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Godhra, Gujarat - Sectarian Violence 2002

In Gujarat the worst religious violence directed against Muslims by Hindus took place in February and March 2002, leaving an estimated 2,000 dead and 100,000 displaced into refugee camps. The events in Gujarat from 27 February 2002 mark a turning point in contemporary Indian politics. These have profound consequences for the continuation of India as a multi-cultural, secular society, for survival of democracy, and for the unity and integrity of the country. There have been riots and pogroms in India before but the Gujarat carnage is exceptional. Widespread communal violence errupted following the burning in Godhra of the Sabarmati Express train, in which fifty-nine men, women, and children were killed. The incident had sparked some of the deadliest sectarian violence seen in India.

Gujarat has a history of sectarian [communal] violence, going back to decades before Indian independence in 1947. The small town of Godhra is no exception. There was communal tension in the town and the State because of proposed Hindu rites at a disputed site in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Hindu volunteers travelling in the Sabarmati Express train to Ayodhya or back to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, had reportedly been misbehaving with Muslim passengers, both men and women, for days without any police intervention.

On February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express, a train bound for Ahmedabad,7 was carrying kar sevaks (pilgrims, religious workers) from Ayodhya to Gujarat. The kar sevaks traveled to aid in the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. In 1992, a mob of Hindu militants demolished the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, built in the 16th century, instigating rioting that spread to other parts of the country, and resulted in the death of more than 2,000 people, again mostly Muslims. They declared that they would build a temple to Ram at the site, in supposed retribution for the Muslim invasion of certain spaces in what is today, centuries later, the nation-state of India. The train stopped at Godhra, a town in Panchmahal district in Gujarat with a history of communal11 tension. Around 7.45AM on 27th February some incidents at Godhra station, including the attempted abduction of a teenaged Muslim girl by a Hindu volunteer travelling on the train, led to stone throwing, followed by an attack by a Muslim mob of 2,000 from nearby slums when the train was stopped half a mile away. Some 1,500 Hindu volunteers on the train countered with stone throwing. Firebombs were used by the Muslim mob, and a fire broke out in Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express, which resulted in the death of 59 Hindu passengers, mainly women and children. This incident, which was a communal riot in a town with a long history of communal outbreaks, became the trigger and justification for the carnage that followed.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders belonging to the network of Hindu nationalist organizations collectively known as the Sangh Parivar (or ‘Sangh’) alleged that the Godhra tragedy had been a pre-planned Muslim conspiracy to attack Hindus, subvert the state, and damage the economy. In addition, Modi “further sought to stoke religious passions of the majority Hindu community by taking the decision to bring the charred remains of the victims of the tragedy to Ahmedabad in a public ceremony intended to arouse passions.”13 Hindutva14 groups also alleged that Hindu women had been violated in the attack.

It inflamed religious passions and triggered a wave of anti-Muslim rioting in Gujarat State. At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in some of the worst violence witnessed in India since independence. Home Ministry figures released in May 2005 indicated that, in the days following the train burning, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, and 2,500 others were injured. Some NGOs maintained the number of Muslims killed was higher than official estimates, with figures ranging anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 dead. There were also reports that Muslim women were subjected to rape, gang rape, and molestation.

It was alleged widely that the police and state government did little to stop the violence promptly, and at times even encouraged or assisted Hindus involved in the riots. Despite substantial evidentiary material, the judicial commission responsible for investigating the riots reported inconclusive findings.

The Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, who was also a senior RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghathan: National Volunteer Organization -- a Hindu fundamentalist organization] leader, arrived in Godhra and alleged that the attack on the train was planned by Pakistani intelligence [the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)]. This charge was repeated a couple of days later by federal Home Minister L.K. Advani, also a BJP Member of Parliament from Gandhinagar, the capitol of Gujarat. Ministers alleged that the same terrorist groups who had attacked the American Center in Kolkata were behind the Godhra attack, and promised to teach them a lesson.

