What it means to be Muslim in secular India who saw 2002 Gujarat massacre

[Book extract] 'Modi has blood on his hands, can never become clean, whatever he may do or whatever he may become.'

 |  20-minute read |   15-07-2017
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A Facebook post on September 11, 2011 just after Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi decided to sit on a three-day fast for “Peace and Communal Harmony” said: “The Ugly Indian (Modi) who has violated everything that Gandhi tried to stand for is now sitting on a fast! What a laugh, had it not been so pathetic and sinister at the same time. The fast might just about de-toxify his body, but certainly not his soul.”

This was after the Supreme Court had urged the trial courts to take up the petition of Zakia Jafri, the widow of Congress leader Ahsan Jafri who was brutally massacred along with 69 others by rampaging mobs in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002.

The comments came pouring in. From Hindus and Muslims, there was no difference. “I find it disgusting! (him fasting!) — what’s he up to I wonder!” “Pathetic…agree totally with you.” “He has blood on his hands, can never become clean, whatever he may do or whatever he may become.”

It did seem that Modi had not been forgiven by secular India, and despite endorsement by communal forces, sections of the media and of course the corporate honchos, he was still not off the hook. Gujarat smashed into secular India.

A period from which the country has still to recover as, like the 1984 violence against the Sikhs, justice has not been dispensed. Insecurity amongst minorities reached new levels, accompanied, for perhaps the first time, by the belief, cutting across all classes, that justice was not just delayed but altogether denied.

Stories from Gujarat flew through the mohallas of India, as disbelief turned into terror, and shock became trauma. This was the first time in my life as a journalist that I chickened out, and refused to go to Gujarat to cover the carnage, more out of fear of what it would do to me and the values of secularism that I had nurtured; unsure whether I would be able to survive the evidence and stories of murder, rape and terrible, terrible violence with the steadfastness that was necessary, indeed essential in these trying times.


More so, as much of my faith in the system had been shaken by the brutal communal violence of the 1980s that had engulfed Delhi, Assam and Punjab, and I was not sure if it could survive this harsh blow. I have not regretted the decision, as I believe, given my lack of courage, that my ability to be effective in dealing with the issue was sharpened by staying away.

I remember we — secular friends who were as concerned as I — were meeting at my house during those days of violence. There was a frantic call from journalist John Dayal who had gone with a group to work for communal harmony in Gujarat. He was rushing back, chased out of the state by communal goons. John was my chief reporter at The Patriot, an excellent journalist who was disillusioned sufficiently with the profession to break away and become a full-time activist working for human rights and the Christian community.

He and the others with him were completely shaken by the violence of their experience, and when they reached Delhi they just needed to join hands. They all landed up at my house and broke into tears the minute they saw us. They were nearly killed, and haltingly narrated the events to us. Suffice it to say the stories were of sheer horror and brutality, and by the end we were all crying helplessly.

The violence was so marked by hate. Who and what kind of human would rip apart the stomachs of pregnant women, take out the foetus and smash it? What kind of human being would ignore the pleas, the cries, and kill with an abandon that came only from deep motivation and surety of political protection?

My journalist colleagues and activists repeatedly visited Gujarat. I, who used to rush to conflict zones and had covered almost all incidents of communal violence during my career, as well as the two wars in Beirut, did not go once. My anger had reached new levels, and sometimes sanity lies in keeping away, as I felt that I would not be able to report the massacre with sufficient impartiality. Not that there was another side to the story, but even so it seemed to me the right, and yet cowardly, thing to do.

My anger had reached new levels, and sometimes sanity lies in keeping away, as I felt that I would not be able to report the massacre with sufficient impartiality. Not that there was another side to the story, but even so it seemed to me the right, and yet cowardly, thing to do.

The images of Ahsan Jafri, pleading with the mob, sure that no one would kill him, a Congress leader, a secular being who had never hurt a fly, confident that he would be able to save all the residents of his residential society, being butchered alive have stayed with me. What he and his family went through when his telephone calls went unanswered, and at some point he knew it was all over.

I know it was not photographed, and there are no pictures but one has seen so much of violence that the images became vivid in my mind, and remain so till today. I have not met his wife, but her face carries the trauma she has undergone, the sadness is so visible in her eyes. And she is still searching for justice, what greater injustice can there be.

In the rest of India, communal forces were belligerent and on the ascendant. There was a particular beating of drums at night that sent shivers through Muslim localities. I remember waking up at night, engulfed in fear, and looking out of the window for signs of a gathering mob. And this was in the heart of posh South Delhi. Such was the level of insecurity, arising from the complicity of the state.

