Shortly before 8am on February 27 2002, a fire broke out on the Sabarmati Express as it pulled out of Godhra, a town prone to religious violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. Many of the passengers were Hindu pilgrims returning from a ceremony called Chetavani Yatra. Rescuers pulled 58 bodies out of carriage S-6, all of them charred beyond recognition. An official report, published four years later, in 2006, concluded that the blaze had been an accident, but at the time it was blamed on Muslim youths, who were accused of throwing petrol-bombs at the saffron-clad pilgrims.
The blood-letting started the next morning and continued until early May, leaving about 2,500 Muslims murdered. Armed with knives, firebombs and sharpened ceremonial tridents, and guided by electoral rolls that revealed the location of Muslim homes, mobs began to move across the state. ”What ensued was a ghastly sight the like of which, since bleeding partition days, no Indian eye had seen,” wrote Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, in a report by the Tribunal of Concerned Citizens, an independent body composed mostly of retired judges.
”Hindutva barbarians came out on the streets ... and, in all flaming fury, targeted innocent and helpless Muslims. They were brutalised by miscreants uninhibited by the police; their women were unblushingly molested; and Muslim men, women and children, in a travesty of justice, were burnt alive. The chief minister, oath-bound to defend law and order, vicariously connived at the inhuman violence and some of his ministers even commanded the macabre acts of horror.”
The first to suffer were the largely middle-class inhabitants of a housing complex called the Gulberg Society in the Chamanpura district of central Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat. The centre of an Indian commercial city saw a medieval and macabre dance of death, humiliation and revenge, reported the Tribunal in its account of the pogrom, Crime Against Humanity, which was based on 2,094 statements taken from survivors.
By 10am, a mob of between 20,000 and 25,000 people had surrounded the Gulberg Society, where many had fled to shelter in the home of Ahsan Jafri, an influential trade unionist and former MP from the Congress party. In his desperation, Jafri made over 200 calls for help that day. During earlier bouts of violence in Ahmedabad, he had been able to protect his community, but not this time. At 2.30pm, the politician was dragged out of his house, slashed with swords until his limbs were severed, and then set alight. Around 70 others from the Gulberg Society died with him that day.
A series of investigations by the Tribunal of Concerned Citizens, by India’s National Human Rights Commission and by Human Rights Watch in New York later accused two Hindu extremist groups, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, of masterminding the massacres. Numerous human rights groups, including HRW, argued that the state government, led by Narendra Modi, a senior figure in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had been wilfully deficient in its response.
For the millions of Muslims whose families opted to stay behind in India at the time of partition, preferring life within the secular federal republic promised by Jawaharlal Nehru to the safety of the newly created Muslim homeland in Pakistan, it was a betrayal of trust. ”It was the first full-blooded pogrom in India’s independent history,” says Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. ”It was driven by hatred and ideologically charged.”
Modi’s approach to the riots may have helped him solidify his electoral base ahead of that year’s state elections. ”For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” he said. The machinery of justice, to the extent it was used at all, was stacked against Muslims, who accounted, perversely, for the vast majority of those arrested. Human Rights Watch alleged that the government of Gujarat had systematically obstructed efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Police refused to file reports for the missing, let alone arrest suspects. Witnesses who came forward to identify attackers were harassed, threatened or bribed into turning hostile on the witness stand, or simply into not showing up when the case went to trial. Only Muslims who withdrew their testimony were allowed to return to their neighbourhoods. For four years, impunity prevailed. Only in early 2006, following the exasperated intervention of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, was there some token progress, with the conviction, by a Mumbai court, of nine people for the murder of 14 Muslims who had taken refuge in a bakery.
”Gujarat was a turning point,” says Sayeed Khan, a social worker with political ambitions who runs Muslim Youth of India, a Mumbai-based group that is battling against the radicalisation of the country’s young Muslims. ”After Gujarat, young Muslims started asking themselves: ’Why are they killing us just for being Muslims?’... All over India, there are youths who think there should be revenge. And they’re ready to do whatever it takes.”
