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India - background

A history of sectarian violence

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2008-11-29 Latest update 2008-12-01 10:38 TU

Hindu-Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat(Photo: AFP)

Hindu-Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat
(Photo: AFP)

Bombings and shootings are not the only forms of violence in India. Sectarian violence, called "communal violence", erupts from time to time, resulting in massacres of members of rival ethnic or religious groups. One of the worst explosions of anti-Muslim violence was in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. I visited the state during the election campaign of 2004 and found that the scars were still open.

Cows seem to be everywhere here in the streets of Ahmedabad, the state’s biggest city, while other beasts - camels or human beings - carry the burdens and pull the carts.

Binu Alex is a Christian from the southern state of Kerala, which I suppose allows him a certain distance when reporting on events in the very Hindu state of Gujarat, a long way from his birthplace.

‘‘The cows are better looked after than the people,’’ says Binu. Gujarat state has a Cow Services Commission with one department for protection of cows, another to encourage breeding and also a department for making medicine from their urine and their excrement.

The state is also the site of India’s space programme.

As we drive around Ahmedabad, Binu points out the invisible dividing lines between Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods.

‘‘That’s a police post,” he says, pointing to one corner. Then he points at a large modern building on the opposite corner.

“That was a mall owned by a Muslim,” he says. “During the riots a mob attacked that mall and burned it. The police just sat in their post and watched.’’

The riots took place in 2002 and Ahmedabad still bears the scars.

They started after Muslims stoned a train carrying Hindu activists who had been to Ayodhya, the city where a mosque had been destroyed ten years before. The "pilgrims" apparently chanted slogans in favour of their claim for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque, provoking the Muslims to attack the train, killing 59 Hindus.

A wave of violent reprisal swept the state, from the main cities to the villages on the edge of the forests where Adivasi tribal people live.

Officially 1,000 Muslims were killed, although most estimates put the figure at 2,000. Their homes and businesses were attacked and often burnt to the ground. Thousands were forced to live in refugee camps for months afterwards.

As we pass a group of middle-class homes, Binu points to one and says that it was the home of a former Muslim judge.

‘‘The crowd attacked that one and not the others,” he says. “They knew where to come.’’

A well-known Muslim had tried desperately to phone his contacts in Delhi, appealing to them to intervene to stop the bloodshed. When that didn’t work, he went out into the street and said to the mob: ‘‘Spare these people - take my life instead.’’

They did.

It is generally easy to find where the Muslims lived. For example, everyone knows who lives in Narodia Patia, a poor area of dusty alleys running between two-room concrete houses. When the mob arrived, the women of the area got together and discussed what to do.

‘‘We had decided to stay,’’ says vegetable-seller Zuleika Manu Chowdry, whose bare, untidy house is on the street where the attack began. ‘‘Then we saw Kausarbano run past with her belly slit open and we thought we’d better leave.’’

Kausarbano Shaikh was pregnant. The mob cut open her womb, impaled the foetus on a sword and paraded it through the narrow lanes.

The police had already told the women that they were on their own. They fled the area and spent months in a refugee camp. Over 120 people were killed in this one area.

One young man we meet fled the massacre with his father. But his brother was disabled and unable to walk, let alone run. The rioters pulled him out of his wheelchair and slaughtered him on the spot.

Gujarat voted in the federal general election the day before I arrived. Before the election, 20 of its 26 seats were held by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Indian People’s Party.

The head of the state government is local BJP leader Narendra Modi, who is now well-known throughout India because so many people have accused him of complicity in the 2002 violence. A success in this election could put him the Chief Minister on track for a brilliant career at federal level.

Yamal A Vyas is a cheerful man who lives and works in a modest house in a middle-class area. He’s in charge of the committee which draws up the BJP’s economic policy in the state.

He believes that the party has run the state well, attracting investment which he says will trickle down and enrich the whole population. Although he does not specify exactly when.

Vyas claims that Muslim voters are deserting the Congress party which is the main opposition at Federal and State level. They traditionally saw the party as their secular defender, but Vyas says they have lost faith in it and see the good work that the BJP has done for development.