I would ridicule my reaction in the mornings, until I found that several Muslim friends and relatives were going through a similar experience. One said she heard the drums beating and was sure that her house was going to be attacked. Sunlight subdued the fears, but only until the night. Solace came from secular India; individuals who gathered every evening to share their deep anger and depression. And helplessness, as the political system seemed to have crumbled under the onslaught of the Hindutva groups. It was as if the word Secular in the Indian Constitution had been erased in blood.

A helicopter-load of senior political leaders who visited Ahmedabad shortly after the violence had subsided were so terrified that they did not want to leave the guest house and came back the same evening without really meeting any of the victims. Political India disappeared from Gujarat, leaving the state to Narendra Modi and his supporters.

The trauma remained for months and years, so one can imagine what those who suffered directly at the hands of the brutal mobs underwent, and are going through. Nearly three years after the mobs had killed all Muslims they could lay their hands on in Gujarat, a movie, Parzania, was screened at New Delhi’s official Mahadev Road auditorium for a select audience. The director was a courageous young man, Rahul Dholakia, who was inspired by the true story of a ten-year-old Parsi boy, Azhar Mody, who disappeared after the Gulbarg Society massacre in which Ahsan Jafri was also brutally murdered.

The movie traced the journey of the Pithwala family as they tried to find their young son, and was a vivid, authentic, and courageous account of what happened in that state. The entire hall sobbed through the movie, which was released in Indian theatres only in 2007.

Muslims were all relocated to camps in Gujarat where the conditions were dismal to say the least. They were largely at the mercy of their God and the civil society groups who worked day and night to provide food and medicines for the people, herded like cattle into these camps.

Despite this, there was a vague sense of security in the camp, so much so that when they were told to go back to their homes, many resisted because of overriding fear and the absence of security.

BBC correspondent Jill McGivering wrote the following account on May 9, 2002, two months after hundreds of Muslims had been killed in Gujarat:

“It is now more than two months since the Indian state of Gujarat erupted in bitter religious violence. Unofficial figures say more than 2,000 people have died, the vast majority Muslims killed by Hindus who constitute more than 80% of the state’s population. Independent reports accuse hard-line Hindu organizations of orchestrating the violence with the support of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Fresh deaths are still being reported almost every day and an estimated 150,000 Muslims are still sheltering in relief camps. In a mosque turned relief camp in the city of Ahmedabad, 16,000 Muslims are crammed together inside the walls of the compound in fear of their lives. It is more than two months since these people were forced out of Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods — they still feel unsafe. While we were there, chaos broke out — news of shootings nearby and injured Muslims were rushed to the camp for help before being taken to hospital. Some of the injured were treated at the camp. Nassir, whose hand was badly burnt, told us what happened. ‘The mob came with police — they started setting fire to our shops and houses — when we tried to come out, the police opened fire.’ A short drive from the camp, we found the riots still raging and a group of police officers standing by watching but doing nothing to stop the violence. Just yards from where the police were standing, we passed the bloodstained bodies of two Muslims on the road — one dead, one still dying. Officials later said the riot started when some Muslim families tried to go back to their homes from relief camps and were set upon by Hindus. Most of those sheltering in the camps fled from Hindu-dominated areas and local Hindus still seem determined to stop them returning. In other camps we met Muslims who had had the same experience. Abdul Jabar has visible head and face wounds. He says six local men beat him up — the police did nothing to stop them. “The men were shouting: ‘Who do you Muslims think you are? Kill them!’ There was a police post at the corner and I screamed for help. I said to to the mob, the police are right there! They said: ‘We don’t care — they’re on our side.’”

Gujarat was not just a turning point, it was a breaking point. A break with the past, highlighting the need for introspection, re-evaluation and a new path. The Muslim psyche, poor or rich, was deeply impacted a cross the country and a certain distance and reserve cast a cloak over their usually rough-and-ready demeanour.

At the same time, one could sense a certain clinging to the secular parties, more towards the Left at this point than any other, and to secular individuals and groups in the hope that the space that had been taken away would be restored for the minorities in India.

The violence fed into the “all Muslims are terrorists” campaign that had already started after 9/11, with perfectly sober persons in Delhi talking to me of the possibility of terrorism arising from the “Muslim camps” in Gujarat. This was a shared fear, arising of course out of clever propaganda, with the relief and rehabilitation of the blood-soaked victims becoming totally secondary to such concerns.

