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Rites of Hatred
Stoking Communal Fires in India

Ever since India was Partitioned on communal lines in 1947, orgies of violence between Hindus and Muslims have recurred with sickening regularity. The last major round of bloodletting was after a sixteenth century mosque at Ayodhya – Babri Masjid – was brought down by right wing Hindu mobs in December 1992. For nearly a decade since then, there has been a continuous decline in communal violence in the country, with no major conflagration reported in any State.

On February 27, 2002, any delusions that this trend represented a process of political evolution and maturity were dispelled by the extraordinary brutality of riots that claimed nearly 600 lives in Gujarat. The trouble began when a trainload of Hindu kar sevaks (religious volunteers) returning from Ayodhya was attacked by a Muslim mob at Godhra, 136 kilometres from the State capital at Ahmedabad. Two compartments were locked from the outside and set on fire, leaving 58 people dead. Over the next three days, an unchecked ‘backlash’ swept across this prosperous State in West India. Gujarat is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political formation that heads the coalition government at Delhi, and that is closely linked to the Hindu rightwing groupings – particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang Dal. The VHP-Bajrang Dal are at the helm of a movement to construct a temple precisely where the Babri Masjid – to which they refer as the ‘disputed structure’ – once stood. There are widespread and credible allegations that the State government headed by Chief Minister Narendra Modi deliberately held back, while mobs went on rampage, targeting Muslims and their properties. Modi has vigorously denied these charges, claiming credit for ‘restoring order in a record 72 hours’, after some one hundred rioters were killed in police firing, and thousands were arrested in efforts to bring the situation under control. The State’s police chief, who initially conceded that his men were infected by the communal polarisation, subsequently blamed the lack of manpower for the initial loss of control, stating, "We have six thousand policemen for a population of five million.". Order was restored after the deployment of Army units that were pulled out of the massive military mobilisation along the border with Pakistan.

The impact of the riots on the State has been devastating. Apart from the direct losses to life and property, the economy lost an estimated 22.5 billion Rupees ($462 million) in trade and industrial output in just the first week after the riot. Gujarat is one of India’s most affluent States, contributing as much as 6.5 per cent to the national GDP. All major sectors of the thriving economy – petrochemicals, textiles, auto industry and real estate – were badly affected by the riots, and confidence in the State as a safe and stable location for commercial and industrial activity has been significantly eroded.

Worse, the impact on India’s politics promises to be serious. The riots in Gujarat were a significant, though not irreversible, victory for those who seek to divide the communities into exclusionary ghettos across the country, and are part of an extended process the most recent phase of which commenced with the Ram Janmabhoomi (Birthplace of Ram) movement in the end-1980s, and that contributed substantially to the BJP’s rise to power. It is significant that both the riots of 1992 and the carnage at Godhra are integrally linked to this movement that seeks to construct a temple where the Babri Masjid stood. The Hindu zealots claim the mosque was built by conquering Muslim armies over the rubble of a temple marking the birthplace of their deity, Lord Ram, and was ‘an insult to national pride’. It was not the only such structure that offended their sensibilities, since waves of iconoclastic Muslim invaders are said to have destroyed thousands of Hindu temples and built mosques over their sites. These included at least two others – at Mathura and Varanasi – that are attributed with extraordinary sanctity. The issue, according to the more extreme voices in the VHP, however, is "not three, but three thousand" such disputed structures. To the extent that the VHP-Bajrang Dal combine derives its power – and a large proportion of its revenues – by projecting and pursuing maximalist sectarian goals, it is clear that their agenda is linked to long-term prospects of polarisation and recurrent violence. Tension has been raised over the past months by mass mobilisation for an intensification of demands that land for the proposed Temple at Ayodhya be handed over by the government before March 15. This was subsequently diluted to a demand that a ‘symbolic puja’ (religious ritual) be permitted at the disputed site, but even this was eventually disallowed by the Supreme Court.

It was against the backdrop of this mobilisation that the triggering incident at Godhra occurred. It has often been remarked that there is no such thing as a ‘spontaneous riot’ in India. These events are usually carefully orchestrated. Even a superficial review of the history of communal violence in the country demonstrates how these have been engineered by partisan political interests, often with an eye to the consolidation of sectarian ‘vote banks’ and concomitant electoral gains. This, the Opposition parties contend, is what happened in Gujarat. "The fortunes of the BJP were going down sharply and consistently in Gujarat," claims the Congress-I party spokesman Jaipal Reddy. "The only way to improve them was to sharpen the communal divide." What is inexplicable, however, is why, if electoral considerations underlie these riots, were they engineered after, and not before, the state assembly elections in five crucial states and at a time when no significant elections are due in the immediate future? Moreover, from the BJP’s perspectives at the Centre, the outcome has been disastrous, with many of its crucial coalition partners threatening to withdraw support if it did not take a unambiguous stand on Ayodhya against the Hindu fundamentalist forces, and this issue has certainly weakened the government. Despite the VHP Temple campaign, moreover, there had been no violence – and little expectation of violence – prior to February 27. The sheer fury and savagery of the Godhra incident that triggered the State-wide carnage, consequently, was entirely unexpected.

There is more than what immediately meets the eye here. Investigators have now uncovered clear linkages with Pakistan-based terrorists and the leaders of the Godhra incident. Arrests include the President of the Godhra Municipal Council, and another three councillors, including Bilal Haji, are absconding. Evidence recovered includes photographs showing Haji with the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist group’s leader, Masood Azhar, as well as others of various terrorist training camps. Haji was also linked to Harkat-ul-Jehad-Islami (HuJI) cadres arrested earlier at Kolkatta in connection with the attack on the United States Information Service Centre there. Interrogations have indicated that five Pakistanis, among a number of other ‘outsiders’ had been hosted by the Municipal councillors and a local Imam at Godhra prior to the attack, and were involved in the conspiracy. Clearly, as the earlier patterns of Pakistan’s interventions in India – including support to terrorism in J&K and other theatres – become increasingly untenable, it will continue to explore and exploit alternatives rooted in the faultlines within the Indian social and political structure.

Godhra was an exceptionally suitable place to hatch and execute such a plot. It has a long history of communal violence, and has, moreover, a flourishing criminal economy organised almost exclusively on a communal basis. Gujarat, in its entirety, moreover, has become a communal tinderbox, with the State government squarely rooted in the right wing ‘Hindutva’ ideology. There has also been a continuous process of Islamist mobilisation among the State’s minority community, and this has combined with a flourishing underworld that has profited immensely from the smuggling of arms, contraband and silver from Pakistan to Bombay via Gujarat. A very significant proportion of this money has been cornered by religious extremists, both Hindu and Muslim. Criminal gangs, moreover, openly take sides in communal riots, and are integral to the processes of sectarian political mobilisation.

The cumulative impact of these factors make Gujarat uniquely susceptible to externally inspired mischief, and unless the politics of the State changes radically – an improbable prospect in the proximate future – the cycle of provocation and retaliation can be expected to recur, and to sharpen the knife-edge of sectarian violence across the country.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, March 14, 2002.)





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