets of Ahmedabad and Vadodra will once again be free of bloodletting. The Gujarat government has attempted to seek refuge in history: it has told the national human rights commission that it took over 45 days to control the violence in the 1969 riots, and over 60 days before the army could be withdrawn in 1985. All one can say is that the 2002 riots are set to break past records: 60 days and still continuing. It's a statistic that makes Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's claim that the violence was brought under control within three days seem like a cruel joke.

But there is a difference between the first phase of post-Godhra rioting and what we have witnessed in the last fortnight in Gujarat. We may not like the word, but the initial violence in Gujarat was a pogrom, defined in the Oxford dictionary as an organised massacre. The manner in which the lives and livelihood of the minority community were singled out in this phase of violence should leave no one in any doubt that there was a systematic targeting in which the state machinery either connived, or else chose to turn a blind eye to.

In the last two weeks though what one has seen is a more conventional riot, in the sense that the violence has involved members of both communities. In Muslim-dominated localities in the walled city of Ahmedabad, there have been instances where Hindus have been attacked, and their shops damaged. The bulk of the damage has still been sustained by members of the minority community, but there is now a growing "evenness" in the sporadic violence that holds dire consequences for the future.

For one thing, the longer the violence endures, the more it is deepening the wall of mistrust between the communities. If the initial wave of violence was triggered off by the terrible tragedy of Godhra, it now requires only the slightest rumour or even a seemingly innocuous incident like an auto-rickshaw hitting a cycle for mobs from both communities to gather on the street.

The psychological divide has now triggered off a physical divide. In the heart of Ahmedabad, we now have "border areas", streets and neighbourhoods partitioned on strictly communal lines. Families are moving out of mixed neighbourhoods to live in single community areas, no one it appears is willing to risk being isolated in a polarised society. It's this ghettoisation of body and soul that threatens the very basis of civil society in Ahmedabad. If individuals cannot move freely in a city, if there is virtually no inter-community interaction, then where is the basis for any hope for the future?

Unfortunately, leaders from both communities seem to be unable, deliberately or otherwise, to even attempt to bridge the divide. For the ruling party, the polarisation is seen as integral to their political agenda. One finds ministers in the Modi government still choosing not to even visit the relief camps that have been set up for minorities. Instead, you have a senior minister in the Modi government saying that he wants the camps to be dismantled because they are adding to the tension in his area. Again, there are still pamphlets being distributed urging people to economically boycott the minority community. Some of these pamphlets may well be the handiwork of local gangs keen to benefit from the surcharged atmosphere, but the fact is that on the ground little has been done to check their spread. Instead, even now, senior VHP leaders are persisting with their campaign of hate against the minorities.

On the other side of the communal divide, some local Muslim leaders also seem intent on adding their own little bit to the problem. Why, for example, did some local groups choose to announce a boycott of the school examinations in Gujarat, even going to the extent of forcing some children not to go the examination centres? The argument that students would feel insecure travelling out of their neighbourhood may have some validity, but couldn't the issue have been resolved through dialogue instead of taking a confrontational posture? The fact that many of these community leaders have close links with the Congress party makes their actions even more suspicious, especially as ensuring a large attendance at the exams had been made a prestige issue by the Gujarat government.

The time for political sparring in Gujarat is over. Too many innocent lives have been lost simply because the state machinery has failed to perform its basic obligation to provide security to its citizens. This failure of the state has made it even more important for individuals and citizens groups in Ahmedabad and Gujarat to set aside their political differences, and actually make an attempt to work together. One of the more depressing features of the violence in Gujarat has been how little attempt there has been on the part of civil society to speak out against the violence. Whether out of fear or plain acquiescence, the silence of the people of Gujarat has allowed the state machinery to brazen it out and even believe that the silence is evidence of support for their actions.

Those who are ready to speak out must make just one simple demand: even before they ask for Narendra Modi's resignation (and that is now a political question better left to the voters), they must demand justice. They must demand that every one who has had their family members killed, houses torched, and businesses destroyed, be made to believe that those responsible for their plight will be punished. For example, if more than two months after at least 60 people were killed in the Naroda-Patia surburb of Ahmedabad, no one has been arrested, how can anyone hope that justice will be done? Punishing the guilty in Gujarat is the very minimum required for any kind of normalcy to return to the state.


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