Just as anyone who lived in Delhi through the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 or the Mumbai riots of 1992 and 1993 knows what happened, that is true of Gujarat 2002 as well. Trying to get to office on February 2002 – a day after the attack on the Sabarmati Express — was a harrowing experience, dodging mobs out on the roads in Ahmedabad, looting and burning. The policemen who I saw that day stood quietly in corners, away from the mayhem. They looked away when they were exhorted to help.
What the investigation, broadcast by a news channel this week, into the police wireless reports from February 27 onwards shows is that there were some police officers who were well aware of what was happening and were asking for help even as the situation got out of control. Also evident from the innumerable messages from the State Intelligence Bureau is that there was awareness about the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal gathering forces and fear over the outcome. The riots were not spontaneous or sudden, as claimed by the state and Central governments.
All this was evident on the streets on Ahmedabad. While a restaurant near my residence in that city was being vandalised, people in cars called for hand carts on their cell phones to carry away the discarded furniture. The restaurant only served vegetarian food but its name was ambivalent and could well have been Muslim. The anti-Muslim rhetoric and cries of “revenge” for the Godhra attack were everywhere. College professors visited the newspaper office where I worked, initially shame-faced and then slipping in lines like “but maybe they deserved it”, harking back to the raids on the Somnath temple by Mahmud of Ghazni.
The government took too long to respond, the police commissioner never left his office — even though there was mayhem on the streets outside and victims arriving in hundreds in camps a stone’s throw away. The army also came too late. Riots are always shameful and shocking and rarely if even spontaneous. But usually even the most cynically manipulative of governments makes an attempt to control proceedings. In Gujarat in 2002 however it seemed as the riots were allowed to continue — with incidences of violence stretching into months.
There is some anger and resentment — perhaps understandable — that is there is too much focus on Gujarat when rioters elsewhere have escaped. This is definitely true. Jagdish Tytler appears defiantly free, defending himself on TV when victim after victim named him for the attacks on Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. The worst example is perhaps Mumbai. The hand of the Shiv Sena in the riots is well known. The Srikrishna Commission indicted the party from its late chief Bal Thackeray downwards. Nothing happened to the Sena and nothing happened to the investigations into the riots. The case into the1993 bomb blasts which followed the riots has seen closure, with much public attention.
So far, the public discourse about riots has been disquieting, even toxic. If religious minorities — like Muslims in Gujarat 2002 or in Bombay 1992-1993 — are the targets then we fall into a lose-lose spiral of accusations of false secularism, demands of uber-nationalism, complaints of appeasement and what is nothing short of majoritarian bullying. We seem unable to accept that religion per se — whether it is used by Muslims or Hindus or anyone else —cannot and must not be a justification for violence. Governments do not like to probe riots too deeply because they feel that given the amount mass level anger or hatred exposed, such wounds are best left untouched and ignored.
Gujarat then is the first opportunity to India to clean up its act. It is thanks to the Supreme Court alone — as far as a Constitutional authority goes — that the Gujarat riots have seen any move towards justice. Unfortunately, the apex court had to step in because of the reluctance of the state government to move on the cases against rioters. Therefore, while there may be inherent unfairness about riots in the past, this is one opportunity to provide a template for justice in the future.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona