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Godhra and Gujarat’s communal violence

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When the BJP shocked India with its landslide victory in the December 2002 election, analysts needed only to point to a single word to find an answer for the victory – Godhra. The town was an anonymous railway depot until February 27, 2002, when a Muslim mob set fire to railway cars filled with Hindu pilgrims returning from the controversial temple at Ayodhya, killing 59.

The incident sparked huge riots across Gujarat. Muslim neighbourhoods burned while sword- and stick-wielding Hindus rampaged, looted and raped. In many cases police forces allegedly stood by and watched. Officially, more than one thousand people died in the weeks following the Godhra incident, although human rights organizations estimate the real figure at more than two thousand, the vast majority Muslims, while thousands more moved to refugee camps, too frightened to go back to their own homes.

The violence was politicized after Congress accused the government of not doing enough to ensure the safety of Muslim citizens. Gujarat’s BJP chief minister Narendra Modi earned the moniker “Muslim killer” for his passive attitude as the violence continued, and his lack of support for the survivors. Just days after NGO Human Rights Watch reported Gujarat state officials “were directly involved in the killings of hundreds of Muslims since February 27 and are now engineering a massive cover-up of the state’s role in the violence”, parliament attempted to censure the BJP government. Following a sixteen-hour debate Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee apologized for not having “tried harder” to end the riots and announced a $31 million rehabilitation package.

With the state elections approaching, Modi intensified his Hindutva rhetoric and campaign “to prevent” another Godhra, in a blatant attempt to haul in as many Hindu votes as possible amid a climate of ethnic tension. Yet it wasn’t until the December 12 election that his cult status among ordinary Gujaratis was at last verified by his surprising landslide win.

The 2004 national elections, however, saw a turnaround, ushering in a Congress-led government. Though BJP retained the majority in Gujarat, the elections were closely contested. Following protests that the violence had been government-supported and that the authorities were biased, the Supreme Court ruled the cases of the violence-affected families be moved to courts in other states for their safety and ordered investigations into the riots. As yet, none of the investigations have been able to come to any firm conclusion regarding the train-burning at Godhra.

In October 2007, in the run-up to the state elections, respected magazine Tehelka published secretly-filmed footage of senior Gujarati Hindu politicians, mainly from the BJP, describing in graphic detail how they took part in and helped to orchestrate the riots. The report alleged Modi allowed the violence to continue unabated, ordered the police to side with Hindu rioters and sheltered the perpetrators from justice. Thus far no attempt has been made to investigate the claims at a judicial or political level, and Modi was resoundingly re-elected in December 2007. He was subsequently talked about as a possible candidate for Prime Minister, but at the time of writing his star appeared to be on the wane.

For a powerful account of the post-Godhra violence, read Dionne Bunsha’s Scarred: Experiments With Violence In Gujarat.

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