Cry, the beloved country: Reflections on the Gujarat massacre

By Harsh Mander

In a candid first-person account of Gujarat after the recent communal riots, Harsh Mander talks of his horror at the brutality that took place in the state, and the shame he experiences at the abdication of duty of his peers in the civil and police administration

Numb with disgust and horror, I return from Gujarat 10 days after the terror that convulsed the state. My heart is sick, my soul weary, my shoulders ache with the burdens of guilt and shame. As you walk through camps of riot survivors in Ahmedabad, in which an estimated 53,000 women, men and children huddle in 29 temporary settlements, displays of overt grief are unusual. People clutch small bundles of relief material -- all that they now own in the world. Some talk in low voices, others busy themselves with the tasks of everyday living in these the most basic of shelters. They look for food and milk for their children; they tend the wounds of the injured.

But once you sit down in the camps, people begin to speak. And the horrors they speak of are so macabre that my pen falters. The brutality against women and small children by organised bands of armed young men is more savage than anything witnessed in the riots that have periodically shamed this nation during the past century. I force myself to write a small fraction of all that I heard and saw, because it is important that we all know. Maybe also because I need to share my own burden.

What can you say about a woman eight months pregnant who begged to be spared? Instead, her assailants slit open her stomach, pulled out her foetus and slaughtered it before her eyes. What can you say about a family of 19 that was electrocuted when their house was flooded with water and electricity passed through it? A small boy of six in Juhapara camp described how his mother and six brothers and sisters were battered to death before his eyes. He survived only because he fell unconscious and was mistaken for dead. A family escaping from Naroda-Patiya -- one of the worst-hit settlements in Ahmedabad -- spoke of losing a young woman and her three-month-old son because a police constable directed her to `safety'; instead, she found herself surrounded by a mob which doused her in kerosene and set her and her baby on fire. I have never known a riot that has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence, as in the recent mass barbarity in Gujarat. There are reports everywhere of gang-rape, of young girls and women being violated, then killed, often in the presence of family members. Women at the Aman Chowk shelter told appalling stories of how armed men disrobed in front of a group of terrified women.

In Ahmedabad, most people I met -- social workers, journalists, survivors -- agreed that what Gujarat witnessed was not a riot but a terrorist attack, followed by a systematic, planned massacre, a pogrom. Everyone spoke of the pillage and plunder being organised like a military operation against an external armed enemy. First, a truck would arrive broadcasting inflammatory slogans. More trucks followed with young men dressed mostly in khaki shorts and saffron sashes. They were armed with sophisticated explosive materials, country weapons, daggers and trishuls. They also carried water bottles to sustain them in their exertions. The leaders were seen communicating by mobile telephone from the riot venues, receiving instructions from and reporting back to a co-ordinating centre. Some had documents and computer sheets listing the names of Muslim families and their properties. They had detailed and precise information about buildings and businesses being run by members of the minority community. They knew which Muslim homes had Hindu spouses who would be spared. This was not a spontaneous upsurge of mass anger. It was a carefully planned pogrom.

The trucks carried quantities of gas cylinders. Rich Muslim homes and business establishments were first systematically looted and stripped of all their valuables. Then, cooking gas was released from the cylinders into the building. A trained member of the group lit the flame, which engulfed the building. In some cases, acetylene gas, which is used for welding steel, was employed to explode large concrete buildings. Mosques and durgahs were razed, and were replaced by statues of Hanuman and saffron flags. Some durgahs at Ahmedabad city crossings were demolished overnight, their sites covered with road building material. They were bulldozed so efficiently that these spots are indistinguishable from the rest of the road. Traffic now plies over the former durgahs as though they never existed.