In the past 18 months, India has been lashed by a wave of terror attacks outside the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, the main battleground for Islamic militants waging a jihad against Indian ”occupation”. Some see a pattern emerging. It started in October 2005, on the eve of the Hindu holiday of Diwali and the Muslim festival of Eid, when bombs exploded in markets across Delhi, killing 62 and injuring 210. It continued in March 2006, when blasts in Varanasi, a city holy to Hindus, killed 15 and injured 60.
The following month, explosions at Delhi’s main mosque, the Jama Masjid, injured 13. Thirty-five Kashmiri Hindu villagers were shot dead in May. Then, on July 11, a date that has become known as India’s 9/11, terror struck Mumbai, with seven bombs hitting the commuter train network, the backbone of the city’s transport system, killing 209 and injuring more than 700. In September, blasts in Malegaon, a town in Maharashtra prone to communal violence, killed 37 Muslims as they left a mosque after Friday prayers.
And then on February 18 this year, as the five-year anniversary of the Godhra train attack approached, terrorists placed kerosene bombs linked to sophisticated timers on an overnight train from Delhi to the Pakistani city of Lahore. Six minutes before midnight, as the Samjhauta Express travelled through late-winter wheat fields north-west of Delhi, two firebombs exploded inside denim-clad briefcases, causing an inferno in carriages packed with slumbering passengers that left 69 dead.
The catalogue of atrocities demands explanation. Why is India, a country that prides itself on its democratic safety valves and vibrant political system, proving so vulnerable to terrorism? Indian authorities have in almost every instance laid the blame on Pakistan-based militant groups, citing their opposition to a peace process that would end the jihad. Ajai Shukla, a leading security affairs analyst in New Delhi, says India is looking for scapegoats beyond its borders.
”While external support certainly fans the flames of disaffection, terrorism increasingly springs from radicalised elements within India that have not been able to address issues by other means,” says Shukla. ”Besides the disaffection in India’s north-eastern states and in Kashmir, Gujarat is now becoming a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist cells. Setting up terrorist cells has been made wonderfully simple by poor law-and-order enforcement and lax financial regulation that allows criminal groups to flourish and terrorist groups to ride piggyback on them.”
This tendency to blame the ”foreign hand” also ignores the assessment that even sophisticated Pakistan-based militant groups are likely to be dependent on local terror cells to carry out their attacks. ”After the Mumbai blasts, there is now no doubt that there are terror cells in India,” says Varshney. ”That kind of attack cannot be undertaken without a deep local knowledge of Mumbai and without serious local co-operation, whether paid for or ideologically motivated.”
Academics believe the roots of India’s worsening terrorism problem can be found in a complex fusion of greed and grievance. While an unscrupulous criminal underworld plays an important part in facilitating and carrying out terror attacks, that is just part of the story. Despite three years of turbo-charged growth, there are still hundreds of millions living in abject poverty, with next to no stake in this newly wealthy and self-confident society. Some, inevitably, succumb to the blandishments of recruiters from the country’s myriad insurgencies and extremist movements.
Unless these underlying causes of India’s susceptibility to terrorism are addressed, India’s path to superpowerdom will be bumpier than almost everyone now predicts. In that context, the successful integration of India’s Muslim population has strategic significance for the subcontinent and for the political west. The Muslim community, although far from monolithic, forms the second largest religious group in the country and represents just under 14 per cent of the 1.1 billion population.
In global terms, India has the largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. By the time its population stabilises, sometime in the middle of this century, demographers expect it to number between 320 and 340 million, and its share of the total population, by then 1.7 billion, to be almost 19 per cent. India’s success as a society will, to a considerable extent, depend on it reversing a worrying trend towards radicalisation in certain sections of that population.
Many take this for granted. Announcing a strategic partnership between the US and India last year, George W. Bush, for example, repeatedly hailed India as a model for the successful integration of a large Muslim population in a secular political framework. In recent weeks, however, such complacency should have been punctured following the government’s release of a shocking study of how the country’s Muslims as a whole have fared since independence.
Commissioned by the prime minister and produced by a committee chaired by Rajinder Sachar, a former justice of the Delhi High Court, the report presents a sharp counterpoint to perceptions of India as a stable, inclusive and multicultural society. Of all the groups yet to benefit from India’s spectacular recent growth - set to hit 9.2 per cent this year - none, apart from so-called dalits (once known as ”untouchables”) and tribals, have fared as poorly as Muslims.
