Like most people, genocide was a word I'd encountered only in the news referring to places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Coming face to face with the reality was a totally different proposition. Ten years ago, in March 2002, Indian TV channels screamed: ‘Gujarat is on fire, Muslims are being massacred!’ I'd witnessed riots as a child in Kolkata, people shouting, entire slums blazing, ubiquitous chaos. But it was not up close and personal. Interviewing women who'd been gang raped and had entire families and friends slaughtered in Gujarat in 2002 was the worst experience of my life.
I was invited to Gujarat by a citizen's group to investigate the atrocities perpetrated on Muslim women. The terror began on Feb 27, 2002, the fateful day 59 Hindu pilgrims were burnt to death in a train at Godhra in Gujarat, allegedly by a Muslim mob. That night the charred bodies of the Hindu victims were publicly paraded in Ahmedabad, the region’s capital. This ignited anger and hatred against not just the Muslims who had allegedly committed this ghastly crime, but the entire Muslim population. Hindu-Muslim tensions can easily reach flash point in India, but here a deliberate campaign was carried out to start a riot.
One of the more chilling aspects of the Gujarat massacre was that it was coldly calculated, designed to teach Muslims a lesson and hopefully drive them out of the state. Some see it as Narender Modi’s – the Gujarat Chief Minister blamed for not preventing and even encouraging the violence – personal responsibility. We recorded evidence of stockpiled weapons, knives, trishuls and tridents, bombs, explosives, all stored for use on the planned D-Day. Police officials reported that the Chief Minister had ordered them to look the other way and allow Hindu mobs to take revenge, to rape and kill unarmed, innocent Muslim women, men and children.
Our Women’s' Commission, headed by Dr. Syeda Hameed, a senior Planning Commission expert, produced a report, ‘The Survivors Speak’ which subsequently appeared on the websites of most newspapers. We recorded the harrowing stories of rape and murder. It haunted me for months. I had nightmares and got stress-induced diabetes. I’m ashamed to even mention this. My stress was only in the interviewing and writing. Imagine the mental state of those poor women, the survivors who'd been brutally raped, and seen their children and loved ones mercilessly butchered before their eyes.
Women at the Shah Alam Camp, the biggest centre for the survivors, described how they'd resuscitated half-dead women. Rape victims were brought in bleeding and unconscious. The physical pain and agony passed, but the mental trauma remained. Nothing will ever remove that pain.
‘We heard them coming and we ran and hid in the fields, it was night,’ a woman told me. ‘Suddenly I realized they'd caught my daughter. I heard her screams as they raped her. I sat there frozen. I could not go to her because they would discover our hiding place. They would have killed all the others too. I have nightmares reliving her screams. It haunts me day and night. My daughter was just sixteen, she knew no man, she was innocent, untouched, like a flower that was about to open. I would have given my life, gladly exchanged places to save her. But I could do nothing. Just sat there, trembling, and listened to her screaming.’
We recorded hundreds of such stories.
Now, ten years later, the tragedy is not merely in the past. It continues in the present, in the treatment meted out to the survivors and the Muslim community in Gujarat.
A few years after the genocide, I visited some of the survivors’ camps. They showed me the miserable conditions they still lived in. The Gujarat government had not helped them at all. Worse, Muslims in Gujarat live like second-class citizens, shunned by Gujarati society, always on the edge of fear.
‘We are working closely with the survivors,’ says Harsh Mander who leads a campaign for justice and peace. ‘It’s not just the memory of the brutality, there is a total lack of remorse permeating the entire state. They compare 2002 to 1984 [when hundreds of Sikhs were killed after Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards], but the PM apologized to Sikhs in 1984. In the absence of genuine remorse, the pain persists. Around two lakh (200000) people were displaced. Of them, 30000 are still in relief camps. Not one camp was set up by the government. Never in the history of India has a government refused to open camps for victims. People cannot return. They are not welcome back in their villages. There is a social boycott of Muslims in village after village in Gujarat.’
Indian civil society's response was only lukewarm. Critics talked about how the major relief came from Muslim groups. Father Cedric Prakash, founder of Prashant, a Gujarat-based Jesuit centre for human rights, led relief and rescue measures in Delhi both in 1984 when Sikhs were massacred and again in Gujarat in 2002. ‘People often compare the response to the genocide survivors with the 2001 Gujarat Earthquake which saw the whole world rushing here to help the quake victims,’ he said.
Gagan Sethi, founder of Jan Vikas, a charitable trust that works with Indian street children, agrees.
‘If 1000 volunteers came for the earthquake, there was just one for the genocide, if 1000 rupees came in, it was just one rupee for the genocide survivors,’ he says. ‘This was partly also because the state made it difficult. The state denied anything had happened. If people came to help, they came in spite of the state. Whereas for the earthquake everyone was welcomed with open arms.’
Cedric also decried the attitude of Gujarati society, particularly the refusal to condemn Modi: ‘Rationalizations abound from the educated elite and those afraid to deal with the past. “2002 was an aberration” they say, “look at the way, we have progressed since; roads, shopping malls, flyovers” or “didn’t they (Muslims) deserve it? They are terrorists.”’
The Gujarat government insists there are Gujarat-bashers who are bent on sullying the state’s reputation. But the last word belongs to Sairaben, a survivor who speaks as we drive past her parents’ farm.
As long as the rapists and murderers remain free, as long as justice eludes the victims, the name 'Gujarat' will continue to have terrible connotations for all Indians who believe in a secular India.
Without truth, reconciliation, remorse and justice, peace cannot return. Gujaratis all over the world should see this and try to undo the evil of the past two decades where the seeds of hatred sown with the arrival of the Modi government have been allowed to overtake the land. Gujarat will never be the same again. But truth and justice, the phrases used in our Constitution, and in our freedom struggle, were born and discussed in Gandhi’s Gujarat. That’s what’s particularly ironic about this tragedy.