In Gujarat the polarisation was complete. In other parts of India it had accelerated. Hindus, too, were impacted by the violence, and from initial condemnation moved into silence and from there on to support of Narendra Modi, the chief minister who presided over the violence during those days. A certain suspicion and distrust of the Muslim dominated the discourse, and even Indian Foreign Office officials briefing on Pakistan, for instance, could not get away from the “Muslim” view of Pakistan.

Secularists came in for ridicule, with the political parties understanding the mood and generally staying away from the battlefield for weeks and months after the violence. Apart from some chest thumping by the likes of the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav, there was little by way of a counter campaign by the so-called secular parties.

In fact, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who finally decided to visit the state long after all violence had subsided, did not visit the widow of the slain Congress leader Ahsan Jafri, following advice from her party that this could elicit an adverse reaction from the majority community!

A Congress leader who had accompanied her told me later that he was completely shocked when she rejected suggestions that she visit Zakia Jafri to offer her condolences, and went with those who advised against it.

Gujarat made the minorities (all of whom are certainly not secular) and secular India realise that the yardstick and the playing field had changed. The silence of the Congress when the Babri Masjid was demolished was compounded by its inability to provide a viable alternative in Gujarat.

The normally vocal Muslim community in India fell silent after Gujarat. There was this quiet sense of dismay, anger, unhappiness and yet a refusal to resign itself to a life of discrimination. There was a distance, heightened suspicion as the minorities waited for secularism to re-assert itself. They are still waiting.

I confronted a Congress politician from Gujarat, a powerful man in the Delhi hierarchy of power. “Where are you people, you have completely given up”, I said. “You do not know what we are doing, how much we are spending to counter Modi”, he replied.

Perhaps, but the money has certainly not been well spent. And the Congress remains absent on the ground. This was apparent even in September 2011, over nine years after the violence in Gujarat.

Narendra Modi, who had not been happy with his pariah status, decided to make a pitch for the national stage. He decided to go on a three-day fast for Communal Harmony, to project a new image of a reasonable, sane, non-communal leader who was more than qualified to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party into the next general elections. It was a grand show, as an air-conditioned auditorium was dressed up for the big occasion.

Modi arrived to garlands and for three days the auditorium was host to a galaxy of political leaders as Modi changed his headgear to suit his mood. The only time he refused was when a couple of Muslims invited by him offered him a skull cap, which he rejected for a scarf.

A few Muslims with unknown credentials dotted the stage and gave little quotes to television channels hailing Modi as the next prime minister. But they failed to silence the comments that poured out into the alternative media, with the internet buzzing with secular responses to the spectacle.

On the other side, the Congress, for reasons known to itself, launched a simultaneous three-day fast in Gujarat, with its leader, Shankersinh Vaghela, in the forefront. This was a quiet affair, and the comparison would have been favourable, had the central leadership embraced the event.

Instead, it seemed that the local Congress was left on its own, with not a single national leader joining in. There was not a word from the central leadership about the fast, making scribes wonder why the state party had gone through it at all. It was at best a characteristic Congress reaction: too late in the day to be effective, pointless and without direction.

I wrote a column at the time saying:

It is this faulty thinking, the inability to embrace and strengthen secularism, that has made Modi — who before the massacre was a faltering leader facing almost certain defeat at the hustings — a figure far taller than he ever was.

Secularism is an ideology that has to be pursued, nurtured and protected, it cannot be practiced by default. After all the fundamentalist forces of all religious hues work systematically to strengthen their divisive, communal ideology to a point where they can actually bring themselves to power with little to no resistance.

The BJP, sensing victory, is ringing all the communal bells at its command. While its President Nitin Gadkari is in hospital for a stomach operation that will help him eat less, his cronies in arms are getting into the Advani versus Modi camps. Factionalism will of course be a major obstacle in what Narendra Modi hopes will be his ride to power in Delhi.

Another bigger obstacle will be the reluctance of the allies, like Janata Dal (U) to support Modi for fear of losing the Muslim and secular vote entirely. If the allies ditch the BJP, then it must get a full majority of 273 seats in Parliament to bring Modi in as Prime Minister on its own steam. This is not going to happen easily, and Modi might find that the 2014 elections that he seems now to be preparing for, a major let down.

His candidature, if at all, is going to unleash a storm of protest across India as fortunately secularism is not dead, and there are many who would not like the country to be led by a politician who has not been able to wash off the blood on his hands in a court of law.