Consequently an impression was created with official sanction, that the Godhra Muslims were agents of Pakistan, a traditional enemy. The Chief Minister insisted that the badly charred bodies of the victims be sent for post mortem to Ahmedabad the same night. The time of arrival of the bodies was announced over the government radio and frenzied mobs came to the railway station to receive the bodies. Ram dhuns [religious rites] were performed that night and the next day all over Ahmedabad. The same day, the Vishva Hindu Parishad [World Hindu Council] called for a 'bandh' [a total strike including stoppage of traffic] on February 28th in protest against Godhra. The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party [BJP] supported the bandh, and the Chief Minister reportedly told top officials, including from the police, to refrain from interfering with the bandh supporters.

A 2002 Human Rights Watch report entitled ``We Have No Orders to Save You'' stated that ``Between February 28 and March 2 [2002] the attackers descended with militia-like precision on Ahmedabad by the thousands. Chanting slogans of incitement to kill . . . they were guided by computer printouts listing the addresses of Muslim families and their properties . . . and embarked on a murderous rampage confident that the police was with them. Portions of the Gujarati language press meanwhile printed fabricated stories and statements openly calling on Hindus to avenge the Godhra attacks.'';

Following the riots in 2002, India's National Human Rights Commission issued a report that pointed to the role of Modi's government in the systematic murder of Muslims and the calculated destruction of Muslim homes and businesses. In 2003, the Indian central government found corruption and anti-Muslim bias to be so pervasive in the Gujarat judiciary that riot cases were shifted for trial to the neighboring state of Maharashtra. Despite this action, the lack of justice for victims remains a serious concern, as there have been very few court convictions in the years since the religion-based riots.

Brown University Professor Ashutosh Varshney, one of the world's experts on riots in India, wrote in a 2004 article that ``Unless later research disconfirms the proposition, the existing press reports give us every reason to conclude that the riots in Gujarat were the first full-blooded pogrom in independent India.''

The head of Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, is a top BJP leader and has been widely blamed for not doing enough to stop the deadly violence in the aftermath of the train fire. The Indian magazine Tehelka reported that many of the people who participated in the violence said it was possible only because of the connivance of the state police and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The United States Government denied Minister Modi a visa to the United States in 2005 on the grounds of a religious freedom violation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the first and only time such a denial has been issued.

Although the Central Government took steps to address the issue, such as involvement by the Supreme Court and National Human Rights Commission, the prospects of justice for victims of 2002 Gujarat violence remained uncertain. In an April 2004 decision, the Indian Supreme Court ordered that two emblematic cases, the Best Bakery case and the Bilkis Bano mass rape case, must be retried in Mumbai courts outside the purview of the government of Gujarat. However, in the Best Bakery Case, the principal witness, Zaheera Shaikh, twice changed her testimony; first claiming she was threatened by Hindu nationalists allied with the defense and then by a human rights activist allied with the prosecution. The Supreme Court was investigating these allegations.

In August 2004, the Supreme Court asked the Government of Gujarat to appoint a high-level police committee to examine why the state government had closed some 2000 cases relating to the Gujarat violence without charging anyone. By the end of the reporting period, the Gujarat police had not responded. The Nanavati-Shah judicial commission, established by the Government of Gujarat, investigated the February 2002 Godhra train fire and the subsequent violence, but indicated that its report would not be ready before December 2005.

In July 2004, the Government established a Commission headed by Justice Banerjee to study the train fire. The interim report of the Justice U.C. Banerjee Commission, released on January 17, 2005, has concluded that the fire in Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, prior to the mass killings which ensued on February 28, might have been “accidental,” and not a “terrorist” attack on Hindu pilgrims as claimed by Narendra Modi and other Hindutva leaders in their attempt to justify the violence that followed.

Allegations that police failed to take adequate action to save victims during the 2002 Gujarat violence have still not been satisfactorily investigated. It was alleged widely that the police and state government did little to stop the violence promptly and at times encouraged or assisted Hindus committing acts of violence. There were reports of intimidation and harassment of witnesses during the reporting period.

