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2002 Gujarat violence
2002 Gujarat violence refers to a series of riots and other incidents of mob violence that occurred in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. An estimated 800 to 2000 people were killed in the riots, which were driven by tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the state.
The riots were triggered on February 27, 2002 by a fire on a passenger train that was passing through the town of Godhra. An estimated 59 passengers (many of them women) including 14 children were killed in the fire, which is reported to have occurred in a coach reserved for women and children. Many of the passengers were Hindu piligrims called Kar Sevaks returning from the Hindu religious site of Ayodhya. The cause of the fire is disputed. It was initially reported that the fire was started by a large mob which attacked the train without provocation (). Following such initial reports, there were riots in Gujarat state. In the following months, an estimated 800 to 2000 people, majority of them from the Muslim community, were killed in riots throughout Gujarat.
The reasons for the train fire and the riots are fiercely disputed. One hypothesis states that the attackers were Muslim vendors at the Godhra station who had had an altercation with the Kar Sevaks earlier, and that the riots were an expected retaliation to the train fire. Another hypothesis states that the riots were pogroms in disguise, carried out by members of the Sangh Parivar using the train fire as a pretext (). Another hypothesis has been advanced by the one person investigation committee appointed by the railway ministry, that the train fire was accidentely set off by people inside the train. ().
The train fire in Godhra
In February 2002, a sleeper coach in the train Sabarmati Express, coming from Faizabad and proceeding towards Ahmedabad caught fire a few minutes after it left the Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002, killing an estimated 58 people. The coach that was ravaged in the fire was occupied predominantly by members and sympathisers of the Sangh Parivar, called Kar Sevaks who were returning after a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, a religious place in North India. This incident was a precursor to a spate of widespread communal violence in the state which lasted nearly three months.
The incident was widely reported in the media and the most commonly circulated version was that this was an incident of sabotage and arson, aimed at the Hindus. Because Godhra is a town with a Muslim majority, it was widely suspected that a few miscreants from that community were responsible for this ghastly incident. During the course of investigation, the central investigating agencies found evidence of arson. The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) at Ahmedabad in its initial report, stated that the fire was fuelled by 60 litres of inflammable liquid; however, the final report of the Bannerjee Commission appointed by the Central Government, has subsequently dismissed that result.
Though acceptance of the accounts so far described is almost unanimous, the following are the key points of contention between the various parties.
- A few eye-witnesses have testified that there was an altercation between a Kar Sevak and a Muslim tea vendor at the railway station preceding the catastrophe, apparently over the payment of the due amount. Some people claim that this incident had happened when the Kar Sevaks were on the way to Ayodhya, a few days earlier at the same station. The Sangh Parivar refutes the version and maintains that the passengers were the victims of unprovoked violence.
- The FSL report had concluded controversially that since the doors of the coach were latched from the inside, there was a slim possibility that the liquid fuel was thrown from the outside, prior to setting the fire. This prompted opposition parties (Congress and the Communist Party of India) to point the accusing finger at Sangh Parivar, suspecting it of stage-managing the incident to stir up communal tension for political gains. However, a few survivors claimed that they had managed to escape through the doors, and this raised questions about the veracity and completeness of the investigation report.
- The Sangh Parivar also alleged that a local Congress opposition party member was involved in the arson. It alleged that the incident was not an act of immediate provocation and reaction, but one involving a deep-rooted controversy, involving terrorists.
Points of view differ on how the fire happened.
- The initial point of view in the media was that a mob of local people (mostly Muslims) lit the fire.
- Another point of view, based on interviews with passengers on the train, witnesses to the incident, local police and railway officials suggest that the fire could not have been lit from the ground, and that its cause was an argument provoked by the kar sevaks that became increasingly heated (metaphorically) to the point of becoming heated in a literal (and lethal) sense.
- A common version of this interpretation claims that the Kar sevaks refused to pay for snacks they bought at the train station, that they physically assaulted an old bearded Muslim tea vendor, they abducted his young daughter, they took her to the S-6 coach, locked its doors and closed the windows. This point of view is criticised as an urban legend or conspiracy theory by some.
- Another point of view is that a member of the Congress (I) political party was the main person responsible.