”Muslims in India have this sense of being degraded,” says Sarfaraz Arzu, editor and publisher of The Hindustan Daily, Mumbai’s oldest Urdu-language newspaper during an interview in his office on the first floor of a crumbling building near Mohammed Ali Road. ”They’re not getting their share of the national pie. They see things whizzing past them at high speed. They see growth in all sectors, but are untouched by this growth. They are not the only section of society untouched by this growth, but they are excluded because of their identification as a distinct religious group, which means, in simple terms, that they’re targeted for what they are.”
Moreover, in a world ever more connected by cable television and internet chatrooms, the community’s feeling of vicarious victimhood is also growing. Arzu has devoted the day’s front page to violent protests around the world against Israeli excavations near the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site. Later that day, there will be anti-Israeli demonstrations in the Azad maidan, a triangular field in south Mumbai used for cricket matches and political rallies.
India’s 140 million Muslims are divided along class, caste and sectarian lines, with sociologists describing their relationship to the rest of Indian society as one of ”upper class inclusion and mass exclusion”. A small elite - typified by the Khans that rule Bollywood, the aristocratic Nawabs and businessmen such as Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro, a leading software group - thrives in the new India, while the masses, mostly low-caste converts from Hinduism, face marginalisation.
The Sachar committee found that India’s Muslims, constantly battling perceptions that they are ”anti-national”, ”unpatriotic” and ”belong in Pakistan”, are reluctantly withdrawing or being pushed into ghettos. Markers of their identity, such as the burkah, the purdah, the beard and the topi, a Muslim cap, invite ridicule and harassment. Bearded men find that they are routinely picked up for interrogation, hijab-wearing women that they struggle to find jobs.
Sachar notes that many Muslims are unable to buy or rent property in the area of their choice and find their children rejected from good schools. This has contributed to the sharp growth in the number of madrassas. The phenomenon should not be exaggerated: just 4 per cent of Muslim school-age children now attend full-time madrassas, according to Sachar. But in some states, including the populous northern state of UP, where more than 7 per cent of Muslim schoolchildren are being educated in religious seminaries, madrassas are spreading rapidly.
Behind the green gates of 41 Mohammed Ali Road is the Minara Masjid complex, where 450 young Muslim men aged between 12 and 25 live and study at the madrassa attached to the mosque. ”There has been a 100 per cent increase in the number of madrassas in India over the last five years,” says Syed Ather Ali, principal of the madrassa, which provides students with lodging, board, books and medical care. Students pass their days translating and memorising the Koran and their nights sleeping on mats in a number of concrete-floored dormitories.
The educational system is failing India’s Muslims, whose average literacy level was 59.1 per cent in the 2001 census, compared with a national average of 65 per cent. While the average child in India goes to school for four years, Muslim boys will spend around 36 months and Muslim girls just over two and a half years. Just 4 per cent of Muslims above the age of 20 are graduates or diploma holders, compared to 7.4 per cent for the country as a whole. Muslims, tellingly, account for 1.3 per cent of students at the elite Indian Institutes of Management.
Poorly educated Muslims generally end up working as self-employed, economically vulnerable casual labourers. Relatively few pick up coveted salaried jobs, which tend to be monopolised by high-caste Hindus. And those Muslims who do receive regular salaries tend to occupy the lowest rungs within organisations, with more than 70 per cent having no written contract or social security benefits. Poor work conditions are also reflected in lower earnings. The proportion of Muslims living below the poverty line, at 31 per cent, is higher than the 22.7 per cent for the country as a whole.
Sachar found that Muslims had an ”abysmally low” share of prized government jobs, accounting for just 3 per cent of posts in the Indian Administrative Service, the elite corps of the civil bureaucracy, 1.8 per cent of the Indian Foreign Service and 4 per cent of the police. They had such a low profile in the military that the Ministry of Defence denied Sachar the data. The community is only consistently over-represented in the prison population. In Maharashtra, for example, Muslims account for more than 40 per cent of those jailed for less than a year.