Significantly, fears expressed at different levels in the country about radical youth from Gujarat taking law into their own hand have remained unfounded. I say this with a sense of responsibility as there is no proof, no records, no statistics, in short, no evidence that the Muslim youth has emerged radicalised from the violence.

The initial radicalization that seemed to be taking place in the camps in Gujarat, according to intelligence reports and political propaganda, has given way to the overwhelming desire to live in peace.

I interviewed any number of young people from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and their first demand was for good education and employment. They, like the other young people of India, wanted a life, and regretted the lack of opportunities to move ahead. They all denounced terrorism, and even while some said that they had become more religious over the years, they insisted that this was part of their personal faith, and did not interfere at any level with their public life.

But unlike my generation, they did complain of increasing discrimination, particularly in government jobs. As one particularly intelligent young man from Lucknow pointed out, “it is not a question of whether there is discrimination now or not, it is that we feel there is, and that is not a good thing for us or India.”

This reminded me of those Indians who were students in London in the 1970s who felt the discrimination. As they pointed out to us, if a taxi did not stop when hailed, they were not sure whether this was because of the colour of their skin. Or if a man unnecessarily pushed against them at the tube station they were not sure whether he was being offensive. And as they admitted, it could all have been accidental, but the problem really lay in the perception and the environment that bred and fuelled such thought.

It is true that in India there are several unspoken rules against Muslims. For instance, the country’s premier external intelligence agency does not recruit Muslims. A former Naval Chief was sacked as he had nominated a Muslim naval officer for deputation to the intelligence agency. He was asked to give a non-Muslim replacement, and he refused. The reasons cited for the sacking were of course different, but his insistence on not reviewing his decision was a primary reason for the government’s action. Muslims are the least preferred in the military and the police forces.

The long decades after Partition have never really erased the suspicion with which the Muslim is regarded in government and the elite establishment. The Justice Rajinder Sachar report that placed the social-economic status of Muslims at par with, or below that of Dalits came as a shocker for Muslims who had never realised that they were so far out of the reckoning.

a_071417071912.jpgAzadi’s Daughter: Being a Secular Muslim in India, by Seema Mustafa; Speaking Tiger Books; Rs 290.

There was a flurry of activity with several petitions being submitted by different Muslim organisations to the central government. Nothing has really come of the entire exercise, with the recommendations of the report never really being implemented by the Congress-led government in New Delhi.

Muslims now find it impossible to get housing in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. In Mumbai, property agents let Muslim clients know quite openly that the housing society will not allow them entry. This has happened to corporate cousins of mine who, despite being smart, educated and earning fat salaries, could not find suitable accommodation for months because they were Muslims.

In fact, a Muslim friend negotiated the purchase of an apartment in a Mumbai housing society but was told by the agent that the deal was cancelled as the other apartment owners had objected to a Muslim moving into their complex.

In Delhi, many young couples I know have had to give up the search for a rented apartment in the more cosmopolitan parts of the city and opt for what have started looking more and more like "Muslim colonies". In Ahmedabad, of course, the Hindu area and the Muslim area have existed in the city for quite a while.

At the same time there is a reassuring, revitalising secular India where people accept all religions and castes as they walk along. Here discrimination does not exist, the concern is real and vocal, the embrace is warm.

These thousands and millions of people do not want violence; they want all communities to live in peace, and are determined to strengthen the secular fabric of the country, convinced that this is the only way to move forward.

So even after violence as traumatic as Gujarat, the victims got solace and comfort from the number of individuals and groups who rushed to the state for their relief and rehabilitation, for Justice and compensation.

These individuals are still fighting the cases for the victims in the courts, and remain optimistic that the perpetrators of the crimes will be apprehended, tried and punished. Every setback is matched with new resolve to fight it through, and ensure that Justice comes to Gujarat.

There is this resilience of secular India, that impels it to rush in to close the wounds and wipe the tears. This has happened after every bout of violence, and is one of the main reasons why the hurt has not stretched into a bottomless divide, and why Indians continue to recognise themselves as one large community, regardless of governments and political shenanigans. This is also a vocal, passionate India that is not scared of speaking out.

(Re-printed with the publisher's permission.)

Also read: Of Cabbages and Kings: The best biryani ever


Seema Mustafa @seemamustafa

The writer is the Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen, and the author of Azadi's Daughter: Being a Secular Muslim in India.

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