- A railway ministry inquiry led by Retired Supreme Court judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee concluded that the fire was accidental. "There has been a preponderance of evidence that the fire in coach number S6 originated in the coach itself without any external input," he said, "The possibility of an inflammable liquid having been used is completely ruled out as there was first a smell of burning, followed by then (sic) smoke and flames thereafter." The neutrality of the railway ministry investigation is disputed since the commission was set up by the new central government which was in opposition at the time of the riots.
Many accusations were made about the media's role in reporting the fire:
- Some persons who believed the English language media in India to sympathize with communism, accused the media of applauding the burning of Hindus at the hands of Muslims and stating that "the Hindus asked for it".
- The English media was also criticized for reporting only half truths or spreading lies . It was not widely reported that the the S-6 coach was already surrounded by a thousand (1000) strong mob pelting stones at the coach while the coach was burning.
- Some say that the story of Kar Sevaks assaulting the Muslim tea vendor's daughter and carrying her onto the train was presented by the Western media as fact despite being merely an urban legend.
- Another accusation is that the Gujarati language media uncritically quoted the words of Chief Minister Narendra Modi. And the English language media quoted his words "out of context".
The investigating officer of the criminal case recently stated that there are "terrorist links" to this fire..
The riots that followed
In the massacre that followed the Godhra incident, it has been reported that over 1000 people were killed. Points of view differ on the number, with the figure 1000 being seen by some as an exaggeration, and by others as an underestimate. Points of view differ with respect to how these deaths occurred: some refer to these as riots while others refer to these as a pogrom.
On February 28, in one incident in Ahmedabad, at Naroda Patia, a crowd of people set fire to the locality, altogether killing at least 65 people. The community religious place, was burnt using LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinders. In the following days, hundreds of young people with swords, daggers, axes, and iron rods walked around the area, shouting angry slogans.
According to Human Rights Watch, who visited Naroda Patia three weeks later, homes in the area were completely burnt for the affected. Several witnesses claimed that the police failed to protect residents.
These killings were investigated in an unofficial inquiry headed by a retired Justice. The inquiry included gathering and analysis of 2094 oral and written testimonies, both individual and collective, from victim-survivors and also independent human rights groups, women's groups, NGOs and academics.
On part of the government's effort to control the riots:
- Deployed the army, after 72 hours. However it should be noted that the nearest army battalions were initially deployed at the west of India bordering Pakistan as part of "Operation Parakram".
- Made preventive arrests of over 33,000 people, mainly Muslim
- Fired over 12000 rounds of bullets
- Fired over 15,000 rounds of tear gas shells
However, some observers claim that several events in the report Crime Against Humanity - An Inquiry into the Carnage in Gujarat are fictitious. Moreover, they claim that the opinions of Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer are biased by his left-wing politics; in particular, they attach importance to his role as a Kerala state government minister in the 1957 Communist Party government of E. M. S. Namboodiripad, and as a candidate for President of India in 1987, chosen by the opposition (including the BJP!), against the ruling Congress Party.
Chief minister Narendra Modi resigned and sought a fresh mandate from the people of Gujarat. After campaigning throughout the state on a chauvinistic 'Gujarati Pride' platform, and insisting that the riots were blown out of proportion by the left-wing, English-speaking elite, he was re-elected by a landslide, in the biggest victory in the history of Gujarat.
Arrests and charging of alleged perpetrators during 2003
As of mid October 2003, about 80 people had been charged and arrested in relation to these incidents with the charge of conspiracy against the state. Almost all have been charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). According to Amnesty International, the arrestees have been subjected to arbitrary and illegal and incommunicado detention, have been denied access to lawyers, relatives, and medical attention, and have been tortured.
- A report on the altercation between the Muslim tea vendor and the kar sevaks in magazine Outlook
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) report 'We have no orders to save you'
- The HRW Report on Gujarat: Another Assassination
- Efforts to bring justice to the victims of the violence
- Early news reports on the violence
- The sufferings of victims
- After the carnage: the predatory 'intelligentsia'
- Indian Express-Full Coverage: The Gujarat Riots
- The Gujarat Riots Homepage
- Crime Against Humanity - An Inquiry into the Carnage in Gujarat (a report by the private agency Sabrang Communications)
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