”This government was brought into power by two forces: the anger of the poor and the anger of the Muslims,” says Mobashar Javed Akbar in an interview in the New Delhi offices of The Asian Age, a newspaper he edits. And although prime minister Manmohan Singh provoked an outcry among Hindu nationalists when he promised in December to make sure that Muslims and other minorities had ”first claim on resources”, analysts say the government’s lack of follow-through may cost the Congress party dearly in the imminent elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 31 million Muslims.
”The root problem is economic,” says M.J. Akbar. ”If you look at Indian Muslims, their traditional businesses, such as crafts and weaving, have been wiped off the economic map, and there has been no effort to create jobs in the space stolen from them. And now the malls that are coming up across the country are about to eliminate their traditional role as suppliers of meat, wiping out another large source of employment. The impact of all of this will be 10 years of serious violence.”
Of the 700,000 towns and villages in India, the vast majority are free from communal conflict from one year to the next. But the potential for such violence is a terrifying underlying reality. Communal violence left 40,000 dead and injured between 1950 and 1995, according to research by academics Steven Wilkinson and Ashutosh Varshney. The costs of riots have been overwhelmingly borne by Muslims, forced to leave their homes, businesses and land for sanctuary in safe Muslim areas.
”Fearing for their security, Muslims are increasingly resorting to living in ghettos,” the Sachar report notes. But access to water, toilets, electricity, schools, clinics, banks and ration shops is often limited or non-existent in Muslim areas. The absence of these services affects women in particular because they are reluctant to venture beyond the confines of ”safe” neighbourhoods to access these facilities from elsewhere, with knock-on effects on literacy and child health.
Sofia Khan, a 42-year-old human rights activist, moved to Juhapura, a Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad, in the aftermath of the July 2006 Mumbai commuter train attacks. She says she was hounded out of her home after local television stations advised viewers to check out their neighbours. ”If you talk to the minority community today, they’re just pushed into a corner. For us, there’s no ’Vibrant Gujarat’ [Modi’s slogan for the state], it’s just violent Gujarat.”
”It’s five years now and there’s no sense of remorse in society at large, no sense of justice. Overwhelming feelings of insecurity and fear, these are our biggest problems. Fear that you will be targeted, fear that you will be victimised, fear that there will be another backlash. You cannot open your mouth. You cannot engage in human rights activities. Many people who were engaged in relief work are now in prison.”
Juhapura is the biggest ghetto in Gujarat, with a population at 400,000, that increases with every communal riot in the state. Disparagingly nicknamed ”Little Pakistan” by some Hindus, it is on all sides carefully separated from adjacent neighbourhoods by empty wastelands that serve as no-man’s-lands separating the two largest religious communities. ”It’s just as if it was a border between India and Pakistan,” Khan says.
From her fourth-floor office, the trained lawyer overlooks a relief camp for victims of the 2002 riots. NGOs say as many as 35,000 remain camped in 81 semi-permanent colonies set up by Islamic relief organisations. Access to public services is poor. India is in the throes of a telecoms revolution, but Khan’s building in Juhapura cannot get the state-controlled service provider to install a landline: ”There is not a single bank or broadband internet connection in the area and you can forget about having a public park or a library, those are luxuries.”
When religious organisations such as the Islamic Relief Committee, Jamaat Ulema-e-Hind and Imarat-e-Shariya opened madrassas, they filled a vacuum left by the state. One conservative religious organisation, Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Trust, has set up a relief camp at Siddikabad, which has become a semi-permanent home for about 130 families displaced by the carnage of 2002, some of whom came from the Gulberg Society.
”The government has not done anything for us,” says Mukti P., a middle-aged woman carrying water pots, who is so frightened of retribution that she requests I do not use her full name. ”Whatever has been done for us has been done by our own people.” Abeda P., 36, who says her husband and daughter died as they hid in Jafri’s house, says: ”When Narendra Modi dies, then there will be communal harmony in Gujarat because [alive] he will not allow it in the state.”
