Gujarat’s balance sheet
  suchitra sheth

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GUJARAT is in the news again, this time with another episode in the continuing drama of the Best Bakery trial. Though the event appeared to be like a scene from a Hindi film, it is a smokescreen for the diabolical combination of saam, daam, dand, bhed that the BJP and its Sangh Parivar allies are using to suppress investigations into the events of 2002.

Since those months of violence nearly three years ago, Modi and his allies have been trying to convince the world that the looting, arson, sexual abuse and mass murder were a legitimate expression of ‘Hindu outrage’. Within a few months of the massacres, even as thousands of Muslims were in relief camps, the chief minister insisted that normalcy had returned. He claimed that the state was ready for assembly elections and that his detractors were only out to malign and tarnish the reputation of five-crore Gujaratis. Modi went on to win the elections with an astounding majority of seats in the legislative assembly, taking the wind out of his critics’ sails. He and Parivar members then embarked on a campaign to suppress the process of bringing justice to the victims of communal violence, attacking anyone who was critical of the situation in the state.



In the early phase, victims were hesitant to come forward to register cases against perpetrators who were obviously politically well-connected. In many cases the police intimidated them to withdraw their cases. In the relief camps, hardly any assistance was provided for victims to register claims for compensation for deaths of family members or destruction of property. Many who had migrated from other areas to relief camps, were simply too terrified to return to their homes to file cases or claims. Finally, over 4256 cases were registered and investigated by the same state police force which was openly seen to be aiding and abetting the rioters and murderers. Not surprisingly, within a few months summary reports were filed in 2108 cases and their files closed for investigations.1 The judiciary played its own role and pleaded helplessness as witnesses turned hostile in case after case which came to trial.

Meanwhile, human rights activists campaigning for peace with justice were intimidated with criminal cases and enquiries were instituted against NGOs working to support victims. The English language media was not spared and criminal suits were brought against a prominent national daily and a television news channel, including on the charge of sedition, when they raised uncomfortable questions about the rehabilitation of riot victims and the status of the process of bringing justice to them.

It was not just the state government that refused to accept criticism. The Gujarati language media too resolutely echoed the same line, consistently printing diatribes against ‘anti-national’, ‘pseudo-secular’ activists and closing their columns to debate, dialogue or dissent. Similarly, hardly any Hindu or Jain religious leader saw it appropriate to highlight the cardinal role of non-violence in their faiths. In fact, many sects added their names to a newspaper announcement inserted by the VHP in a widely circulated Gujarati daily from Saurashtra, exhorting all Hindus to vote for the ‘protectors of Hindu culture’. Later many godmen from different sects were seated prominently in the chief minister’s swearing-in ceremony.



Gujarat’s business community is very influential in this predominantly mercantile society; not one member of this group spoke against the situation or the active involvement of the state government. When members of the Confederation of Indian Industry gathered in Delhi in 2003 and expressed their concern about the continuing law and order problem in Gujarat, a group of influential Gujarati businessmen got together as the ‘Resurgent Group of Gujarat’ and were successful in extracting a written apology from the CII. Later in the year, when a prominent Muslim industrialist of Gujarati origin, who heads an IT giant, publicly stated that communal violence was a key reason why his company would not expand operations in the state, his company was rewarded by being placed on the state government’s blacklist.

With the leadership in the state taking this attitude, it is not surprising that the Hindu population has, by and large, refused to reflect on the implications of the large-scale and brutal violence. It has successfully convinced itself that Hindu-Muslim violence is ‘nothing new’ for Gujarat and that this latest episode too is best forgotten.



The turning point came in mid-2003 when the fast track court trying the Best Bakery Case (in which 14 people were burnt alive in Vadodara) acquitted all the accused for lack of evidence. Just as all hope of justice was lost the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of the case based on a statement by Zahira Sheikh, a key witness in the case, claiming that she had been intimidated by BJP politicians into submitting false evidence to the trial court resulting in the release of all the accused. The Supreme Court also ordered that the retrial be conducted outside Gujarat. In early 2004, the Supreme Court further ordered the reopening of the 2108 cases which had been closed by the state government. The Muslim community and human rights activists began to feel that the criminal justice system would finally punish the perpetrators. But the Sangh Parivar went on the offensive to disrupt the process, this time through its own NGOs and engineered the recent drama in the Best Bakery case.