He says that he regrets the violence of 2002 and denies that the BJP colluded in it or that the police were lax in defending the victims. Hindu-Muslim relations have improved since then, he believes, but adds that sometimes Muslims behave provocatively. For example, ‘‘in cricket, when Pakistan won against India, they let off fireworks and celebrated,’’ he said.

I remark that perhaps this shouldn’t be a capital offence. Vyas agrees.

Dr Hanif Lakdawala is less enamoured of the Chief Minister. He claims that the day before the riots Modi held a meeting with top police officers and other officials and told them: ‘‘Tomorrow, whatever my boys are doing you’re not going to interfere.’’

Lakdawala is a qualified medical doctor and the director of Sanchetawa, an NGO which works with the poor of both communities. 

The organisation's well-furnished office, decorated with posters against domestic violence and for literacy, is in the improbably-named New York Trade Centre, a low-rise concrete building with a sign outside depicting the Statue of Liberty.

The doctor has become a high-profile opponent of sectarian violence since he accused Modi of complicity with it in 2002.

He says that poverty crosses the communal barrier and reaches extremes on both sides, but that he sees no sign of that bringing Hindu and Muslim together. He believes that, with the encouragement of Modi and the state government, the communal division in Gujarat is the deepest in India.

The 2002 bloodletting was not, however, Gujarat's first such pogrom. Lakdawala believes that it will not be repeated on the same scale because of the national and international attention that it attracted but that further clashes will take place.

Shortly before our arrival at the headquarters of Prashant, a Jesuit human-rights and social-development centre, two other visitors had barged into the ground-floor reception area. They had threatened Fr Cedric Prakash and his co-workers with violence if they didn’t stop their agitation against communal hatred and violence. They finally left when Prakash phoned the police.

It’s not the first time the Jesuit priest has been threatened, or even attacked. In 1992, he was badly beaten for speaking out against the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Since then he has had death threats. Hate-calls and political pressure on the religious hierarchy have also failed to shut him up.

Prakash, who was born in Bombay 53 years ago, joined the Jesuit order in 1974 and has been in Ahmedabad for 17 years. He clearly has charm and a forceful will in about equal measure.

He characterises the 2002 violence as ‘‘state-sponsored’’ and is one of a number of activists who have campaigned for retrial of cases arising from it on the grounds that they were conducted within the state and were thus subject to political and communal pressure.

During the election campaign, they won a victory when India’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial, outside Gujarat, of 21 Hindus accused of killing 15 Muslims in an arson attack on a shop known as the Best Bakery.

The state government said it would appeal against the decision. Prakash and his colleagues hope to get 12 other similar cases judged outside the state.

Prakash points out that Muslims are not the only victims of dirty politics in Gujarat. Christians are such an infinitely small proportion of the state’s population - 0.5 per cent - that one would think it hardly worth a Hindu chauvinist’s time attacking them. But they do: 84 times in 1988, when the Hindu right launched a turf war over the right to recruit members of tribal groups.

The local BJP’s Freedom of Religion law, named with fine bureaucratic irony, is a product of hard-line Hindu hostility to conversions to Christianity and could be a model for national legislation if some BJP and Hindu activists get their way.

The act enrols the judicial authorities into the policing of religion.

A conversion cannot take place without the permission of a District Magistrate, who must also be informed of the fact afterwards. Anyone carrying out an illegal conversion can be punished by three years in prison and a fine.

The law is particularly concerned to protect minors, women and members of scheduled castes or tribes from being led astray. It sets the possible prison term at four years and doubles the fine for these categories.

Throughout India’s history Dalits and Adivasis have, not unnaturally, been attracted by religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Christianity which don’t stigmatise them on the basis of caste.

Prakash and other Christian social activists are particularly worried by a ban on ‘‘allurement’’, which is defined as ‘‘any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind’’ or ‘‘a grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise’’.

In many poor areas they provide educational and medical facilities. The hardliners have insinuated that "allurement" constitutes a bribe for potential converts. The activists fear that this could be the pretext for prosecutions or attempts to close the programmes.

Prakash is one of the few people I meet who believes that the BJP are losing ground locally. ‘‘We went to the south of the state yesterday to watch the voting,’’ he says. ‘‘I think they’ll lose seats. People are seeing through them.’’

My journalist companions, look sceptical.