Ravi Nair, a human rights activist who runs the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, says these relief camps provide ”cannon fodder for Islamic fundamentalist groups”. His assessment finds an echo with Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest, who was recently honoured by the French government for his work promoting religious harmony in Ahmedabad. ”The whole ghetto is on the boil,” he warns.
”Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are living in Juhapura without access to public banking services, schools, or drinking water. We’re pushing an entire community to the brink. One doesn’t need a lot of common sense to realise there’s going to be a reaction. Forgiveness and reconciliation can only happen in the context of justice. Suppose my daughter’s been raped, my only son’s been killed, and I can see the person responsible behaving with impunity. How then do I bring myself to forgive?”
That day, Modi and I sit down together. The apostle of Hindutva (”Hinduness”) has just addressed investors at the ”Vibrant Gujarat” conference in Gandhinagar. He is an electrifying orator, and the global business community cannot get enough of a man in charge of a state that expanded by more than 11 per cent last year, making it the fastest growing investment hotspot in India.
The idea of ”Hinduness” emerged between the two world wars as an alternative to the Gandhian nationalist rhetoric of inclusiveness. While Hindu nationalist parties have had to tone down sectarian rhetoric to win power by building broad coalitions at national level, strident and threatening religious politics are frequently found at local level. Since the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 national elections, Modi has sought to cultivate a less ideological image.
For the moment, though, he remains something of a pariah within the Indian political system, a status that has been reinforced by the fact that he has been banned from travelling to the US. In March 2005, the US State Department publicly denied him a visa, pointing in a statement to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act barring entry to any foreign government official who ”was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom”.
In his meeting with the FT, Modi wants to talk business, not religious politics. Amid increasingly fierce competition between Indian states for investment, he has adopted the most can-do attitude of all chief ministers. Across the country, the government’s policy of promoting Special Economic Zones, Chinese-style capitalist enclaves, has run into fierce opposition and many chief ministers have gone off the idea. But not Modi: ”The whole of Gujarat is a SEZ,” he says. ”S stands for spirituality, E for entrepreneurialism, and Z for zeal.”
Would he like the US to lift the travel ban? ”It is up to them,” he says without hint of rancour. Asked why Gujarati Muslims feel marginalised and excluded from this growth, he shakes his head as if to imply a logical impossibility. ”This state has constant double-digit growth. Would that be possible if 10 per cent of the population were excluded? That’s my question to the questioners.”
The glib response saddens Rahul Dholakia, the director of Parzania, a new film about the Gujarat pogrom that is essential viewing for anyone wanting to understand why the events of 2002 continue to have such a far-reaching impact on the politics of religious identity in India. Based on the true story of a father and mother’s tragic hunt for their cricket-loving son, Azhar Mody, who was swept up by the sword-wielding mob that ransacked the Gulberg Society, it is, at times, just too painful to watch.
The film ends with an appeal: ”His parents are still waiting for him” - and offers an e-mail address and mobile telephone numbers to which information on his whereabouts can be sent. Parzania, which has received critical acclaim and met with commercial success, is showing in nine Indian cities. But the people who would be best placed to help the family are unlikely ever to see it: the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu extremist youth group, has seen to it that no cinema in Ahmedabad, Gandhi’s adoptive town, has yet dared show it.
Manubhai Patel, the head of Gujarat’s multiplex operators’ association, told Dholakia to seek the permission of a notorious and self-professedly violent Bajrang Dal leader by the name of Babu ”Bajrangi” Patel. Arrested in 2002 following the pogrom, but released shortly afterwards, Babu Bajrangi now runs an NGO, Navchetan (New Awakening), which forcibly ”rescues” Hindu women who have been ”lured” into relationships with non-Hindu men, and is widely loathed in the Muslim community.
The idea of recognising Bajrangi as a legitimate authority was repulsive to Dholakia, a friend of the missing boy’s parents, whose names were changed for the film. When he refused, the theatre owners said they could not show his film. ”I can see the anger in the Muslim community,” Dholakia says. ”They will retaliate unless they’re given a non-violent platform to express their anger at being denied justice. They will react in the way they find easiest, which is through violence.”
Sixty years ago, on the eve of independence, Nehru, called on his countrymen to help him ”build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell”. He declared: ”We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”
His words are as true today as they were then.