In March 2005, Gujarat police detained at least 400 persons to prevent Hindu-Muslim clashes during the Shi'ite Muslim day of mourning (Muharram); the same month, Muslims called off a Muharram procession in Vadodara to prevent potential clashes with Hindus.

In 2005, the Government of Gujarat established "fast track" courts to overcome delays and ensure access to justice for riot victims, resulting in some convictions. On October 24, 2005, five persons were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a Muslim youth in Halol and for the murder of eleven Muslims in the Panchmahal district of Gujarat during the riot period. Others were sentenced to three years' imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of $11 (500 INR) each. A local court acquitted 107 of 113 persons arrested for killing 2 Muslims in the post-Godhra riots and, in February 2006, a local court indicted 39 police officers for riot-related conduct.

In March 2006, a government-established commission headed by Justice Banerjee determined that the train fire was an accident rather than a criminal conspiracy, as alleged by the Government of Gujarat. The report categorically ruled out a Muslim conspiracy, noting that local Muslims helped douse the fire. The commission also reported that the then railway minister and the Railway Safety Commission failed to adequately investigate the possibility that the fire was accidental. The Gujarat Government rejected the report, and the BJP accused the Banerjee Commission of political bias.

The Government of Gujarat established the Nanavati-Shah judicial commission to investigate the train fire and the subsequent violence, but the supreme court stayed its report in May 2006. In February 2006, in response to a supreme court inquiry, the state government ordered the reopening of 1,242 of 2,108 cases that the Government had dropped because it could not substantiate the charges. The Gujarat police pledged to reinvestigate 1,600 cases. The total number of cases registered in connection with the Gujarat violence was 4,256.

According to the Gujarat police chief, the Gujarat police registered 13 new riot-related cases and arrested 640 accused between August 2004 and February 2006. However, accused individuals were acquitted in several more cases during the reporting period because of lack of evidence or changes in testimony.

In 2007, a series of articles in the Indian publication Tehelka documented police officers and government officials on audio and videotape confessing that they facilitated the violence, at times at the direct behest of Modi.

In June 2008 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom urges the U.S. State Department to reaffirm its past decision to deny a tourist visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has been invited to attend a conference in New Jersey this August celebrating Gujarati culture. "We have not seen changes that would warrant a policy reversal," said Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer. "As official bodies of the government of India have found, Narendra Modi is culpable for the egregious and systematic human rights abuses wrought against thousands of India's Muslims. Mr. Modi must demonstrate to the State Department and to the American people why he - as a person found to have aided and abetted gross violations of human rights, including religious freedom - should now be eligible for a tourist visa."

On February 21, 2011 a court has convicted 31 people of setting fire to a train which led to the death of 59 Hindu pilgrims in 2002. The verdict handed down by a special court in Ahmedabad found 31 people guilty of conspiracy and murder. They were among 94 Muslims who stood trial for stopping a train and setting fire to it, nine years earlier in Godhra town. Sixth three of them had been acquitted. Delivering its verdict, the court said that the attack on the train was planned. J.M. Panchal is the special prosecutor in the case. "Conspiracy is accepted by the honorable court," Panchal said.

The Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules Gujarat state, welcomed the judgment, saying that its position that the train had been deliberately set on fire has been vindicated. The cause of the train fire had been widely disputed. Muslims strongly denied that they were responsible, but some Hindu groups, like the BJP, blamed a Muslim mob for targeting the train. Official investigations failed to resolve the issue. One inquiry concluded that it was an accident ,saying that the fire began inside the train. But another inquiry differed with that view saying that there was a conspiracy to burn the train car.

February 27, 2012, was the tenth anniversary of the train fire and start of the communal violence in Gujarat, India. Human Rights Watch reported on February 24, 2012, that ``Where justice has been delivered in Gujarat, it has been in spite of the state government, not because of it.''

Minorities in Gujarat continue to experience religious and socio- economic discrimination. The Department of State reported in its International Religious Freedom Report of 2003 that ``Christians were also victims in Gujarat, and many churches were destroyed.''

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Page last modified: 22-07-2013 18:55:29 ZULU