The unconscionable failure and active connivance of the state police and administrative machinery is widely acknowledged. The police is known to have misguided people straight into the hands of rioting mobs. They provided protective shields to crowds bent on pillage, arson, rape and murder, and were deaf to the pleas of desperate Muslim victims, many of them women and children. There have been many reports of police firing directly mostly at the minority community which was the target of most of the mob violence. The large majority of arrests were also from the same community. As one who has served in the Indian Administrative Service for over two decades, I feel great shame at the abdication of duty of my peers in the civil and police administration. The law did not require any of them to await orders from their political supervisors before they organised the decisive use of force to prevent the brutal escalation of violence, and protect vulnerable women and children from the mobs. Instead, the law required them to act independently, fearlessly, impartially, decisively, with courage and compassion. Had even one official acted this way, in Ahmedabad, she or he could have deployed the police force and called in the army to halt the violence and protect the people in a matter of hours. No riot can continue beyond a few hours without the active connivance of the local police and magistracy.

The blood of hundreds of innocents is on the hands of the police and civil authorities in Gujarat, and by sharing in a conspiracy of silence, on the entire higher bureaucracy of the country. I have also heard senior officials blame the communalism of the police constabulary for their connivance in the violence. This too is a thin and disgraceful alibi. The same forces have been known to act with impartiality and courage when led by officers of professionalism and integrity. The failure is clearly of the leadership of the police and civil services, not of the subordinate men and women in khaki who are trained to obey orders.

Where amidst this savagery, injustice, and human suffering is the `civil society', the Gandhians, the development workers, the NGOs, the fabled spontaneous Gujarathi philanthropy which was so much in evidence at the time of the earthquake in Kutch and Ahmedabad? The newspapers reported that at the peak of the pogrom, the gates of Sabarmati Ashram were closed to protect its properties; it should instead have been the city's major sanctuary. Which Gandhian leader, or NGO manager, staked his/her life to halt the death-dealing throngs? This is one more shame that we as citizens of this country must carry on our already burdened backs -- that the camps for Muslim riot victims in Ahmedabad are being run almost exclusively by Muslim organisations. It is as though the monumental pain, loss, betrayal and injustice suffered by the Muslim people are the concern only of other Muslim people, and the rest of us have no share in the responsibility to assuage, to heal and to rebuild. The state, which bears the primary responsibility to extend both protection and relief to its vulnerable citizens, was nowhere in evidence at any of the camps, to manage, organise security, or even to provide the resources that are required to feed tens of thousands of defenceless women, men and children.

The only moments of pride and hope that I experienced in Gujarat were when I saw men like Mujid Ahmed and women like Roshan Bahen who served at the camps with tireless, dogged humanism amidst the ruins around them. At the Aman Chowk camp, women blessed the young band of volunteers who worked from four in the morning until after midnight to ensure that none of the children went without food or milk. And no wound remained untended. Their leader Mujid
Ahmed is a graduate; his small chemical dyes factory has been burnt down, but he has had no time to worry about his own loss. Each day he has to find 1,600 kilograms of foodgrain to feed some 5,000 people who have taken shelter in the camp. The challenge is even greater for Roshan Bahen, almost 60, who wipes her eyes each time she hears the tales of horror told by the residents of Juapara camp. But she too has no time for the luxuries of grief or anger. She barely sleeps as her volunteers, mainly working-class Muslim women and men from the humble tenements around the camp, provide temporary toilets, food and solace to the hundreds who have gathered in the grounds of a primary school.

As I walked through the camps, I wondered what Gandhiji would have done in these dark hours. I recall the story of the Calcutta riots, when Gandhi was fasting for peace. A Hindu man came up to him, to speak of his young boy who had been killed by Muslim mobs, and of the depth of his anger and longing for revenge. Gandhi is said to have replied: "If you really wish to overcome your pain, find a young boy, just as young as your son, a Muslim boy whose parents have been killed by Hindu mobs. Bring up that boy like you would your own son, but bring him up with the Muslim faith to which he was born. Only then will you find that you can heal your pain, your anger, and your longing for retribution."

There are no voices like Gandhi's that we hear today. Only discourses on Newtonian physics, to justify vengeance on innocents. We need to find these voices within our own hearts; we need to believe enough in justice, love and tolerance. There is much that the murderous mobs in Gujarat have taken from me. One of them is a song I often sang with pride and conviction. The words of the song are: Sare jahan se achha Hindustan hamara. It is a song I will never be able to sing again.

(Harsh Mander is a serving IAS officer who is working on deputation with a development organisation)