Janadhikar Samiti is a Baroda-based, Sangh Parivar affiliated organization which was informally launched after the Godhra incidents to ‘create awareness about the Hindu point of view’ of the train carnage and events that followed. It took formal shape when the judgement in Best Bakery trial was termed a ‘miscarriage of justice’ by the National Human Rights Commission. The Samiti organized a seminar on the Godhra events, followed by another when the retrial was ordered, to ‘bring awareness on the long-term effects on the judiciary’ of these pronouncements by the Supreme Court. Its members are lawyers, retired professors, medical professionals and chartered accountants who believe in Vedic culture.

Claiming that Zahira Sheikh had approached them for help, they arranged for a press conference where she made dramatic allegations that human rights activists and NGOs had threatened and browbeaten her into making false statements to the Supreme Court. In one fell stroke, the event orchestrated by Janadhikar Samiti succeeded in discrediting human rights activists, NGOs, Zahira Sheikh and the Muslim community. Every Gujarati Hindu was led to believe that non-Gujarati NGOs and activists were mischief-mongers and that the Muslim community was devious, deceitful and unreliable.



Interestingly, a week after Zahira Sheikh’s sensational revelations, a seminar was organized by a voluntary group ‘Justice on Trial’. The seminar entitled ‘Implications of the Reopening of 2000 or so cases by the Supreme Court’ was addressed by a former chief justice of Punjab-Haryana and Kolkatta High Court and a former director of the CBI and attended by the VHP state general secretary and RSS spokesperson. Summing up the purpose of the seminar, the head of ‘Justice on Trial’, a retired judge of the Gujarat High Court and a former Lokayukta of the state, said that before passing a wholesale order of reopening the cases some more consideration should have been given in order to avoid ‘social injustice’. He pointed out that the decision to reinvestigate riot cases would affect the lives of one lakh people associated with the accused and that members of ‘Justice on Trial’ would help the accused and their family members because an accused is innocent until proven guilty.



It is difficult to predict how the Best Bakery trial will turn out, how investigations and prosecutions in the other cases will progress and what forms the Hindutva brigade’s machinations will take. What, however, is clear is that the Sangh Parivar and its sympathizers are two steps ahead of all the human rights activists put together and that they have successfully moulded Gujarati public opinion in their favour. As against the Parivar’s orchestrated efforts, the Congress party in Gujarat has been completely ineffectual, unable to offer any challenge, political or ideological. It has neither a clear policy nor a programme for bringing justice and peace to Gujarat. Nor has it planned any formal or systematic intervention in the legal issues related to the trial of cases or the reopening of the closed cases, not even a programme of legal aid and support to victims. The party’s politicians briefly appeared animated before the polls but have since relapsed into slumber despite their success in the Lok Sabha elections.

The real challenge to Modi has, ironically, come from within, as the Keshubhai Patel lobby in the BJP continues to be a thorn in Modi’s side. Modi has further alienated the powerful Patidars with his moves to increase agricultural power tariffs and compounded the situation by refusing to even meet the agitating farmers of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the Sangh Parivar’s farmers wing. Modi’s arrogant style of functioning has alienated him from many party members who are becoming increasingly hostile towards him.

While these dramatic events have been playing themselves out, the polarization between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat has steadily increased. This process had already begun in the 1990s, after the violence following Advani’s rath yatra. People began to move out of mixed neighbourhoods to create ghettos surrounded by high walls referred to as ‘border’. Muslim areas began to be referred to as ‘Pakistan’. In many municipal wards of Ahmedabad, the reversal in the population profile has been striking. For instance, ten years ago in Shahpur ward within the walled city, Hindus formed 60% of the population and no Muslim candidate could hope to win a municipal election. Today, with Muslims forming over half the population, Shahpur is able to elect a Muslim corporator.



