Mass Atrocity Monday, 4/14/2014

Over the next four weeks, more than 800 million voters will go to the polls in India. It’s a landmark event in the world’s largest democracy, but global news coverage of the elections has focused almost entirely on the controversial candidacy of Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since 2001, Modi has served as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. He had been in power for only five months when terrible ethnic violence broke out.

On February 27, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and activists stopped at Godhra in Gujarat. They were returning from Ayodhya, where construction of a Hindu temple was about to commence on the disputed site where a mob had destroyed the Babri Mosque 10 years previously. Their train pulled into the Godhra railway station at 7:43am. Less than an hour later, the train was on fire and 59 people were dead. Over the next three days, a deadly ethnic pogrom was unleashed against Muslims, who were believed to be responsible for the fire.

These are the facts everyone agrees on. Everything else is contested.

The train burning was immediately denounced by Modi and other Hindu leaders as a premeditated attack by a Muslim mob. Gujarati police alleged that members of the mob arrived armed with rags pre-soaked in oil. But journalists investigating at the time revealed a more complicated chain of events. As the Washington Post reported on March 6, 2002, Hindu activists on the train “carried on like hooligans” throughout the journey, harassing the other passengers and shouting anti-Muslim slogans. On arrival at Godhra, they refused to pay the Muslim tea and snack vendors. But the vendors were ready for them, and some boarded the train and pulled the emergency brake. Stalled in a Muslim neighborhood, the train drew a crowd that quickly turned violent, trading insults and hurled stones with those on board.

The source of the flames that took 59 lives remains a mystery. In the immediate aftermath, railway officials reported that members of the mob set fire to the train, but that the attack was “not preplanned”. An inquiry conducted by retired Supreme Court Judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee concluded in 2006 that the fire was the result of an accident. But a Gujarati commission empaneled in 2008 stuck to the initial story, finding that the burning of the train was the result of a “conspiracy”. In 2011, a local court sentenced eleven of the alleged conspirators to death.

Whatever the cause of the fire, its effects were clear. Hindu mobs rampaged in a frenzy of unchecked violence, egged on by government officials’ and local press’s scapegoating of the Muslim community. According to official estimates, 790 Muslims were killed in the following three days. Other sources suggest that the deaths numbered in the thousands. Horrific sexual attacks were systematically perpetrated against Muslim women, and businesses and homes were destroyed, and infants and children were burned alive.

As the violence unfolded, state security forces failed to intervene. One intelligence official described this as “a calculated decision by the state’s Hindu nationalist government”. As Human Rights Watch documented, calls to police, firemen, and even emergency medical services were met with the chilling response: “We have no orders to save you”. Other human rights groups reported that the security sector not only stood by as Muslim civilians were raped and murdered, but actively participated in the attacks.

Modi has escaped criminal charges for his role in the violence. But cases related the events of 2002 are still winding their way through the Indian courts, and the question of Modi’s complicity remains live. For the victims of the 2002 atrocities, the prospect of Narendra Modi as India’s next Prime Minister is surely a sick joke. And yet for many Indians, his success in promoting rapid economic development during his tenure in Gujarat outweighs the blood on his hands.

 

*For more info on the Gujarat violence, and Modi’s role, check out these extremely disturbing interviews with the perpetrators:

Kate Cronin-Furman

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