Gandhi's Gujarat

An old man asks: "What are we going to do now? All that we built up over 40 years has been destroyed in a single day. What will we do now?" He looks at the young women sitting with him on a narrow wooden bed -- daughter-in-law and grandchild -- and the few fragments of household belongings that remain with them, all lying there on that bed. An entire lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and dreams dumped right there on that bed. The old man is just one of the several Muslims who have lived to tell the horrifying stories of the organized brute violence that was unleashed against their community in Gujarat for more than a month. He is also one of the many voices of anguish in filmmaker Gopal Menon's 25-minute documentary titled Hey Ram! Genocide in the Land of Gandhi.

The documentary is a stark unembellished account of people who saw their family members and friends being raped, burnt, beaten; people who saw their life's work go up in flames before their eyes; people who have now been herded into camps and are living under impossibly inhuman conditions -- like a 100 toilets to 10,000 people -- waiting for relief measures to reach them from somewhere; and finally of people who once had a name, a family and a life, but have now been reduced to charred contorted, macabre skeletons somewhere on the streets of Ahmedabad or Baroda or anywhere else in Gujarat.

Twenty-seven year-old Menon works with the New Delhi-based organization Other Media Communications, "where the focus is on media packages for civil society initiatives usually marginalised by the mainstream media." A few days after the Sabarmati Express was torched at Godhra in Gujarat on February 27, Tapan Bose, a filmmaker and human rights activist, and M. Vijayan, another filmmaker, visited Gujarat where violence had already broken out. "They felt the absence of a comprehensive video documentation of the killings and the aftermath. They got in touch with me in Delhi and asked me to go to Gujarat," says Menon.

Menon's documentation -- shot on a small Sony VX 2000 digital camera -- is important, not just as a voice for the over 2,000 people who were killed in the carnage, but also as visual evidence of the systematic damage carried out in Muslim establishments and homes across the state. Perhaps that explains why the first screening of the film organized by Sahmat, a cultural-activist group in New Delhi, had to work its way through stiff opposition from the local police. "The first camp I visited was in Jehangir Nagar. A crowd of people surrounded us [Menon was accompanied by Ashim Roy, a trade union activist and a member of Citizen's Initiative, Gujarat], all shouting the same thing. They said: "You fight and we will give you liquor." They gave them 500 rupees, a Parle biscuit packet and liquor," says Menon.

He also recounts what an old woman told him about the modus operandi employed to destroy Muslim homes by the mobs. "She said, 'We have discovered gas cylinders, kerosene and petrol bottles in our houses. They made holes in the roofs and pushed the bottles through them. They blew up our houses with these bottles.'" Menon's camera takes in the damaged or desecrated dargahs and mosques that lie across Ahmedabad.

Menon's film also records accounts from people he met at the Shah Alam camp, most of whom were from Naroda Patia one of the worst hit areas. A woman who belonged to a wealthy family describes what happened around her: "We didn't know there was a mob of about 500 waiting with petrol and swords. Whoever went out of the colony was raped or killed. When children cried for water, they poured kerosene into their mouths. When life did not go easily, they pierced the flesh with iron rods and killed them. There were eleven people in my sister's family, only three are left in the hospital. The others were finished, all burnt. My sister had money. She said: Take the money spare my children. They said, No! You have to die. They poured kerosene and petrol over her. Even now if you go you will find dead bodies in every house."

A young boy in Menon's film says how he saw a mob burn his grandmother and two cousins: "In front of my eyes they raped a woman and cut her arms off. In front of me, they took out a fetus from a mother's belly, showed it around and put a sword through it. They took us to a temple nearby, put tikkas on our foreheads and asked us to say "jai shri ram." They killed whoever did not do so."

Menon says he found a "strong sense of alienation inside the camps. Everybody felt that they had no one to turn to." In the almost two months since the violence began in Gujarat, that sense of alienation has been growingly steadily among the Muslims in the state. "We cannot call the carnage in Gujarat a 'riot' -- it was systematically planned violence to break the backbone of the affluent Muslim community in the state," points out Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat, a Bombay-based journal that Teesta and her husband Javed Anand started soon after the 1992-93 Bombay riots, "to democratically counter fundamental forces." "A Report to the Nation" by an independent fact finding mission comprising Dr Kamal Mitra Chenoy, S.P. Shukla, K.S. Subramanian and Achin Vanaik and published in the newsmagazine "Outlook," agrees with Teesta's conclusion.

The first of several conclusions drawn by the fact-finding team says: "The events in Gujarat do not constitute a communal riot. Barring the tragic attack at Godhra on February 27th which was a communal riot, the bulk of the violence that followed was state-backed and one-sided violence against Muslims tantamount to a deliberate pogrom."

NGOs that have been working extensively in Gujarat following the outbreak of violence have catalogued enough evidence to show the extent of planning that went into the well-orchestrated attacks on the community. Soon after her first visit to the state, in the first week of the violence, Teesta Setalvad said: "One thing is evident, this violence was premeditated. What has happened involved a great deal of planning, across several state departments. There have been shops and establishments with a mere 5 or 10 per cent of Muslim capital that have been picked on, looted and burnt. These details couldn't have been known without background work of some sort."

In "A Report to the Nation," the fact-finding team writes: "Certain crucial aspects of the carrying out of the pogrom required systematic planning well in advance of the Godhra incident... The mobs were huge, at times several thousand strong. They were brought in buses and trucks. Vehicles were also used to ferry thousands of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinders, which in turn were widely used as explosives to destroy property. There must have been official connivance to release such large quantities of LPG cylinders. In the weeks before the outbreak, Ahmedabad was experiencing a widely-reported shortage of such cylinders."

There is still more evidence of state complicity in the now much-publicized documentation of police inaction. Summing up this inaction, the report says: "It is a measure of the virtual breakdown of large areas of police functioning that intelligence reports Hindutva planning were either not compiled or ignored by the higher-ups. This kind of preparation should not have gone unnoticed since, at the very least, hundreds must have been involved... Virtually no preventive arrests were made further emboldening the mobs. Later arrests reportedly had a disproportionate number of Muslims. In sharp contrast, in places like Kachch, Surat, Amreli etc, where tough decisive and extensive action was taken by the administration and the police, the situation was kept under control. This would indicate that the breakdown of law and order in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and elsewhere was a consequence of the politicization of the administration and police."

In its final conclusion the report says: "What has happened in Gujarat is not only a gruesome tragedy for that state, or a national tragedy as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee keeps saying. It is much more than that. If those guilty, whether of the Godhra killings or of carrying out or covering-up the state-sponsored pogrom, are allowed to go unpunished, it will have severe consequences for the continuation of India as a secular, multi-cultural democracy. If minorities along with all those who disagree with Hindutva fanatics (together the large majority of the people of India), can be attacked in this manner then a secular India cannot survive."

The documentary work of Gopal Menon and the various fact finding missions investigating the violence in Gujarat deserves the widest possible distribution. It is through efforts such as these that our eyes can be opened, and the full urgency of what is at stake can be brought to light.

More Information

On the Gujarat carnage:

Communalism Combat
http://www.sabrang.com/cc/current


South Asia Citizens Web
http://www.mnet.fr/aiindex


Human Rights Watch Report
http://hrw.org/reports/2002/india


On initiatives in North America and relief efforts:

Ekta Online
http://ektaonline.org

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