Paradoxically, though Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is controlled by the Congress, vacancies for teachers in Urdu medium schools run by the corporation have not been filled; there is even talk of closing down all these schools. Some Muslim members of the Congress privately complain that Hindu Congress corporators and MLAs often behave as if they are part of the BJP. The absence of a clear signal from the central and state leadership has had an adverse impact at all levels of the power structure.

In rural areas too the segregation of Hindus and Muslims began after the 1990s when small numbers of Muslims moved to nearby towns. The terror of 2002 intensified the process and many families have since preferred to shift to villages with larger Muslim populations, forming rural ghettos in their anxiety for greater safety among their own people. Many Muslim families were unable to return to their villages as their Hindu neighbours were ready to allow them to come back only if they withdraw the police cases. With the likelihood of the Supreme Court reopening over two thousand cases, tension has increased in rural Gujarat. Many of the accused, fearing that the political protection they had received so far may be unable to save them, have been threatening and terrorizing victims into withdrawing cases.



Though there were very few riot-related cases in Kutch and Saurashtra, a different kind of Hindu-Muslim segregation had already taken place in the earthquake-affected parts of these two areas. In fact, the partisan behaviour of both state and society in Gujarat had already been revealed then. There was discrimination against Muslim communities as the distribution of relief materials in several towns was coordinated through local Sangh Parivar offices; during rehabilitation their damaged property was either not surveyed or compensation amounts were fixed at levels much lower than the extent of damage. During the reconstruction phase many villages split as dominant communities such as the Patidars made sure that they got new house sites some distance away from the original settlement, with Muslims and other ‘backward communities’ left behind.

Kutch and Saurashtra are still grappling with the unfinished tasks of reconstruction after the earthquake. Even four years after the disaster, an estimated 20% of homes still remain to be built. The World Bank advanced Rs 2,900 crore as loan for 383 infrastructure projects of which only 100 have been completed though work orders have been issued for 281 projects. The Asian Development Bank had given Rs 1000 crore for infrastructure development in the four cities – Bhuj, Anjar, Bhachau and Gandhi-dham; over half these projects still lie unfinished.

A part of the World Bank funds was earmarked for two institutions, one for seismological research and another with a focus on disaster mitigation. Neither institution has yet been set up. The eminent earthquake expert appointed to head the first institute recently resigned in disgust because no funds or facilities had been made available to him. In a telling comment on the prevailing attitude he said that the bureaucracy in Gujarat was not only ‘slow and low in scientific literacy’ but that it also suffered from ‘trader’s mentality’.

As 2004 draws to a close, it is this trader’s mentality which is reasserting itself in Gujarat. The Best Bakery trial has been displaced from the headlines by the Ambani sibling rivalry and the upward swing of the Sensex. ‘Our Diwali has just begun,’ smiles my neighbour whose husband is a stockbroker.



Unusually this year, Diwali, Id and Guru Nanak Jayanti were celebrated within days of each other and to mark this coming together of important religious festivals, an all-faith meeting was organized by thirty NGOs. The venue was the ‘border’ between Juhapura, a Muslim ghetto, and neighbouring Hindu Vejalpur at the southwestern edge of Ahmedabad. Among the religious leaders who addressed the gathering of Hindus and Muslims was Morari Bapu, a Ramayan kathakar and the only Hindu religious leader to talk of inter-community amity in 2002. A few days after this meeting, he too became involved with the friction between the sons of Gujarat’s first family as their mother sought his spiritual advice in the matter.

While the well to do are anxious about the health of their share portfolio and godmen of many denominations try to apply corporate balm, a few committed citizens struggle to keep alive issues of peace and justice.



1. Source: Affidavit-in-Reply on Behalf of the State of Gujarat with regards to the Intervention Application made by Harsh Mander on 12.12.03.