Gujarat, the only major state in India with a government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has for some years been the petri dish in which Hindu fascism has been fomenting an elaborate political experiment. In spring 2002, the initial results were put on public display.
It began within hours of the Godhra outrage–in which fifty-eight Hindus were killed when a train returning from the disputed site of Ayodhya on February 27 was set alight as it pulled out of a station in Godhra, in Gujarat. Even now, months later, nobody knows who was responsible for the crime. The Forensic Department report clearly says that the fire was started inside the coach. This raises a huge question mark over the theory that the train was set alight by a Muslim mob that had gathered outside the train. However, the then-Home Minister (now elevated to the post of Deputy Prime Minister), L.K. Advani, immediately announced–with no evidence to back his statement–that the attack was a Pakistani plot.
On the evening of February 27, Hindu nationalists in the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang Dal movement put into motion a meticulously planned pogrom against the Muslim community. Press reports put the number of dead at just over 800. Human rights organizations have said it is closer to 2,000. As many as 100,000 people, driven from their homes, now live in refugee camps. Women were stripped and gang-raped, and parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children. In Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat and the second-largest industrial city in the state, the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the founder of the modern Urdu poem, was demolished and paved over in the course of a night. The tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Khan was desecrated. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, hotels, textile mills, buses and cars. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs.
Across Gujarat, thousands of people made up the mobs. They were armed with petrol bombs, guns, knives and swords. Apart from the VHP and Bajrang Dal’s usual lumpen constituency, there were Dalits (untouchables) and Adivasis (indigenous peoples), who were brought in on buses and trucks. Middle-class people participated in the looting. (On one memorable occasion, a family arrived in a Mitsubishi Lancer.) The leaders of the mob had computer-generated lists marking out Muslim homes, shops and businesses. They used mobile phones to coordinate the action. They had not just police protection and police connivance, but also covering fire. The cooking-gas cylinders they used to burn Muslim homes and establishments had been hoarded weeks in advance, causing a severe gas shortage in Ahmedabad.
While Gujarat burned, our prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was on MTV promoting his new poems. (Reports say cassettes have sold 100,000 copies.) It took him more than a month–and two vacations in the hills–to make it to Gujarat. When he did, he gave a speech at the Shah Alam refugee camp. His mouth moved, he tried to express concern, but no real sound emerged except the mocking of the wind whistling through a burned, bloodied, broken world. Next we knew, he was bobbing around in a golf cart, striking business deals in Singapore.